The fascinating history of Reading Minster church

The Minster in St Mary’s Butts, is one of Reading’s iconic buildings and is both the oldest church and building in the town.

But prior to the current church being built, there were two others in its place, with one of these being a church that was built in the 630s.

Birinus, who was a Benedictine monk, a Frank was sent by Pope Honorius I to Saxon Wessex to spread Christianity.

He established many churches with Reading being one of them.

He was later appointed the Bishop of Dorchester and died in 649.

It is not clear what happened to this church, but in 979 a Nunnery was built on the grounds of the Minster on behalf of Ælfthryth, the Queen of the English, the second wife of Edgar the Peaceful, King of all England.

She was his second wife, with the two being married in recompense for the murder of her stepson Edward the Martyr who was King from 975  to his murder at Corfe in 978 under mysterious circumstances.

 Ælfthryth, who’s name is also spelt Alfrida or Elfrida, was the first Queen of the English to have a coronation, which happened in 973 in Bath.  

The Nunnery that she founded in Reading was burnt down in 1006 by Danes who were invading England from Scandinavia.

Only a rounded archway called ‘Edward the Martyr Archway’ is left from that nunnery, which has been incorporated into the existing Minster.

The archway is situated to the left of the main entrance.  

A church was re-established once the Danes were fended off by native Wessex Saxons, which was notable enough to be mentioned in the Doomsday Book of 1086 following the infamous Norman conquest 20 years earlier.

From the first Reading Abbott Hugh of Amiens in 1123 to the last Hugh Cook of Farringdon who was executed in 1539 the Minster was under the care of monks of the Catholic Church of England.

However, the prominence of the Minster was eclipsed by Reading Abbey, which was established by the Norman King Henry I in 1121.

But when Reading Abbey was destroyed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII, the Minster regained its status within the Church of England. 

The town was important enough to be assigned a Bishop, with James Leslie Randall being appointed to the office in 1889. 

In recent years, Reading Minster’s pastoral team has been made up of women, after the Church of England allowed women to become vicars in 1994 and bishops in 2014. 

Olivia Graham was appointed the first female Bishop of Reading in 2019, with Reverend Sonja Wratten becoming the Vicar of the church in 2021. 

Owing to its long history and architectural interest, Reading Minster is Grade I listed, with its standout tower dating back to 1551-1555. 

This article was written by historian Colin Describe and edited by Reading Chronicle staff. 

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