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The Monks at Prayer

The Daily Routine

Inside the Abbey chapter house, by C. Tomkins (1805). (1951.99.5)

Inside the Abbey chapter house, by C. Tomkins (1805). (1951.99.5)

Reading Abbey was home for 100 monks whose first duty was worship, the Opus Dei or 'work of God', in the eight services held in the Abbey Church each day of the year. Most of their time was therefore spent in the Church. It was dedicated to the Virgin Mary and St. John the Evangelist and was of a size approaching Westminster Abbey or St. Paul's Cathedral.

The monks' day began about 3am when they were woken from sleep by the church bell. They slept in undergarments like 'long-johns' and they now dressed over these in black habits (a loose fitting gown with a 'scapular' covering the shoulders in cold weather and a cowl or hood over the head), socks and shoes, and filed silently from the Dormitory into the choir of the Church. Here each monk had his wooden stall, no doubt with a decorated seat, 'misericord' or 'kind heart' upon which he could prop his bottom while still standing if tired during the service. Although no woodwork from the monk's choirstalls survives, a considerable amount of carved stonework from the cloisters still exists, much of it now on display in the Museum. Reading's collection of stonework from this period (the first half of the twelfth century) is one of the most important in the country.

A stone capital with winged dragon carvingA stone capital with dragon head carvingA stone capital with charming 'cat face' carving

Services could last two hours or more and were mainly composed of singing by the monks in plainsong or Gregorian chant, in Latin. The singing was under the overall charge of the 'Precentor'; much was known by heart but much remained to be sung from the numerous service books. During the day the higher treble parts were provided by choir boys from the town. Later in the life of the Abbey the Church had an organ. The choir with the High Altar was sumptuously decorated with tiles underfoot, elaborate wood carvings, and beautiful communion vessels and altar cloths for the Mass.

Separation from the World

To begin his Abbey at Reading, Henry called monks from the great Abbey at Cluny in France and from its daughter priory at Lewes in Sussex. The Cluniac monasteries, a reformed movement in the Benedictine Order, laid great stress on the liturgy and the beauty of services and church.

Burial of King Henry I, 1136The Church at Reading Abbey was laid out in the form of a cross, the choir and High Altar at its head pointing to the east. The singing of the monks rose into the roof and spread into the rest of the Church: the main body or nave to the west and the two transepts (the arms of the cross). The treasures of the Church were housed in the south transept. Precious and ornately boxed Holy Relics, rich vestments, gold, silver and jewelled vessels and candlesticks complemented the singing of monks during the services. Where the choir met the nave stood the stone Rood Screen, with a large wooden figure of Christ facing the worshippers in the nave. This Rood Screen marked the boundary between the world of the monks and the world of the ordinary people who normally stayed on the nave side.

Fifteen years after the Abbey began the tomb of the founder, Henry I, was positioned in front of the High Altar and later a life sized effigy of the king was erected as a memorial to him. Prayers for his soul and for other benefactors of the Abbey were an important part of the worship of the monks.

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Date updated: 21 Feb 2011

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