Visiting Reading Minster, Reading, England: Medieval, Downtown landmark in flint and ashlar, recalling a Queen-assassin

Flag of England
Flag of England | Source
 Reading St Mary's Minster Church and Butts
Reading St Mary's Minster Church and Butts | Source
 Clock on St Mary's Church, Reading
Clock on St Mary's Church, Reading | Source
Map location of Berkshire, United Kingdom
Map location of Berkshire, United Kingdom | Source

What's a Medieval regicide or two among friends?

The checkered tower of Reading Minster, executed in flint and ashlar, is a landmark in Downtown Reading, in England's Berkshire.

It is a very old church building indeed. There was supposed to have been a religious foundation of some sort on the site of Reading Minster in the 7th century, but records are sketchy.

Then came a murderous Queen.

"A what?"

Well, I'll tell you. Queen Aelthfrith (circa 945 - circa 1001), who had been Queen Consort to King Edgar of England and would later serve as Regent for her son Aethelred, ordered the assassination of King Edward (her stepson) at Corfe Castle in 978, according to various Medieval historical accounts.

"Oh, well, then! But what did Reading have to do with all this?"

Well, the story goes that Queen Aelthfrith, in a fit remorse at her bloodthirsty deed, founded a nunnery in Reading. Hollywood in Medieval Berkshire. Part of the narrative is supposed to be that Reading Minster today stands on the spot where Queen Aelthfrith's nunnery was (A doorway which still exists at the Minster is reckoned to date from this time.) Queen Aelthfrith was in any case noted for being very religious.

"Yes, but if this Aelthfrith lady really was a killer, how could she have been allowed to dispense religious patronage in such a public way."

Well, all I can say is, from the Medieval point of view, what's a regicide or two among friends? A longer answer maybe is that if one had the wealth and the influence to do so, there would always be enough clergy around to be willing to lap up the patronage. As a matter of fact, Aelthfrith was in her day very widely known as for her munificence and sponsorship of religious institutions.

A word about the name: Reading Minster is also known as St. Mary's Church. Except that there is another (at least, quasi-) Anglican church not many metres away from the building which is also called St Mary's — the latter is officially an Episcopal chapel, but, with the possibility of confusion, St Mary's Church's other name — Reading Minster — is also used frequently.

One former minister of Reading Minster, between 1818 and 1835, was Henry Hart Milman (1791-1868). He is often remembered as the author of the hymn: 'Ride On, Ride On, in Majesty!' (1) At various times, he also served as Professor of Poetry at Oxford University and Dean of St Paul's, wrote popular plays such as The Italian Wife and was responsible for an (in its time) controversial History of the Jews .

Features of Reading Minster include checkered flint walls, and a pinnacled tower. The main part of the building dates essentially from the 11th century, with various renovations occurring in the 19th, 20th and early 21st centuries.

In summary, with its memories of the redoubtable Aelthfrith, Reading Minster seems perfectly to encapsulate the uncanny and sometimes unpalatable ability of English history to combine the sublime with the grotesque.

October 21, 2012

Note

(1) Some of the words of this hymn by Henry H. Milman, familiar in many English-speaking churches worldwide, are:

'Ride on, ride on, in majesty!
Hark! all the tribes Hosanna cry;
O Savior meek, pursue Thy road
With palms and scattered garments strowed.

Ride on, ride on, in majesty!
In lowly pomp ride on to die!
O Christ! Thy triumph now begin
Over captive death and conquered sin.'

Also worth seeing

In Reading itself, there are many other examples of church architecture, St Lawrence-in-Reading, once the chapel of the ruined Reading Abbey and the former Broad Street Independent Chapel; Providence Chapel; the Town Hall and Reading University's Foxhill House, are by architect Alfred Waterhouse; the University's Great Hall, Wantage Hall and St Patrick's Hall are of note, as is the Royal Berkshire Hospital.

...

How to get there

United Airlines flies from New York Newark Airport to London Heathrow Airport, where car rental is available. Distance from Heathrow Airport to Reading is 49 kilometres. A regular bus link exists between Heathrow Airport and Reading. Some facilities may be withdrawn, without notice. For up to date information, please check with the airline or your travel agent.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.

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