The many wonders of medieval Caversham

Caversham is just across the Thames from Reading. The present bridge carrying the main road between the two places is modern, but it is more or less on the site of a medieval stone and timber bridge, dating from between 1163 and 1231. Sources vary as to whether it had one, two or three chapels, with the chapel of St. Anne standing on an island in the middle. Another suggestion is that the chapel of the Holy Spirit was at the Reading end and the Chapel of St Anne at the Caversham end! (1) It is all very confusing and – quite frankly – your guess is as good as mine.

Leland recorded that among the relics preserved in (one of) the bridge chapels was the dagger supposed to have been used to kill Henry VI. By his time the bridge had become part of the pilgrim route to Windsor, used by people wishing to honour the late Lancastrian king, believed by many to be a saint.

Caversham lock, located at Lower Caversham, downstream from the bridge, was claimed in the 1390s to be ‘so narrow and dangerous’ that ‘men with shouts, bargets and kiddles cannot pass there towards Oxford as they were wont to do of old’, although upstream journeys evidentlycontinued in the 15th century. (2)

Near this point there was a ferry, which gave direct access to Reading Abbey – more or less opposite. A little further downsteam still was a (probably) moated manor house of some distinction. (3) The medieval house, close to the river, was at one time the home of William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke. It descended to the Despensers, and then (eventually) to Anne Beauchamp, Countess of Warwick. It appears to have been in the portion of her estates allocated to George, Duke of Clarence. (The site is now an upmarket housing estate, known as Dean’s Farm.)

The medieval house was replaced in Elizabethan times by one further back from the river. This in turn was demolished and replaced by a house further back still, which is extant, and known as Caversham Park. (Until quite recently, it was occupied by the BBC.) Surrounding it is a part of the original extensive deer park, but originally this would have been much larger, stretching down to the medieval manor house.

Somewhere close to this house – perhaps even within its grounds – was the important shrine of Our Lady of Caversham. It was managed by the black canons of Notley, so (rather surprisingly) had no connection to Reading Abbey. Its origins are unknown, as is its exact location, but it existed at the time of the Conquest. (4) This shrine was regarded as second only to Our Lady Of Walsingham, and Catherine of Aragon is recorded as having visited it. Given its importance (and its location in the Thames Valley) it is almost certain that many other Kings and Queens of England will also have arrived as pilgrims. In the fifteenth century, Isabelle, Countess of Warwick left 20lb of gold to provide a new crown for Our Lady. It must have been very spectacular! The chapel also contained what was claimed to be the spear that had pierced Christ’s side.

Needless to say, the shrine was closed and its riches looted during the reign of Henry VIII. A modern shrine has been established to replace it at the Catholic church of Our Lady and St. Anne, but, obviously, this is at quite a different location.

As if pilgrims did not have enough the attract them, there was also a holy well, assigned to St. Anne, at Caversham. This still exists, at Priest Hill, although it is now dry and so you can no longer drink the healing waters. (5). Moreover, just across the river was Reading Abbey, which had a whole collection of relics including an arm of St. James, a piece of the True Cross, Christ’s sandal, a piece of the Virgin’s hair, and a piece of crust left over from the feeding of the five thousand. Truly, for the medieval pilgrim, Caversham and Reading were the places to be.




1 Pilgrim Routes of the British Isles by Emma J Wells.

2 VCH Oxfordshire Texts in Progress.



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1 comment

  1. Just finished reading Hilary Mantel’s trilogy on Cromwell and I can honestly say that I’m very grateful we don’t have to revere those fake pieces of tree, toenails, animal bones posing as the mortal remains of saints thanks to him! Just a moneymaking exercise by the monastery class. However, I do admit that the architecture and the music was sublime…


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