ABOUT THE ABBEY
For over 400 years the Abbey contributed to the economic life of the town...
..by laying out the street plan, which still survives today, by providing work for the craftsmen and traders who built, maintained and supplied the monastery, and by attracting many thousands of pilgrims and worshippers who were our first tourists.
Moreover, as well as being the spiritual hub of the town, the Abbey cared for the sick, the elderly and the homeless and was a centre of education for many of its children. The original charter, attributed to King Henry I himself, specifically laid on the monks this duty of care for all the people of Reading.
With the Dissolution of the Abbey, in 1538, Reading thus lost its fabric of social care, much of which would not be replaced for hundreds of years, even with the reforms of Elizabeth I at the end of the century.
It is well documented that, following the Dissolution, the Abbey church lay empty until the reign of Edward VI, between 1547 and 1553, when it was systematically demolished and the stones sold off for profit. There is good evidence that some of the material was used to rebuild St Mary's, now the Minster church, and St Lawrence's. In the following reign, under Mary Tudor, stones from the Abbey were sent to Windsor to build the Poor Knights' Lodgings and, under Elizabeth I, enormous quantities of stone were granted to the Mayor and burgesses of Reading in order to repair 19 bridges which had fallen into ruin.
In the centuries that followed, even well into the 1900s, the Abbey was used as a quarry, with some of the stone being purchased, but much being carried away by the townspeople for a variety of purposes. It is therefore certain that large amounts of Abbey stone still exist in Reading today, built into walls or houses, buried in the ruins of demolished buildings or just lying, unrecognised, in rockeries and flowerbeds.
Working with Reading Museum, we hope to find out more about these lost and hidden stones. This is not just a case of uncovering lifeless building material. The composition and decorative style of the stones, some which may even retain traces of paint, will tell us the story of how the Abbey developed over its 400 years. Because architectural techniques changed over this period, it is possible for carved stones to reveal not just aspects of the Abbey’s architecture but also speak of its life, of its musical tradition, of its art and even of the changing social and religious attitudes of the nation.