Forbury Gardens is a public park in the centre of Reading, a green oasis near the town’s busy shopping centre. Aside from the usual flower beds and benches, visitors are greeted by a striking memorial to the Second Anglo-Afghan War – a fearsome sculpture of a lion, all rippling muscle and Victorian pride.
But carry on past the bandstand, and at the far corner you’ll notice something much older. Ruined flint-stone walls loom, crowned with tufts of colonising grass. Here, tucked away out of sight of shoppers, is what remains of a medieval abbey which once dominated the town.
Reading has no reputation for religious significance today. But for four hundred years it boasted one of the largest monasteries in England, and this park was part of its grounds. From where the lion now roars, you once would have gawped up at a magnificent church, on the scale of a cathedral. This place attracted pilgrims from across the region.
Having been closed due to safety concerns, the restored abbey ruins reopened to the public this year. Only a small part of the church remains – most of the ruins comprise the adjacent buildings of the chapter house and monks’ quarters. But they nonetheless convey a sense of the scale of the place.
The abbey’s core of flint has lost its richly decorated ashlar covering, but there is a more enduring legacy attached to these walls. In the chapter house, a heritage panel illustrates a page from a 13th-century manuscript associated with the abbey – the music notation of the round Sumer Is Icumen In.
The song is catchy, has a jolly compound metre, and slots together nicely in its successive entries. Its lyrics tell of springtime changes – woods greening, a cuckoo singing – with a rustic simplicity that could come straight from a children’s picture book.
While the abbey’s existence is mostly forgotten outside Reading, Sumer has become widely sung around the world. It’s been performed by all manner of ensembles, and even heard at an Olympic opening ceremony. It’s been parodied by Ezra Pound and the children’s TV show Bagpuss. Its apparent innocence was set for boys’ voices in Britten’s Spring Symphony, and subverted to horrific effect in the cult film The Wicker Man.
But look closer, and you’ll see the Latin words Perspice Christicola underneath the famous Middle English lines. There are two songs here using the same tune – one secular, one sacred – in contrastingly coloured inks.
What’s more, this page is just one of a much larger manuscript – a fascinating miscellany known as Harley 978. It’s now owned by the British Library, but is thought to have belonged to a Reading monk. And like the abbey itself, it can offer us a colourful window into medieval English life.
Reading abbey was founded by King Henry I, a son of William the Conqueror. And despite the parochial imagery of Sumer Is Icumen In, there are cross-channel connections running throughout the abbey’s history.
In the evening of 25th November 1120, a vessel known as The White Ship struck a rock and sank off the coast of Normandy. On board were numerous Anglo-Norman nobility, including William Adelin, the only legitimate son of Henry I. The heir to the English throne was drowned, throwing the country into a succession crisis.
The following year, Henry I ordered the foundation of a new abbey. Its charter proclaimed it would be for the salvation of his soul, and for those of his dead relatives, including his lost son.
It would be a destination for pilgrims, and extend its charity to the poor and sick. Reading’s location on trade routes, and at the confluence of the river Kennet with the Thames, was ideal for catching passing visitors.
The abbey was founded on the monastic model of the great Benedictine abbey of Cluny in Burgundy, and Cluniac monks came to help in its early stages. It was privileged with a generous endowment of lands across the country. Henry’s succession may have been in doubt, but Reading would be his great religious legacy – and his final resting place.
To draw in pilgrims – and their associated revenue – Reading amassed a collection of over 200 holy relics. The most important of these came to England via Henry I’s daughter, Mathilda. She had married Emperor Henry V in Germany, and after his death she returned with a treasure from his Imperial collection – a hand said to be that of the Apostle St. James the Great.
This supposedly thousand-year-old hand was later installed as a star attraction at Reading. The cult of St. James was hugely popular in the 12th century, centred on the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia – as Joseph Camilleri has described, ‘The Way of St. James’ even had its own music. Since Reading now quite literally had a hand in this business, it could become a more accessible alternative to Compostela for English pilgrims.
Building work on the abbey took many years. In 1164 its church was dedicated by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, in the presence of Henry II. But when Becket’s murder a few years later made him a martyr, Canterbury became a pilgrimage site that overshadowed Reading, in turn inspiring the world-famous tales of Chaucer.
A surviving document from around 1200 gives some insight into Reading pilgrimage. It lists various miracle stories – mostly cures, received by sick pilgrims from all levels of society. Few were able to gain access to the saintly hand itself, kept at mysterious distance in a reliquary, but water it had been dipped in was used for healing.
Amusingly, the stories even take a swipe at Reading’s rivals. Ysembela, a fisherman’s daughter who suffered ‘deformed and paralysed limbs’, toured saints’ shrines – including Becket’s – to no avail. But at Canterbury, she was visited in a dream by St. James, who told her to go to Reading. There she lit a candle for him and was finally cured.
Of course, Reading abbey would have been a place to hear plenty of sacred music too. But while the public literature around the abbey ruins proudly claims that Sumer Is Icumen In was copied down here, the evidence is somewhat less certain.
Harley 978 is its only source, and it does not include anything so vulgar as a composer name or place of composition. Andrew Taylor describes it as ‘a portable miscellany, elegant but not luxurious […] that reflects the eclectic interests of its first owner’. Assessing the clues, he suggests this was likely William of Winchester, a Reading monk.
Harley 978 may have been compiled over a number of years, but the bulk of it seems to date from the 1260s. From what’s known of the 13th-century book trade, it’s possible that some of this collection may be the work of professional scriveners in Oxford.
Besides Sumer, the collection includes Latin songs, and three two-part estampies. But more revealing is the amount of secular literature here. It includes the Lais of Marie de France – poems which focus on courtly love and fantastical themes. There is part of a guide to falconry, and the The Song Of Lewes, a partisan political poem which extols a recent victory of Simon de Montforte in the Second Baron’s War.
It also contains several ‘Goliardic’ verses – Latin poetry which satirised the church, and often lauded a life of carnal pleasure. One of these verses, Omnibus In Gallia, Taylor summarises as follows:
[…] a mock letter of introduction that calls on the Goliards in France to ply the bearer with wine until he staggers and inquires whether these French brothers still enjoy playing in secret with beautiful women like Rose and Agnes.
This may seem surprising, but as Taylor writes, ‘the contents of Harley 978 would probably not have scandalised the average Benedictine community’.
More scandalous is the fact that William may have ‘played in secret’ with his very own Agnes. While serving as subprior at Leominster (a Reading dependency), accusations of the monk’s ‘incontinence’ with a nun, Agnes of Avenbury, and several other women were recorded by the bishop of Hereford. Whatever the truth of the allegations, William was nonetheless able to continue monastic life – he was subsequently brought to Reading and appointed as proctor.
Harley 978 gives us a rich insight into the world of its owner, whether it was William of Winchester or not. And while we may not know who composed Sumer, it is easy to see where its popularity as a song lies. With plenty of musical charm, it has been able to break free of its monastic context, and provide a timeless Arcadian vision of rural life in tune with the seasons. As Taylor puts it:
These earthy lyrics and the social harmony of the sing-along evoke the organic unity of Merry England, […] “Sumer Is Icumen In” is all we would expect the first English lyric to be.
For four centuries, Reading abbey was a site of pilgrimage, but also a convenient meeting place. Here Henry II met Heraclius, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, who requested help in fighting Saladin’s forces. In 1359, John of Gaunt celebrated his marriage to Blanche of Lancaster here. Parliament was convened at the abbey several times.
The downfall of Reading, like so many monasteries across the country, came with the Dissolution during the reign of Henry VIII, overseen by Thomas Cromwell. In this pivotal period, the superstitious veneration of relics came under attack.
Reading’s abbot at the time, Hugh Cook of Faringdon, had once been on good terms with Henry VIII, but his apparent unwillingness to recognise the king’s supremacy over the Pope would seal his fate. He was tried for treason, and a chilling line in Cromwell’s notes – ‘the abbot Redyng to be sent down to be tried and executed’ – suggests he didn’t stand a chance.
Along with two associates, Cook was dragged through the town and hanged, drawn and quartered near the abbey gatehouse.
In the following years, the church suffered similar brutality, as materials were stripped off and repurposed elsewhere. It’s believed that abbey stones can be found in historic buildings around the town, including Reading Minster. A century later, the abbey site was further damaged during the English Civil War.
Standing in the small part of the abbey church that’s left, it’s sad to think of how much has been lost. Here a plaque indicates the likely area where Henry I was buried. He died in France – one chronicler famously attributed his demise to eating ‘a surfeit of lampreys’. Whatever the cause, his body made the long journey back to his royal foundation.
The site being so disturbed, and now partly built over, it’s no longer clear if Henry’s remains still lie here. But this was his intended resting place, so the prospect of a Richard III-style excavation is not on the cards. When I visited, the air was bright with the sound of children playing in the nursery behind the plaque’s wall. It’s strangely pleasing to think that Reading’s youngsters might be running care-free over the body of a medieval king.
While the abbey’s relics were seized at the Dissolution, their subsequent fate is unknown. However, the ground has given up one tantalising artefact. In the late 18th century, workmen digging foundations for Reading Gaol discovered a left hand buried in the abbey wall. After being passed among various owners, it now resides at St. Peter’s catholic church in the nearby town of Marlow.
Is this shrivelled and sinister-looking object the same hand once revered by medieval pilgrims? It’s tempting to think so. If it is the hand brought to England by the Empress Mathilda, then – its dubious saintly origins notwithstanding – it is certainly a remarkable survival.
Sat on the Thames in the middle of the south of England, the blessings of geography have enabled Reading to attract visitors, and made it a prosperous modern town. A succession of transport projects over the centuries – the Kennet and Avon Canal, the Great Western Railway, the M4 – have continued this trend long after its magnificent abbey has gone.
So if you find yourself passing through Reading, remember that you are following in footsteps trodden by pilgrims for four hundred years. If you have time, I hope you consider stopping by these wonderful ruins, which are free to visit every day. You can also see stonework from the abbey, including an early carving of the coronation of the Virgin Mary, in the nearby Reading Museum.
Finally, it’s worth remembering that Reading’s monastery was founded and enriched through centuries of boats braving the waters of the English channel. They brought the king who was buried here, the relics of its miracle stories, and much of the varied cultural and intellectual life that fills the pages of Harley 978. Sumer Is Icumen In may be all we expect the first English lyric to be. But the cuckoo is a migratory bird, after all.
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Textual Situations: Three Medieval Manuscripts and Their Readers by Andrew Taylor is available from University of Pennsylvania Press.
Saints and their Communities: Miracle Stories in Twelfth-Century England by Simon Yarrow is available from OUP.
The Royal Abbey Of Reading by Ron Baxter is available from Boydell & Brewer.
This article was partly inspired by a talk on Reading abbey pilgrimage given by John and Lindsay Mullaney. You can learn more at their website Reading Abbey History.