Wargrave Local History Society’s November meeting was an illustrated presentation given by John Painter using Zoom on Reading’s Abbey Quarter. John is secretary of the Friends of Reading Abbey – who have worked to support Reading council’s efforts to restore the ruins to a safe condition in time for their 900th anniversary.
The abbey was founded in 1121 by Henry I, it being believed that such acts would help the salvation of their soul, and they would spend a shorter period in purgatory after they died before moving on to heaven.
The site at Reading was chosen as it was – as now – an important nodal point for travellers and, as Lord of the Manor, Henry owned the land The town itself was then centred around the St Mary’s Butts area, where local markets were held.
It took 44 years for the large church to be built, being consecrated in 1164, but the monastic buildings were erected in about five years, and the chancel of the church had been completed by January 1136, as Henry I, who died in 1135, was buried there then.
It followed the Cluniac tradition, the leading foundation in France at the time, but Henry insisted that it be a free-standing abbey, and not a daughter of the French establishment.
Like most monastic houses, much of the income for Reading Abbey depended on religious relics that they held. Pilgrims came to Reading to visit the Hand of St James the Great, in order to gain indulgences for their sins, and hence spend less time in purgatory. It was considered an important relic, as it had a direct connection to Jesus Christ, although the body of St James the Great which is buried at Santiago de Compostela, in northern Spain, and has both hands.
John explained the relationship between the town and the abbey, and that throughout its existence it was a royal abbey. Kings and queens made regular visits, using it as a royal palace after the dissolution of the abbey in 1539. However, in Edward VI’s reign the then owner, the Duke of Somerset, began to strip the abbey of anything saleable – the roof was removed, the bells melted down, and the glass removed, Some of the stone was taken down the Thames, and examples found in Sonning and Shiplake in the 19th century are now in Reading Museum. Further destruction came during the Civil War, Reading being a strategic location.
Despite all the demolition, much still survives above ground such as the inner gateway, the mill arch and the hospitium (where guests would stay). This had been built in the 12th century to provide for visiting pilgrims, and when that ended its dormitory was used to establish Reading Grammar School. The Corporation also used part of the building as the Guildhall from 1570 until new civic buildings alongside came into use in 1780. The building later became the first home of Reading University College.
By 2009, the ruins had to be closed on safety grounds, as there was a risk of large stones falling from the remaining structures.
Once a solution had been found, and a Heritage Lottery Fund grant secured, the abbey grounds could be reopened in 2018.
The grounds now form a pleasant peaceful setting in the town, with information boards to explain what can be seen, and a book, Reading Abbey and the Abbey Quarter, co-authored by John and Peter Durrant, produced by the Friends of Reading Abbey is available from Reading Museum or local bookshops.