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Historical Notes 

from the Guide to Reading Abbey by Brian Kemp and Cecil Slade

Reading Abbey was one of the wealthiest and most important monasteries of medieval England. First and foremost it was a royal abbey enjoying royal patronage throughout its existence and exercising many valuable privileges. The monks were extensive landholders in Berkshire and several other counties as far afield as Kent and the Midlands. The endowments were rich enough to support a dependent priory at Leominster in Herefordshire and, for a time, another on the Isle of May in Scotland. The abbots were prominent figures locally, and were regularly summoned to Parliament as lords spiritual of the realm. By special grant of the pope they were also entitled to wear the mitre and other vestments normally worn by bishops. 

The abbey was founded by King Henry 1 in 1121 and was settled by Benedictine monks of the Cluniac order from Cluny in France and Lewes in Sussex. The first monks arrived on 18 June 1121 and nearly two years later received their first abbot, Hugh of Amiens. In 1125 came the king's foundation charter conveying to the monks a generous endowment of lands, churches and privileges. Henry's generosity probably stemmed in part from a desire to establish a rich abbey which would be his final resting place, and indeed the king was eventually buried there in January 1136. 

The abbey church took about forty years to build and was not dedicated until 19 April 1164, when the ceremony was performed by Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, in the presence of King Henry 11 and many nobles and prelates. 

The Reading monks had a high reputation for hospitality, especially in the twelfth century, and possessed a valuable collection of religious relics, which drew many pilgrims to the abbey. Without doubt the most important was the Hand of St James the Great, the apostle. This was first sent to the abbey by the founder, but was removed for some reason by the bishop of Winchester after his death and not finally restored until early in Henry II's reign. The Hand was claimed to have wondrous powers. A late twelfth-century manuscript survives containing accounts of several miraculous cures and other marvels worked by the relic. This link with St Jarnes explains the abbey's coat of arms, which consists of three scallop shells, his special emblem. Reading Abbey was also a musical centre of some significance, its most famous product being the thirteenth-century round "Sumer is icumen in", also known as the "Reading Round". 


Being a royal abbey, Reading was often visited by English kings and queens, and from time to time witnessed events of national importance within its walls. Among the best known are the marriage of John of Gaunt to Blanche of Lancaster in 1359 and the publicising of Edward IV's hitherto secret marriage to Elizabeth Woodville in September 1464. Parliament met more than once in the abbey, most notably in 1453 when the monks' refectory provided a suitably large hall for its main session. 
After a life of 418 years the abbey came to an end in 1539. The last abbot, Hugh Faringdon, refused to surrender the monastery to Henry VIII. He was tried and convicted of treason for denying the king's newly acquired headship of the Church in England and for maintaining that the pope was still its head. 

After his execution on 14 November the monks were expelled and the abbey became Crown property. The abbey church was not required for the town's worship, since Reading had three medieval parish churches (St Mary's, St Giles'and St Laurence's) which fully satisfied its needs, and so the process of destruction began immediately, with the removal of the bells and of the lead from the roofs. Soon the walls were used as a quarry for fine stone for building and other projects in Reading and the neighbourhood. Some of the other monastic buildings were maintained as a minor royal residence until damaged beyond repair in the Civil Wars of the seventeenth century. Eventually, in the nineteenth century, most of what remained of the abbey was acquired by Reading Corporation and opened to the public. In 1985 a major programme of conservation was initiated to ensure the preservation of the ruins for this and future generations. 

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