Reading Abbey. This image is copyright free
Reading Abbey was founded by Henry I following the White Ship disaster of 25th November 1120. In 1120 things seemed to be going well for Henry. The joint kingdom of England and Normandy was strong, stable, and ready to be handed on to Henry's son William. In November 1120 Henry and his court prepared to sail for England at the end of a successful campaign against rebels in Normandy. On 25th November a man named Thomas put his glamorously named White Ship, at the king's disposal. The White Ship was a fine vessel, with fifty oarsmen. In addition there was the happy coincidence that Thomas's father Stephen had carried William the Conqueror to England in 1066. Henry thanked Thomas for his offer. As he already had a ship he wouldn't use the White Ship himself, but said he would entrust his sons William and Richard and three hundred other members of his court to Thomas. Three hundred people climbed aboard for the night crossing. There was a party atmosphere on board, and a few people got off the ship, realising that behaviour amongst some of the young men was getting out of hand. Priests who arrived to bless the ship are supposed to have been driven away. The boat set off for England, but hit a rock just off Barfleur and capsized. Prince William initially escaped in a small boat, but returned to try and save his sister. His boat was then swamped by people struggling in the water who tried to climb into it. Thomas is said to have survived the sinking, but on hearing of William's death, allowed the sea to carry him away. Hundreds drowned. Henry lost his son and heir, two of his other children, and many close friends. To appreciate the scale of this disaster you would have to imagine an aeroplane carrying many prominent members of the royal family and government, along with dozens of famous celebrities, all being killed when their plane went down. Naturally there was thought to have been a divine element at work. The fact that priests were chased away was carefully noted, or dreamt up, and following the disaster Henry founded a huge abbey at Reading.
Only ruins now remain, but enough is left of Reading Abbey to give an idea of the massive effort made to placate God following the White Ship's sinking. The abbey was built, according to William of Malmesbury, "on a spot calculated for the reception of almost all who might have the occasion to travel to the more populous cities of Europe". People in the twelfth century travelled for only two reasons, on business, or on pilgrimage. There were no holidays or pleasure trips as we know them today. Pilgrimages were the closest thing to a holiday that people would ever get. To serve the pilgrim traffic Reading Abbey was both a destination, and a way point in a journey on to other religious shrines in Europe. One way or another most travellers in England would see Reading Abbey.
With his successor King Stephen presiding over the ceremony, Henry was buried at Reading Abbey when he died in 1153. A memorial stone has been placed close to the grave. Royal patronage meant that Reading Abbey became one of the richest in England, and was a major factor behind Reading's development as a town. But all of this counted for nothing when in 1538 Henry VIII ordered the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Henry needed to change England's religion from Protestantism to Catholicism, to pave the way for divorce from Catherine of Aragon. The last abbot, Hugh Cook was executed in front of the abbey church, and the monastery then destroyed.
The abbey remains can be viewed in Forbury Garden. Reading Museum, just across the road through St Lawrence Churchyard has displays related to the history of the abbey site.
Directions: The abbey ruins are in Forbury Gardens, off Abbot's Walk in the centre of Reading. Click here for an interactive map centred on Reading Abbey.
Opening Times: Please use contact details below.
Access: The area is generally flat. There are adapted toilet facilities at nearby Reading Museum.
Contact: (For Reading Museum)
telephone: 0118 937 3400
fax: 0118 937 3481
web site: http://www.readingmuseum.org.uk/