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Reading Abbey, Reading, Berkshire

(51°27′24″N, 0°57′54″W)
Reading Abbey, Reading
SU 720 736
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales) Berkshire
now Reading
medieval Salisbury
now Oxford
  • Ron Baxter
  • Stuart Harrison
06 November 2003,

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Feature Sets

The abbey was begun in 1121 under the patronage of Henry I, the choir of the church must have been complete by January 1136, when Henry was buried there. It was dedicated by Archbishop Becket in the presence of Henry II in 1164, by which time it must have been substantially complete. A Lady Chapel was added at the E end in 1314 by Abbot Nicholas of Whaplode (1305–28). More details of the history of the abbey will be found in section VII below.

The earliest record of the dismantling of the abbey dates from 1548, when an estimate of the volume of lead on the roof was made. From the following year we have a set of accounts kept by George Hynde, an official in the service of the Court of Augmentations, giving details of receipts of money from people buying pieces of the abbey fabric, payments to carpenters and labourers who worked in the demolition, and expenditure for such materials as ropes, chisels and crowbars. At about the same time as this piecemeal disposal of second-hand building material and, shortly afterwards, three major building projects benefitted from the availability of the abbey fabric. Between 1550 and 1553 the Parish Church of St Mary's, Reading was rebuilt, and the churchwardens' account reveal that the choir of the abbey church was taken down at this time; piers were removed and reused in St Mary's; timber and lead were stripped from the roofs and other fabric including a rose window, the cloister door and various loads of stone and tiles were taken away for the rebuilding. For the construction of the Poor Knights' Lodging near St George's Chapel, Windsor around 1557, Caen stone was taken from the abbey by water, and to judge from the accounts the masons concentrated on 'the greate stones of the dores and windowes in the Chappell of our Lady', and on stones (presumably ashlar blocks) dug out of the walls. In 1562, Queen Elizabeth granted the the mayor and burgesses of Reading the right to remove 200 loads of stone from the abbey for the repair of 19 ruinous bridges in the borough.

By the end of the 16thc., then, the cloister arcade was gone, the church was roofless and probably lacked most of its choir. Most of the Lady Chapel may still have been standing, although ashlar had been removed from its walls and window and door surrounds. In 1643 Reading was the site of an action in the Civil War which had further serious effects on the abbey. The town was held for the king by Sir Arthur Aston, with 3,000 men and 300 horse. The garrison was beseiged for ten days by a Parliamentary force of 16,000 men and 3,000 horse, under the Earl of Essex. Defensive works were raised, consisting of a rampart with a ditch running across the cloister from S to N, terminating in a hornwork which occupied a large part of the nave of the church. Stone for the construction of the rampart came, of course, from the abbey, and further damage was caused during the ten days of bombardment necessary to obtain the surrender of the town.

The only record of note relating to the destruction of the abbey during the 18thc. dates from 1754, when General Conway used stone from the abbey to build a bridge at Park Place, Henley. In 1831 a building scheme was proposed which would have destroyed the ruins completely. This involved using the materials of the abbey for road-building. The scheme was rejected by the town council, and in its place a public subscripton was raised to buy the remaining portions of the ruins for the town. This did not put an end to the destruction, however, because the construction of both the Roman Catholic church of St James (opened in 1840) and the new County Gaol (in 1843) involved demolition of parts of the abbey fabric (the N transept and what remained of the choir and Lady Chapel respectively). Since the 19thc. restoration and consolidation of the standing remains has periodically been carried out, and a degree of legal protection was gained in 1914 when they were scheduled as an ancient monument.

In 2003 Reading Borough Council was awarded a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund to restore the Victorian character of the Forbury Gardens and to continue the specialist conservation work on the ruins. The work will mainly be done in 2004, with a completion target of 2005. The plan of the church has recently been elucidated by Stuart Harrison and the present author, on the basis of the standing remains, the surveys of H. Englefield (1789), J. C. Buckler (1823–24), F. Albury (1880) and the Ordnance Survey (1875); and the excavation of C. Slade at the E end (1971–73). It had a nave of nine bays, an unaisled transept with two E chapels on either arm, the inner S chapel (known as the Founder's Chapel) being deeper than the others. The presbytery had three straight bays with an ambulatory and three radiating chapels. In effect, both the nave and the presbytery are a bay longer than the description implies because of the elongation of the crossing piers to E and W.

Standing remains: S transept and presbytery:

Only a fragment of this once-great abbey has survived. The main body of the S transept is the most substantial part of the church that has survived and it retains substantial evidence for the articulation of the walls. The main surviving elements are a large part of the W wall and part of the S wall. These walls are massive and impressive but it should be borne in mind that they have lost at least half of their original height. The ashlar has largely been stripped but in the lower parts, which have not been conserved it is possible to read the robbed core and recover details of the design. The outline of the main ashlar blocks can easily be observed, to the extent that with a technique such as photogrammetry it would be possible to recover the precise jointing and possible to recognise individual variations that might show building breaks.

The differences in wall plane are reflected in the depth of the robbing and these show that the transept was divided into three bays. From the SW corner, where the low course of ashlar survives, the details of the W wall show that the three bays were divided by wide pilasters of three orders and the central section of each of the two S bays was deeply recessed and pierced with a very large window. This arrangement suggests that these recesses formed giant order arches that framed the windows. Unfortunately the surviving walling is of insufficient height to show positively if this was the case. The remains of the windows show that they employed several orders of shafts and presumably arch mouldings in the heads but unfortunately though the remains are very tall no trace of the arch heads remains. Internally there are small remains of ashlar bases at sill level. A horizontal robbing shows that these stood on a string course. The N bay has a different form of articulation because it adjoined the S nave aisle. Here the S respond of the arch into the nave aisle survives, though robbed, together with the springing of the arch it carried. This is notably of stilted form. In the S wall of the transept the robbed core clearly shows that the bay articulation of the W wall was repeated with a central pilaster and a recess at each side. There are no traces of windows because of the three-storey slype to the S but presumably windows were provided in the lost uppermost part of the wall.

The eastern side of the transept retains part of the eastern apse of the Founder's Chapel together with part of its forebay. It adjoined the S aisle of the presbytery where the wall retains evidence for the height of the aisle respond piers and the springing for the vaults in the robbed corework. To the W side of the remaining vault springing there is a small section of two courses of ashlar walling which abut and retain the curve of the vault web but also another curve on its W edge which indicates that it abutted another arch on that side. This, and the recess in the wall core, suggests that the aisle bays featured large arched recesses that framed the windows. Opposite this aisle respond is the surviving circular presbytery pier base. Only the S half is visible clearly showing a half-cylindrical attached shaft towards the aisle. The evidence in the S presbytery aisle wall also shows the robbed outline of a similar shaft, six metres high.

In the Founder's Chapel the windows are large and retain stepping for the multiple orders of the jambs and arch heads, suggesting that they were considerably embellished. The remains of the responds at the entrance to the apse show multiple stepping, indicating numerous orders to the shafts; two on the W side and four on the east. On the E side some of these are angled to accommodate the curve of the apse wall. The S respond has a cut-back stone at the arch springing which must have been the tail-stone of the capital abacus. The intermediate responds set around the apse, which must have carried ribs for vaulting are also of several orders which suggest that the recessed arches observed in the presbytery aisles were also featured in the chapel. That this was the case is confirmed by three courses of ashlar vault web above the N respond of the apse, on its W side. This is set so far N into the wall that it must have been associated with a deep arched recess. On the S wall a small fragment of ashlar retains a curved abutment for the vault on its east side with two narrow tapered courses of ashlar vault web and on the W side a curved edge for the abutment to the arched recess. Externally the chapel retains a deep robbing, nearly a metre high for a large plinth course and at the base of the windows another for a string course. The surviving robbing of the plinth shows that it was composed of seven courses of stone. The buttresses are marked by broad stepped projections in the corework with a narrower angle buttress between the chapel and the S presbytery aisle wall. The surviving window heads and jambs are articulated in stepping for two external nook shafts and arch orders.

To the S of the Founder's Chapel there are the low remains of another which did not project as far to the east. Sufficient remains on its N ern side to show that the apse was divided into three bays like the Founder's Chapel and also featured a deep wall recess. Its S wall has a large squared rubble base for a massive stair turret that gave access to the upper parts of the church and the treasury above the slype.

N transept:

The N transept retains a small section of its W wall and a massive collapsed articulated section of walling at its N W corner. This has evidently fallen from the superstructure and lies tilted over at an angle. Unfortunately it retains no features that could add to the details of the building. In the back garden of the Priest's House of St James's Church a large section of the N presbytery aisle wall stands to a considerable height. Though largely robbed of ashlar it retains a single base for a semicircular respond shaft on its S side. This base has angle spurs and stands on a wall bench. The quality of carving is extremely good and the ashlar joints very fine. North of this is the inner chapel of the transept and this is of polygonal plan with the lowest courses of ashlar in situ. These indicate the former presence of single shafts at the angled intersections of the canted walls of the chapel. The deep robbing above the ashlar strongly indicates the former presence of arched recesses in the main walls. The adjoining N chapel has been overbuilt by an extension to the Priest's House.

Nave and crossing:

The remains of the nave are restricted to part of the eastern bay of the S aisle wall and the SW crossing pier. The aisle wall retains the E cloister processional doorway that was an arch of great magnificence, to judge from the stepped robbing of the jambs and head that are present on both sides. It is set into a projecting frame of masonry in order to accommodate the depth of the doorway. Small sections of ashlar remain at the bottom including worn bases on the N–W side.

Above the doorway and set to E of it is a window that has lost its arch head. It retains worn bases for jamb shafts on the exterior. Its unusual position is related to the internal bay spacing and the vaulting over the first nave aisle bay. The SW crossing pier is so large that it extends well into the nave and because of this the vaulting had to be adjusted. On its W side it retains the main arcade respond base which has a semicircular moulded base standing on a tall polygonal sub-base. This suggests that like the presbytery piers, those of the nave were also cylindrical. The sheer size of the crossing piers suggests that they were intended from the start to carry a substantial high tower. This, following the usual Romanesque pattern, would probably have comprised a large open lantern, to light the monks' choir below and a belfry stage above. The S respond of the arch into the transept from the S nave aisle remains as a robbing with indications of multiple shafts. The capitals were set at the same height as those in the presbytery, six metres high, and indicate that the nave arcades retained the same proportions as the eastern arm. The arch springing above is stilted, showing that it must have been round-headed and on the W side retains the curve of the vault web. This has a distinct flat along its angled face indicating the former presence of a vault rib.

Cloister and monastic buildings:

The cloister occupies the angle between nave and S transept, the surviving doorway at the E end of the S nave aisle communicating with its NE angle. All traces of the cloister arcading had already vanished when Stewkley drew it in 1721, and indeed evidence from the accounts published by Preston (1935) suggest that it was entirely demolished in 1549. The central area is now occupied by a formal garden. The E walk is occupied by the slype, the chapter house and the dormitory range, which extends S beyond the cloister square, its W wall continuing the line of the E walk as far as the rere dorter which survives in a ruinous state on the N bank of the Kennet. On the S walk is the refectory. Nothing of the W range survives.


Adjoining the S transept is the slype, a long narrow passage that was formerly covered by a barrel vault. Only the springing remains in the sidewalls with traces of the floor above on the S side. Here there are the lowest courses of the ashlar facing which may represent a bench. At a higher level there is a second springing for the vault that covered the treasury at first-floor level. It has been assumed in the past that this was also a barrel vault but the evidence on the N wall suggests that it may have been of quadrant form. Above the treasury the upper level of the S transept retain traces of an external buttress at its SW corner.

Chapter House:

The chapter house was one of the most imposing buildings in the abbey. It was entered from the cloister through a central doorway that is flanked by two round-headed windows. These have lost their original sills and much of the jamb detail has been lost in clumsy conservation. No doubt they and the doorway featured numerous orders of shafts on their jambs, features which are reflected in the stepped outlines of their robbed arch heads. Some form of plate tracery probably subdivided them. Above the doorway and flanking window there is a tier of three windows, which have stepped robbing to their jambs and arch heads. The central window was apparently taller and though the arch head has been lost, this is confirmed by several antiquarian drawings.

Internally the room is very wide and retains traces of the wall benches on the sidewalls. It was divided into four bays, up to the chord of the apse by large pilasters. These remain as undulations in the wall cores and were over a metre wide. The main span was covered by a large barrel vault that Englefield said employed tufa to lighten the loading. It was decorated with transverse ribs springing from the pilasters and traces of these still remain as marks in the surviving vault springing. The barrel vault stopped at the chord of the apse where it was finished with a vertical east face. Around the eastern apse there are traces of four pilaster responds that are narrower than those which articulated the barrel vault in the side walls. They must have carried ribs that sprang up to converge on a central point against the east face of the barrel vault. There was a string course on which stood large windows in each apse bay. One survives relatively intact and shows that they were round-headed and of three stepped orders with jamb shafts. The height they rise shows that the cells of the apse vault were steeply ploughshared in form to avoid the window heads.

There is no trace of the internal wall arcades that were often a feature of large Romanesque chapter houses. Had they ever been present they would surely have left evidence of the voussoirs in the wall cores, which show only level bedded horizontal coursing. It may be that the walls were simply painted with arcades or that they were decorated with chevrons and other similar abstract patterns, like the chapter house at Bristol. Externally the apse was articulated by buttresses, centred with the internal responds that were just over a metre wide. There was a plinth nearly a metre deep that must have had multiple stepping or chamfered courses.

Dormitory range:

S of the chapter house the site slopes quite steeply and the S wall retains the scars for a vaulted passage through the range. High up in the chapter house S wall there is a doorway that seems to give access to a small chamber within the thickness of the wall. The E wall of the range has completely gone but the ground floor of the W wall is relatively intact. It has been badly consolidated so that it presents a virtually uniform pattern of flint facework. The sloping ground level suggests that the range must have been terraced with additional vaulted cellarage towards the S, so that it was two storeys at the N end and three at the S. There is no trace of there ever having been any sort of passage over the chapter house vault to a night stair into the S transept and it must have been the case that the monks walked through the cloister from the dormitory to the church. The W wall of the range retains part of a mural stair, in the thickness of the wall that may have given access to the dormitory. The stair rose up and gave access to a room on the first floor of the S range and from there through another doorway up into the dormitory. This arrangement may have served as both a day and night staircase. Similar mural daystairs are known from Chester Abbey and St Mary's Abbey at York.


The refectory was a large building occupying the main part of the S range of the cloister. It was separated from the E range on the ground floor by a through passage or dark entry. Antiquarian drawings show that the refectory walls were covered in two tiers of arched wall arcades. Little now survives of this once splendid building except at the E end where a small section of the S wall remains. It shows that in contrast to the church that was wholly built in ashlar, the refectory was built in rubblestone and flints. Traces of the lower wall arcade remains where the voussoirs and capitals have been extracted from the walls to leave ragged arched chases. There are some small traces of the upper arcading but they are very slight.

Other buildings:

Outside the monastic enclosure, part of the Hospitium of St John survives behind the Town Hall. To the S of the monastic enclosure, the Abbey Mill straddles the Holy Brook. These have separate entries in the database. Finally there is the Inner Gateway of the abbey, which now stands on Abbot's Walk. In its present state it is the work of a restoration by Sir George Gilbert Scott which began in 1860 and was completed only in 1900 by the carving of various heads, animals and foliage capitals.

Romanesque sculpture:

Sculpture on the site is confined to stones which have been reset in various parts of the ruins. These are described in section IV.5.c below. The bulk of the Reading Abbey material is in Reading Museum and Art Gallery, but other stones are in St Lawrence's churchyard, the Forbury Gardens, the Hospitium of St John, St James's RC church, the covering of the Holy Brook, and 35 London Street (all Reading), and at St Andrew's, Sonning.


According to the Annals of Reading, the abbey was founded by King Henry I on June 18th 1121. The Foundation Charter of 1125, actually a formal confirmation of the abbey's rights, possessions and responsibilities, refers to the existence of an earlier abbey at Reading, which was destroyed on account of its sins and which had been in lay hands for a great while (quas manus laica diu possedit earumque terras et possessiones alienando distraxit). This earlier foundation has been assumed to be a nunnery founded by Edward the Martyr's stepmother, Queen Elfrida. Domesday mentions a church in Reading held by the Abbot of St Albans, which had been held from Edward the Confessor by Abbess Leofeva (of Shaftesbury?). The foundation date of June 18th 1121 coincides with the arrival in Reading of seven monks from Cluny led by a prior, Peter, who were sent in response to Henry's request to Abbot Pons. They were soon joined by other monks from the Cluniac priory of Lewes in Sussex. Although it was founded by monks from Cluny, Reading Abbey was not Cluniac in the accepted sense. In 1123 Prior Peter returned to Cluny and Hugh of Amiens left Lewes, where he had been prior, to take up the new position of Abbot of Reading. Cluniac houses, of course, were headed by a Prior, subject to the Abbot of Cluny. Henry managed to create a house with all the benefits of Cluniac observance and none of the disadvantages of dependence on Cluny. Henry's nephew and successor, Stephen founded his own burial church of Faversham along much the same lines in 1148, taking monks from the Cluniac house of Bermondsey and setting up Prior Clarembald of Bermondsey as the first abbot.

Although Reading was no longer strictly a Cluniac house after 1123, the influence of Cluny remained strong throughout the twelfth century. Abbots Hugh I (1123–30), Anscher (1130–35) and Hugh II (1186–99) had all been Priors of Lewes, and in 1199 Hugh II was elevated from the Abbacy of Reading to that of Cluny. It is difficult to imagine what the Cluniacs could have achieved in the two years between 1121 and 1123: presumably no more than the laying out of the plan on the ground and the establishment of Cluniac customs in temporary buildings. The foundation charter is dated 1125, and it has sometimes been assumed from this that the monastic buildings were completed in the four years between 1121 and 1125, simply because in the charter Henry states that he has built (edificavi) the monastery. This charter is certainly spurious as it stands, however, and probably represents an improved version of the original. Even if it were reliable it would be a mistake to read it quite as literally as this. Henry's contribution to the building process extended only as far as the gifts described above, and once these were made he could reasonably claim to have done his share of the building. In any case, Henry left England in 1123 to deal with a rebellion in Normandy, and did not return until the autumn of 1126, so he could have had no first-hand knowledge of the progress of the building.

In any event we can be certain that the choir was complete by January 1136, when Henry I was buried there. The Annales de Waverleia imply rather more than this, stating that Henry built it from its foundations and enriched it with ornaments and lands. Henry was buried on January 3rd, 1136, attended by his successor, Stephen (who had been crowned on 22 December while his uncle's body lay at Caen), and by William, Archbishop of Canterbury and many bishops and nobles. In 1156 Henry II's oldest son William was buried at the feet of his grandfather. Finally the church was dedicated by Archbishop Becket in the presence of Henry II in 1164, by which time it must have been substantially complete.

On 12th March 1209 the church was struck by lightning, as recorded in the Annales Radingenses Posteriore, but the annals make no mention of any damage or rebuilding as a result of this. Similarly a great flood, 'quale post diluvium Noe visum non fuit', is recorded for the FE of the Translation of St Benedict (July 11) 1233, but while this swept away bridges and buildings in the town it does not seem to have caused any major damage to the abbey.

Various other abbey buildings are mentioned in early documents. Abbot Anscher (1130–35) founded the leper house of St Mary Magdalen within the abbey precinct. Abbot Hugh II (1186–99) founded a hospital, the Hospitium of St John, for thirteen poor persons outside the abbey gate, financed by the revenues of the church of St Laurence, Reading. The only other building work for which we have records is the Lady Chapel, constructed at the E end of the church in 1314 by Abbot Nicholas of Whaplode (1305–28). This was certainly in use by October 1327, when property was given to the abbey by Robert of Abingdon to pay chaplains to say daily masses in the Lady Chapel for the souls of Richard of Abingdon and his ancestors and heirs.


Interior Features

Interior Decoration


VCH Berkshire, II, 59-73

Annales Bermundeseia. H. R.Luard (ed), Annales Monastici. Rolls Series 3 (1865)

Annales Waverleia. H. R.Luard (ed), Annales Monastici. Rolls Series 2 (1865)

Annales Wintonia. H. R.Luard (ed), Annales Monastici. Rolls Series 2 (1865)

A. Mee (ed.), The King's England: Berkshire. London, 1939, 149–50

B. R. Kemp (ed.), Reading Abbey Cartularies, 2 vols., London, (Camden Fourth Series vols. 31 (1986) and 33 (1987)).

A. E. Preston, 'The Demolition of Reading Abbey'. Berkshire Archaeological Journal, 39, 1935, 107-44.

A. G. Vince, P. J. Fasham and J. W. Hawkes, 'Excavations at Reading Abbey 1979 and 1981.' Berkshire Archaeological Journal 71 (1982), 33-55.

Annales Radingenses Posteriores. C.W.Previté-Orton (ed), 'Annales Radingenses Posteriores, 1135-1264', English Historical Review 37(1922), 400-03.

Annales Radingenses, in F. Liebermann (ed.), Ungedruckte anglo-normannische Geschichtsquellen, Strassburg, 1879, 9-12.

B. R. Kemp, 'The Miracles of the Hand of St James', Berkshire Archaeological Journal, 65, 1970, 1-20.

Buckler, For J. C. Buckler's notes and drawings, see London, BL Add.36400

C. E. Keyser, 'Norman capitals from Sonning, Berks., and sculptured stones at Shiplake and Windsor Castle, probably brought from Reading abbey', Proc. Soc. Ants. Lond., 2nd ser.28, 1916, 234-45.

C. F. Slade, 'Excavations at Reading Abbey 1964-67.' Berkshire Archaeological Journal, 66, 1971-71, 65-116.

C. F. Slade, 'Paving Tiles at Reading Abbey', Berkshire Archaeological Journal, 64, 1970, 9.

C. Coates, The History and Antiquities of Reading, London 1802.

J. Doran, The History and Antiquities of the Town and Borough of Reading. Reading 1835.

F. W. Albury, 'Reading Abbey, its History and Architecture and the Reading Abbey Stone', Berkshire Archaeological and Architectural Society Transactions, 1880-81, 65-90.

G. Zarnecki, 'The Buried Sculpture of Reading Abbey: Chapters of an Archaeological 'Detective Story'', Illustrated London News, April 16, 1949, 524-25.

G. Zarnecki, 'The Coronation of the Virgin on a Capital from Reading Abbey', Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 13 (1950), 1-12.

J. M. Guilding, Records of the Borough of Reading and Notable Events

H. Englefield, 'Observations on Reading Abbey', Archaeologia, 6 (1782), 61-66.

J. B. Hurry, Reading Abbey, London 1901.

J. B. Hurry, 'The Shrine of St James at Reading Abbey', The Antiquary, 51, 382-86.

J. M. Guilding, 'Henry the First's Tomb in Reading Abbey', Berkshire Archaeological and Architectural Society Quarterly Journal, 1 (1889-91), 95-99.

J. Okey Taylor, 'Reading Abbey', Berkshire Archaeological and Architectural Society Quarterly Journal, 1 (1889-91), 156-60.

J. Wheble, 'The Reading Abbey Stone', Berkshire Archaeological and Architectural Society Transactions, 1880-81, 87-90

M. Thurlby and R. Baxter, 'The Romanesque Abbey Church at Reading', in L. Keen and E. Scarff (eds.), Windsor: Medieval Archaeology, Art and Architecture of the Thames Valley (British Archaeological Association Conference Transactions XXV, 2002), 282-301.

J. Man, The History and Antiquities, Ancient and Modern, of the Borough of Reading, Reading 1816.

N. Pevsner, The Buildings of England. Berkshire. Harmondsworth, 1966, 198-99.

D. Phillips, The Story of Reading, Newbury, 1980 (rev. ed. 1990).

R. Baxter and S. Harrison, 'The Decoration of the Cloister at Reading Abbey' in L.Keen and E.Scarff (eds.), Windsor: Medieval Archaeology, Art and Architecture of the Thames Valley (British Archaeological Association Conference Transactions XXV, 2002), 302-12.

R. E. Scantlebury, The Story of Reading Abbey and The Catholic Church in Reading, Reading 1943.

C. Tomkins, Eight Views of Reading Abbey, Reading 1791.