HIDDEN ABBEY PROJECT
The following account of the story of how the Hidden Abbey Project (HAP) came about has been written in consultation with Philippa Langley MBE.
The ancient and the modern
View with the chapter house south wall on the right, looking over what remains of the dormitory towards one of Reading's newest buildings, the Blade
Philippa Langley telephoned John Mullaney in late 2013 about Reading’s royal abbey. Earlier that year, during an extensive speaking tour for her 2012 Looking For Richard Project, she had been approached by some local historians to instigate a similar research project in Reading with the aim of telling the town’s unique historical story of Henry I and his Abbey. By the autumn of 2013 and early 2014, meetings in Reading had achieved some success in raising interest in the project. However it was becoming clear that local knowledge was going to be key in order for this exciting new research initiative to have any hope of getting underway.
In April 2014 John and Lindsay Mullaney met Philippa informally at St James' church, sited within the ancient Abbey precinct, and introduced her to Canon John O’Shea, the parish priest. In subsequent meetings John and Lindsay showed Philippa around the Abbey Quarter, taking her to areas not always accessible to the public. They discussed whether to go ahead with historical investigations about the Abbey as the burial place of Henry I. John had been researching and writing about the church of St James, and about the ancient Abbey and its Benedictine connections, for over 35 years. This dated back to his time as a history teacher in Reading and his MA research into local Catholic education.
Philippa got in touch with Historic England who sent their regional director to talk to this small group and to look around the whole site. Philippa, John and Lindsay, were gratified to receive his support, though it was made clear the actual task of revealing the Abbey and bringing it to life, with this exciting new research initiative, would not be an easy or straightforward task.
In April 2014 Canon John O’ Shea of St James’ Parish hosted a meeting convened by John Mullaney, Lindsay Mullaney and Philippa Langley. The discovery of Richard III had created much excitement and anticipation at the possibility of discovering the resting place of Henry I in the Abbey grounds. With the Richard III project drawing to its conclusion, and with the preparations for the reburial of the king, it was decided to look into the possibility of getting this new research venture in Reading underway.
Unlike the mystery of Richard, it was well documented that Henry had been buried in 1136, at Reading Abbey, in front of the High Altar. As Philippa said, here was a different story to be told about Reading, the story of one of the greatest monasteries in England which had all but vanished in the years following the Reformation. Indeed all that remain standing are a few crumbling flint cores belonging to its once magnificent transepts, its chapter house, dormitory and refectory.
The meetings continued apace at St James’s and more interested parties joined the group, including Darlow Smithson Productions and Channel 4 whom Philippa had interested in the project in 2013 (and who had joined her at some of the earliest meetings in Reading). On the 21st September 2014 Philippa produced an initial outline research report and gave the project its name, The Hidden Abbey Project (HAP), securing the necessary copyright and domains. John and Lindsay agreed with the project’s name as this would encompass many aspects of Henry's abbey, not just his burial place.
This would be a different kind of a search for a king. It would be a project to reveal what this great, but rather obscure, monarch had done not just for Reading but for England. If, in the course of these investigations, Henry’s resting place was discovered, then this would be a moment of great significance.
The first problem was that the ancient Abbey land was now in the possession of three main landowners: Reading Borough Council, the Ministry of Justice and the Catholic Diocese of Portsmouth. Each of these would need to be involved.
View of the Abbey church site as it is today.St James' church to the left lies just north of the North Transept of the Abbey church. The school, to the right, is over its choir and the crossing, where Henry I was buried in front of the high altar.
The nave would have stretched westwards beyond where you can see the tree. Reading gaol lies behind the school, its central tower just visible
THE GROUP EXPANDS
The impact of this venture was not lost on the media and on the public. Very soon we were overwhelmed with media reports and even controversy. We needed someone who knew their way round the bureaucracy of local government. Fortunately Lindsay’s brother Richard Stainthorp had been a Reading Borough Councillor for many years. He had also served as Mayor during the restoration of the Forbury Gardens, where much of the Abbey church nave had once stood. He agreed to contact his former colleagues in the Council.
So in May 2014 John and Lindsay convened a meeting at St James’ where the interested bodies were invited to hear their proposals. As might be expected there was some initial scepticism about both the aims and the feasibility of the project. Were we just looking for sensational headlines - Another king found under a car park?
At this point John met Sarah Hacker at a function totally unconnected with the Abbey. In the course of the conversation Sarah said she was to be Mayor the following year, 2015. She was clearly not only keen but knowledgeable about the history of the town and was looking for cultural projects to be associated with her mayoral year. Sarah duly became Mayor and is now Lead Councillor for Culture, Sport and Consumer Services. Her support, advice and help have been invaluable.
The wheels of bureaucracy turn slowly but grind exceedingly fine, if I may be allowed a slight misquote. There was many a meeting at St James’ over a year or so until the Council, again thanks to Sarah, agreed we should move to the Council’s offices where Philippa would give a presentation to explain the aims of the Hidden Abbey Project to other potentially interested parties. Councillor Tony Page, as Deputy Leader of the Council, had joined the group at this early stage and brought his wealth of experience in navigating his way through local, and indeed national, government bureaucracy. His dealings with the Ministry of Justice were to prove essential to moving the project forward.
HAP had moved into a different gear. We had to manage the legal niceties of dealing with three large institutions. If we were to have any type of archaeological research we needed all sorts of permissions. Reading Borough Council very kindly not only offered their legal services but also their expertise and a Council representative joined the group. Added to this was the continuing interest of the TV production company and broadcaster in our research. Thanks to Philippa's expertise and connections the Project had become an item of national interest.
Almost at the same time we heard that Reading’s bid for Lottery Funding to conserve the rapidly disintegrating ruins had been successful. This meant that major works would be taking place in the area of the ruins. Consequently the HAP group decided to focus on the church area of the ancient Abbey. This covered the Forbury Gardens, St James, and the now redundant prison car park.
THE GPR SURVEY
A leading ground penetrating radar (GPR) company, Stratascan in Worcester, was engaged to undertake a GPR survey, with yet more legal permissions from the landowners and Historic England to be negotiated.
The scan is now complete. Certain features were revealed which suggest further investigation to reveal the Hidden Abbey would be required. John, as the project’s historical specialist in place from its earliest days would advise. Based on over 50 years of looking at ecclesiastical architectural studies, he has suggested some exciting possible interpretations of these ‘features’, but only archaeology can supply the answer to their mysteries and to bring the abbey back to life in all its original magnificence.
GPR scan. The parts in dark blue are confirmed features belonging to the Abbey, those in light blue are probable feature
So this is where we are at. The launch of the Hidden Abbey Stones Project (HASP) is a logical step forward. You can read more about this under the HASP heading. But it should be noted that we are fortunate to have one of the country’s leading historical petrologists, Dr Kevin Hayward, acting as the project’s consultant scientist.
Different aspects of HASP and of the history of the Abbey will appear on this website under their relevant headings.
For instance you can read more about Philippa’s journey in Reading with the Hidden Abbey Project here. link to:
Canon John O'Shea