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The town of Reading has been often described, its history often written. Whoever has read ' Belford Regis '—and who has not?—knows something of the sunny side of its present condition; and the readers of this series of volumes have had a lively picture set before them of its state at one period of its olden existence. Now, if I were in the habit of making sunny pictures, or telling a lively tale, I should be deterred from adventuring to do so on the present occasion ; as it is, I shall take the safer course, and plod through a dry general account, leaving the wiser of my readers to skip the chapter.
"To write," says Dr. Johnson, in his oracular way, " to write of the cities of our own island with the solemnity of geographical description, as if we had been cast upon a newly discovered coast, has the appearance of very frivolous ostentation; and yet—" and yet as something of the sort must be done, it had better be done quickly and quietly: we will, therefore, leave the ostentation to shift for itself, and endeavour to support the solemnity. Reading, then, stands a few hundred yards from the Thames; the Great Western road runs through the centre of it, and the Great Western railway on one side—between it and the river. It is a large irregularly arranged place (though I believe the
historians of the town have found out some definite shape for it, but whether triangle or hexangle, I forget); and it holds somewhere near nineteen thousand inhabitants. It is the county-town, and a parliamentary borough, sending two members to the Imperial Parliament. The assizes are held in it; and it has a market twice a week, a large annual fair for cheese, and three others for horses and cattle. Moreover it has a good trade and some manufactures, and is altogether the most bustling business-like place we have yet visited. So large a town has of course a good many houses, and they are of different sizes and kinds. It has too the ordinary number of buildings belonging to the corporation, and more than the ordinary number belonging to charitable institutions. It has three old churches, which have been all miserably defaced, and look miserable; one or two new ones, which look very smart; and one or two others, which look very shabby. It has also the usual number of dissenting chapels, which present the usual varieties of deformity. Finally there are the workhouse and the county gaol. So that it has altogether a very comfortable, respectable, social, substantial, every-day English look.
So far we are safe enough—now for its history. This unluckily is rather long, and chiefly interesting to its inhabitants; we may, therefore, run over it rapidly. Antiquarians have not decided whether the name is of British or Saxon origin; nor whether, consequently, it came to be called Reading from being built in a ferny country; or because it was placed by an old ford; or because it was built in a meadow subject to be flooded. But there seems to be no doubt that it was a town at a very early date, though the first mention of it occurs in 871, when it was occupied and fortified by the Danes, who made it the centre from whence to plunder and devastate the surrounding country. An attempt was made to dispossess them of the town by Ethelred, the Saxon king, in person, assisted by his brother Alfred, afterwards the Great, and Ethulwulph, a powerful Saxon Earl, and lord of these parts. Ethelred was at first successful, and the Danes were driven within their fortifications, but they retained possession of the town, and soon after, by a sudden sally, entirely defeated the royal army. During the remainder of the summer they were left in undisturbed possession of the town, but at the close of it they withdrew to London. In 1006 the Danes under Sweyn, their king, again visited Reading, which they burnt. From the effects of this visitation it does not appear to have soon recovered, for at the next notice of the town, which is in the Domesday Survey, it is stated to belong to the king, who " has in the burgh twenty-eight houses," and it is supposed that had there been any more they would have been mentioned.
It is to Henry I. that Reading is indebted for the origin of all its importance. That monarch, in 1121, founded an Abbey at Reading, for two hundred monks of the Benedictine order, on the site of a religious house which had been destroyed when the Danes burnt the town; and endowed it in the most princely manner. The abbey he made a mitred one, the abbot having the rights of a spiritual lord; and as a peer in parliament, ranking only below the abbots of Glastonbury and St. Albans. For its support he gave to it several manors and parishes; and rights and powers of the largest kind in all matters of manorial lordship. And he gave them exceptions almost as extensive as their rights; for they were to be free from all taxes and levies of all kinds, and their servants from all tributes, tolls, and customs in travelling all over England. He also gave them the privilege of setting up a mint and striking therein coinage with whatever impression and circumscription the abbot should direct.* About such an establishment people would in those days soon collect, as well for safety as for trade. And the king, or the monks, took care to build a substantial edifice—for those times an almost impregnable one. Henry did not forget his abbey during the remainder of his life, and at his death, which happened at Rouen some ten years after the foundation of the abbey, he directed his body to be buried in it, which was done as he desired; his body, having been rudely embalmed, was wrapt in bull-hides and brought to Reading, where his interment was performed with great solemnity. His body rested there till the dissolution of the monastery, when the tomb was destroyed, and his bones were " thrown out" to make room for a stable. The eldest son of Henry II. was, in 1156, buried with his grandfather.
In subsequent reigns Reading was frequently visited by the sovereigns, and it was the scene of some important ceremonials. A well-known trial by battle occurred here in 1163, at which Henry II.
'* This right of coinage was withdrawn from the Ahbot of Reading by Edward II., nearly two centuries afterwards; but it was restored a few years later by Edward III., for pennies and farthings. None of these coins have been discovered of an earlier date than the reign of Edward I. They are pennies only, and very rare. Some halfpennies of the reign of Edward III. have also been met with.