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                                   This section looks at the art, architecture and music of Reading Abbey,                                                                                           which could be summed up in its spirituality.                                                            Follow the links to various papers and commentaries which examine different aspects of these topics.   


             THE STONE OR CAPITAL of the CORONATION OF THE VIRGIN                                                            in READING MUSEUM:   

                               This piece of sculpture must rank as one of the most important pieces of                                                                                              sculptured iconography in England.                                                                                                                                                                    

For a fuller account follow this link:                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            Original report about finding the Stone in the London Illustrated News of 1949                                      by George Zarnecki:                          





                                           PILGRIMAGE AND THE ABBEY:                                       


Pilgrimage was one of the main characteristics of the period we know as the Middle Ages. It changed in character over the half millennium between the 11th century and the 16th century Protestant  Reformation. Yet, as popular songs, poetry, the church liturgy and numerous church documents testify, it permeated the lives of people at every strata of society.


The Abbey today is still a centre of pilgrimage. In many ways its newly rediscovered role as a place of culture and recreation is a modern pilgrimage.  But does it also retain some of its religious significance for those who feel  a spiritual connection with its medieval past?


The following is an account of how  pilgrimage was viewed at different times whilst Reading Abbey flourished as a monastery. It then goes on to examine different attitudes to the Abbey in the centuries following the Reformation and concludes by looking at the Abbey as a special place - a holy space - in the minds of the many  Christians today.



follow the link below




There are two facts that constantly appear in any discussion about medieval Reading.

One is that Henry I was buried in the Abbey.

The second is that its most famous relic was the Hand of St James.


This section gives information about how the Hand came to be at Reading, it looks at the late 12th/early 13th century  accounts of the miracles associated with the Hand and its role as a focal point for pilgrimage. 


The next link takes you to an account of archives and other sources, with comments, compiled by Lindsay Mullaney, of the main records and research about the Hand, its origins, how it came to be discovered in the Abbey ruins and how it is now in the possession of St Peter's Church , Marlow.



If anyone knows anything about Reading Abbey and its music then it is that the famous Canon, Sumer is Icumen In, was probably composed here. After this it gets a bit blurred. Was it the first piece of polyphonic music written in English? Is the first known round or rota? Was it written for four or six parts? And so the questions and various explanations go on.

Important though this piece of music is Reading could boast a rich heritage of music. Let's look at some of the music that would have been sung at Reading, including the Canon.

To begin our story we lust look back to the origins of Reading Abbey.  

Reading was founded as a Cluniac house. This put it at the very centre of the revolution in culture and the arts that was sweeping Europe in the 11th and 12th centuries and this included the development of musical theory and practice. 

One challenge was how to develop a way to standardise musical transcription. This was essential as it was expected that a Cluniac monk from, for example, the south of France could be sent to any other daughter monastery as far afield as England or Germany, and be able to fit into the regime of his new home. This would entail being able to join in singing the liturgy. It was essential, therefore, to have a universally recognisable system of musical notation. The development of this was crucial to the evolution of modern western music.   


We shall see some of the works that would most probably have been performed at Reading. For a fuller account follow the link at the end of this section, this will give you further links on the internet where you can also hear these pieces being performed.

Before looking at these it is essential to understand just how important music was in the life of Reading Abbey. 

As a Benedictine monastery, following the Cluniac rule of life, a Reading monk’s main occupation was the Opus Dei, the Work of God. This consisted of attending Mass, usually in the early morning, followed by a more solemn Mass around mid-day, and singing or chanting the Divine Office at set times during the day. The Office was divided into eight ‘hours’ starting with Matins (early morning) through the First to the Ninth hours (Prime to None) with Vespers as an evening prayer and Compline at the end of the day. The exact timings depended on the season of the year.

The Liturgy of St James from the Codex Calixtinus

The first music I have selected is the oldest that would have been sung by the monks and  is taken form the Codex Calixtinus


This was supposedly written by Pope Callixtus II, but most probably by Ayemeric Picaud, in the middle of the 12th century, is an anthology of hymns, sermons and travel advice for pilgrims making their way across Europe to the shrine of St James in Compostela. Most important to us today is that it contains both the Office and the Mass of St James, in other words the Liturgy of St James. This would have been performed at Reading, especially on July 25th, his Feast Day, once the relic of the hand of St James came to Reading.

The Douai Cantatorium  -  Cantor’s Handbook or Gradual Book







                                                   The Douai Cantatorium                                                                                                                           ©Douai Abbey


At Reading we know that by the late 12th century the monks were using a system of notation based on what is referred to as ‘heightened neumes’. Douai Abbey, west of Reading, has a book, a Cantatorium, which uses this technique. It dates to c. 1200. The reader needs to have an idea of the tune; the notes only give a relative idea of breath and pitch, but are sufficient to act as an aide-memoir to one versed in the techniques required.

What is certain is that this document shows us not just what was being sung but the actual tunes used. ( For more about this follow the link at the foot of this section)

The Paris School of Perotin and Leonin


The 12th century saw significant advances both in the methodology of transcribing music and in the theory and practise of polyphony.  Two of the greatest and best-known proponents of this style are Leonin and Perotin. Their works have been preserved in the Magnus Liber and consist of polyphonic settings of the liturgy. Both composers were well known throughout western Europe and their music was doubtless used at Reading. However, these are but two of the best known names; it would be surprising if the monks at Reading did not also create their own musical settings using similar notation and musical techniques. 



Sumer is Icumen In

We began this section mentioning Sumer is Icumen In.  Let us take a more detailed look at this famous piece of music and why it is so important.

But first of all it should be noted that since this was most probably written at the Abbey, then it would also have been sung at Reading.

The British Library entry says:

Sumer Is Icumen In is a composition for several voices that was probably written at Reading Abbey in the mid-13th century. This song, written in Middle English, was composed to be sung in the round, with four voices singing the same melody one after the other, accompanied by two lower voices. The manuscript is the oldest known musical round with English words… The manuscript is also the earliest known example of a piece of music in which both secular and sacred words are written down together to the same piece of music...”

Marian Music

According to the Foundation Charter Reading Abbey was built in honour of the Ever Virgin Mary, Mother of God, and of St. John. Although its most famous relic was of the Hand of St James, it is necessary not to lose sight of the Abbey’s main dedication. 

The cult of devotion to the Virgin Mary grew ever increasingly popular though the middle ages. Shrines and chapels were built in her honour and, as at Reading in 1314, magnificent Lady Chapels  were added to existing Abbey and Cathedral churches. In Section 1 we saw the importance of the Coronation Stone. 

The Little Office of Our Lady 

Officium Parvum Beatae Mariae Virginis

The growing devotion to 'Our Lady' brought with it new forms of music, most notably the Little Offices. These were much shorter versions of the Divine Office and were said or sung by laypeople. In many cases societies of guilds were formed where the members would gather to pray together, often in churches, and sing the Little Office. 

The Salve Regina

One of the main Marian hymns, which dates back at least to the 11th century, is the Salve Regina. There are many settings of this but two predominate. The most solemn is ascribed to Herman of Reichenau, though this is often disputed. It was set down in its current form at the Abbey of Cluny in the 12th century, where it was used as a processional hymn on Marian feasts. Whoever wrote the tune, there is no doubting that it would have been sung at Reading.

The Regina Caeli

Another Marian hymn that was sung at Reading Abbey, throughout its time as a monastery, is the Regina Caeli (Queen of heaven). It is mainly associated with Eastertide and needs to be understood in the context of the doctrines both of the Dormition of Mary and of her Assumption, along with the teaching of her Coronation as Queen of Heaven by Jesus. It is useful to remember the connection with the Coronation of the Virgin teaching and the capital in Reading Museum as 

seen in Scetion 1.


These are but a few of the prayers and other pieces of music that would have been heard in Reading Abbey over its 400 years.

To read more and to listen to the music follow the link below and most of explore the internet to listen to the music that would have filled the magnificent building that was once Reading Abbey.

For a fuller version of the above with links to websites playing some of the pieces mentioned, go to the following:



The conservation of Reading Abbey Ruins, leading to their reopening in the summer of 2018, triggered a great deal of interest in the architecture of the Abbey, including a project to assess its size and nature. 

Several aspects of the Abbey were put into high relief by this renewed interest and the preliminary investigations. One of these was the nature of the Abbey’s tower or towers. Since the building of the Blade in Reading, alongside the site of the great Abbey church, comparisons have been made between the heights of the two structures. 

So do we know how tall the tower might have been, or indeed what it may have looked like?

The following link will take you to a discussion about this.



In 1537 we read reports that stone was taken from Reading to Windsor for the building of lodgings for the 'Poor Knights'. In 2018 a small team from Reading visited the castle to see the evidence for themselves. The following link gives an account of the visit and what we discovered. 



                                                                                                      THE TOMB OF HENRY I

Where was Henry I buried? 


This is probably the question I get asked most often. In this piece I look at some of the latest evidence, both archaeological and documentary. I hope you find it interesting.

8 Analysis of the mortar in the North Transept

In 2019 the ruins of the North Transept were treated in the same way as the main body of the ruins in order to conserve what was left. Before work was started samples of the mortar were taken. There had been a suggestion that some of the  flint work had been 'rebuilt', perhaps even as late as the early 20th century. The following gives the results of this investigation.

The Nave and West End

The Apse and East End 

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