St Albans – Hertfordshire

   Posted by: Dorothea Preis   in Ricardian Places

St Albans - Hertfordshire

St Albans – Hertfordshire

When considering which could be my next Ricardian Place in Hertfordshire, the recent 555th anniversary of the First Battle of St Albans (22 May 1455) offered the obvious answer.  During our life in England St Albans was a popular haunt for us, for shopping, eating out or just soaking up the atmosphere.  I also happened to have a number of private students there – hello to Tony and Jacky, should you read this.

There have been settlements in the St Albans area for a long time.  The first that we know of was by the Celtic Catuvellauni tribe, who called it ‘Verlamion’.  During the Roman period it became ‘Verulanium’, the second largest town in England after Londinium, situated on Watling Street heading north.[1]  Most of the remains of the Roman town are today covered by Verulanium Park, but some parts have been excavated and can be visited.  For instance the Hypocaust (including an in situ mosaic); the Roman Theatre of Verulamium; and the remains of the Roman city walls and London gate.[2]

St Albans - Hertfordshire

Roman Verulaniam, Remains of the Theatre (© D Preis)

Roman Verulaniam, Remains of the Theatre

The medieval town grew up to the east of the Roman town around the Benedictine abbey dedicated to St Alban.  Alban was the first martyr of Britain (executed in c. 304) and his story was told by the Venerable Bede among others.[3]  Alban was a Romano-British citizen of Verulanium, who gave shelter to a Christian priest, called Amphibalus, during a persecution of Christians.  He was so impressed by what this man had to say that Alban converted to Christianity.  When Roman soldiers came to search his house for the priest, he pretended to be him and was arrested.  During the trial he stood firm to his faith and was beheaded.[4]  However, en route to his execution he performed several miracles like stopping the water of the river to flow and causing a spring of water on the hill (still commemorated in the street name ‘Holywell Hill’) , where he was beheaded.  His original executioner converted and the man, who eventually did the deed, was punished by blindness.  Unfortunately all this did not help Amphibalus, who along with some others was a few days later stoned to death.[5]

St Albans - Hertfordshire

The Martyrdom of St Alban

The Martyrdom of St Alban  This picture is from a 13th century manuscript (in the Trinity College Library, Dublin). It shows the executioner’s eyes falling out, which he catches with one hand, while beheading Alban with the other.

Alban was probably buried in the Roman cemetery to the south of the present Cathedral.  Early on a basilica was built over the spot and then a Saxon Benedictine monastery in c.793.[6]  The present church was begun in 1077, replacing the earlier Saxon abbey.  The abbey became a centre for art and literature.[7]

The end came on 6 December 1539 with the dissolution of the monasteries, when the abbot and his community finally submitted to Henry VIII.  The document was signed by an unusually large number of monks (39), indicating a strong sense of community in spite of the pressure from outside.  However, at this stage most of the wealth of the abbey had gone.  Cardinal Wolsey had appointed himself abbot in 1521 and during his nine years in office (though he couldn’t be bothered to actually be in St Albans) he stripped the treasury to fund his building of Cardinal College Oxford.  Fortunately he was not interested in learning and had left the extensive library alone.  Many of the works can today be found in libraries of Corpus College Cambridge, Trinity College Dublin and The British Library.  With what was left after Wolsey in the treasury,  Henry VIII gave himself an early Christmas present, when he seized everything 12 days after the abbey’s surrender.  We don’t know what became of the relics of St Alban, but churches at Odense in Denmark and Cologne claim to hold relics of him.[8] (This was news to me, after spending half my life in a town just 35 km from Cologne, I had not realised that there was a connection.)


St Albans - Hertfordshire

St Albans Cathedral (© D Preis)

The dissolution of the abbey also brought a dramatic decline to the town, as the trade from pilgrims and visitors stopped.  The town bought the abbey church from Edward VI for £400 to be used as a parish church.  It was the largest parish church in the country, but only had the population of a small market town to support it.  Due to financial constraints it declined slowly into romantic decay.  Most of the other abbey buildings had been demolished by aspiring Tudor landowners, who recycled the building stone to enlarge their newly-purchased monastic farmhouses.  The Lady Chapel was walled off in 1570 from the rest of the church to house the grammar school (St Albans School).[8]  During “The Great Storm” of 1797, along with many buildings all over England, the Abbey suffered damage.  Due to a lack of funds the repairs could not be carried out, until in 1832 part of the top of the south nave wall collapsed taking lead and timber down with the falling masonry.  Then the national press took notice and a fund-raising campaign was started.  During the renovations many of the monastic wall paintings, which are among the finest in Britain, were uncovered.  In 1870 there came a crisis in the restoration work, when the beautiful 11th century tower nearly collapsed, a fate that could just be averted.  Unfortunately there were some, who thought they had to improve on the original and the Perpendicular west front and the main windows in the north and south transepts were destroyed.[9]

St Albans - Hertfordshire

Lady Chapel, St Albans Cathedral (© D Preis)


All the restorations, however, ultimately helped to preserve this beautiful building, which not only is home to many thriving congregations, but also attracts tourists from all over the world.  I am glad to say that the Lady Chapel, after 300 years of use as a school, has been re-united with the church and I could attend the monthly German Lutheran services in this beautiful part of the cathedral, while living nearby.  The school moved in 1871 into the Abbey Gateway, which had been used as a prison since the dissolution. There have been many additions to the school site, so that it forms today a very interesting architectural mixture of buildings dating from the 14th century to the 1990s.  Some playing fields were a few years ago opened by the present day Richard, The Duke of Gloucester,[10] Patron of the Richard III Society.


St Albans - Hertfordshire

St Albans, Abbey Gate, which is now part of St Albans School (© D Preis)

The parish church was elevated to cathedral status in 1877 when the diocese was created under Queen Victoria by the Bishopric of St. Albans Act 1875.[11]

During its history the abbey and the town around it were not always on the best of terms.  During the middle ages the main industry was the manufacture of woollen cloth.  To do this they had to use the monastery mills for fulling, which led to resentment to being ruled by the abbot and his agents.  This lead to frequent quarrels between the abbot and the townspeople.[12]

We all know that there were the two Battles of St Albans during the Wars of the Roses, the first on 22 May 1455, where the Yorkists were victorious, and the second on 17 February 1461, which was won by the Lancastrians.  During this time John Wheathampstead (the spelling varies, but as the village where he was born is spelled this way today, I also use it for his surname) was abbot, who had strong Yorkist leanings.  He was a close friend to Humphrey Duke of Gloucester, uncle and Lord Protector for Henry VI.  Wheathampstead tried in the chronicles to clear Humphrey’s memory and also wrote some strongly Yorkist verses.  And though both Henry VI and Edward IV showed favour to the abbey, and the Chronicles also show respect for Henry VI, the fate of the abbey in relation to the battles (though not of the town) shows that their Yorkist feelings were well known.



St Albans - Hertfordshire

Clock Tower, St Albans (© D Preis)

The First Battle of St Albans was fought in the streets of the town, next to the abbey.  But as Galbraith asserts “only the fact that the direction of the Abbey’s sympathies was well known can have saved it from being plundered”.[13]  The abbot also did what nobody else dared and asked the Duke of York to allow his former enemies to be buried.  Permission was immediately given, and the bodies of three Lancastrian nobles were brought in by the monks and interred in the Lady chapel.[14]

And though the next six years were difficult for the abbey  true disaster struck after the Lancastrian victory at the Second Battle of St Albans on 17 February 1461.  The “Northern troops plundered the Abbey and horribly savaged the surrounding country.  The Queen even condescended to rob the Abbey of its most precious jewels and treasure.”  The result was a famine, with the abbot retiring to Wheathampstead and the monks dispersing.  However, the ultimate Yorkist victory allowed the monks to re-assemble by November 1461. [15]

However, if you ever visit St Albans spend a moment to remember the inhabitants of the town, who drew the short end of the stick in either of the battles fought there – the town was sacked after both.[16]

And when visiting the abbey see whether you can find the effigy of Sir Anthony Grey, who was married to Eleanor, sister of Elizabeth Woodville.  He is represented in full jousting armour with a collar of suns and roses, showing his allegiance to Edward IV and the House of York.  He died in 1480.[17]

If you are interested in history and also play golf (or happen to travel with someone who does), you might like to know that Mr Samuel Ryder had his seed business in St Albans.  He donated the Ryder Cup, which is contested every second year between the PGA of Americn and the PGA European Tour.  His office building is now the Comfort Hotel St. Albans on Holywell Hill and the seed hall houses the Café Rouge these days.

St Albans - Hertfordshire

Former office building & seed hall of Mr Samuel Ryder

1.    “St Albans”, Wikipedia (accessed 23 May 2010)
2.    “Roman Town”, St Albans Museum.  (accessed 23 May 2010)
3.    “St Alban”, Catholic Encyclopedia – New Advent (accessed 23 May 2010)
4.    “The Story of St Alban”, The Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Alban (accessed 24 May 2010)
5.    “St Alban”, New Advent
6.    “The Story of St Alban”
7.    “Monastic Site”, The Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Alban (accessed 24 May 2010)
8.    “Reformation and the Parish of St Albans Abbey”, The Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Alban (accessed 24 May 2010)
9.    “The Great Restorers“, The Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Alban (accessed 24 May 2010)
10.    “St Albans School (Hertfordshire)”, Wikipedia (accessed 29 May 2010)
11.    “Bishop of St Albans”, Wikipedia (accessed 2 June 2010)
12.    Tim Lambert, A Brief History of St Albans (accessed 24 May 2010)
13.    Vivian H Galbraith, The Abbey of St. Albans from 1300 to the Dissolution of the Monasteries: The Stanhope Essay, 1911, p. 51.  You can find the book on the internet here (accessed 5 January 2010)
14.    Victoria County History (VCH), ‘Houses of Benedictine monks: St Albans Abbey – After the Conquest‘, A History of the County of Hertford: Volume 4 (1971), pp. 372-416.  (accessed 29 January 2010)
15.    Galbraith, The Abbey of St Albans, pp.49-52
16.    VCH
17.    “St Albans, Hertfordshire, Sir Anthony Grey”,  Hamline University Brass Rubbings (accessed 7 March 2010)


More on St Albans:

A Scandal at St Albans Abbey

The Cells of the Abbey of St Albans

Fighting in the Streets – The Battles of St Albans (Book Reviews)

First Battle of St Albans

Second Battle of St Albans

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  1. Richard III Society of NSW » Blog Archive » On the trail of St Alban    Oct 05 2010 / 12am:

    […] my recent research into St Albans I had read that a church in Cologne is said to hold relics of St Alban.[1]  At the time I didn’t […]

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