Reading Abbey

Reading Abbey was one of the wealthiest and most important monasteries of medieval England. Today, the remains of the Abbey can be found throughout the former precinct known as the Abbey Quarter in the heart of Reading, sharing the site with the Victorian Reading Prison buildings. It is a site of huge archaeological and historic importance.

History

The royal Abbey was founded by Henry I in 1121 and became his final resting place in 1136. At the height of its power, the Abbey Church was the same size as Norwich Cathedral. 

After its dissolution in 1539, the Abbot’s House became a royal palace, a particular favourite of Elizabeth I. In the eighteenth century Jane Austen attended a school in the Abbey Gate.

Conservation

A Heritage Lottery Funded £3.1 million conservation project, Reading Abbey Revealed, has conserved the Abbey ruins, restoring access to this fabulous historic site and re-interpreted its historic importance for the twenty- first century.

In parallel, the Hidden Abbey project has commenced archaeological investigations to learn more about the Abbey’s history, its scale and footprint and the burial location of its King. Henry I.

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Henry I

Henry I, youngest son of William the Conqueror, founded Reading Abbey in 1121 intending it to be his burialplace. He died
in Normandy in December 1135 and was brought back for burial in January 1136. His body was embalmed and sewn into a bull’s hide for the journey to Reading. Stormy weather in the Channel delayed the crossing to England by four weeks. His body was eventually brought up the River Kennet to the Abbey’s wharf.

Henry was buried in front of the High Altar, the most prestigious location for a burial. The tomb did not survive the destruction of the Abbey after the Dissolution in 1539. During C19th archaeological investigations a piece of carved stone was discovered, reused in the Abbey’s precinct wall. This may be part of a twelfth century sarcophagus. It is just possible, though it can never be proved, that this might originally have formed part of Henry’s tomb.

Hidden Abbey Project

An ambitious archaeological project has started the challenge of revealing Reading Abbey, the burial site of King Henry I. The Hidden Abbey Project has been set up to discover the full extent and significance of the Royal Abbey and will be split into two phases, with the first phase focusing on the Abbey church below ground, on land around St James Church, the Forbury Gardens and the Reading Gaol car park.

The work involves using ground-penetrating radar (GPR) to locate the boundaries of the abbey church in its current modern setting. The site will also be surveyed to locate possible sites of archaeological interest for future investigation, including the High Altar where Henry was buried, the Ambulatory and the Lady Chapel.

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Following a £3.1m conservation project the Abbey Ruins reopened to the public on June 16th.

The Abbey Ruins is set to become a cultural hub with loads of activities from open-air cinema's and theatrical performances taking place on the site, aiming to turn the inspiring remains into a prestigious venue. 

The Ruins are open everyday from dusk till dawn. 

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