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Town and Abbey

Reading Abbey was founded by Henry I in 1121. The Abbey immediately acquired not just the town but enormous privileges to hold courts and fairs and control trade.

Henry I's burial

The Burial of Henry I, by Stephen Reid 1916
(reproduced by permission of The Museum of Reading)


The traders and craftsmen in the town had formed a Merchant Gild to manage their lands and their own, separate market. When the Abbey needed money it tried to take over the market. The Gild petitioned the King to claim borough rights and freedoms which pre-dated the Abbey’s rights. But the Gild could produce no written evidence to prove this.

So the Gild paid £100 (roughly £44,000 at today’s prices) for the grant by the King of the charter of 5 July 1253, giving them freedom to buy and sell wheresoever they wished throughout England without tolls. This is the earliest such grant of rights to what became the town of Reading.

Town seal 13651254 agreement

(above) The earliest representation of the
Borough’s arms on the town seal 1365 (R/AT1/52)
(right) A contemporary copy of the 1254 agreement
between the Abbot and the Merchant Gild (R/HMC IIIpt)

The Gild also made an agreement with the Abbot in February 1254. This agreement defined the relationship between town and Abbey until the Dissolution. It allowed the burgesses of the Gild to keep their market, their Gildhall and other properties; in return the Abbot received a financial contribution from the Gild and could collect the fines from the court.


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