THE RELIGIOUS HOUSES OF BERKSHIRE
Berkshire occupies a distinguished position in the history of religious
houses as almost the only shire that had within its limits two Benedictine
abbeys of the first rank and of ancient foundation, namely, Abingdon and
The original founding of Abingdon goes back to the seventh century,
for there seems no reason to doubt the main features of the early narrative of
this house as set forth in two ancient manuscripts. The great influence of
Abingdon as a centre for the diffusion of Christianity is apparent from the
large number of tributary pensions of ancient origin from various mission
stations throughout Berkshire, which gradually developed into parishes. It
seems also clear that the abbey of Reading, though usually spoken of as
founded by Henry I, was in reality refounded by that king on the site of a
religious house that had been established there at least a century before the
coming of the Normans. In giving sketches of the annals of these two noted
abbeys, it has only been possible to select the more salient points of interest.
There were two other Benedictine houses of some importance in the
county, namely, the priories of Hurley and of Wallingford, neither of which
had, however, an independent existence. The priory of Hurley was founded
in the reign of the Conqueror as a cell of Benedictine monks, subject from
the first to the abbey of Westminster. There is a great store of charters and
other evidences relative to the priory of Hurley among the muniments of
the Dean and Chapter of Westminster; they were carried there at the time
of the suppression of the cell in 1536. The priory of Wallingford, which
seems also to have been founded in the days of the Conqueror, was a cell of
St. Albans, and was first colonized by a company of Benedictine monks sent
thither by Abbot Paul, who ruled over that abbey from 1077 to 1093.
Wallingford was one of several small monasteries for whose extinction, in
favour of his college at Oxford, Cardinal Wolsey obtained papal consent in
A priory of Benedictine nuns was founded at an early date at Bromhall,
within the limits of Windsor Forest. This small house was suppressed in
favour of St. John's College, Cambridge, as early as 1521-2.
There were no establishments of the reformed Benedictine order of
Citeaux within the bounds of Berkshire, but the Cistercian abbey of Beaulieu,
Hampshire, had a cell or grange, and much property at Faringdon.
The other reformed order, that of Cluny, had a temporary and most important connexion with the county, the great abbey of Reading being originally
founded as a Cluniac house, and being the only abbey of that order in
England. Although it remained affiliated to the order as late as 1207, it
seems to have become absorbed into the unreformed Benedictine order soon
after that date. The control exercised by the mother-house of Cluny appears
never to have been more than nominal.
The earliest known foundation of Austin canons in the county dates from
1160, when the site of an old hermitage at Poughley with adjacent property
was assigned to a company of canons regular of the order of St. Augustine.
This house was another instance of those small establishments suppressed in 1524
in favour of Cardinal Wolsey's Oxford college. A small house for the same
order was founded about 1200 at Sandleford, near Newbury. The foundation
charter of the more important house of Bisham is dated 22 April, 1337.
After a life of close upon two centuries Bisham was suppressed in July, 1536;
but this Austin priory was re-established in December, 1537, by charter of
that utterly fickle king, Henry VIII, as a Benedictine abbey to pray inter alia
for the soul of Jane, his late queen. Hither were translated the ejected abbot
of Chertsey, with his fourteen monks, but after enduring for just six months
the new foundation was, in its turn, summarily suppressed.
The manor of Greenham, a little to the east of Newbury, was given to
the Knights Hospitallers of St. John in the time of Henry II, and here this
military order had a preceptory, whence annual collections were made from
the whole county.
The mendicant orders were slenderly represented in Berkshire itself, but
there were large convents of the four chief orders just over the county boundary at Oxford, whence, it is known, they regularly visited many of the
Berkshire parishes. The Franciscans, or Grey Friars, were first established at
Reading in 1233, obtaining the grudging grant of an often flooded site from
the great abbey. Their position was somewhat improved in 1285 by the
importunity of Archbishop Peckham, himself a Franciscan. There was also
a small establishment of Crouched, or Trinitarian, friars at Donnington, of
which comparatively little is known.
Berkshire was unusually well supplied with hospitals, which provided
for the relief of the sick, the aged, and the wayfarers, and were for the most
part, as elsewhere, under the control of vowed religious. They were eighteen
in number, and at least five of these were originally founded as asylums for
lepers. The Berkshire instances afford yet another proof that hospitals were
the invariable accompaniment of the larger Benedictine houses; they were
to be found in this county at Abingdon (3), Childrey, Donnington, Fyfield,
Hungerford (2), Lambourn, Newbury (2), Reading (3), Wallingford (2),
and Windsor (2). These hospitals were chiefly of quite early foundation,
but three of the number were of late establishment and partook more of the
almshouse character; these were Fyfield (1442), Lambourn (1485), and
The county had three collegiate churches, which differed much in
numbers and administration, as well as in the emoluments provided for the
clergy who served them. They were at Wallingford, where there was a
college of very early foundation in connexion with the castle; at Windsor,
whose far-famed college had its origin in the days of Henry I; and at
Shottesbrook, where the parish church became one of collegiate rank in
The list of Berkshire religious houses is completed by the mention
of two small alien priories or cells of foreign abbeys, which were respectively
situated at Steventon and at Stratfield Saye.