The search for Henry I: what you need to know

Last month it was announced that a grave possibly belonging to the medieval king Henry I may have been located underneath a car park in Reading

Over the summer, a team of researchers from the Hidden Abbey Project carried out ground-penetrating radar (GPR) research of the Reading Abbey area – the final resting place of Henry I and his wife, Adeliza. The first phase of the project aims to uncover the full extent of the abbey church, which was largely destroyed in 1539 during the dissolution of the monasteries. Initial results from the radar scan show three potential graves, possibly including that of Henry I.

It has already been established that Henry was buried in front of the high altar, with members of his family buried in specific locations around him. If the team can successfully locate the high altar, they will be able to determine the likely burial location of Henry I. Digging work is due to begin in the car park in the autumn, and the project’s findings will feature in a planned television documentary with Darlow Smithson Productions.

Henry I, the youngest of William the Conqueror’s four sons, founded Reading Abbey in 1121 as a royal mausoleum, and is buried there along with his second wife, Adeliza, and great-grandson William of Poitiers.

We caught up with Philippa Langley, who instigated the Hidden Abbey Project for Reading, to find out more…

Q: What can you tell us about the graves that have been discovered?

A: The ground-penetrating radar survey has uncovered the eastern end of the medieval abbey church beneath what is now the Ministry of Justice car park. The chancel, apse and ambulatory areas are shown in quite stunning detail.

Three potential grave slots are also marked in this location. Two are positioned beside each other towards the eastern wall of the apse with the third slightly further west, with half of it seemingly under the dividing wall with the playground of the adjacent nursery school. The walls of the nave and far western extent of the abbey church are, at this stage, proving more difficult to locate, possibly due to higher soil levels in the Forbury Gardens or having been robbed.

Q: Can you speculate as to who the graves might belong to? What would you say are the chances of one of them belonging to Henry I?

A: It might be possible to speculate who the graves belong to when we can determine the location of the high altar. The location of the high altar is one of the Hidden Abbey Project’s key research questions and will be a hugely significant discovery in terms of understanding this potentially unique Romanesque building.

It is currently believed that the high altar is located in the choir of the church, which would place the grave of Henry I further west under the nursery school building. Recently, the eastern playground of the nursery has also been suggested, and either of these locations might be correct. This is because we know that Henry was buried in front of the high altar.

However, if the original (Norman) high altar is located against the eastern wall of the apse, as seen for example at Tewkesbury Abbey, then one of the two graves positioned side by side in the car park could be Henry. The other might then be Constance of York (1374–1416), who was buried near Henry, and is also believed to have been placed before the altar.

The positioning of the high altar against the eastern wall of Tewkesbury Abbey could be a potential pointer for Reading, as Tewkesbury is a direct contemporary, being consecrated in 1121, the same year Reading Abbey was founded.

Tewkesbury was also financed by Henry I’s illegitimate son, Robert of Gloucester.
However, until we can place a targeted trench in the Ministry of Justice car park to uncover and fully understand the east end of the Norman abbey church, and potentially locate its high altar, we have only these various hypotheses to go on.

In essence, if the Hidden Abbey Project is successful in locating the high altar of the abbey, this will then give us the key not only to understanding the abbey church and potentially its wider abbey precinct, but also to determining the burial location of King Henry I of England. Whatever the authorities involved decide to do with this information, the question then remains whether Henry’s grave is there or was removed by later development work and/or desecrated in the mid-16th century.

Grave desecration seems unlikely at this stage given the religious times it was said to have taken place, and to have been carried out by Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, uncle of the then reigning monarch, Edward VI. If Seymour had received royal orders to desecrate a royal tomb, this would have set an extraordinary precedent. Or did Seymour simply decide in the zeal of the final destruction of the abbey’s east end that greed was good? If the medieval king had been buried in a silver casket, Seymour wanted to know.

At this point of course, grave desecration is all conjectural. However, what we do know is the church today takes grave desecration very seriously indeed, so determining whether this actually took place is a significant question.


A GPR survey has uncovered the eastern end of the medieval abbey church beneath what is now a Ministry of Justice car park. (Credit Philippa Langley)

Q: What happens next? How do we go about determining a possible connection to Henry I? Is an excavation likely to take place at some point in the future? 

A: Digging work is due to begin in the car park in the autumn. The Ministry of Justice had previously received permission from Historic England to dig two trenches in the car park based on a Desk Based Assessment (DBA). However, with the Hidden Abbey Project now supplying the GPR analysis and locating the entire east end of the abbey church in the car park at its southern end, the archaeologists and Historic England are now in a position to plan targeted trenches in order to answer the project’s (and Reading’s) many key research questions. And uncovering the east end of the abbey church will be the basis to unlocking its story.

As to a possible connection to Henry, if we uncover the high altar we will then be able to extrapolate the likely location of the king’s grave. And by bringing his story to life in the documentary, Henry I will no longer be our forgotten king.

If Henry’s grave is discovered, it will then be for Reading Council, the landowner [the Ministry of Justice or Diocese of Portsmouth] and Historic England to decide what happens next.

Q: What is your reaction to the discovery?

A: I’m very excited for Reading. The discovery of the east end of the abbey church beneath the car park is an important moment for the town’s history, giving them the opportunity to answer so many of the project’s key research questions.

Telling the abbey’s story is going to be incredibly important for Reading, enabling it to become, what I believe it should have always been – a historic town.

Q: What parallels can be drawn with the 2012/13 search for the remains of Richard III in Leicester?

A: There are some interesting parallels with the search for Richard III in Leicester. Clearly we have the graves of two kings of England becoming lost over time, and two modern locations being a car park and adjacent school. And we also have stories about grave desecration. Before the Looking For Richard Project began its research, it was widely believed (and stated as fact by many leading historians as well as locally in Leicester) that Richard’s remains had been removed at the time of the dissolution and thrown in the river Soar.

However, what we must also take into account is that unlike Leicester, Reading Abbey is a Scheduled Ancient Monument site under the auspices of Historic England. So far, Historic England has made it clear that it is focused on the site coming off its endangered list and, at the highest level, has recognised what the Hidden Abbey Project can do for Reading.

With the GPR survey results now submitted, and in fully supporting Reading by giving it the opportunity to reveal its extraordinary story in full for the first time by placing clearly defined and targeted trenches in the car park, Historic England is on the cusp of offering this Thames Valley town, and its people, an exciting new future.

Philippa Langley MBE originated and facilitated the Hidden Abbey Project for the historic town and people of Reading. For more information, visit www.philippalangley.co.uk

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