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East of England St Albans Cathedral, Hertfordshire

St Albans is one of the ‘newer' cathedrals, only becoming a cathedral in the C19th. It is less well known than the great cathedrals of Canterbury, York and Durham, but is equally as important and impressive.

It is the oldest site of continuous Christian worship in England and a church has been on this site since the 3rd century. It has the only C11th crossing tower still standing. As well as having the longest nave in England, there is the shrine of St Alban and the wooden watching loft, the only one to survive in Britain. It also has a remarkable collection of late C12th to C16th wall paintings.

Its history begins with the first English martyr, St Alban. Alban had given shelter to an unnamed priest called Amphibulus, who was being persecuted by the Romans for his faith. Alban converted to Christianity and swopped clothes with the priest when the authorities came to arrest him. Alban was taken in front of the magistrates but refused to renounce his faith and was sentenced to death. His grave became a place of pilgrimage and a small church was built over it.

In the C8th, Offa established a Benedictine Monastery here. This was sacked by the Danes in the C10th and, by the time of the Norman conquest, was in a poor condition.

The present building was one of the first abbeys to be built by the Normans. Paul de Caen began building in 1077 and the abbey was consecrated in 1115. As there is very little good building stone around the area (apart from large nodules of flint found in the chalk), the Roman town of Verulaneum was robbed to provide bricks and tiles to be used in the building, along with the flint. There is little decoration as brick, tile and flint is too hard to carve. Now exposed, the walls would originally have been covered with lime plaster to protect against weathering and to hide the mixture of building materials. It must have been stunning.

The central tower, eastern bays of the nave and parts of the north transept are the only parts of the original Norman building to survive. The west wall of the north transept is characteristic of early masonry with alternating courses of Roman brick and tile and large undressed flints. The tower is faced with brick. Originally it may have has a small pyramidal roof. The present top is later.



St Albans Abbey grew in importance and prestige and it was the most important Benedictine monastery in England. It was a centre of learning and the scriptorium was renowned for its book production and writing. It also had one of the first printing presses. A copy of the C12th St Albans Psalter made here is on display in the north aisle.


In the C12th, a second shrine was erected to St Amphibulus after bones thought to be his were discovered. Pilgrim numbers increased, and the west end was extended at the end of the C12th. It is Early English rather than Norman architecture.

By 1300, the original apsidal chancel was in a dangerous condition and was pulled down and rebuilt with a Lady Chapel beyond the shrine of St Alban. In 1323, two of the south pillars of the nave collapsed bringing down the ceiling. This part of the nave had to be rebuilt. By now a new source of building stone had been found which could be carved. The south side of the nave is a complete contrast to the austere north wall.

The abbey was dissolved in 1539 and the monastic buildings were destroyed and used for building stone. Only the the abbey gateway survived and became a prison. The library was dispersed, wall paintings covered over and the shrine of St Alban smashed up. The relics of St Alban disappeared and may have been sent to the continent, as a church in Cologne claims to have the relics today. The townsfolk bought the abbey church for £400 and it became the parish church. The Lady Chapel became the local grammar school and a wall was built, using the broken pieces of St Alban’s shrine, to separate it from the rest of the church.

During the Civil War, the church was used to hold prisoners and the Iconoclasts completed the destruction started by the Dissolution. Little money was spent on repairs and maintenance during the C18th and there was a plan to demolish the abbey and build a smaller church. Fortunately this never happened.

By the C19th the church was in very poor condition. The nave was disused as parts of the roof and south wall had collapsed. An architectural survey revealed major structural repairs were needed. When the medieval wall paintings were rediscovered, money was raised and Sir George Gilbert Scott began a sympathetic restoration, saving the central tower from collapse. The school in the Lady Chapel moved into the West Gatehouse. St Alban’s shrine was rebuilt using the pieces of masonry recovered when the wall separating the Lady Chapel and the church was removed. Along with this, was petitioning for the abbey to become a cathedral and it became the cathedral for the new diocese of St Albans in 1877.

After Scott’s death in 1878, work was completed by a wealthy retired barrister, Edmund Beckett Denison, who later became Lord Grimthorpe. He provided the funds for his restoration but insisted work be carried out to his own designs. He disliked the Perpendicular style of architecture and criticised the work of Scott. His work was a complete mishmash of styles. He is responsible for the west front, which is completely alien to the rest of the cathedral, and looks as if it should belong to a separate building. The heavy buttressing along the south wall of the nave is also his work.



He was also responsible removing the Perpendicular window in the north transept and replacing it with a round rose window, which looks completely out of place. The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings was founded to prevent this happening in future.


Fortunately Gilbert Scotts’ son was responsible for the woodwork in the choir.

The cathedral is open daily and is free, although donations are requested. Free guided tours take place every day.




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St Albans Cathedral cont - the nave and wall paintings

St Albans Cathedral has the longest nave in Britain and it is almost impossible to photograph it. The diverse history of the building can be seen in the mix of architectural styles from the stark Norman to highly decorated Perpendicular, and not forgetting the additions of Lord Grimthorpe.



The Roman brick and tile and the local flint used to build the C11th cathedral were too hard to carve and were covered with lime plaster which was painted over. This is stark Norman architecture, more reminiscent of a castle than an abbey.


Originally the west face of each pillar would have had an altar at the base. Above was the C12th wall painting This had an image of the crucifixion at the top with a scene from the life of the Virgin Mary below.




On the south face of the pillars are paintings of saints.



The underside of the arches were painted with geometric patterns of red, white and black.

In the C12 the nave was extended to the west using a limestone from Bedfordshire that could be carved. This is Early English architecture and a complete contrast to the Norman work. Lack of funds meant that plans for a vaulted stone ceiling were shelved and a flat wood panelled ceiling was built. This was replaced in the C19th restoration.



Part of the south wall of the nave collapsed in the C14th and was rebuilt in the Decorated style of architecture.

A C16th wall painting survives on one of the back pillars in the nave.


The stone rood screen separating the monastic areas in the choir from the lay areas in the nave was built in the C14th. Originally this would have had a rood above and statues in each of the niches. These were destroyed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The brightly coloured statues of Christian martyrs are part of new project to replace the lost statues.


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St Albans Cathedral cont - the quire

The quire was the where the monks met for services. Before the High Altar Screen was built, they would have looked east to the shrine of St Alban. It is part of the original Norman cathedral.


The panelled ceiling was painted in the C14th with the arms of Edward III, his sons and supporters.

The choir stalls and cathedra were replaced in 1905 and are the work of John Oldrid Scott, the son of Sir George Gilbert Scott and continue in his father’s tradition. The organ is above the stone rood screen.


The glazed floor tiles are copies of the original medieval tiles and are the work of Gilbert Scott.


In the north quire aisle is an exhibition on the history of the abbey. This includes a copy of the C12th St Alban Psalter and church plate.



There is also a replica of the C14th Wallingford clock which was one of the first mechanical clocks to be made and was designed by Abbot Wallingford. It included an astronomical section which showed the phases of the moon, position of the stars and even predicted lunar eclipses.



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St Albans Cathedral cont - the crossing and transepts

The tower was the first part of the Norman church to be built and is the only C11th crossing tower still standing. It features the stark Norman architecture and was built with a flat, panelled wood ceiling. The ceiling was replaced and repainted during a mid C20th refurbishment and is an exact copy of the C15th original ceiling. Dating from the time of the Wars of the Roses, it depicts the white rose of York and the red rose of Lancaster and may commemorate the first battle of St Albans won by the Yorkists and the second battle of St Albans won by the Lancastrians. The painted shields below the ceiling commemorate the lying in state here of the body of Eleanor, wife of Edward I on her way to burial in London.


One of the original panels hangs above the north presbytery door.


The north transept is predominantly stark Norman apart from the circular rose window, the work of Lord Grimthorpe, which replaced a large Perpendicular window. On the west wall are busts of Lord Grimthorpe and Archdeacon Grant who was one of his chief critics. The splendid marble tomb beneath the window is that of Thomas Legh Claughton, first Bishop of St Albans.



The carved stone pulpit by the crossing arch is the work of John Oldrid Scott.


On the east wall is a stone slab which was the base of the C12th shrine of St Alban.


Much of the south transept was rebuilt by Lord Grimshaw and is probably less controversial than the rest of his work as he has kept the traditional style with five lancet windows.


The Norman doorway in the south wall leading to the cafe was moved here by Lord Grimshaw and he added the inner row of carving.



Perhaps less successful is the small arcade of Roman bricks, Saxon and Norman work on the east wall. Below this is a small C13th painting of a censing angel.



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St Albans Cathedral cont - the presbytery and the chantry chapels

Usually referred to as the chancel or sanctuary, in St Albans this area is called the presbytery. The high altar is here.

The presbytery is reached through doorways from the presbytery aisles.


The massive stone screen between the high altar and St Alban’s shrine was built in 1484 by Abbot Wallingford. Each of the niches would have contained statues which were destroyed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. These were replaced during the C19th restoration. In the centre is Christ Crucified, surrounded by notable people from British Christianity, including Abbot Nicholas Breakespeare, the only English pope, who was born locally. On either side of the high altar are St Alban and St Amphibulis.


The C13th oak ceiling was painted in the C15th with badges of patron saints, the eagle of St John the Evangelist and the lamb of John the Baptist.


On either side, reached from the presbytery side aisles, are chantry chapels. On the south side is the Wallingford Chantry Chapel. The Blessed Sacrament is kept here.



On the north side is the Ramryge Chantry Chapel built around 1520 for Abbot Ramryge. This has a beautiful open carved front onto the north presbytery aisle. It has a beautiful fan vaulted ceiling and now serve as a chapel of Bereavement. The modern perspex figures designed by Claudia Brown in 2007 represent the six stages of grieving.





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St Albans Cathedral - St Alban's shrine

During the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the shrine of St Alban was destroyed and the broken bits of masonry were used to block the arches between the shrine and the Lady Chapel. When the arches were reopened during the C19th restoration work, over 2000 pieces of the shrine were recovered and the shrine painstakingly reconstructed. At one end is a carving of the martyrdom of St Alban. At the other end is a carving of Offa and his monastery church.


St Pantaleon Church in Cologne claim to have the original relics of St Alban wnhich were rescued after the Dissolution and in 2002, and have gifted a small relic of St Alban to the cathedral.

The relics would originally have rested under a silk canopy. The red colour represented the blood of the martyr and the gold his crown in Heaven.

The icon of St Alban at the west end was given by the Russian Orthodox congregation who also worship in the cathedral.


The shrine of St Amphibalus has been carefully restored and in 2021 was returned to St Alban’s Abbey, near the Shrine of St Alban.

st Alban's shrine is overlooked by the oak Watching Loft on the north wall, dating from 1400. Watchers sat in the upper chamber where they could keep careful watch on pilgrims visiting the shrine. Spy holes in the rear of the chamber allowed them to watch pilgrims approaching along the north presbytery aisle.



This is the only wood watching chamber to survive in England and is beautifully carved.


On the south wall is the chantry chapel of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. He was the brother of Henry V and fought with him at Agincourt. After Henry’s death, he became Protector of England for the baby Henry VI. He was a notable scholar and gave books to St Albans and Oxford University. He was a close friend of the abbot and wanted to be buried in St Albans. His body lies beneath the chapel.


The chapel was designed with a metal grille along the bottom so pilgrims in the south presbytery aisle could still see the tomb. Above is beautifully carved open stonework.



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St Albans Cathedral - the Lady Chapel and the presbytery aisles

The original Norman abbey was built with an apse but the whole of the east end had to be rebuilt in the C14th after cracks appeared in the presbytery. It was designed with the presbytery aisles to provide a processional route around the shrine of St Alban. Some of the C14th carving still survives around the window recesses.


After the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the Lady Chapel was used as a school room and walled off from the rest of the church. By the end of the C19th the Lady Chapel was in poor condition. The school moved into the Abbey Gatehouse and restoration work began. The arches looking back into the shrine area were opened up.


There was a sympathetic restoration by Lord Grimthorpe. The wooden ceiling was replaced by a stone vault, supported on carved bases with flowers and leaves


There is blind arcading around the base of the walls and a sedilia and piscina on the south wall.



On either side of the Lady Chapel at the ends of the presbytery aisles are small chapels. To the south is the Chapel of Our Lady of the Four Tapers which is now the Mother’s Union Chapel.


The north chapel doesn’t seem to have a name but does have rather a nice carved wood screen leading into it.


The south presbytery aisle is Early English and the original wooden poor box is found here.



It has some rather nice arcading along the presbytery wall.


The north presbytery aisle is a mixture of Norman and Early English work. There is a wall painting above the crossing arch.


The massive brass of Abbot Walter de la Mare is on the floor near the Watching Chamber.


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