November 14th is the annversary of the martyrdom in 1539 of Abbot Hugh Cook, or Faringdon, the last Abbor of Reading, and his companions John Rugge and John Enyon.
The most recent account of the life of the Abbot I can find is that in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and it can be read here.
Reading Library website has a biography which I have copied and edited slightly adding information from other sites, including the DNB and the new ODNB and combined it with an article in the Douai Oblate newsletter for October 1998:
Blessed Hugh Faringdon (d. 1539), Last Abbot of Reading Abbey
“Not fearing openly to profess that which Henry’s laws made it treason to hold - fidelity to the See of Rome which he declared was but the common faith of those who had the best right to know what was the true teaching of the English Church.”
- Attributed last words of Hugh Faringdon
Possibly originating from Faringdon in Berkshire, hence his name in religion, his original name was Hugh Cook. As he later used the arms of the Cook family from Kent there may be a connection with them, although assuming the arms of a family with the same surname, but no actual familial relationshio was far from unknown. He probably entered the abbey before 1500 and was the abbey’s sub-chamberlain when he was elected Abbot in 1520 following the death in July that year of Abbot Thomas Worcester. Faringdon kept the abbey in good order and encouraged the grammar school attached to the Abbey, attracting better staff and noble pupils. These included James Bassett, the stepson of Arthur Plantagenet, Viscout Lisle, the illegitimate son of Edward IV. In his last months of freedom in 1539 the abbot concluded a new teaching agreement between the abbey and Cox.
The chronicler Edward Hall described Faringdon as "a stubborn monk and utterly without learning," but this may be the prejudice of a quasi-official government propagandist. Browne-Willis refers to the abbot's letters in the Register of the University of Oxford, which, however, were not necessarily composed by him. The specimens of his correspondence preserved in the Public Record Office are short and in English. He was certainly a patron of learning. About 1524 Edward Cox, the Reading Grammar school's humanist master, published a treatise, The Arte or Crafte of Rhethoryke, which he dedicated to the Abbot as to one who "hathe allwayes tenderly favored the profyte of yonge studentes". Further, the expression of a correspondent of Lord Lisle's that the Abbot "makes much of James Basset and plieth him to his learning both in Latin and French", does not convey the impression that he considered Faringdon illiterate.
He also fulfilled local government responsibilities including acting as a Justice of the Peace. Despite his resistance to Protestant ideas, signified by his refusal to allow anyone connected to these new ideas to be attached to the abbey, as a member of the House of Lords he consistently supported the government. He signed petitions to the Pope supporting Henry VIII’s divorce, even offering to search the abbey’s library to find a stronger case. He frequently entertained Henry at the abbey, and was called by Henry “his own abbot”, being made a Royal Chaplain in 1532.
Abbot Hugh was staunchly opposed to the new heresies, especially Lutheranism. One of his monks was Dom John Holyman, also strongly opposed to Lutheranism, who had been a fellow of New College, Oxford, before becoming a monk. In 1530 he was due to preach a University sermon for his doctor's degree; Abbot Hugh asked that he be permitted to preach the sermon in London instead, so as to counter the growing tide of Lutheranism there.
In 1535 the Abbot, it is said, intended to have resigned in favour of the Prior of Leominster, a cell of Reading, but changed his intention following the passing of the Statute of Abatement of Pensions.
Faringdon signed the articles of faith in 1536 which acknowledged the royal supremacy of the church, but according to a contemporary writer he had added in conscience "of the temporal church but not of the spiritual." Moreover he maintained he would pray for the Pope as long as he lived and would say Mass for him once a week.
In 1536 he took the oath of Royal Supremacy and also agreed with the dissolution of the lesser monasteries. Politically Faringdon supported the King and contributed men to fight against the Northern rebellion of 1536, the Pilgrimage of Grace, although some townspeople of Reading had been in touch with the leader of the rebellion, Robert Aske. In October 1537 the Abbot sang a requiem Mass at Queen Jane Seymour’s funeral, but in December that year a rumour reached Reading that the king was dead, which Faringdon repeated in letters to some of his neighbours. This could be construed as treason. However, the king graciously pardoned him.Through these years the Abbot appears to have been steering a careful political course, presumably hoping that events would take a turn for the better.
Despite his royal patronage, the Abbot’s fall in 1539 was rapid, after Faringdon refused to obey hints to dissolve Reading Abbey. In August 1538, Dr John London, royal commissioner for the visitation of monasteries under the authority of Thomas Cromwell had arrived in Reading. On September 13 Greyfriars, Reading, was surrendered to the Crown: on September 17 the shrine of Our Lady at Caversham was destroyed: in both cases the riches were confiscated by the Crown, the silver statue of Our Lady was nailed in a chest and sent by barge to Cromwell's house in London. At the same time Dr London visited the Abbey and made an inventory for Cromwell. The abbot was not willing to surrender the abbey.
On May 19, 1539 an act granting to the king all abbeys which "hereafter shall happen to be dissolved, suppressed, renounced, relinquished, forfeited...or shall happen to come to the King's Highness by Attainder of Treason." Faringdon still refused to surrender the abbey, so a charge had to be invented.
The charge was loyalty to the Holy See which implied a denial of the King's supremacy and was therefore equivalent to treason. He was also alleged to have sent money to the northern rebels. Accordingly Faringdon was arrested at his manor house of Bere Court at Pangbourne on September 17, and imprisoned in the Tower of London. There were rumours he was connected to the Exeter Conspiracy of the previous year, and his fellow Reading victim John Rugge had connections to that aristocratic circle through the cathedral at Chichester. However the charges laid against the Abbot were of upholding papal supremacy on three separate occasions.
In the Tower were also the Abbots of Glastonbury and Colchester, and they communicated and encouraged each other by means of a blind harpist called William Moore. As a peer of the realm, charged with treason, Faringdon should have been brought before parliament. No trial took place, only questioning in the Tower which may have produced incriminating evidence. He was sent back to Reading for a public trial. It was to be a show trial, the result was determined beforehand. In a note in Cromwell's own hand is written “The Abbot of Redyng to be sent down to be tried and executed at Redyng with his complices...see that the evidence is well sorted and the indictments well drawn."
In 1960 the official report of the trial and indictment was discovered in the Public Record Office and it is now clear that he was tried on November 13, 1539 in the great hall over the Gateway of the Abbey on a charge of high treason for denying the royal supremacy of the English Church. (This great hall still exists). The abbot was allowed no defence and a sworn jury declared that he was guilty of the charges. Two others, John Enyon who was a priest at St Giles Church, Reading, a friend of Faringdon's and John Rugge (or Rudge) a former prebendary of Chichester, who had been living in retirement in the Abbey were also found guilty with him. Enyon was alleged to have circulated a letter in support of the Pilgrimage of Grace, and Rugge of possessing the relic of the hand of St Athanasius in despite of the King's representitive having been sent to suppress such idolatry. Reading as an abbey had from its foundation a famed collection of relics - most notably the hand of St James the Great All three were sentenced to the death of a traitor, that of hanging, drawing and quartering, no exception being made in the abbot's case, despite his being a lord spiritual of the realm.
The next day, November 14, after being dragged round the town, and refusing to recant his loyalty to Rome, he and the two other local clergy, were hung, drawn and quartered in the Forbury before the Abbey Gateway. The exact site of the executions is not enirely clear as they may have taken place been in front of the gateway facing the market place or that which still survives which linked the abbey outer court to the monastic buildings. Marillac, the French ambassador, writing to Francis I on November 30, said the abbot's remains were hung up in chains.
After his death the Abbey was dissolved, its lands and goods confiscated by the Crown.
Together with John Rugge and John Enyon he was beatified in 1895. He gave his name to Blessed Hugh Faringdon Catholic School and is also commemorated in the Church of the English Martyrs, in Leibenrood Road. More recently a public house has been named after him. Bl John Eynon is commemorated in the much rebuilt St Giles church where he was priest.
Today, apart from the gatehouse leading into what was the monastic enclosure from the outer court (and in which, incidentally Jane Austen went to school) only pitiful fragments of rubble core are to be seen of the church and chapter house. In the Museum in Reading, which is well worth visiting, are examples of the lavish Cluny inspired sculpture with which the church was decorated.
The website of the Friends of Reading Abbey gives an account of the site and of their meetings.
The Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture in Britain and Ireland site has an impressive array of pictures of the remains and can be found here.
I found this interactive picture of a model in theMuseum which gives some idea of the appearnce of the abbey, although given its Cluniac sources I would be inclined to imagine loftier spires on the towers - perhaps rather like those at Southwell Minster in Nottinghamshire
Move your cursor over the picture of the Abbey above. Click when it turns into a hand to show that there is a link to another page. You will then jump to a page telling you about the part of the Abbey you have clicked on.
You may like to use the page on the buildings of the Abbey clearly numbering and naming the different parts - click here.The picture is of the model of the Abbey made by Mr R. W. Ford which is on display in the Museum of Reading. It shows the Abbey as it was around 1500.
Copyright Reading Museum Service (Reading Borough Council). All rights reserved.
See also: www.berksarch.co.uk/fora/lesabbey/discovering.htm
When I was dining at Magdalen here in Oxford on Friday I was reminded that the panelling in the Hall there is said to come from Reading Abbey.