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A Place of Murder, Monastic Life & Massacres

Trial by Combat of Henry of Essex & Robert De Montfort at Reading - © Nash Ford Publishing


  • There may have been an Iron Age hillfort in the Northumberland Avenue area of Reading. Later, there was probably a small Roman village with a ford across the River Kennet. The ‘Read’ part of Reading may come from the Celtic word ‘Rhydd’ which means ‘ford’.
  • Reading became a proper small town in Saxon times. The name could mean ‘Reada’s People’ after the followers of a Saxon leader named Reada who settled here. It was a popular place for trading as it was easy to get to along the River Kennet.
  • In AD 870, the Vikings invaded England. They set up their headquarters at Reading. The Ealdorman of Berkshire put them under a  siege, but they would not move. Later King Alfred beat them.
  • In AD 979, the English Queen-Mother, Elfrith, murdered her 16-year-old step-son, King Edward, so that her own son, Ethelred, could become King instead. Ethelred was so upset that he set up a nunnery in Reading so that the nuns could pray for forgiveness. This is now St. Mary’s Church. The dagger that stabbed the young King was kept as a holy relic on Caversham Bridge.
  • In Norman times, King William the Conqueror wanted to know how wealthy his kingdom was. In 1086, he sent clerks round the country and they recorded what they found in the ‘Domesday Book’. Reading and Wallingford were the biggest towns in Berkshire. Reading had a Royal mint for making money.
  • In 1121, King Henry I had a monastery built in Reading, with a huge abbey church. He was buried there while it was still being built. It used to stand in the Forbury Gardens. Its ruins can still be seen there today. The Abbot, who was in charge, became very powerful in the town.
  • In 1163, King Henry II came to Reading to watch a 'Trial by Combat' on an island in the Thames. Henry of Essex had been accused of cowardice. So Robert De Montfort fought him with sword and shield. Essex lost and this was seen as proof of his guilt!
  • In Medieval and Tudor times, Reading became famous for making cloth. Sheep were farmed on the Berkshire Downs and their wool was brought to Reading. Merchants became very rich by turning this into cloth and selling it in Flanders.
  • The Pope was in charge of all the churches. In the 1530s, King Henry VIII had a big argument with the Pope because he wouldn’t let him get divorced from Catherine of Aragon. King Henry set up his own church, but the monasteries would not accept him as their new leader. So the King ‘dissolved’ the monasteries, including Reading Abbey. The monks were sent away, the buildings knocked down and the stone and timber sold off.
  • Reading was still a famous cloth manufacturing town. A merchant called William Laud was rich enough to send his son to Reading School and then to Oxford University. He eventually became the Archbishop of Canterbury. Another merchant, called John Kendrick, set up the original ‘Oracle’ where poor people were given jobs working with cloth.
  • During the English Civil War, between King Charles I and Parliament, Reading Council could not decide who to support. At first they were for Parliament. Then the Royalists arrived and they decided they liked them instead.
  • Big banks and ditches were dug around the town and 3,000 Royalist soldiers were sent there to protect it from attack. In 1643, the Earl of Essex and his Parliamentarian army besieged Reading for 10 days. The town was forced to surrender.
  • In 1688, Parliament took the Crown of England away from King James II because he was a Roman Catholic. Instead, they offered it to his nephew, William III, at Hungerford. William marched to London to force James to leave the country. Their armies fought in Reading, at the Battle of Broad Street, and King William won. This was the only fighting that took place during the ‘Glorious Revolution’.
  • In the 19th century, Reading became famous for new industries: Beer, Biscuits and Bulbs! William Blackall Simonds started brewing Hop Leaf Beer in 1785. Simonds’ Brewery was eventually bought by Courage. Joseph Huntley started making biscuits in 1811. This became Huntley and Palmers Biscuits. Sutton Seeds was established in the town in 1807.


    © Nash Ford Publishing 2004. All Rights Reserved.