Friends' Outing to Oxford, July 8th 2015

There are connections between Reading Abbey and a number of Oxford colleges and the Friends' 2015 annual outing on 8th July was to explore some of these. Approximately thirty Friends gathered at Cafe Loco in St Aldates, just down the road from Christ Church College, at the beginning of what was to prove an interesting and informative day.

Christ Church College

The first college the group visited was Christ Church, which contains within it the Cathedral church of St Frideswide. Christ Church was chosen as an examplar of a medieval religious building, how Reading Abbey might have looked before the Reformation. The Friends' president, Professor Brian Kemp conducted the tour, first round the cloisters, one of the very early parts of the college's buildings and how Reading Abbey's cloisters may have looked; then the Cathedral with its wealth of evidence of its Norman construction; and finally a look at the Early English head carvings with their strange faces, which can be seen in the College's Gift Shop.

Merton College

The next college was Merton, just around the corner from Christ Church. The chapel at Merton was built upon land formerly owned by Reading Abbey. The college still has the seal recording the conveyance in 1255, indeed the artefact enjoys the status of being item no. 1 in the catalogue of Merton College's possessions. Professor Kemp had negotiated with Merton College authorities for the conveyance and seal to be available for the Friends to view. Our tour consisted of a viewing of the chapel itself, and of the Old Library where the seal and associated document recording the conveyance had been put on display for us. The tour of the chapel was guided by Dr Julia Walworth, College Librarian, and that of the Old Library by Dr Julian Reid, College Archivist. The Friends are very grateful for their putting time by to conduct the tours.

Magdalen College

After a break for lunch, the Friends assembled at the lodge of Magdalen College. We were met there by Dr Robin Darwall-Smith, College Archivist, who led the way, via the large Cloister/Quad to the Great Hall to view the linenfold panelling, reputed to have originally been installed in Reading Abbey. This is referred to in the college's Illustrated History (pdf file, 4.1mb, the reference is in section "Lectures").

Dr Darwall-Smith gave a short talk in which he presented some facts about the origins of the panelling:

  -  the first mention of the theory that it came from Reading Abbey was by John Chessell Buckler in 1823
  -  the carvings inset into a number of the panels were executed by Henry Bolton and [first name not known] Frost and include a date of 1541
  -  200 of the panels were bought in London in 1541 at a cost of 8 9s 8d, and were brought to Henley by boat and from there to Oxford by cart

There is no direct evidence that the panels originally came from Reading Abbey, but the above facts do not negate such a possibility. The panels may have been removed from the Abbey soon after the Dissolution in 1539, taken to London for disposal, and there been purchased by Magdalen College.

Friends had an opportunity to examine the panelling. Then Dr Darwall-Smith conducted us to view the college's impressive chapel to conclude the visit. Gratitude was expressed to Dr Darwall-Smith for showing us around the college.

Balliol College Archive

The final visit of the day was to Balliol College Archive, located to the north of Magdalen College in the now redundant St Cross church. The Friends were met by Miss Anna Sander, College Archivist. Professor Kemp explained about the main item of interest to The Friends in the Archive, the document and seal dated 1328 of the Abbot of Reading, Nicholas of Whaplode, confirming a gift of 20 to the scholars of Balliol towards the cost of building the chapel of St Katherine. Information about the Friends' visit, including photographs of the seal and document, have been added to the Balliol College archivist's website. The Friends' visit is currently on the front page of the website. If it is not on the front page in future, it should be possible to find it by searching on the website for "Friends of Reading Abbey". Thanks were expressed to Anna Sander for hosting the friends' visit.

This brought an end to a memorable and informative outing. Our grateful thanks go to our President and secretary, Professor Brian Kemp and John Painter, for organising the tours; and to the authorities of the colleges for permission to view these remarkable items related to the history of Reading's Abbey.

Some photographs of the Friends' outing to Oxford

The outing organiser, John Painter, addresses the Friends at the beginning of the outing [Photo: Chris Widdows]

Professor Brian Kemp describes aspects of the ancient cloisters in Christ Church College [Photo: Chris Widdows]

Friends gather in Merton Street prior to the tour of Merton College chapel and old library [Photo: Chris Widdows]

Photographs of the seal and conveyance document recording the transfer of land from Reading Abbey to Merton College in 1255 [Photos: Chris Widdows]

A closer look at the seal. The figures depicted on it are the Virgin Mary holding the Christ child

The magnificent West wall of Magdalen College Great Hall. The linenfold panelling may once have graced part of the interior of Reading Abbey [Photo: John Painter]

Three further views of the panelling in Magdalen College Great Hall. The carvings were carried out by Bolton and Frost in 1541 at the time the panelling was installed. [Photos: John Painter]