The Nightmares of Henry I (Oxford, Corpus Christi College, MS 157, pp. 382-83). Source: Wikipedia

Search begins for King Henry I in the “Hidden Abbey” in Reading

A plaque marks the spot of the grave of Henry I at Reading Abbey. However, Reading Abbey was demolished in the 16th century and the exact location is uncertain. Currently, archaeologists are scanning the area to find the spot

Henry I (1068 – 1135), son of William the conqueror, died in Normandy at the castle at St. Denis-en Lyons on the first of December. According to Orderic Vitalis, his was good death: six days were spent confessing sins, receiving spiritual council, paying debts and in general bringing his affairs in order. Finally, he died on the seventh day (the day of rest) after having received absolution, anointment and the Eucharist. During the next day more than 20.000 people followed him to Rouen, where the body was placed in the Archbishops chamber. Here it was embalmed, filled with fragrant herbs and prepared for transport across the channel in order to be buried at the Abbey in Reading.

It is obvious, Orderic Vitalis [1] delivered a rather sanitized version propagating the idea that Henry had been a pious and just king; though obviously not a saint, as that would have demanded that his remains remained uncorrupted.

Not so in the version in the chronicle by by Henry of Huntingdon (written before 1129). According to this, the embalming included an evisceration, that is the removal of his viscera, brain, and eyes. These were later buried in a church near Rouen. Then follows a rather gruesome story:

Henry 1. Plaque in Reading. Source: Wikipedia
Henry 1. Plaque in Reading. Source: Wikipedia

“The body being slashed by knives, and copiously sprinkled with salt, was sown into ox hides to prevent the ill odour, which so tainted the air as to be pestilential to the bystanders. Even the man, who was hired by a large reward to sever the head with an axe and extract the brain, which was very offensive, died in consequence, although he wore a thick linen veil; so that his wages were dearly earned. He was the last of the great multitude King Henry Slew. The corpse being then carried to Caen, was deposited in the church where his father was interred; but nothwithstanding the quantity of salt, which had been used, and the folds of skin in which it was wrapped, so much foul matter continually exuded, that it was caught in vessels placed under the bier, in emptying which the attendants were affected with horror and faintings. Observe, then, reader, how the corpse of this mighty king, whose head was crowned with a diadem of precious jewels, sparkling with a brightness almost divine, who held glittering sceptres in both his hands, the rest of whose body was robed in cloth of gold, whose palate was gratified by such delicious and exquisite viands, whom all men bowed down to, all men feared, congratulated and admired; observe, I say, what horrible decay, to what loathsome state, his body was reduced! Mark how things end, from which only a true judgement can be formed, and learn to despise what so perishes and comes to nothing. At last the royal remains were brought over to England, and interred, within twelve days of Christams, in the Abbey at Reading, which king Henry had founded and richly endowed. There king Stephen, after holding his court at London during Christams, came to meet the body of his uncle, and William, archbishop of Canterbury, with many earls and great men, and buried King Henry with the honours due to so great a prince” [2]



Plan of the Abbey of Reading
Plan of the Abbey of Reading. Source: Reading Museum

Although careful to note that the “character of the king was freely canvassed after his death” it is obvious that the description by Henry of Huntingdon was not only intended to present us with a graphic rendering of the complicated business of bringing embalmed bodies across long distances. It was also meant as a guide to the exact character of a king, whose reign had been – to say the least – controversial.

Later, in the chronicle by John of Worcester, we are told that the tomb of the Henry I was made “according to custom”. Probably, it was without an effigy. Sometime later, the tomb was replaced with a larger monument fitted with a life-size effigy. This had fallen into disrepair around the turn of the 15th century and was ordered repaired by Richard II. No more was heard of this until 1784, when foundations were dug for the new County Gaol. According to Baxter, who recently published a major account of the history and architecture of Reading Abbey, a report of the discovery of what may have been the grave of Henry I was published the following year.

“Divers bones were thrown up: this being the burial-place of Henry I. Each bone was seized as a kind of treasure, contemplating it as one of the king’s till at length a vault was discovered, the only one there, and which was of curious workmanship: in the vault was a leaden coffin almost devoured by time. A perfect skeleton was contained therein, and which undoubtedly was the king’s…the bones were divided among the spectators; but the coffin was sold to a plumber. The under jaw-bone has been sent to me, and a small piece of the leaden coffin. The jaw contains sixteen teeth perfect and sound, even the enamel of them is preserved” [3]. Baxter writes, however, that this discovery was afterwards seriously discredited.

Reading Abbey Quarter

Reading Abbey
Reading Abbey. Source: Wikipedia

Recently, the Borough Council in Reading approved a plan to transform the Reading’s Abbey precinct into a unique historical and cultural destination. The Abbey Quarter plans will pull together a number of important historic sites, buildings and structures under a single, co-ordinated approach.

The main conservation priorities are the Abbey Ruins and the Abbey Gateway, both Scheduled Monuments listed on the “English Heritage at Risk Register”. In June 2014 the Council secured initial funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) and developed more detailed plans for its Reading Abbey Revealed project. These were submitted to the HLF in September 2015. In December 2015 HLF confirmed that the second round application had been successful and that work would start on conservation work in September 2016.

Part of this plan entails a search for the “lost” grave of the king. The search itself was launched yesterday (16.06.2016) by Philippa Langley, famous for her involvement in the find in Leicester of the remains of Richard III.

This time, however, the search is much less complicated. Archaeologists are not in doubt as to where the remains of Henry I ought to be located (if they are still in the same place): near the high altar. Nevertheless, the good people behind the venture have come up with a haunting title: “The Hidden Abbey Project”. At the presentation, Philippa Langley, called Henry I, “the forgotten king”.

However, even if the king himself is not located, other graves may be forthcoming. The Abbey remained a favourite burial ground and later graves form the prison came to overlay the site. Further, any identification of the king will be hampered by the lack of identifiable remains of either his ancestors or descendants, to which any DNA might be compared.

The plan is to use ground-penetrating radar (GPR) to locate the boundaries of the Abbey Church in its current modern setting. The area will also be surveyed to locate possible sites of archaeological interest for future investigation, including the High Altar where Henry was buried, the Ambulatory and the Lady Chapel. All is at present located beneath the car-park belonging to Reading Gaol. It was built in 1844 and is a Grade II building. It is famous for the Oscar Wilde’s poem, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”, which was his last work. Reading Gaol itself is currently up for sale. It has been empty for two years and was finally put on the market in November 2015. In May, it was announced that the former prison can be used as a venue for a season of literature, art and music in the autumn of 2016 as part of the Year of Culture. However, its future has still not been decided upon.

Of the Abbey itself, only pitiful remains can be seen. Furthermore, they have been cordoned off since 2010, due to imminent danger of falling masonry. The plan is naturally to restore and conserve these remains as well as have them made part of the renovated “Reading Abbey Quarter”.

The plan is obviously to try and “reinvent” Reading as a medieval hotspot as well as restore the ruins and create a nice recreational centre around the former Abbey. Thus, another project in the pipeline is a play, which the theatre company “Reading Between the Lines” are currently producing. The play is based on the life of King Henry I of England and will be performed in November, within touching distance of Henry’s final resting place, Reading Abbey, inside the stunning St James’ Church (RC), built by the neo-gothic architect, A. W. Pugin between 1837 and 1840 (in itself worth a visit).

Inspiration from Richard III

Searching for remains of Henry I and Reading abbey
Searching for remains of Henry I and Reading abbey. Source: Reading Borough Council

In all this, Reading has obviously sought inspiration in Leicester, which has received general acclamation for its way of handling the discovery and later re-interment of Richard III, which archaeologists famously discovered beneath a car-park in Leicester in 2012. This led to an inordinate buzz. First of all, the find had all the ingredients of a great drama. Here was a king – famous for the alleged murder of his nephews and his subsequent death in the battle of Bosworth  – found beneath the tarmac of a public car-park. Secondly, York contributed to the publicity by running to the courts in order to get him reburied in his hometown. Finally, the archaeologists were able to use the find to parade a state-of the-art study of his remains (DNA, strontium analysis etc.)

No wonder, the good people of Leicester began to see trillions of £ in front of their eyes. Tourism would surely rise and a new visiting centre was built in order to accommodate those searching for the ultimate Richard III-experience. Initially, the forecasts seemed to come true. Up until the re-interment of Richard III it has been estimated that the events had an impact on GVA (Gross Value Added) in Leicester to the sum of more than £79m plus more than 1000 jobs being created in the process. In March 2016 the city reported that the “Richard III effect” had brought an additional £55 m to the coffers of Leicester.

However, recently it was reported that Richard III had perhaps not continued to create as much buzz as Leicester initially dreamed of. In 2014, the new visitor centre could muster 81.600 visitors, 20% less as had been expected. On the other hand, the Cathedral has experienced a wobbling 200.000 extra visitors, thus demonstrating the importance of authenticity – something, which the new visitor centre has been accused of lacking, since the exhibition of the actual remains of the king was obviously not possible since he was re-interred in the Cathedral! Another venue, which has experienced a considerable growth, is the battlefield at Bosworth, where the number of visitors increased from 30.000 (before the discovery) to 165.000 after. Again the need to be able to offer an authentic experience is apparent. Fear of leicester, thus, is that the “Richard III momentum” cannot be maintained. York might still end up delivering the best experience.

Stiff Competition from Norwich

Such competition will also be offered to Reading, which is struggling to reinvent their city centre by digging up a king, by Norwich. This town is currently gathering steam to rethink itself in the grand manner. The plan is to create a truly “immersive world of Henry I” at the Norman castle

Norwich Castle was probably founded in 1067 when the Norman invaders destroyed at least 98 Anglo-Saxon dwellings in order to fortify the place. This first castle was definitely a wooden construction. However, in 1094 William Rufus, the son of the conqueror (and brother of Henry I) commissioned the first stone castle. This was finished in 1121 by Henry I, who spent Christmas there in 1122. The project has so-far received a grant of nearly £500.000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund accompanied with the promise of an additional £ 8.7 m to turn the castle into a true medieval experience. All-in-all the support to the plans of Norwich amounts to three times as much as the funding achieved by Reading.


[1] The following builds upon the work of Ron Baxter, who recently published a full account of the history of Reading Abbey: The Royal Abbey of Reading. By Ron Baxter. Boydell & Brewer 2016, pp. 30 – 31

[2] From: The Chronicle of Henry of Huntingdon: Comprising The History of England. Ed. and translated by Henry G. Bohn, 1853, pp. 262 – 263.

[3] Baxter, op. cit. pp. 37 – 38


royal abbey at reading by baxter - coverReading Abbey (official webpage)

The Royal Abbey of Reading
By Ron Baxter
Boydell & Brewer 2016
ISBN: 9781783270842


Henry I, King of England – Medieval Histories


The Nightmares of Henry I (Oxford, Corpus Christi College, MS 157, pp. 382-83). Source: Wikipedia. According to the chronicler John of Worcester (1095 – 1140) Henry I suffered a number of nightmares in 1130, in which he was tormented by three parties – peasants, knights, and clerics – holding him to account for his failure to uphold justice as he had promised in the Coronation Charter. The detail here shows the second nightmare.