Reading is a large town, unitary authority area (the Borough of,) and urban area in South East England. For ceremonial purpose it is in the county of Berkshire and has served as the county town since 1867. Reading lies at the confluence of the River Thames and River Kennet, midway between London and Swindon off the M4 motorway.
Reading was an important national centre in the medieval period, as the site of an important monastery with strong royal connections, but suffered economic damage during the 17th century from which it took a long time to recover. Today it is again an important commercial centre, with strong links to information technology and insurance. It is also a university town, with two universities and a large student population. Reading is now the largest town in England.
The settlement was founded at the confluence of the River Thames and River Kennet in the eighth century as Readingum. The name is probably from the Anglo-Saxon for "(Place of) Readda's People", or (less probably) the Celtic Rhydd-Inge, "Ford over the River". It was occupied by the Vikings after the first Battle of Reading in 871, but had recovered sufficiently by its 1086 Domesday Book listing to contain around 600 people and be made a designated borough.
The foundation of Reading Abbey by Henry I in 1121 led to the town becoming a place of pilgrimage. In 1253 the local Merchant Guild successfully petitioned for the grant of a charter from the King and negotiated a division of authority with the Abbey. The dissolution of the Abbey saw Henry VIII grant the Guild a new charter in 1542 with which to become a borough corporation to run the town.
By the end of the 16th century Reading was the largest town in Berkshire, home to over 3,000 people. The area had grown rich on its trade in cloth, as instanced by the fortune made by local merchant John Kendrick.
The town played an important role during the English Civil War; it changed hands a number of times. Despite its fortifications, it had a Royalist garrison imposed on it in 1642. The subsequent Siege of Reading by the Parliamentary forces succeeded in April 1643. However the taxes levied on the town by the garrison badly damaged its cloth trade, and it did not recover.
Reading was also the only site of significant fighting in England during the Revolution of 1688, with the second Battle of Reading.
The 18th century saw the beginning of a major iron works in the town and the growth of the brewing trade for which the town was to become famous. Agricultural products from the surrounding area still used the town as a market place, especially at the famous local cheese fair but now trade was coming in from a wider area.
Reading's trade benefited from better designed turnpike roads which helped its establish its location on the major coaching routes from London to Oxford and the west country. It also gained from increasing river traffic on both the Thames and Kennet. In 1723, despite considerable local opposition, the Kennet Navigation opened the River Kennet to boats as far as Newbury. This opposition stopped when it became apparent the new route benefited the town. The opening of the Kennet and Avon Canal in 1810 made it possible to go by barge from Reading to the Bristol Channel.
In 1801, the population of Reading was about 9,400. During the 19th century, Reading grew rapidly as a manufacturing centre. Reading maintained its representation by two Members of Parliament with the Reform Act 1832, and the borough was one of the ones reformed as a municipal borough by the Municipal Corporations Act 1835.