Reading Abbey: a Cluniac and Benedictine monastery and Civil War earthwork.


Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:
Date of most recent amendment:


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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Reading (Unitary Authority)
National Grid Reference:
SU 71714 73609, SU 71819 73420, SU 71891 73445, SU 71955 73591

Reasons for Designation

From the time of St Augustine's mission to re-establish Christianity in AD 597 to the reign of Henry VIII, monasticism formed an important facet of both religious and secular life in the British Isles. Settlements of religious communities, including monasteries, were built to house communities of monks, canons (priests), and sometimes lay-brothers, living a common life of religious observance under some form of systematic discipline. It is estimated from documentary evidence that over 700 monasteries were founded in England. These ranged in size from major communities with several hundred members to tiny establishments with a handful of brethren. They belonged to a wide variety of different religious orders, each with its own philosophy. As a result, they vary considerably in the detail of their appearance and layout, although all possess the basic elements of church, domestic accommodation for the community, and work buildings. Monasteries were inextricably woven into the fabric of medieval society, acting not only as centres of worship, learning and charity, but also, because of the vast landholdings of some orders, as centres of immense wealth and political influence. They were established in all parts of England, some in towns and others in the remotest of areas. Many monasteries acted as the foci of wide networks including parish churches, almshouses, hospitals, farming estates and tenant villages. Benedictine monasticism had its roots in the rule written about AD 530 by St Benedict of Nursia for his own abbey at Monte Cassino. Benedict had not intended to establish an order of monasteries and wider adoption of his rule came only gradually. The first real attempt to form a Benedictine order came only in 1216. The Benedictine monks, who wore dark robes, came to be known as `black monks'. These dark robes distinguished them from Cistercian monks who became known as `white monks' on account of their light coloured robes. Over 150 Benedictine monasteries were founded in England. As members of a highly successful order many Benedictine houses became extremely wealthy and influential. Their wealth can frequently be seen in the scale and flamboyance of their buildings. Benedictine monasteries made a major contribution to many facets of medieval life and all examples exhibiting significant surviving archaeological remains are worthy of protection.

Reading Abbey is an excellent example of a medieval monastic complex, one of few such sites in Berkshire. The ruined abbey buildings survive well, standing almost to their original height. The complete Abbey site is well documented, both historically and archaeologically, and there is still considerable potential for the survival of archaeological material within its confines.


The monument, which consists of four separate areas, includes the known surviving remains of Reading Abbey, the surviving parts of the associated mill and hospitium and the site of a building believed to be the abbey stables. The abbey was established in 1121 by Henry I as a cell of the Cluniac order, the parent abbey being at Cluny in Burgundy; by the mid 13th century it had transferred obedience to the Benedictine order. Through the 13th and early 14th centuries the foundation flourished and by the mid 14th century, it had become one of the ten richest abbeys in the country. In the 16th century the Abbey fell victim to the purges of the Dissolution and was forcibly taken by the Crown in 1539. The monks were evicted and the last Abbot, Hugh Farrington, hanged at the Abbey Gate. The Abbey buildings passed into the hands of Lord Somerset, protector to Edward VI, who demolished most of the church and much of the abbey buildings. Thus today the Abbey survives largely as a ruin. Walls stand almost to their original height but have been robbed of all facing stone so that only the core survives. The ruins, which are listed at Grade I, consist of the south transept and chapter house, separated by a once roofed passage over which the treasury was located. Further south, towards the River Kennet, stands the west wall of the parlour and warming room with the dormitory above. Adjacent to the river lay the necessarium or toilet block. The cloisters were to the west of the chapter house and were flanked along the southern side by the refectory, the south wall of which still stands to a height in excess of 2.5m. The site of the gateway to the inner precinct survives to the west of Abbot's Walk, though its present form is the result of rather heavy restoration by Gilbert Scott in 1860, following a collapse of the structure. The gateway is listed as a Grade I building. To the east the Abbey grounds extended to Forbury Road, and to the south-east to the bank of the River Kennet. Excavations in this area in 1970, within the confines of Reading Prison, located an Apsidal chapel, demonstrating the potential for survival of archaeological evidence in this area of the site. At the western extremity of the abbey complex, in what is today the churchyard of St Lawrence's church, a hospitium was located. Founded in 1189-93 by Abbot Hugh II, it was dedicated to John the Baptist and consisted of a residence for 26 poor, a refectory and an accommodation block for visitors. A portion of this, rebuilt in the 15th century, survives incorporated into the fabric of a modern municipal building north of the graveyard. To the south of the main abbey complex and spanning Holy Brook, is a single 13th century arch, all that remains of the abbey mill. The mill wheel is thought to have been positioned to the east of this arch. Additional lesser medieval buildings, possibly associated with the abbey complex, have been recorded in this vicinity. These include the remains of a bakehouse to the north of the mill, discovered in 1860, and a building to the west, located by excavations in advance of development in 1976. A substantial mound, now incorporated into Forbury Gardens as a 19th century landscape feature, is thought to be a reworked Civil War earthwork. This in turn may have been constructed using the remains of a motte which is recorded as having been built in the abbey precinct in 1150 and destroyed in 1152. All modern buildings, structures, and roads are excluded from the scheduling although the ground beneath them is included.

MAP EXTRACT The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract.


The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

Legacy System number:
Legacy System:



On site descriptive text, Reading Abbey,
SMR record no. 1022.0, Reading Abbey,
SMR Record no. 1022.12, 1022.13,
Title: Ordnance Survey 1:2500 SU7173 Source Date: Author: Publisher: Surveyor:


This monument is scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 as amended as it appears to the Secretary of State to be of national importance. This entry is a copy, the original is held by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

End of official listing

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