The Development of Reading
Iron Age to Saxon Times
No-one really knows how or when Reading first developed as a settlement. There are signs of Iron Age life on the high ground around Northumberland Avenue and it has been suggested that there was a hillfort there long swallowed up under the houses. There were certainly Romano-Britons around in the area and there was probably a small village under the present town at that time. There is another theory that the place first developed as a Roman riverside port for heavy goods making their way out of London don the Thames and Kennet towards Silchester or even further west.
The Brythonic name of this early settlement may have been lost to the mists of time, swept away when the Anglo-Saxons arrived in the late 5th century. Those who settled in this area were apparently led by a man called Reada and the place became known as the settlement of the Reada ingas, Reada’s People. This is a standard interpretation of ‘ingas’ placenames as early Saxon tribal centres and, at Reading, this seems to be confirmed by an early pagan cemetery found under the town. On the eastern border were Sunna’s people at Sonning and Wocca’s People (from Woking) had a village not far away at Wokingham. However, it is just possible that Reading is an earlier Celtic name. The Brythonic Rhyd-inge can be translated as ‘Ford through the water meadows,’ a name that would surely reflect the settlement’s important position on the River Kennet. The Saxons may have adopted the name, thinking of it perhaps as the Rhyd People instead.
We don’t know that much about the development of Reading through the long Saxon era. Christianity reached the area in the AD 630s, with St. Birinus moving up from Southampton to the Eastern Berkshire Downs, where he was active prior to being given Dorchester-on-Thames for the building of his cathedral. He may have visited Reading, but stories that he founded St. Mary’s Church, though not impossible, are largely wishful thinking. If the ancient name of the adjoining street is anything to go by, it was probably first established, on the main road from Southampton, as a minster church later that century, sending out priests to serve a wider community than the town.
In AD 870, when the Great Viking Army was marching across England hell bent on taking the kingdom of Wessex, they chose Reading as their base in Southern England. This suggests the place was already an important communications centre, in terms of both the river network and its place at the crossing point of the busy roads from London to the west and from Southampton to the north. No doubt trade along these routes also made Reading a busy commercial centre. Just over a hundred years later, in AD 979, Queen Aelfthryth supposedly replaced the minster with a nunnery, no doubt stimulating further activity in the town; although this may have been destroyed by the Vikings in 1006.
In the reign of King Edward the Confessor, Reading was a small town was centred around St. Mary’s. The king had a Royal estate just to the east and, in the 1040s, probably established a market in the wide street alongside the old minster (now St. Mary’s Butts) in which to sell his estate produce. He certainly set up a mint there in 1044. The Domesday Survey (1087) further tells us that by late in King Edward’s reign, his county representative Godric, the Ealdorman of Berkshire, had a town-house in Reading in which to entertain guests coming out of London, as his main base at Wallingford was not a major routeway. The town’s reputation as a convenient stopping point was to become an important factor in its later development.
Click for the Development of Reading in Norman Times
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