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.


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.


Later this year, a Heritage Lottery Funded £3.1 million conservation project, Reading Abbey Revealed, will get underway to conserve the Abbey ruins, restore access to this fabulous historic site and re-interpret 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.

abbey 25

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.

Reading Abbey revealed projectabbey2

The Heritage Lottery Fund is supporting the Reading Abbey Revealed project to re-open the Abbey Ruins to the public with grant of £1.77, with Council matched funding of £1.38 million.

An exciting programme of events and educational activities will breathe new life into one of Reading’s historic gems, and sits alongside an extensive programme of conservation works to the Abbey Ruins and the Abbey Gateway. Site-wide interpretation of the Abbey Quarter will include a new display at Reading Museum.

The current project timetable as follows:

March 2016: project starts with the procurement and appointment of the main contractors for the capital conservation and interpretation programmes.

September 2016: work starts on site and will take up to 2 years to complete.

  • Summer 2018: the Abbey Ruins fully open to the public, complemented by a programme of events and activities.

The successful HLF award means the accompanying activity programme will continue beyond the opening until the end of 2020.

King Henry I of England a new play by Reading Between The Lines

Reading Between The Lines Theatre Company a reproducing a new play to tell the incredible story of King Henry's life. It will be performed  this November  within touching distance of Henry’s final resting place, Reading Abbey, inside the stunning St James' Church.

A son of William the Conqueror, father to twenty six children, founder of a nearby zoo, a murderer, a man who imprisoned his own brother for 26 years allowing him to die in gaol, Henry I was buried in Reading Abbey . Henry had an extraordinary life, as brave as it was tyrannical. This is a compelling new play of epic proportions which Reading Between The Lines are creating with the support of Arts Council England.

WHERE: St James' Catholic Church, Abbots Walk, Reading, RG1 3HW

WHEN: 2nd - 19th November 2016

TICKETS: Buy tickets