A History of the County of Berkshire: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1907.
This free content was digitised by double rekeying. All rights reserved.
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 Reading.
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 1524.
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 Childrey (1526).
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 1337.