Researchers looking for the remains of Reading Abbey may be on the cusp of discovering the sarcophagus of its founder, Henry I. Emma McFarnon reports.
This article was published in the June 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine
A search for the remains of Henry I’s ‘lost’ abbey could confirm the whereabouts of the 12th-century king’s sarcophagus – and, in parallels with the recent search for Richard III, it’s possible that it could be located beneath what is now a car park.
The Hidden Abbey Project aims to uncover the full extent of Reading Abbey, which was largely destroyed in 1539 during the dissolution of the monasteries. It has been instigated by Philippa Langley, well known for leading the search for Richard III’s remains in Leicester. Langley has secured the support of Historic England – formerly known as English Heritage – and in 2016 the project team will carry out ground-penetrating radar (GPR) research of the abbey area, followed by ‘trial trenching’ to estimate the site’s archaeological potential. It is hoped that the imaging might show sarcophagus burials, possibly including that of Henry.
“There is believed to be a pristine Cluniac abbey layout buried beneath the ground at Reading,” Langley told BBC History Magazine. “One of the main aims of the project is to confirm the exact positioning of the abbey church, as well as its size and structure. Sarcophagus burials tend to show up very clearly in GPR research, and potentially we might be able to see several.
“What’s really exciting is that we know that Henry was buried in front of the high altar, with members of his family buried in specific locations around him. The thinking in Reading, using current estimates of the size of the abbey, is that this burial spot is located beneath a school. If the abbey is larger, it could be situated underneath either what is today a playground or a car park. That option is considered less likely, but if Henry’s tomb is beneath the car park, that will be very interesting.”
Henry 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. Langley is eager to stress that, while the potential to find his sarcophagus burial is exciting, the main aim of the project is to find out as much as possible about the abbey itself – and what happens next will be the decision of Historic England.
A nearby playground and car park may yield new clues about the location of the king’s lost sarcophagus. Credit Philippa Langley
She does, however, acknowledge striking similarities between Reading’s story and that of Leicester, particularly as there is speculation about the whereabouts of Henry’s remains. An unreliable 19th-century story suggests that workmen – likely acting on Edward VI’s instructions – targeted the abbey in the 1550s for a silver casket in which the king was supposedly buried, and that his remains were discarded in the process.
“The exact location of Richard III’s remains was unknown, and here too we have a story of a king’s bones possibly being lost,” she says. Much like Richard, Henry was the youngest son who rose to become king. And, as with Richard, Henry’s character continues to be hotly disputed: some historians believe he was a cruel and ambitious usurper, while others see him as an enlightened and educated peacemaker. The people of Reading want to tell this extraordinary story, and I want to help to get it out there.”
Judith Green, emeritus professor of medieval history at the University of Edinburgh, agrees that the research will be important for the field. “It would be interesting to know how much of Henry’s body was actually buried at Reading, because he died in western France after eating lampreys – jawless fish,” she says. “After his death, with the weather too poor to travel to Reading, his body was taken to Rouen where it was embalmed. His intestines, brain and eyes were buried locally and, weeks later, the rest of his body was taken back to Reading. This was the first time the body of an English king had been treated in this way.”
A divisive king
The youngest of William the Conqueror’s four sons, Henry I reigned from 1100 to 1135. He is sometimes considered a usurper, because his elder brother Robert Curthose arguably had a more legitimate claim to the throne, but Henry had himself crowned while Robert was away on crusade.
Regarded as playing a key role in stabilising Norman England, Henry increased royal revenues, established peaceful relations with Scotland through his marriage to Mathilda of Scotland, and through his Charter of Liberties – described by some historians as a forerunner of Magna Carta – bound himself to laws concerning the treatment of nobles and church officials.
He could, however, also be cruel. He famously cut off the noses of two of his illegitimate granddaughters and blinded them in reprisal for a similar act against a child being held hostage by one of his enemies.
This article features in the June 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine. Look out here for updates on this story later this year.
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