Tradition has it that St. Birinus founded a small chapel on the site of St. Mary’s.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle relates that King Aethelred of Wessex and his brother Alfred fought the Danes at Readingum. It was during this period that the Roman roads radiating from Silchester began to be replaced by roads that met in Reading and at some time a church was established on this site. Silver coins of the ninth century have been found in the churchyard.
Queen Elfrida, second wife of Edgar, founded a royal nunnery here in repentance for murdering her stepson, Edward, King and Martyr. When King Edgar died in 975 and Edward became King, she sought to replace him with her own son, Ethelred. The round Saxon doorway at the entrance to St. Edward’s Chapel is all that survives of the nunnery and was probably used by the nuns to attend services in the church.
Early in this century, the Danes sacked Reading, the nuns were expelled and the nunnery destroyed.
The Domesday Survey records that King William the Conqueror had granted part of the town, including the church, to Battle Abbey in Sussex.
Henry I founded Reading Abbey. The historic Forbury Gardens were once the forecourt of Reading Abbey and the ruins can be found tucked away next to them. Reading Abbey was one of the most important religious and political centres in England. The abbey’s founder Henry I is buried here – making Reading one of only a handful of towns where Kings of England are buried.
Thomas a Beckett, Archbishop of Canterbury consecrated Reading Abbey. For four hundred years Reading Abbey was the centre of the ecclesiastical and temporal life of the town. The Abbot as Rector of St. Mary’s was able to appoint a vicar as well.
William de Lincoln appointed first Vicar of St. Mary’s. The south aisle was added to what was previously a plain oblong building.
One of the earliest recorded pieces of music in England was composed by a monk at Reading Abbey. Sumer is icumen in is a four-part round. The original manuscript is now in the British Library.
During this century the Jesus Chantry was established in what is now the north transept. The 13th-14th century arch framing the choir vestry door marks the site of the altar dedicated to the “Fraternity of the Guild of Jesus”. Another ancient door is situated to the south of the octagonal priest’s vestry.
Thomas Colney founded the Colney Chantry where the present Lady Chapel now stands.
At the Reformation, the three medieval parish churches – St. Mary, St. Laurence and St. Giles were stripped of their altars, statues, stained glass and other finery. There is evidence that St. Mary’s Church itself had fallen into disrepair during the years between 1539 and 1550 and was in need of extensive renovation.
Reading Abbey was dissolved by order of Henry VIII. Its last Abbot, Hugh Cook Faringdon (previously a good friend of Henry VIII), accepted his monarch as head of the church in England although his conscience would not allow him to deny the spiritual authority of the Pope. He was imprisoned in the Tower of London before returning to Reading to be tried and executed. Faringdon was dragged through the streets and hung, drawn and quartered, along with two of his monks, outside the old Abbey Gate on 14th November 1539. The plaque in the Chapter House is his only memorial.
A stone slab set in the wall of the south porch bears the legend “This church was rebuilt in 1551”. It was in fact extensively restored from 1551 to 1555 and stone and timber from the ruins of Reading Abbey were used in the restoration.
The following building materials from the Abbey were also thought to have been used in the restoration (details from the churchwardens’ accounts of the time):
- The north door is probably “the door that stood in the cloister”
- “Payede for the taking down of the Quyer in the Abbye and the caryaige home of the same”
- “Payede for the rowfe in the Abbye” – this is probably the nave roof
- “Payede to Serjaunt Hynde for the pyllers (out of the Abbye)” – these are probably the pillars, which now separate the south aisle from the nave and lean outwards from the nave as if to adapt the contours of the roof, although it may have been a deliberate attempt to create a boat shaped effect to represent the boat which carried St. Paul on his missionary journeys.
An entry in the churchwardens’ accounts for 1574 reads: “It’m for coveringe the new steeple which the winde blewe down…” A severe storm swept over Reading some five or six years after the defeat of the Spanish Armada and it seems that a wooden spire or steeple on top of the tower was damaged or blown down. Whether the steeple was built in its original form or whether the tower top was fashioned as we see it today we do not know, as use of the words ‘steeple’ and ‘tower’ were synonymous at that time.
First great restoration complete.
In the churchwardens’ accounts appears the entry: “It’m to the ringers for ringinge when the queene was in town…” One of the Abbey buildings was maintained for hosting visiting royalty and was used by Queen Elizabeth I on several occasions, giving rise to the belief that the town’s coat of arms was changed in her honour, showing, as it does, the Queen’s head surrounded by that of four maidens.
The bells were rung again when King James “came through the town the 20th July 1611”. During this year a clock was installed in the tower.
The present font resting on the plinth of an earlier font was given as a gift from the Vachell family. It is octagonal in shape and around it are carved the arms of the Vachells, the Knollys and Reades families who intermarried. Some of the carved shields represent Tudor roses and these would have originally been painted in their heraldic colours.
What is now known as St. Anne’s Chapel was originally known as the Vachell Aisle. The Vachell family is mentioned as early as 1237. They owned an estate at Coley. Sir Thomas Vachell made a bequest of twenty shillings a year “to the use and benefit of the church”, that in return he and his heirs would have “the sole use” of the aisle.
From the churchwardens’ accounts:
“In the yeire of our Lord 1632 the Galarie and the Ringing Loft was new built, at the charge of the parish, which cost ffortie six pounde seven shillings and eightpence halfpenny; Then the Parishe was in Debte, for the Galarie twentie nyne pounde five shillings five pence halfpenie, which was raysed, by a tax, of twentie weeks paye, according as, the parishioners was rated, in the Collectours booke. And thus it was ended. Walter ffelloew, Richard Goddard, Churchwardens this yeire.”
On the north wall of the chancel is an imposing black and gold monument to William Kendricke and his wife dated 1635. The Latin inscription suggests the family descended from a royal Saxon line. William Kendrick was churchwarden at St. Mary’s from 1607 to 1610 and it seems that he was a considerable benefactor.
Reading changed hands several times during the Civil War and at times had around 3000 Royalist troops garrisoned in and around it.
The Siege of Reading lasted from April 15th-25th. Finally the Royalists surrendered the town and were allowed to march out to Oxford.
Second restoration: a new choir aisle was added to the south side of the chancel, which was extended to its present length.
An organ of three manuals and pedals (which had originally been built for an exhibition in 1862 by Henry Willis) was installed in the North Transept.
The organ was enlarged to include a fourth manual and moved to a chamber in the choir vestry.
St. Edward’s Chapel, or the War Memorial Chapel in which the Blessed Sacrament is reserved, was built and dedicated to the Royal Martyr to whom it is most probable that the Minster owes its foundation. It is entered through the Saxon doorway mentioned earlier.
The organ was rebuilt by Bishop & Sons.
The bells were re-hung.
Extensive alterations to the interior included the replacement of the Jacobean altar rails and the magnificent High Altar of oak placed before a new reredos of gilded oak. In the centre the Crucifixion is represented, flanked by angles bearing the instruments of the Passion. The earlier mosaic reredos was reinstated in the Lady Chapel. The clergy and choir stalls were also set in place at this time.
The organ was restored by Henry Willis & Sons including a new organ façade of plain zinc display pipes, case and detached console.
Fourth restoration: various external repairs and modifications, including new lead guttering in places, renewal of roof finishes to the tower and St. Edward’s Chapel and structural repair work to the walls. Internally, the church has been decorated throughout and a new lighting scheme installed, as well as the Victorian geometric floor tiles to the west porch and encaustic floor tiles to the chancel/choir being cleaned.