As its name suggests, the Hidden Abbey Project is a research initiative to uncover the hidden story of Reading Abbey. The project began with a Ground Penetrating Radar survey of the Abbey Church site (completed in June 2016), to be followed by archaeological investigation. If the location of the burial place of Henry I is located during this time the aim is to place a memorial above ground so that Henry is no longer England’s forgotten king. A nineteenth century tradition from an archaeological paper records how the king’s grave was desecrated in 1550 during the reign of Edward VI (1537-1553) and latter stages of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. At this time, the Norman king’s burial was apparently looted for its purported silver lined coffin. Whether this event took place is, of course, unknown. As a result, it forms one of the project’s many research questions. If the king’s grave is discovered to have been desecrated and his remains scattered it is hoped Henry may be afforded an honourable reburial in nearby St James’s Church. It is also hoped that any other remains discovered in a similar manner might receive the same.
Update 30 April 2020 – Matt Rodda MP Writes to Prisons Minister
Matt Rodda MP has written to Prisons Minster Lucy Frazer MP to reconsider the departments recent decision to award Reading Gaol to a commercial developer. The prospect of this internationally famous and historically important building, where Oscar Wilde was imprisoned and wrote his Ballad, becoming a hotel or flats is raising grave concerns. Matt says: The campaign to save Reading Gaol ‘has also been supported by the Oscar Wilde Society, the actor Stephen Fry and a wide range of arts, heritage and community groups, including a number of LGBT community organisations. The Irish Government has also expressed an interest in preserving the gaol, as an important cultural and literary site because of Oscar Wilde and the links to Ireland.’ Matt has also raised the importance of the current economic situation, adding: ‘The current preferred bidder could face significant difficulties paying for the site and financing the proposed development, which could leave the Department unable to sell the site, or struggling to complete the sale. Even if a bidder bought the site, any development could be difficult to finance and build.’ Matt says: ‘Given the unique nature of the site and the significant level of support together with the unprecedented economic situation caused by the pandemic, I hope you will agree that there is a strong case for a review of the Department’s earlier decision... and for the historic building and the site as a whole to be preserved for the community.’ We can only hope that urgent consideration will be given to Matt’s important letter.
Update 9 April 2020 – MP Urges Government to Think Again
In a message from Matt Rodda MP, it is confirmed that the Ministry of Justice has chosen a commercial developer as its preferred bidder to negotiate with as it sells Reading’s famous gaol and landmark. Matt is concerned about this development and is urging the Government to think again, asking Ministers to reconsider the option of arts and heritage use and to look again at the Council’s bid. Deeply disappointed with the Government’s approach, Matt is calling on Ministers to work with the Council and to respect the enormous historical importance of the gaol, including the link to Oscar Wilde and the remains of Reading Abbey, part of which are under the prison site. We can only hope that Matt is successful so that Reading can tell its remarkable story with its twelfth century Abbey and its founder, King Henry I of England.
Update 7 April 2020 – Council Bid for Reading Gaol Rejected
Reading Borough Council has expressed its disappointment that its bid to purchase Reading Prison has been rejected by the Ministry of Justice. The Council has vowed to work with the successful bidder to ensure its huge historical and cultural value is recognised in any future development. Local Planning policies mean it is essential that any proposed future development of the site has provision of a cultural or historical element which draws on the significance of the Reading Prison site. Importantly, for the Hidden Abbey Project, the Council has also confirmed that it is highly likely that further archaeological assessments and investigations will be needed to inform any future development through its Planning parameters.
Update 15 March 2020 – Stephen Fry Joins Call to Save Famous Landmark
Actor Stephen Fry and novelist Julian Barnes have become the latest supporters of the campaign to turn Reading Gaol into an arts and heritage site, amid fears the famous landmark could be converted into a block of flats.
Update November 2019 – Council To Bid For Famous Gaol
At a meeting of Reading Borough Council’s Policy Committee on 19 November it was announced that the Council will place a bid for its famous landmark, Reading Gaol, to save it for the town and community. The aim is for the historic Grade II Listed building in the Abbey Quarter to become a theatre, arts hub and cultural centre.
Update November 2019 – MOLA Archaeological Report
Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) has published its archaeological report for the East End and Lady Chapel of Reading Abbey on the site of Reading Gaol. The East End of the abbey church is located in the gaol’s western car park and is the likely location of Henry I’s burial. The report recommends extensive archaeological investigation prior to any development of the site. The report is not yet publicly available.
Update October 2019 – Public Support For Campaign
Reading came out in support of MP Matt Rhoda’s campaign to save the town’s famous landmark. Residents gave a hug in support of plans for the gaol to house a new theatre and arts centre. Campaigners have called on the Ministry of Justice to stop the empty prison site from being sold to the highest bidder for housing.
Update October 2019 – Reading Gaol For Sale
The Ministry of Justice has put Reading Gaol up for sale. As the gaol’s western car park contains the important East End of the abbey church (and likely location of Henry I’s burial place) the sale is a significant move for the future of the Hidden Abbey Project and its proposed archaeological investigation to uncover the lost abbey church. Archaeological investigations on the heritage site would require the landowner’s permission.
Update August 2019 – British Archaeology Magazine
The July/August issue of British Archaeology magazine published an important article that raised the issue of the refusal of the Ministry of Justice to publish the recent MOLA investigations, and with calls for a properly resourced public research project to be implemented. It is hoped this might fund the research of the Hidden Abbey Project.
Sadly a second article by Mike Pitts makes a number of inaccurate assertions about the Hidden Abbey Project.1 The project has received £10k of funding for the archaeological phase of its investigations (with the car park archaeology likely costing c. £55k); the research project is not being done for personal profit or gain; and no archaeologists have signed, or been asked to sign, confidentiality contracts.
1. In 2015 a 24 page document was sent to Mr Pitts detailing the inaccuracies, omissions and misinformation in his writings about the search for Richard III. Sadly at this time he also changed published quotes and failed to check his facts with any members of the Looking For Richard Project team.
Update July 2019 – Petition Reaches 7000 Signatures
The petition by Matt Rodda MP to save Reading Gaol has received over 7000 signatures. You can sign Matt’s petition here.
Update May 2019 – Calls For Gaol To Be Saved
MP for Reading East, Matt Rodda, is leading the calls for Reading Gaol to be saved and turned into an arts hub and theatre to commemorate Oscar Wilde and other significant historic events. The Prison car park is believed to contain the burial place of King Henry I of England who founded the Abbey. The site has a number of important historical links including being the location where King Edward IV of England (1442-1483) announced his secret marriage to Elizabeth Woodville. The union was responsible for the demise of the Plantagenet and Yorkist dynasties. You can sign Matt’s petition to save Reading Gaol here.
Update June 2018 – Reading Abbey Ruins Re-Open
Following a £3.15 million conservation project, the ruins of Reading Abbey are open again to the public. The ruins were closed for nine years due to safety concerns. The painstaking conservation work took three years to complete. Congratulations to Reading Borough Council and Museum. The ruins are now open daily from 8am-6pm.
Update October 2016 – Archaeology at Reading Gaol
Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) have begun an archaeological investigation of Reading Gaol. A number of trenches will explore the archaeological potential of the Scheduled Ancient Monument site prior to its proposed sale by the Ministry of Justice. It is understood investigations will include the East End of the Abbey Church in the gaol’s western car park and likely location of the burial place of King Henry I.
Update October 2016 - GPR Results In
Results of the Ground Penetrating Radar Survey are now in. To get right up-to-date with this exciting new research initiative, you can read Philippa’s interview with the BBC History magazine here.
Update June 2016 - GPR Survey Begins
The first phase and Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) survey was given the green light by the Hidden Abbey Project Steering Group, and its Lead Partner, Reading Borough Council. Undertaking the survey was Stratascan who had led the investigations in Leicester in the summer of 2011.
The Hidden Abbey Project - Background:
In the autumn of 2013 as Philippa travelled the country to tell the story of her discovery of the grave of King Richard III in a council car park in Leicester, the interest in her nearly 8 year research project was overwhelming. The Looking For Richard Project had captured the public’s imagination and succeeded in bringing Richard III to the attention of a global audience. The project had also succeeded in removing many of the myths surrounding this monarch, not least the well-established story of his remains being thrown into the River Soar.
As Philippa's lecture tour took her through the Thames valley, many people from Reading approached her to see if she could help. Their town had a story to tell and an unfinished history. Residents of this often overlooked commercial hub wanted to tell its historical story.
I had first visited Reading in 2005 when a friend moved to nearby Oxfordshire and suggested a trip to the retail hub. With my expectations for a pretty ordinary shopping trip, my girlfriend knew exactly what she was doing. Knowing my passion for history we entered the town, and turned a corner. I saw the Abbey Quarter and its gardens for the first time. They took my breath away. As we walked the ancient ruins and delved into its past, visiting the gardens and the beautiful (Pugin) St James’s Church, we spent the day exploring its story. With all my preconceptions about Reading – the commercial hub - now firmly set aside I left with an overwhelming sense that it was an historic town that held a hidden gem in its abbey, and the story of a forgotten king in the abbey’s founder, Henry I.
Sadly, a few years later, the ruins of Reading Abbey were closed as the state of deterioration had made them unsafe for visitors. That, it seemed, was that but as Reading Borough Council now fought to secure a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund to restore and re-open the ruins, and with this persuasive request from the residents of Reading, I now needed to know; was its story really worth the telling?
Reading's story: The Abbey
Unlike Leicester where King Richard had been buried in a small friary church of little note, here Henry I had been laid to rest with all pomp and ceremony in the magnificent abbey he had founded as a palace and royal mausoleum.
Consecrated in 1164 by Thomas Beckett, the abbey quickly established itself as a leading place of Pilgrimage and a religious powerhouse, making Reading one of medieval England’s most important towns. Reputedly of a basilica style construction almost the size of (medieval) St Paul’s, the abbey would become one of the richest in England.
Research now suggested that beneath the ground lay the remnants of this Cluniac Norman Abbey and royal palace which, unlike other great abbeys and cathedrals, had not been significantly added to, with the only known addition being a Lady Chapel in 1314.
Could a research project bring this important, and potentially unique, Romanesque structure back to life, and what stories could it then tell us about its construction, architecture and royal founder, King Henry I of England who had been buried before its High Altar?
King Henry I of England (1068-1135):
And what of Henry himself, did he also have a story to tell? Henry I is our forgotten king, his thirty-five-year reign falling between that of his famous father, William the Bastard (Conqueror), and the period of unrivalled bloodletting known as The Anarchy in the time of his daughter, Matilda. Henry’s story, however, is yet to be told. A controversial monarch, his narrative has many similarities to that of Richard III, being a youngest son who rose to become king and who lost his queen, and son and heir in tragic circumstances, throwing the country into a succession crisis. However, despite having bastard sons a plenty, in an unprecedented move, Henry named his daughter Matilda his heir in apparent recognition of her status and equality. Known variously as Henry Beauclerc and the Lion of Justice, in these violent times Henry could be a harsh ruler but he also formalised our legal system, introduced the modern Royal Exchequer and supported the first-ever royal meritocracy in the rise of talented low-born individuals through his appointments of courtly administrators. At the age of sixty seven Henry died in France after reportedly eating a surfeit of lampreys and was the first monarch to be embalmed so that his body could be transported back to Reading for burial, sewn into a bull’s hide. Burial in his abbey at Reading had been the king’s wish. He was also the only King of England known to have killed someone when dead. Intrigued by his story? Yes, I was too.
It seemed the people were right; Reading did have a fascinating and unique story to tell. Leaving her autumn 2013 lecture tour, Philippa headed back to Reading to see for herself the closed ruins of the once great abbey.
In late November 2013 a fact-finding visit and meeting at Reading Museum augured well. By January 2014, the Director of Communications at Reading Borough Council supported the new project and agreed that following the success of Leicester’s story with King Richard, it was time for Reading to now tell its own royal story with King Henry and his magnificent abbey. Sadly, with the Head of Communications having left the council, the project stalled but undeterred another meeting was arranged for the end of April. New faces, same pitch, but the response was now muted and sceptical.
Any potential research project to bring Reading’s abbey and historical story to life would be insurmountable. Three key landowners would have to be convinced and agree access, and as a Scheduled Ancient Monument (SAM) site, Historic England (formerly English Heritage) would also have to recognise the project’s potential to secure the necessary permissions and any form of green light. Specialist advice locally suggested that there was not much point in going any further as these permissions were not likely to be forthcoming and there was nothing new to be discovered, no new stories to tell. However, it was now clear that Reading had an important story to tell and that the potential to learn more about this little-known royal abbey was a significant opportunity. Even if nothing new was found, that nothing would still move our knowledge forward and help confirm, at the very least, the most recent thinking. It wasn’t time to give up yet. The research looked good and we had a real possibility of bringing the abbey to life through the first modern comprehensive study and non-invasive analysis using Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR).
From such inauspicious beginnings, everything would soon change. One of the residents, who had originally approached Philippa in the autumn of 2013, now gave her the contact details of a respected local historian who had been researching the abbey for many years. Meeting John Mullaney and his researcher wife, Lindsay, they agreed that Reading had a unique story to tell and they too wanted to help make a research project happen. Taking Philippa to meet Father John O’Shea at St James’s Church, and the representative of a key landowner in the Diocese of Portsmouth, Philippa learnt about his interest in its history and wish to know as much as possible about the great abbey, on whose land his beautiful church now stood. This key landowner was now on board. Father John offered his Presbytery for meetings over the coming year to help raise the necessary local interest, with John and Lindsay becoming key to the project’s success. With John and Lyndsay as founder members, the local team began to grow. Darlow Smithson joined a number of meetings as Philippa made it clear that her involvement was to bring the story of Reading Abbey and its founder, King Henry, to light through the proposed documentary, and as promised.
The Hidden Abbey Project
By the late spring of 2014, Philippa officially named the project to clarify its aim, and the first of many tentative meetings for the Hidden Abbey Project (HAP) began. In a few short weeks, HAP found new champions in Councillor Tony Page, Deputy Leader of Reading Borough Council and councillor for the Abbey Ward, and Councillor Sarah Hacker, soon to be Reading’s new mayor who would take the project forward under her leadership and guidance. Reading Borough Council, another key landowner was on board as Philippa now made contact with the Ministry of Justice, owners of Reading Gaol and the last significant landowner, to introduce the project and open negotiations.
By the start of 2015 and having met with Simon Thurley, the CEO of English Heritage (now Historic England) he quickly recognised the project’s potential to raise awareness and regenerate an important SAM site. Simon put Philippa and John and Lindsay in touch with Dr Andrew Brown, Planning Director South East for Historic England in Guildford, the local office with jurisdiction for Reading and its abbey. Andy could also see the potential but was very clear that any research project would be a step-by-step process under their auspices and guidance. The first phase would be the GPR survey of the site of the abbey church building in order to inform and guide later targeted archaeology.
With the Hidden Abbey Project pitched to the award-winning Darlow Smithson Productions, funding for the first phase GPR was secured with the aim of making a documentary film about Reading’s royal abbey for Channel 4.
By the late autumn of 2015 as the Chancellor George Osborne announced the sale of Reading Gaol, the last key landowner, the Ministry of Justice, came on board and the project finally reached critical mass. Two years after the people of Reading had approached Philippa, and with the team in Reading now bringing in the local expertise to guide the research project forward, they would now make this story their own.
In November 2015, Reading Borough Council secured £1.77 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund to restore and reopen the ruins of Reading Abbey through their Reading Abbey Revealed Initiative.
The Hidden Abbey Project gets underway in June 2016, Reading’s Year of Culture, with Phase One, a Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) survey of the abbey church building. For more information, please visit Reading’s Hidden Abbey blogspot.
Philippa Langley is a writer / producer who led the 2012 search for Richard III through her original Looking For Richard Project. She has originated and facilitated the Hidden Abbey Project for the people and historic town of Reading so that they can now tell its remarkable story.