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A summary of the Abbey's history and recent archaeological excavations Compiled the Trust for Wessex Archaeology Sponsored by the staff of and Reading Museum and Art Gallery by MEPC pic
Financial support: MEPC pic, Berkshire County Council, The Department of the Environment gave financial support to the 198 I excavations. This publication was sponsored by MEPC pic. Text: Peter Fasham and John Hawkes of the Trust for Wessex Archaeology with a contribution on the Kennet and Avon Navigation by Mike Corfield of Wiltshire County Council. Graphics: Liz James and Jane Timby of the Trust for Wessex Archaeology and Martin Andrews of Reading Museum and Art Gallery. Reconstruction drawing on pages 14 and 15 and picture research Liz James. Design: Martin Andrews, Reading Museum and Art Gallery
Contents The Foundation of the Abbey The Abbey and the Town 4 The Excavations 8 The First Hundred Years 12 The Later Abbey Period 13 The Dissolution and After 18 Cover illustration: Manuscript illustration (c. 1250) by Matthew Paris, a monk of St Albans, showing Henry I holding a model of Reading Abbey. Previous page: An eighteenth-century engraving of the Abbey Gateway. Below: An eighteenth-century engraving of a view of the Abbey ruins.
Reproduction of illustrations by permission of: The National Portrait Gallery for the portrait of Henry I on page 3. The British Library for manuscript illustrations on pages 4, 13 and front cover. All other illustrations from Reading Museum and Art Gallery and the Trust for Wessex Archaeology. Copyright © Trust for Wessex Archaeology, 1983 Typesetting by JH Graphics Ltd, Reading Printed by Entroform Ltd, Reading
Reading Abbey was founded by Henry I in 1121 'for the salvation of my soul, and the souls of King William, my father, and of King William, my brother, and Queen Maud, my wife, and all my ancestors and successors.' The hope of salvation was a common motive for endowing monasteries with money and land in the early middle ages, but such royal patronage was sufficient to make Reading one of the richest and most important religious houses in England, with possessions not only in Berkshire but as far afield as Herefordshire and Scotland. When Henry died in France in 1135 his body was brought to Reading and laid to rest in front of the altar of the yet uncompleted Church. On 18thJune, 1121, a party of monks from the great French abbey of Cluny together with monks from the Cluniac priory ofSt Pancras at Lewes, Sussex, arrived at Reading. Thus began monastic life in Reading which was to end in violence with the Dissolution and execution of the last abbot 418 years later.
The second seal of Reading Abbey, 1328, showing King Henry I holding a model of the Abbey Church.
The Domesday survey of 1086 records only one church in Reading, presumably St Mary's at the junction of the roads from Oxford to Winchester and London to Bath. The old market lay immediately to the west of the church and it was around this that the late Saxon and early medieval town developed before the founding of the Abbey. An AngloSaxon nunnery which may have stood nearby has entirely disappeared, but the rebuilt church ofSt Mary and the market, now St Mary's Butts, still survive. The founding of the Abbey to the east had a profound influence on the subsequent development of the town. The old market was superseded by a new one outside the Abbey's Compter Gate. Travellers seeking the Abbey's hospitality and people journeying along the main roads passing the gate were attracted to the new market. The town centre was beginning to attain its recognisable modern form; New (now Friar) Street and Broad Street linked the old and new commercial centres. Reading was fast becoming an important town strategically placed on the junction of the major eastwest and north-south roads. According to the rwelfth-century chronicler William of Malmesbury the Abbey was built on a gravel spur 'between the rivers Kennet and Thames, on a spot calculated for the reception of almost all who might have occasion to travel to the more populous cities of England. '
Abbey and the Town --The gravel spur on which the Abbey was situated had not always been a place of tranquillity. The strategic importance of the site had already led to its military usage on more than one occasion. It was almost certainly the site of the Viking winter camp of870 and possibly again in woo, and the burial of a man together with his horse and a ninth-century Viking sword in the Vastern water meadows belongs to this period. N or did the consecration of the area as an abbey prevent profane use; in I ISO during the civil war with his cousin, the Empress Matilda, King Stephen raised a castle within the precincts of the Abbey. The mound, still a prominent feature in the Forbury Gardens today, is most probably all that remains of this castle. Some 500 years later civil war again encroached on the now defunct Abbey. It is this period that was responsible for much of the destruction of the Abbey buildings; the Church was finally demolished and defensive earthworks were thrown up across the cloister area while Reading was occupied by both Royalist and Parliamentary forces.
The hilt of the Viking sword found with the burial of a warrior near the ninthcentury encampment on the Abbey site. Medieval travellers. century manuscript. from a fourteenth-
Reading: the medieval town and Abbey.
Vastern water meadows
1 2 3 4 5 6 7
Friary St Mary's Church St Laurence's Church Hospitium Mill Possibly the site of the town whart North gate South gate Compter gate
13 14 15 16 17
Refrectory and cellarer's office Cloisters Chapter House Church Reredorter
10 East gate 11 Inner Gateway 12 Stables Site of the 1981 excavations of the watertront. A broken medieval ivory crucifix from Reading. A medieval bronze badge in the form of a griffin as worn by pilgrims. Found in the ruins of Reading Abbey.
The popularity of Reading as a venue for trade, travel and warfare owed much to the waterways. The remote gravel spur bounded on two sides by the rivers Thames and Kenner was ideal for the quiet contemplative seclusion of a monastery, but more importantly the adjacent rivers provided a convenient form of transport. Medieval roads were difficult and notoriously dangerous, and valuable or heavy cargoes could be carried more easily and safely by water. As the town would have been frequently cut off from the Thames by the seasonally flooded Vastern water meadows the Kennet was to become the site of wharves for both Abbey and town; it was with the discovery and elucidation of the Abbey wharves that the archaeological excavations of 198 1 were principally concerned.
In 1964litde detail was known about the Abbey layout and the size of the buildings. Most of the area between Abbots Walk, Kings Road, Abbey Street and the Abbey Ruins was scheduled for redevelopment, and although this meant that much of the below ground remains of the Abbey would be destroyed it did provide archaeologists with the opportunity to record and collect information concerning the date of various parts of the Abbey and the possibility of reconstructing the original layout lost after the seventeenth-century Civil War. Accordingly Dr C. F. Slade of Reading University began a campaign of excavations in an attempt to reveal the buried secrets of the Abbey. The mill was shown to have been in use since the twelfth century and the precise position of the cloisters was located. They
In 1979 excavations directed by Mr A. Vince discovered a medieval building which stood between the refectory wall and Chestnut Walk. At the same time, two wooden posts were discovered by the River Kennet; the first indications that the medieval timber wharves might have survived. For seventeen years archaeological investigations had considerably expanded knowledge of the Abbey, bu t details of the refectory plan, kitchen and cellarer's offices were still not known. Neither was it clear whether further buildings survived south of the refectory wall, and nothing was known about the wharves or the Holy Brook and its confluence with the Kennet.
Tiles which once paved the floors of Reading Abbey. Carved stone capitals from the cloister colonnade, c. 1130.
were rectangular in shape, measuring 45 metres north to south and 35 metres east to west. The cloister walk was paved with decorated tiles. The intricately and beautifully carved capitals which surmounted the columns of the cloister had previously been identified by Dr Charles Keyser as early as 1916 in Sonning to where they had been removed following the demolition of the Abbey. The north wall of the refectory was located by Dr Slade and the east end of the church was examined. The details and plan of the Abbey were now being filled out. 9
In 1981, an imminent redevelopment scheme threatened to destroy forever much of the buried evidence that still survived within the Abbey precinct and it was decided to mount an excavation to try to learn something of the layout and development of some of the Abbey buildings, paying particular attention to the Abbey wharves, in the hope of confirming their location and development as they were related to the Abbey and the town. Excavation south of the refectory wall demonstrated that all Abbey remains had been destroyed by eighteenth-century gravel digging. West of the cloisters only a small area was found to have survived and here a flint-walled cellar was re-discovered, some 4 metres deep. The cellar, which was completely empty save for a small amount of modern rubble, had been roofed over with brick in the Victorian period and subsequently covered by the modern car park of the former Council offices. Although it was not possible to date it accurately, the cellar almost certainly belongs to the Abbey period, probably to the cellarer's range which had never before been
A structural engineer being lowered through a man-hole in the Victorian roof into the medieval Abbey cellar.
examined. Here would have been stored the provisions required for the Abbey community. Exciting though such a discovery was, the major importance of the 1981 excavation was the waterfront. The excavation, the first large-scale investigation of a medieval inland waterway in the country, uncovered preserved timber wharves enabling a complete sequence from c. 1200 to the present day to be reconstructed. Such information, when fully digested, will change our perceptions and understanding of an important part of medieval life; the more immediate importance to Reading of the waterways and their discovery is already beginning to be understood.
At the time of the dissolution of the monasteries in 1539 rubble was tipped into the river at this point.
The channel of the Holy Brook after the redesign of the waterfront in c. 1300.
From about 1150-1300 the Holy Brook flowed into the Kennet at this point.
The excavation revealed a long sequence of activity with the River Kennet gradually moving eastwards.
General view of the excavation site, 1981, showing the remains of the waterfronts.
The Kennet Navigation Act of.1715 led to the construction by 1724 of this revetment with its large back brace.
.... .. ; 'J: ..
About 1300 the waterfront was redesigned with a new layout including a plank built frontage. The planks are 6 It long.
The church, the cloisters, the domestic buildings and the mill would have been amongst the first buildings of the Abbey. In keeping with the importance of the Abbey the church was enormous, only 50 feet shorter than present day St Paul's. The scale of the other buildings is likely to have been equally impressive; the mill was situated on the Holy Brook, one of the many streams which pass through Reading. It is not known if the Holy Brook, which joins the Kennet at the Abbey waterfront, is a natural or artificial channel, but it was certainly extant in the earliest excavated phase, its outflow being marked by a break in the waterfront revetment and a turn in the alignment of timbers.
Although the pottery evidence does not suggest that these structures belong to the earliest years of the Abbey, there are good reasons for thinking that a wharf must have been amongst the earliest features built, since the importation of building stone and other supplies would have been the first necessary requirement of the small community during its initial hectic building period. Such a wharf would almost certainly have been that which received a more sombre cargo in 1136, when the body of the Abbey's founder, Henry I, was landed from a cortege of blackdraped barges.
Fish traps by a mill from a medieval manuscript.
Twelfth to thirteenth-century
Towards the end of this period, sometime in the early years of the thirteenth century, a weir was constructed on the north side of the Holy Brook. A cluster of birch stakes was placed in front of a hard standing formed by dumps offlint and other stone. This would catch any flotsam floating down the Holy Brook from the mill and prevent it entering the main channel. It could also have operated as a fish trap (called a kiddIe) providing a framework across which nets could be thrown to catch fish as they made their way downstream. Elsewhere in the Abbey other building work was taking place. The church was completed in 1164 and by this time the Abbey had instituted various charitable programmes; Abbot Anscher ha ving established a leper house in the early twelfth century and Abbot Hugh II having founded a second hospital, that of StJohn the Baptist, in the later years of that century.
Medieval pot from Reading. Medieval birch stakes which may have formed a fish trap.
Seven phases of waterfront activity can be dated to the first century of the Abbey's existence, each having an average lifespan of 15 years. They aU consist ofland reclamations from the River Kenner, which contain rubbish, including fragments of black, thin-walled cooking pots and green-glazed tripod pitchers belonging to the later twelfth and earlier thirteenth centuries. It is possible that planks from earlier waterfronts were reused in later phases, the frequent replacement being due to changes in water level and silting of old channels rather than dilapidation of the timbers. These structures are probably not wharves as such; there is no evidence that they were on the site where loading and unloading took place and they are best interpreted as revetments to the banks of the Kennet and Holy Brook.
The great royal patronage of the Abbey at its foundation continued in to the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and it was often visited by royalty as well as other guests and pilgrims. Although the Abbey succeeded in maintaining good terms with the Crown, these activities, together with the charitable obligations, proved to be a serious drain on the Abbey's resources and by 1286 it had fallen so seriousl y into debt that the administration was brought under direct royal control by Edward I, until 1289. The late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries were something of a boom time in England, urban expansion and development resulting in a spate of new building, both monastic and secular. Many religious houses had grown at such a rate that the necessary and inevitable building and repair works severely depleted resources. When, in 1305, Nicholas de Quappelode became Abbot, it was again found to be necessary to reduce the number of Abbey servants as part of a campaign of economic stringency. During this time of fluctuating fortunes a large-scale rebuilding and expansion of the Abbey
Later Abbey Period
waterfront took place. The construction of the new wharf involved the realignment of the Kennet and Holy Brook channels. A wattle silt trap retained dumps of sand and rubble to re-claim the old channel, in front of which were placed substantial vertical piles with timber planks nailed across them. Some of the piles seem to have been reused, possibly coming from repairs to Abbey buildings, as a mortice joint found in one of the piles suggest the reuse of a former roof timber. The Holy Brook was reverted by timber on the south side and by a stone wall on the north side and there are also traces of a wharfside building. It is clear that in this period, the waterfront was the site of a busy and bustling quayside.
The fifteenth-century north side of the Holy Brook strengthened by a wall.
Prefabricated wattles were used to trap river silts as part of the major reorganisation of the area in about 1300. Medieval builders from century manuscript. a fourteenth-
life at the Abbey
Cargoes arriving at the new wharf would have included the essential supplies necessary to sustain a large community. Although flour and beer were probably produced within the Abbey, the necessary raw materials may well have been imported via the river, as would such luxuries as wine. Casual losses into the river at a this time include not only a range of metalwork and pottery objects but also leather shoes, belts and other items. Leather normally perishes rapidly, but due to the waterlogged conditions it has been preserved and gi ves us a clearer picture of objects that rarely survive, increasing greatly our knowledge of an important local industry. A study of this material suggests that a leather working site may have been situated close by at this time. The east side of the new Market Place adjacent to the Abbey precinct wall was known as hoernakers' Row in late medieval times.
The town already had a separate wharf upstream at Highbridge for use by the town merchants, and by '404 traffic had increased to such an extent that some formal agreement between the Abbey and merchants
was necessary. It was agreed that navigation might proceed to Highbridge between sunrise and sunset, but that barges would have to apply to the Abbey for the lock to be opened. A toll was levied which may have gone some way towards recompensing the Abbey for the inconvenience caused and an apparently necessary stricture ordered that the sailors 'might make no play, riott or noyse'. The appearance of this lock in the early fifteenth century is of some interest and may explain why the later Abbey wharfis at a higher level than earlier frontages. Estimates of the water level from information recovered in the excavation show a dramatic rise over the 400 years of the Abbey's existence which suggests that locks and weirs may have been common. Archaeology hints at a degree of river management not recorded in documents causing changes more dramatic even than the building of the Kennet and A von canal in the eighteenth century.
Medieval objects found during the 1981 excavations at the waterfront. Diagram showing the rising water level of the River Kennet by the Abbey waterfront.
Water level in metres
Medieval nails used in the construction of the waterfronts. Medieval shoe found in the river silts.
At the Dissolution in 1539, the last Abbot of Reading, Hugh Cook Faringdon, was found guilty of high treason by Henry VIII and was dragged through the streets of Reading, hanged, drawn and quartered in front of the Abbey Church. Although some of the Abbey buildings were retained as a Royal residence, occupation of the Abbey precinct effectively ended with the dispersal of the monks. By 1549, only ten years after the Dissolution, documents record that the buildings were being robbed. Lead was stripped from the roof and windows by agents of the King and some of this was melted down in the ruins of the refectory. The 1981 excavations revealed a hearth and pit used for lead melting on the site of the refectory. The facing stones from the walls were removed and used in other building and their flint cores were mostly carried off. Most of the church and the cloisters had been razed by 1642, when the Civil War defences were constructed across the area. Since then, the site has been used not only as a source of building stone, but as a gravel pit for the townspeople. Numerous gravel pits, dating from the seventeenth to the later nineteenth centuries have been located.
View of the Abbey ruins from the River Kennet from an engraving after a work by William Havell, c. 1810 A Lobster helmet from the Civil War. Hugh Faringdon the last Abbot of Reading Abbey.
In the river, silt was allowed to accumulate in the fourteenth and fifteenth cenrury channels, and eventually a large dump of soil and refuse was thrown over the disused wharf and landing stage. The Mill continued to be used until 1959, and during the sixteenth and seventeenth cenruries would still have been grinding com for the town, so the Holy Brook channel would, of necessity, have been kept open to provide power for the mill wheels, although the Kennet may by then have been scarcely navigable. However, by the late seventeenth century, the silting problem appears to have become sufficiently serious to merit a formal attempt to
overcome it. By the addition of a timber revetment and reclamation using roof tiles and large chunks of Abbey masonry, the old Holy Brook channel was filled and a new one cut further north. Elsewhere, the main Kennet Channel was dredged several times to keep the route to the town's wharves open; silt-traps were installed and a back-braced timber revetment was added to the wharf. Access to the river was still through an inconvenient flash lock which was probably constructed at the same time as the later Abbey wharves. The growth of manufacturing industries in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries led to proposals for making the Kenner navigable to Newbury, which, with the support of towns as far away as Trowbridge and Bradford on A von culminated in the Kennet Navigation Act of 1715.
Bridge over the River Kennet, c. 1820, with the spire of St Giles' church in the background.
The Navigation scheme was vigorously resisted in Reading as it was widely feared that the opening of a navigable channel to Newbury would have a disastrous effect on the status and wealth of the county town. While construction work was still in progress a mob of 300 of the townspeople, led by the Mayor, destroyed one of the locks. Later, when the Navigation was completed, the Bargemen of Reading tried to prevent traders from elsewhere using the river, sometimes with dire threats. Des pi te these and other earl y setbacks, the Navigation prospered, and with it so did the wharves along the Kenner. In 1794 the plan to join the Kennet with the Bristol A von by the Kennet and Avon Canal met with the enthusiastic support of the town. The old industries, the mills, sawmill and leather works dependent on water power have long since disappeared. The archaeology of the Abbey is also largely the archaeology of the town. It has been estimated that development of the town centre, involving the construction of cellars in the Victorian period and massive redevelopment since the second World War, has destroyed over 90% of medieval Reading with virtually no recording of the archaeology. It is to be hoped that the excavations portrayed in this booklet are not the last to be carried out in Reading, for with only such a small part of the archaeology of historic Reading surviving every opportunity needs to be taken. It would be fitting if the excavations of Reading Abbey, an institution which once so dominated the town, should lead to an upsurge of interest in the history of Reading.
The arch of the Abbey Mill still spans the Holy Brook.