The Abbey and the Gaol

20150314_153654_resized Not a lot of people know this: One of the most ancient abbeys in the world – the place where ‘Summer is A Cumen In’ was composed – sits bang-smack next to the place where Oscar Wilde went to prison.

It was Henry I who gambled on attaining a place in eternity by founding Reading Abbey in 1121 “for the salvation of my soul, and the souls of King William, my father, and of King William, my brother, and Queen Maud, my wife, and all my ancestors and successors”.

It perches on a gravel spur between the River Thames and the River Kennet, perfectly placed to waylay travellers and merchants using the rivers for transport.

In its heyday it was a bustling centre of pilgrimage and trade, the site of a set of lucrative water mills and the haunt of kings. When Henry I died he was buried in front of the main altar before the abbey was even completed: there he lies still, as does Matilda of Scotland, William of Poitiers, and Constance of York.

In 1538 the abbey was ‘dissolved’ by the late great Henry VIII. These abbeys were of such stalwart construction that Hal was unable to raze them, however. Maybe he left them as a lesson to the subversive. For whatever reason, England today is still peppered with dissolved monasteries, and Reading stands still.

Its gatehouse was where Jane Austen went to school; its walls are now the subject of ambitious plans for renovation.

306 years after the abbey’s walls were partially torn down, Victorian revival gothic architect George Gilbert Scott turned his attention to creating a gaol to hold Berkshire’s wrong’uns. Built in a cruciform shape modelled on Pentonville, the gaol was typical of the early Victorian gaols.

1280px-Reading_Gaol_19thcIt was a considerable improvement on what had come before, but it was grim. In its early days, its forecourt was the scene of public executions in front of crowds of thousands.

By the time Charles Thomas Wooleridge was executed, it did not happen in the glare of the public eye, but Oscar Wilde, who was incarcerated there at the end of the 19th century, was profoundly shocked and affected by his fate.

Wooleridge was a guardsman who killed his wife, but his fate seemed robbed of humanity to Wilde, who became the prisoner in cell C33.

The result was The Ballad Of Reading Gaol: an evocation of the dreary numb life of the prisoners, who were numbers, not human beings to the system which contained them.

It is a compelling read, with the rhythm and meter of a traditional ballad and the insight of an eloquent eye-witness. And just a short walk from where Henry I lay, Wooldridge was buried, and Wilde wrote, horrified:

“For he has a pall, this wretched man

Such as few men can claim:

Deep down, below a prison yard,

Naked, for greater shame

He lies, with fetters on each foot

Wrapt in a sheet of flame!”

Such drama and event in the midst of such a humdrum city, just a short walk from MacDonalds.

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