Sneaking a Peek at Reading Abbey

Recently, I have not found as much time to write pieces for this blog as I used to. Summer term – exam period  at Reading – is upon us, and in addition to that, I have been very busy working towards a little booklet about the Latin inscriptions of St. Albans Cathedral. (In this context, I was able to make a number of what I thought were rather remarkable little observations, some of which I hope I will be able share with you on my blog in due course.)

At the same time, my work on the St. Albans Latin inscription also made me think of the great number of inscribed texts, Latin and otherwise, that must have disappeared as a result of the dissolution of Reading Abbey in the wake of the reformation under King Henry VIII.

WotWIn fact, in my little book on the Reading Latin Inscriptions, published with the wonderful Two Rivers Press last year, I did not include a single piece directly related to Reading Abbey. There would have been a few items in Reading Museum that I could have considered – but ultimately they did not amount to much, so I chose to omit them after all.

During a walk through Reading yesterday, however, to try out my most recent acquisition of an old Russian analogue camera (a FED-2, in case you are interested), I walked past the abbey ruins.

Due to the level of disrepair, the ruins are currently inaccessible to the general public. But walking past a little garden square by what used to be the abbey’s chapter house, I remembered something.

When I moved to Reading in 2007, the abbey was still open to the public. It was at that time that I took several photos of the ruins, in particular two of memorials attached to the walls of the chapter house, commemorating the first and the last abbots of Reading (both of whom, incidentally, were called Hugh).

The two memorials were unveiled some 105 years ago, on July 10th, 1911, as a booklet produced for the very occasion commemorates (click here for a freely available pdf).

The first memorial displays a scene in which a kneeling man, Hugh de Boves, receives his insignia from the hands of King Henry I. Both men appear accompanied: the king by men at arms, the abbot by monks, carrying a reliquary. Above this scene, there are two armorial shields – one that exhibits the three shells of Reading Abbey, and one that exhibits a grazing ox, an allusion to the abbot’s name ‘de Boves’.


Below this scene, there is an inscription of four lines, which reads as follows:

To the memory of Hugh de Boves, first abbot of Reading,
A. D. 1123-1130, afterwards archbishop of Rouen, A. D. 1130-1160.
Amor plebis, tremor potentum,
clarus avis, clarus studiis, recreator egentum.’

The final two lines, in Latin, appear to be taken from a poem in praise of the archbishops of Rouen, in which Hugh de Boves comes third (I give the bits that are included in the above inscription in bold):

Huic successit, amor plebis, tremor Hugo potentum,
Clarus avis, clarus studiis, recreator egentum.

In English:

He is succeeded by Hugo, the love of the people, the fear of the mighty,
Famous in ancestry, famous in his studies, restorer of the needy.

The second memorial shows a rather less empowering scene: Hugh Cook Faringdon, Reading’s last abbot, Catholic martyr and saint (and subsequently name-giver of a rather agreeable local pub), stands with a rope around his neck, about to be hanged (together with a couple of other monks), and addresses Reading’s local elite. Above, again, there are two armorial shields – Reading Abbey’s to the left, and the abbot’s to the right.


Underneath the scene, there is the following inscription:

To the memory of Hugh Cook Faringdon, last abbot of Reading,
A. D. 1520-1539, who refused to surrender his abbey
to King Henry VIII. and died on the gallows.
In te, domine, speravi.’

In te, domine, speravi, ‘In Thee, O Lord, have I put my trust’, is the opening verse of Psalm 71 (= 70 of the Vulgate tradition).

Next Saturday (May 21st, 12pm, meeting at Reading’s Saint Laurence Church), I will be leading a walking tour for those interested in the town’s Latin past as my personal fun contribution to Reading’s Year of Culture .

As the abbey ruins continue to be closed to the public (there is hope for the future, however!), I will not be able to show the above two pieces on that occasion; but I promise that there will be a lot else for everyone to see!

About Peter Kruschwitz

Berliner. Classicist. Scatterbrain.
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1 Response to Sneaking a Peek at Reading Abbey

  1. chattykerry says:

    Marvelous, as always. Latin is such a sensible language and easy to understand for many Europeans. I love the word Plebeian.


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