Founded by Henry I in 1121 "for the salvation of my soul, and the souls of King William, my father, and of King William, my brother, and Queen Maud, my wife, and all my ancestors and successors"; the abbey was established by a party of monks from the French abbey of Cluny, together with monks from the Cluniac priory of St Pancras at Lewes in Sussex. The first Abbot Hugh was appointed in 1123.
According to the twelfth century chronicler William of Malmesbury, the abbey was built on a gravel spur "between the rivers Kennet and Thames, on a spot calculated for the reception of almost all who might have occasion to travel to the more populous cities of England". The adjacent rivers provided convenient transport, and the abbey established wharves on the River Kennet. The Kennet also provided power for the abbey water mills, most of which were established on the Holy Brook, a channel of the Kennet of uncertain origin.
When Henry I died in France in 1135 his body was returned to Reading, and was buried in the front of the alter of the then incomplete abbey. Other royal persons buried in the abbey include parts of Empress Maud, Prince William the Count of Poitiers, Princess Constance of York, and Princess Isabella of Cornwall, among others.
At the time of the Civil War between Henry's daughter, the Empress Matilda and her cousin, King Stephen, the Abbey was still being built. The latter apparently constructed a motte and bailey castle in its grounds, possibly to harrass Wallingford, though this was a little distant. It was destroyed by the Empress' son (later Henry II) in 1153. The Abbey was finally completed in 1164, forty-three years later. It was consecrated by Thomas Beckett, Archbishop of Canterbury.
It was while staying at the Abbey, the previous year, that Henry II had witnessed the trial by combat of Henry De Essex and Robert De Montfort on De Monfort Island in the Thames. Essex had been accused by Montfort of treachery and cowardice, and the two fought a long hard battle until Montfort was victorious and Essex found guilty. The latter was thought to be dead and was taken to the Abbey where he recovered, revealing his defeat had been due to his being blinded by a vision of St. Edmund. He remained a Reading monk for the rest of his life. It was also at Reading Abbey, in 1185, that the Heraclius, Patriach of Jerusalem offered Henry II the crown of his city, if he would defend it against the infidels. The King declined. On three occasions, the Papal Legate summoned ecclesiastical councils at the Abbey, and parliament also met there, notably in 1453. The House of Commons met in the Chapter House and the Lords in the Refrectory, often when they were pushed out of London by the threat of plague.
Because of its royal patronage, the abbey was one of the pilgrimage centres of medieval England, and one of its richest and most important religious houses, with possessions as far away as Herefordshire and Scotland. The abbey also held over 230 relics including the hand of St. James.
The Grey Friars of St. Francis of Assisi arrived in Reading in 1233, hoping to administer to the town's poor. The Abbot did not want a rival religious order in Reading but, being under Royal patronage, he was obliged to give them a small parcel of land. This was on the edge of town, on the way to Caversham Bridge. The land was too marshy though, and the friars complained to the Archbishop who, being a greyfriar himself, quickly intervened.
Among the many events of more or less interest which are bound up with the Abbey, one of the most brilliant was the wedding of John of Gaunt with Blanche, daughter of Henry Plantagenet, Duke of Lancaster, on 19 May 1359.
Fear of the plague caused Henry VI to summon England's parliament to meet in the Abbey in 1453. On one of three such occasions, the Commons met in the Chapter House, and the Lords in the Refectory.
In 1464 the public announcement of Edward IV secret marriage with Elizabeth Woodville, contrary to diplomatic expectations for a French princess, was made in the Abbey church.
The Abbey’s Hospitium, the guest house for pilgrims, was converted into the Royal Grammar School of King Henry VII in 1485. Later this became Reading School.
There is an old story that King Henry VIII once locked up the Abbot of Reading in the Tower of London so he could win a bet made with him while in disguise. This is commemorated by a pair of ghosts who appear in the area. They are supposedly the King taking the Abbot to London. There are two horsemen, both stout huntsmen in Lincoln Green. One beckons on a cloaked companion. The horses' hooves make no sound.
The abbey was largely destroyed in 1538 during Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries. The last abbot, Hugh Cook Faringdon, and two of his monks, were subsequently tried and convicted of high treason and the Abbot was hung, drawn and quartered in front of the Abbey Church. After this, the buildings of the abbey were extensively robbed, with lead, glass and facing stones removed for reuse elsewhere.
During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the old abbey buildings at Reading, which her father had had converted for use as a Royal Palace, became commonly known as 'Abbey House'. Being only infrequently in residence herself, the Queen appears to have leased the complex to her faithful servant, Sir Francis Knollys, Treasurer of the Royal Household.
The Abbots of Reading were: Hugh (1123-1130); Ausgar (1130-1135); Edward (1135-1154); Reginald (1154-1158); Roger (1158-1164); William (1164-1173); Joseph (1173-1180); Hugh (1180-1199); Ellis (1199-1213); Simon (1213-1226); Adam Lothbury (1226-1238); Richard Chichester (1238-1261); Richard Banister (1261-1268); Robert Burghate (1268-1290); William Sutton (1290-1305); Nicholas Quappelade (1305-1328); John Appleford (1328-1342); Henry Appleford (1342-1361); William Dombleton (1361-1368); John Sutton (1368-1378); Richard Yateley (1378-1409); Thomas Earley (1409-1430); Thomas Henley (1430-1446); John Thorne (1446-1486); John Thorne (1486-1519); Thomas Worcester (1519-1520); Hugh Cook alias Faringdon (1520-1539)
For more information see: Friends of Reading Abbey
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