Today, Reading Abbey is mostly in ruins, but that does not detract from the fact that it was once a prime symbol of royalty and solidarity in Reading and, as such, stood proudly in the very centre of town.
Its main reason for being, as stated by Henry I when he founded Reading Abbey in 1121, was "for the salvation of my soul, and the souls of King William, my father, and of King William, my brother, and Queen Maud, my wife, and all my ancestors and successors." According to its foundation charter, Reading Abbey took the place of three other monasteries, namely, Reading, Choisey and Leominster. It was dedicated in honour of the Blessed Virgin and St. John the Evangelist.
Upon its foundation, Reading Abbey was established by a monks from Cluny, a French abbey, as well as monks from St. Pacras, a Cluniac priory in Sussex. The Hugh of Amiens served as the first abbot in 1123.
The abbey was constructed to attract the most number of people as a possible. Practically anyone who travelled to the most populous cities of England had easy access to the abbey. As the chronicler William of Malmesbury noted during the 12th century, it was built "between the rivers Kennet and Thames, on a spot calculated for the reception of almost all who might have occasion to travel to the more populous cities of England." The two rivers provided convenient transport for all surrounding areas. This was enhanced by the construction of wharves on the River Kennet which, aside from provide access to the abbey, also powered the abbey's water mills.
The abbey occupied about 30 acres and was enclosed on three sides by a great wall with four gateways, one of which served as the local prison. Visitors entered through an inner gatehouse. The church itself was about 450 feet long and 95 feet wide and included 200-foot transeptsm, a 75-foot lady-chapel and a square central tower with a spire. The chapter house featured a vaulted hall that served as a national council chamber for Parliament. The premises also housed a leper-hospital, a hospitium and other structures.
In 1135, upon the death of Henry I in France, his remains were brought back to Reading and buried before the altar of what was then a still-incomplete abbey. Over the years, many persons of royalty were also buried at Reading Abbey (at least in part), including Empress Matilda, William of Poitiers, Constance of York and others.
Its royal heritage also made the abbey one of the most renowned and visited pilgrimage centres in medieval England as well as one of the richest religious houses. Its possessions could be seen in such remote destinations like Herefordshire and Scotland. At the abbey itself, around 230 relics were accounted for, including the hand of St. James, literally a shrivelled human hand discovered amid the abbey's ruins in 1786 and later moved to St. Peter's Roman Catholic Church in Marlow.
The abbey also earned the distinction of featuring the earliest known four-part harmony in the UK, which is the song Sumer is icumen in, which is believed to have been written down in the around 1240.
In 1538, during Henry VIII's infamous Dissolution of the Monasteries, Reading Abbey was nearly demolished. Hugh Cook Faringdon, its last abbot, was convicted of high treason and hanged right in front of Abbey Church. This was followed by a systematic robbing and looting of the abbey, including the removal of lead, glass and facing stones, which were later reused elsewhere.
Today, what is left of the abbey's major buildings are mainly the inner rubble cores of the walls, which have been conserved in recent years and are now Grade I listed. Visitors have free access to the abbey remains, which are now part of the Forbury Gardens Park. A significant part of the abbey is buried beneath Reading Gaol.
Meanwhile, the abbey's inner gateway is still intact, thanks to efforts to restore it during the Victorian era. The same goes for the abbey's hospitium dormitory, which was recently incorporated into office development. The abbey school, founded in 1125, is now a state grammar school renamed as Reading School, although it now stands on a different site.
Only the grave of Henry I is marked by a plaque near its original location, while all other graves are unmarked. Plaques also appear on the walls of the ruined chapter house to commemorate significant events of the past.
Starting in 1996, the chapter house has been the venue for the Progress Theatre's annual outdoor Shakespeare production, which is undertaken in partnership with the Reading Borough Council. It was expanded into the Reading Abbey Ruins Open Air Festival in 2007.