Next Steps Announced in Uncovering King Henry I’s Hidden Abbey

Henry Plaque
Henry Plaque in the Abbey Ruins

READING’s Hidden Abbey Project has announced the next stage in its ambitious endeavour to discover the full extent of the Royal Abbey below ground.

Following closely in the footsteps of the momentous reopening of the Abbey Ruins on 16th June 2018, the Hidden Abbey Project (HAP) is gearing up for the next stage in its bid to explore interesting anomalous features revealed during the first phase of the project.

The Hidden Abbey Project complements, but is separate from, the Council’s Reading Abbey Revealed Project to conserve the ruins above ground.

HAP has been set up to discover the full extent and significance of the Royal Abbey, founded by King Henry I in 1121, which was the final resting place of the King and his Queen Adeliza.

Abbey Ruins reopen on 16th June
Reading Abbey Ruins

A report going before the Council’s Housing, Neighbourhoods and Leisure Committee on Wednesday 4th July 2018, sets out its current status and outlines future plans to move the project forward.

In the report, the HAP Steering Group has announced proposals to explore key locations around the site of the Abbey church, including two areas of the south-eastern corner of the Forbury Gardens and at the Forbury Gardens Day Nursery front and rear playgrounds.

The group has shared their proposals with South-East team of Historic England (HE) as the works will be taking place within the Abbey precinct, a scheduled ancient monument.

The group has also initiated discussions with the University of Reading’s Archaeology Department to support the production of a research design and desk-based assessment, which would inform any future applications for Scheduled Monument Consent, essential for any archaeological works on such a sensitive site.

Cllr Tony Page, Reading’s Deputy Leader and Lead Member for Strategic Environment, Planning & Transport, and a member of the project steering group, said: “The first stage of the Hidden Abbey Project, involving ground penetrating radar scans, provided us with tantalising initial results, and opened up the possibility for future exploration. 

“Following on from the reopening of the Abbey Ruins and the revitalisation of the Abbey Quarter, this project has the potential to further build on this success and bring huge cultural, historical and economic benefits to the quarter and the town as a whole. As a group, we hope to keep the momentum going and to get to a position where we can further expand our understanding of this historic site.”

Cllr Sarah Hacker, Reading’s Lead Member for Culture, Heritage and Recreation, said: “With the Abbey Quarter now thriving and the much loved Abbey Ruins open to the public after nearly 10 years, now is an ideal time for us to take the next steps to move the Hidden Abbey Project forward.   This site is potentially one of the richest areas in Reading as a source for discovering not just the history of the town but also its relevance to the historical development of the Thames Valley.

“Our ambition is to now use targeted trench investigation. This would represent the first ever comprehensive study of Reading Abbey Church, offering a unique research opportunity of national, and potentially international, importance and may finally help answer many of our key questions that have long intrigued historians, archaeologists and researchers alike.”

The full report can be viewed here:



The Hidden Abbey Project involves Reading Borough Council, the RC Diocese of Portsmouth and the Ministry of Justice, as the principal public landowners in the Abbey Quarter site, together with the Friends of Reading Abbey, Darlow Smithson Productions and Philippa Langley of Little Marilyn Productions Ltd. The project is being taken forward by a Steering Group on which all of the above organisations are represented. Reading Borough Council is the commissioning body for works associated with the project, although it will not itself provide any funding directly.

The work may be filmed by Darlow Smithson Productions, with a view to producing a television documentary.

Phase 1

The first phase of the project took place in June 2016. It focused on the Abbey Church below ground, on land around St James Church, the Forbury Gardens and the Reading Gaol car park. The work involved using ground-penetrating radar (GPR) to locate the boundaries of the Abbey Church in its current modern setting.

The initial results of the archaeological project to reveal Reading Abbey uncovered some promising features for potential future exploration.

The site was surveyed to locate possible sites of archaeological interest for future investigation, including the Choir, where Henry was buried in front of the High Altar, and surrounding Ambulatory.

Initial results from the radar scan show a number of findings probably related to the Abbey’s construction, and possible graves, as well as identifying a number of other potential archaeological targets.

The graves are located at the east end of the Abbey in an area associated with the burial of King Henry I. The survey was unable to reveal any further information regarding the location of the High Altar and the location of King Henry 1 tomb. There is no evidence as to who was interred in these graves.

A number of the features have been identified in what is now the Reading prison car park. The Ministry of Justice, the principal land owner of this area, has carried out archaeological work in 2017 and early 2018 to investigate this area further, the results of which are yet to be publicly published.

The project is also supported by Philippa Langley MBE who led the search for Richard III and originated and facilitated the Hidden Abbey Project for the historic town and people of Reading.

Henry I

Henry I, 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. During C19th archaeological investigations a piece of carved stone was discovered, reused in the Abbey’s precinct wall. This may be part of a twelfth 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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Victoria Nickless

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