The Church of St. Laurence in Reading was probably first built in the 1120s, at the same time as the great abbey to which it was attached. A small chapel was needed to serve the shopkeepers of the eastern part of town, which the monks were developing with a new market place outside the Compter Gate entrance to the abbey grounds. The gate was attached to south side of St. Laurence's, spanning the Forbury. The church was somewhat shorter than today, perhaps with an apsidal chancel.
The place was largely rebuilt in 1196, when the Hospital of St. John was founded and its extensive buildings erected adjoining St. Laurence's north side. The church was lengthened and a north aisle added, including the hospital's private chapel at its east end which still survives today. The hospital was both a guesthouse, for the many pilgrims visiting the abbey, and an almshouse, for twenty-six poor men and women. The latter group were maintained by the revenue from St. Laurence's and gained access to their chapel there through a private door which was connected to the hospital by a wooden cloister.
The records of St. Laurence's date back into the middle ages and give a fascinating insight into life in the pre-Reformation Catholic church. It was a bright and colourful place, full of saintly statues and shining reliquaries. Large wall paintings are recorded featuring St. Christopher, St. Leonard and the Transfiguration (when Jesus became radiant in light), but many others were discovered in 1848, including stripes and other patterns, flowers, a griffin, Moses and a scene of the Annunciation. The church appears to have contained eight different altars, some of which changed dedication over the centuries (hence we have the names of fourteen): the High, Trinity, Sepulchre, Jesus, Our Lady, St. John the Baptist, St. Thomas the Apsotle, St. George, St. Nicholas, St. Clement and St. Blaise, as well as a side, the vestry and Mr. Justice's altars. Our Lady's Altar had a fine Nottingham alabaster reredos, a small much damaged section of which has survived, showing the Adoration of the Magi. There were also five holy statues of St. Michael, St. Laurence, St. Mary Magdalene, St. George and St. Vincent. In the niches either side of the main entrance once also stood statues of St. Laurence and his brother, St. Vincent. There were also holy relics for the devout to worship: a 'relic table' (cupboard) and a round gilt copper box, both full of small relics, a silver cross containing a piece of the true cross and a silver gridiron containing a bone of St. Laurence (he was martyred on a gridiron).
By the 15th century, the church was getting rather old and falling into disrepair. It was given a new roof in 1410 and large areas were rebuilt between 1438 and 58, including the current tower. A number of poppy-head benchends in the choir also date from 1493. The arcade between the nave and the aisle was rebuilt by in 1521/2 by John Cheney, one of Cardinal Wolsey's masons at Hampton Court Palace. He also replaced some of the windows and installed the present font. Archbishop Laud, who was born in Broad Street in 1573, was christened in it. Queen Elizabeth I was also a visitor to the town and the church several times, and was given her own private pew there.
St. Laurence's was the mayoral church and this was a time of patronage by town councilors, many of whom were merchants grown rich on the back of the Berkshire cloth trade. Their support, no doubt, helped the church survive the ravishes of the Reformation. The church records show many of their gifts, but the most obvious evidence are their memorial brasses that still survive today: John Kent, a burgess, and his wife (1415) were the parents of a Reading mayor; Walter Barton (1538) reused a 75-year-old-brass from the London Charterhouse; John Boorne was three times mayor (1559); and Edward Butler (1584) was five times mayor. Of Butler's brass, only two figures survive from a large five figured (plus children) table-tomb monument that once stood in the middle of the chancel. Another notable monument (now lost) to wealthy clothier, Henry Kelsall (1494), appears to have included a brass representation of the Jesus Bell which he had donated to the church the year prior to his death.
The 17th century saw a growing association for St. Lawrence's with some of Reading's landed families. When John Blagrave, the famous mathematician, died at Southcote in 1611, he asked to be buried near his mother in the nave. His executors had a handsome, but unusual, monument erected to his memory on the south wall: John's central demi-figure sits, holding the tools of his trade, surrounded by semi-naked allegorical ladies holding the geometric shapes that each represents. He also left money in his will for the building of 'Blagrave's Piazza,' a six-arched arcade (see photograph above) erected along the south wall in 1619. It was used to house the stocks and the ducking stool, when not in use in the Market Place or down by the river, and also had a small lockup under the furthest arch. A southern transept-style chapel was added to the church in 1633-7 as a family mausoleum for Sir Francis Knollys Junior of Abbey House in the parish (as well as Battle Manor). Large numbers of his family were buried in the vault beneath. It was ablaze with colour, being filled with numerous hatchments (heraldic funerary boards).
Under the tower are memorials to the great and good of Georgian Reading: Richard Binfield, the orgainst, who started the first 'Reading Festival' and whose descendants sold pianos in Friar Street for generations (his organ is dated 1741); the Blandy solicitors from just next door, Dr. Hungerford and the Weldale Knollyses. Ann Haydon's monument (1747) in the chancel is by Scheemakers.
The church underwent three major restorations in Victorian times, notably in 1881/2 when, unfortunately, the Knollys' Chapel and all the hatchments were swept. Blagrave's Piazza, had already gone in 1868. The bodies of the Knollys family were to have been removed from there vault, but the plans never came to fruition and the family still lie beneath the pavement outside. In February 1943, during World War Two, the German Luftwaffe dropped a number of bombs on the town. One landed right next to St. Laurence's, destroying the offices of Blandy and Blandy and damaging the town hall. The church survived, but all its stained glass windows were blown-out. Part of the replaced tracery can be seen in the churchyard, along with an interesting wooden memorial to a man killed in a whirlwind. Shortly after the bombing, the pinnacles, seen in so many old photographs, were removed from the tower.
Congregations declined in the late 20th century and in 2004, St. Laurence's Church became a mission church with a special focus on the youth community. Most of the Victorian fittings were stripped out to create a more useable open space and a coffee bar and mezzanine floor inserted in the lower north aisle. The chancel and monuments remain untouched, though storage is limited and some of the latter sometimes become hidden. On the whole, the result is not displeasing.
Click to take a Walk through St. Laurence's Church in Medieval Times
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