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Making History
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Listen to this editionTuesday 3.00-3.30 p.m
Sue Cook presents the series that examines listeners' historical queries, exploring avenues of research and uncovering mysteries.
Reading Castle - was there one?

Listener's query
"Here in Reading in Berkshire we have a Castle Street and Castle Hill but there's no indication of a castle. Reading had a very important abbey in the past, but did it have a castle, and if so where?"

Brief summary
There is little convincing archaeological evidence, but through accounts in chronicles it is clear that Reading did have a castle in the grounds of the abbey. There is a mound in the Forbury Gardens area of the town but it has not been excavated. Castle Street and Castle Hill are on the other side of town and may refer to a different set of probably wooden fortifications. The mound may have been a motte but it is unusual to have a castle in the grounds of an abbey, especially since there was a Papal dictat which forbade such building.

Reading Abbey was one of the biggest in the country. Henry I (reigned 1100-35) ordered it to be built in 1121 - he wanted to be buried there and, indeed, was. For the monarchy, things did not turn out as Henry had planned. He wanted his daughter Matilda to succeed him but, when he died, Matilda was living abroad. She was also pregnant. She moved too slowly to claim the throne and her cousin Stephen took it instead. Eventually Matilda invaded from Normandy and so began a long Civil War. It was at this time that the castle, probably wooden, was built in the grounds of Reading Abbey. After three years of fighting, Matilda won at the Battle of Lincoln (1141) where King Stephen was captured.

Matilda, though, was never crowned. She was chased out of London and fought a losing rearguard action from Oxford. Reading was therefore in the midst of all this. In the end Matilda returned to Normandy and her son eventually became King as Henry II.

The castle in the abbey grounds was destroyed in 1153, possibly by order of Henry II. The Tudor historian John Leland came to Reading in the 1540s, found Castle Street and searched for a castle. There was no sign of it and so the question of where it was exactly and whether there are any remains of the castle has been a 500-year-old mystery.

In the public Forbury Gardens are the ruins of the Benedictine abbey (it was first Cluniac and then Benedictine). Once ranked as the third richest in all England, it was dissolved by Henry VIII and turned into a palace, but was destroyed during the English Civil Wars. A tablet in the chapter house says that the famous medieval round 'Sumer is icumen in' was written by a monk at Reading Abbey in about 1240. There is a memorial stone to mark the grave of Henry I.

Further reading
Cecil Slade, The Town of Reading and Its Abbey (MRM Associates, 2001)
Leslie Cram, Reading Abbey (Reading Museum & Art Gallery, 1989)
Jim Bradbury, Stephen and Matilda: The Civil War of 1139-53 (Sutton Publishing, 1998)
Stephen M. Taylor, The Anarchy of Stephen and Matilda (1st Books Library, 1996)


Reading Abbey official website

Berkshire History: Reading Abbey

Reading Abbey

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Making History

Vanessa Collingridge
Vanessa CollingridgeVanessa has presented science and current affairs programmes for BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and Discovery and has presented for BBC Radio 4 & Five Live and a regular contributor to the Daily Telegraph and the Mail on Sunday, Scotsman and Sunday Herald. 

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Making History is a Pier Production for BBC Radio 4 and is produced by Nick Patrick.

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