The high altar was the most sacred part of the church. It was within the choir which is where the monks stood to sing and speak during church services. Because this area was the most sacred it was the most desirable area for burials, including King Henry I in 1136. Today the area of the high altar and Henry's tomb are now occupied by the buildings of the old St James's school and the car park of the former prison.

Digging Deeper - Burial of Henry I

After eating too many river fish called lampreys, King Henry I became very ill and died a few days later. He died in France but was brought back to England to be buried here at Reading Abbey. He was buried close to the high altar.

Since the abbey's closure this site has faced much disruption from being blown up during the English Civil War to Victorian building. As a result, it is a mystery whether Henry is still buried here in Reading.

You can see a stone plaque commemorating Henry's burial in the south transept of the Abbey Ruins. This plaque was first unveiled in 1921 and renewed in 2018 as part of the comprehensive conservation of the Abbey Ruins by Reading Council.

Burial of Henry I
Burial of Henry I, by Harry Morley, 1916

Other royal burials

Other royals buried at Reading Abbey include:

  • Adeliza of Louvain - Henry I’s second wife, Adeliza died several years after Henry, in 1151. She had remarried in the intervening years, so would have been buried at a distance from his tomb.
  • William of Poitiers - William was a young son of Henry II, just two years old when he died at Wallingford after a seizure. He was buried at the feet of his great-grandfather, Henry I, in 1156.
  • Reginald de Dunstanville - Reginald was one of Henry I’s many illegitimate sons and was Earl of Cornwall. He died in about 1175 in his 60s, and was buried alongside his father.

Relics and miracles

The abbey had many holy relics, the most important being the hand of St James the apostle. This came to Reading through Henry I’s daughter Empress Matilda, who was married to the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry V. When the emperor died in 1125, Matilda returned to England, bringing the hand, a prized family heirloom, with her. The hand was eventually given to the abbey. When Henry V’s son, the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, who was sad to lose such a prestigious object, asked England’s new king Henry II to give the hand back, Henry did not want hand it over. Instead he gave Frederick a magnificent tent – it is said that the emperor was delighted with the gift.

In the thirteenth century, somebody wrote down a list of the miracles caused by the hand of St James at Reading Abbey. Recording – and spreading – stories of miracles was important to make sure pilgrims kept coming to the abbey. This is ‘Miracle II’, thought to have happened in about 1155.

At about the same time a certain woman in the village of Earley became swollen with the disease of dropsy*. Believing that the blessed James would help her, she came to Reading on the eve of his nativity to call in her affliction upon God and the blessed apostle. At about the first vigil of the night, just as the monks were beginning matins, the aforesaid woman threw herself on the pavement of the presbytery and began to writhe and to have her inside stirred up from the very marrow for the sake of her health. Indeed, her very bowels were stirred up. She had passed some part of the night in this agony, when suddenly the pits of her stomach burst forth and the flood-gates of her bowels were opened. Again and again, she vomited up the poison which she had built up over a long period and cleared out all the filth of harmful fluid. Before daybreak, before the night had run its full course, the mercy of the blessed James had been so efficacious that, when the woman’s stomach was measured, to people’s amazement it was found to be four handbreadths narrower than her own girdle. And so, restored to perfect health, she was eager to give thanks. The great crowd which had gathered for the feast day praised and glorified God for all the things which they had heard and seen.

*dropsy - swelling due to build-up of fluid, today known as oedema
Hand of St James relic from Marlow
This mummified hand, found in the abbey walls by workmen in the 18th century, is believed to be the abbey’s hand of St James. It was later sold and was then given to the Roman Catholic Church in Marlow

The scallop shell

St James the apostle was a fisherman and his symbol was a scallop shell. Pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, where St James was buried, sewed a scallop shell to their clothes to show they were on a pilgrimage. Reading Abbey was dedicated to St James (as well as the Virgin Mary and St John) and the abbey’s coat of arms was a blue shield with three yellow scallop shells. In the 19th century the newly formed University of Reading adopted the coat of arms as its logo, so scallop shells can still be seen around Reading today.

Abbey pilgrim head carved on the gateway
A pilgrim wearing a scallop shell carved on the Abbey Gateway