Royal Death and Burial: Reading Abbey in Context

by Prof. Lindy Grant

Pic 1

Paul Sandby, Abbey Gateway, painted in 1808, from Wikimedia Commons. The original is in Reading Museum.

It takes a real effort of the imagination to see the past glory of Reading Abbey, founded in 1121 by King Henry I of England as his intended burial house, in the battered remains surviving today. But Reading Abbey was one of the great monastic institutions of Europe in the middle ages, an intellectual and cultural powerhouse, with a magnificent church and richly decorated monastic buildings, a great library (King John kept his books there), and international connections.

Reading’s monks were drawn from the order of Cluny, linking the abbey into the wider Cluniac network, to which so many great churchmen belonged, among them several popes. Its most prized relic, given by the Empress Matilda, the daughter of the founder, was the hand of St James of Compostela, the Apostle to Spain, so that Reading joined an elite group of medieval religious institutions possessing remains of the Apostles of Christ.

Pic 2

Depiction of Henry I holding the church of Reading Abbey, from Matthew Paris, Historia Anglorum, British Library MS Cotton Claudius DVI, c. 1253. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

The close connections between the abbey and the English kings, first established by Henry I, continued into the later middle ages. Other members of the royal family were buried here; members of the family were married here. The kings and their family and entourage stayed often at the royal house adjacent to the abbey, and occasionally parliaments were held in the abbey itself.

On Saturday 6th April 2019, we held a conference to set the medieval abbey in its proper international context. This was a fruitful collaboration between the University of Reading on the one hand, and Reading Borough Council and Reading Museum on the other. It was held in the splendid surroundings of the Victoria Hall in the Town Hall, while a long lunch break gave participants the opportunity to have a look at the remains of the abbey itself, and the important fragments from it in Reading Museum. The day finished with a reception in the Bayeux Tapestry Gallery of the Museum.

We decided to concentrate in particular on one aspect of the abbey’s prestige – its role as a royal mausoleum. Dr Ron Baxter, author of the major monograph on Reading Abbey, launched the conference. He told us who was buried in the abbey, where, and what the tombs that commemorated them were like – at least in so far as we know. To set Reading in context, Professor Paul Binski discussed the burials, the commemorative arrangements, and the tombs of later members of the English royal line from Henry III at Westminster Abbey, while Professor Martin Aurell talked about the Abbey of Fontevraud, in the Loire Valley, which became the burial house of Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and Richard the Lionheart.

Pic 3

Tomb of Henry III at Westminster Abbey. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Moving beyond the English royal family themselves to their wider networks, Dr Xavier Dectot presented the fragmentary remains of the tombs of the Counts of Champagne – who were closely connected with the Anglo-Norman kings of England, for they were descended from Henry I’s sister, Adela of Blois. Indeed, King Stephen of England was the brother and uncle of successive counts of Champagne. Dr Rose Walker and Dr Jessica Barker told us about Iberian burial foundations which housed and commemorated two English princesses who had married into Iberian dynasties and became queens of, respectively, Castile and Portugal: Eleanor, daughter of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine at Las Huelgas, and Philippa, daughter of John of Gaunt and cousin of Richard II, at Batalha. My own presentation examined the burial practices and the tombs of the kings of France, the long-term rivals, but also cousins, of the kings of England. A set of family trees were provided, and it was Xavier Dectot who pointed out that one person appeared on the family trees of the kings of England, France and Castile, and the counts of Champagne – and that was Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Several themes and parallels emerged. How did one deal with and transport the remains of a king who died far from his intended place of burial, like Henry I and St Louis? Henry I was eviscerated and inefficiently embalmed after his death; St Louis was boiled. How did these regal families balance dynastic and familial imperatives? Was the mausoleum intended for members of the entire family (as at Reading, Westminster, Fontevraud, Las Huelgas, and Batalha), with children buried alongside kings and queens, or was there an intended focus on the ruler and lineage (as at Saint Denis and the mausoleum of the counts of Champagne at Troyes)? Whatever the intention of the founder, it is interesting to note that most of these were ephemeral and temporary mausoleums. Reading was displaced by Fontevraud, then by Westminster Abbey. Only Westminster and, in particular, Saint Denis retained their position as royal mausoleum over a long period.

Pic 4

Portal of the north transept at the Basilica of St Denis. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

It also became clear that royal women often played an important role in commemoration. Marriage bound dynasties together, and the prestige of a princess of impressive lineage, like Leonor, queen of Castile, daughter of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, and Philippa of Lancaster, queen of Portugal and granddaughter of Edward III, was celebrated in their tombs. Eleanor of Aquitaine made Fontevraud the mausoleum of the Angevin family: Blanche of Castile, Queen of France and Eleanor’s granddaughter, developed Royaumont as a private, familial space for the tombs of French royal children. As for the tombs themselves, as at Reading and Troyes, so much has been lost, and has to be approached through antiquarian drawings. Only by the later 12th century had it become fashionable to have an effigy of the deceased on the tomb chest, and a rich variety of materials were used – painted stone, marble, bronze and enamelled metalwork. The innovative quality of tomb design in Iberia and in Champagne – places which might be thought more peripheral than the burial houses of the English and French kings – was striking.

Pic 5

Harry Morley, Burial of Henry I, 1136, painted in 1916, from Wikimedia Commons. The original is in Reading Museum.

Whatever the ruined reality of Reading Abbey in the twenty-first century, this conference reminded us of its status in the middle ages – as one among a small and elite group of prestigious religious institutions in Europe which housed and commemorated the remains of kings.

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