Archaeologists are about to discover where Henry I was buried at Reading's huge medieval abbey

By Ben Miller | 13 June 2016

The spot where Henry I was buried is almost certain to be revealed as archaeologists begin to scan his former powerhouse at Reading Abbey

A photo of the enormous Reading Abbey
Reading Abbey, where Henry I and his Queen are buried, is about to be revealed© Reading Museum / Reading Borough Council
Reading Abbey, Henry I’s magnificent estate where he was buried in 1136, is at the centre of a major archaeological investigation beginning as part of a £3.1 million heritage plan this week.

Founded by the king in 1121, Reading was one of the wealthiest monasteries in medieval England. Ground-penetrating radar will locate the boundaries of the abbey church in its current modern setting at the heart of the town, pinpointing the High Altar where Henry was buried, the Ambulatory and the Lady Chapel. His second wife, Adeliza, was also buried there.

“Henry had intended it to be his memorial and his burial place. As such, he endowed it with land and power,” says Jillian Greenaway, the Collection Care Curator at Reading Museum, whose partners on the project range from the borough council and the Diocese of Portsmouth to the Ministry of Justice and theatrical interpreters.

A photo of the enormous Reading Abbey
How the wharf once looked© Reading Museum / Reading Borough Council
“The abbot could strike his own coins and had the right to hold fairs – he was Lord of Reading. What we can see today is that Henry spared no expense in building this abbey.”

The stones around the abbey tell stories. Some of the best material arrived from Cannes, and the capitals around the building are all carved from one huge block of stone.

“The most damaged capital in the collection is actually of huge importance to anyone studying the Virgin Mary,” says Greenaway.

“This is a capital showing the coronation of the virgin and is the earliest surviving example.

“The last abbot was executed for treason because he refused to accept that the king was head of the church in England.

“This was a time when the church, under Henry VIII, split from the church in Rome. That is why Reading Abbey was dissolved.

“Many of the buildings after the dissolution stood for a while. But under the reign of his son, Edward, the demolition of the church and the cloisters began.

“Cartloads of stone were sold to the people who were repairing St Mary’s Church. Cartloads of the really decorative stone, which formed the capital in the cloisters, were taken up and down river to all sorts of other places.

“We’ve been gathering up, if you like, as many of the highly carved pieces of stonework as we can. Some of these have come to us from as far afield as Avebury.”

A photo of the enormous Reading Abbey
How the wharf once looked© Reading Museum / Reading Borough Council
Greenaway says the front of the church would have “absolutely dominated” the area, with a memorial to its founder standing close to the north-west corner of the site. Oscar Wilde was incarcerated in the nearby prison in 1895 for homosexual offences, writing the Ballad of Reading Gaol while in exile after his release, and a World War Two air-raid shelter was rediscovered during a garden restoration at the abbey.

“Remarkably, this will be the first time the Abbey Ruins have undergone a comprehensive and recorded archaeological survey for over 150 years,” says Councillor Sarah Hacker, a leader of the project’s steering group.

“We hope to show the lavish scale of what, in the Middle Age,s was one of the major Benedictine Abbeys in western Europe, and a regular place for royal visits and events.”

Henry I

  • The youngest son of William the Conqueror founded Reading Abbey in 1121, intending it to be his burial place. He died in Normandy in December 1135 and was brought back for burial in January 1136.

  • His body was embalmed and sewn into a bull’s hide for the journey to Reading. Stormy weather in the Channel delayed the crossing to England by four weeks. His body was eventually brought up the River Kennet to the Abbey’s wharf.

  • Henry was buried in front of the High Altar - the most prestigious location for a burial. The tomb did not survive the destruction of the Abbey after the Dissolution in 1539.

  • Archaeological investigations during the 19th century revealed a piece of carved stone, re-used in the Abbey’s precinct wall. This may be part of a 12th century sarcophagus. It is just possible, though it can never be proved, that this might originally have formed part of Henry’s tomb.

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Three abbeys to enjoy

Muchelney Abbey, Somerset
Beside the clearly laid out foundations of the wealthy medieval Benedictine abbey (and its Anglo-Saxon predecessor) stands a complete early Tudor house in miniature. Originally the abbots' lodgings, this charming building includes a magnificent great chamber with ornate fireplace, carved settle and stained glass two rooms with time-faded walls painted to resemble cloth hangings and a pair of kitchens with fine timber roof.

Torre Abbey Historic House and Gardens, Torquay

Founded in 1196, Torre Abbey tells the story of over 800 years of history, from life in a rich medieval Premonstratensian monastery, through its dissolution by Henry VIII, the Spanish Armada, the Napoleonic Wars, and Georgian family life in a grand house – to its present incarnation as an Accredited museum, art gallery and Ancient Scheduled Monument.

Dorchester Abbey

A unique building,in an area of spiritual significance for 6,000 years, offering visitors an inspiring and educational opportunity that is welcoming, engaging and inclusive. Built by Augustinian Canons (1140-1340) on the site of a Saxon Cathedral, the Abbey is acclaimed for its outstanding architecture.
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