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The photographs were taken in July 2012.
„This is the oldest site of continuous Christian worship in Britain. It stands over the place where Alban, the first martyr, was buried after giving his life for his faith over 1700 years ago.“ (cathedral website)
St Albans was one of the great Benedictine abbeys of England. It takes its name from the eponymous saint, martyred in what was then the substantial Roman settlement of Verulamium. As is not unusual of that period, the day of his death is recorded, perhaps correctly, but not the year: he would have been killed sometime in the third or perhaps at the beginning of the fourth century. Germanus of Auxerre is recorded as visiting the tomb of the saint around the year 429; Gildas in the sixth century notes the cult of the saint and gives the location: Verulamium; Bede in the eighth century describes the martyrdom of the saint, supplies a version of the visit of St Germanus embroidered with many additional details and notes that
„The blessed Alban suffered death on the twenty-second day of June, near the city of Verulamium, which is now by the English nation called Verlamacæstir…, where afterwards…a church of wonderful workmanship, and altogether worthy to commemorate his martyrdom, was erected. In which place the cure of sick persons and the frequent working of wonders cease not to this day.“ (Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum i.7, trans. A.M. Sellar)
The monastery as such is said to have been founded by king Offa in 793.
The east end of the former abbey church was rebuilt under abbot Roger of Norton (1263-90). Visible in the background are the 11C crossing tower and transept.
After the dissolution of the monasteries, in 1553 the abbey church was bought by the townspeople to be used as parish church. By the late 18C the giant structure was in such bad repair that it came close to being knocked down, but from 1856 until his death in 1878 George Gilbert Scott undertook ongoing renovation work. In 1877 the former abbey church became the seat of the newly created bishopric of St Albans. If this was good news for it, at the same time a major disaster hit in the shape of Lord Edmund Grimthorpe, an architect of limited gifts and taste but with a strong personality and extensive private means. The fact that he paid for much of the further „restoration“ of St Albans cathedral himself unfortunately allowed him to have his way with the building until his death in 1905 — his idea of „restoration“ being to „correct“ what he saw as defects of the original. In the process he did not hesitate to knock down much that was ancient. Since he disapproved of the perpendicular style, for example, he had the west front of the church with its huge perpendicular window demolished and replaced by a new design of his own in 13C style: his new west front is not entirely bad in itself, but oversized and out of keeping with the rest of the nave, and the sacrifice of so much original substance is impardonable.
The crossing tower is essentially constructed from re-used Roman bricks taken from the ruins of Verulamium.
Today the building is a bit of a jumble: parts of it are very fine, others are so-so. Clearly a problem is that there is far more space available here than those who run the place know how to put to any good use — which might well consist in leaving it totally empty. There seems to be a certain lack of aesthetic ambition here, so that in some parts of the building you feel a bit like walking through a storage space, with bits of furniture stacked here, a few information panels put up there…
The nave is part of the abbey church as rebuilt by the 14th abbot, Paul of Caen (1077-93).
The 11C transept. Note the re-used bricks visible in the arches of the triforium. Roman bricks are readily recognisable because of their thinness — they look a bit like tiles.
The crossing tower built by abbot Paul of Caen. It is the only great 11C crossing tower still standing in the British isles.
The painted vault above the presbytery. Built in the second half of the 13C, it consists largely of wood.
In the early 13C several bays in Early English (gothic) style were added to the 11C nave. Parts of the Norman building were also rebuilt in this style.
Early English meets Norman.
The nave looking east.
The reredos (screen behind the high altar) dates from 1484, though the statues, destroyed after the dissolution, are Victorian replacements.
The Lady Chapel added to the east end in the late 13C. Following the acquisition of the church by the townspeople in the 16C, it was walled off and used as a school room until the 19C.
The shrine of St Alban, situated at the back of the reredos (high altar), as seen from the Lady Chapel.
The late gothic wooden structure visible on the right was a watching loft, a chamber for guardsmen having an eye on the pilgrims at the shrine of St Alban.
The shrine, made in 1308, looks totally authentic. And it is — up to a point, though exactly what point has now become invisible. After the dissolution of the abbey it was smashed — but the pieces were reused in the wall separating the Lady Chapel from the rest of the church. When that wall was dismantled in the 19C the fragments of the shrine (and of the shrine of a lesser saint, Amphibalus) were discovered and reassembled. As the shrine of St Amphibalus, nearby, shows, this looked rather rough and ready. Over 2000 fragments have been recovered, some, apparently, in different locations from that dividing wall. In the 1990s the shrine of St Alban underwent further restoration, which certainly looks convincing. As seen here it was unveiled by the Queen Mother in 1993.
I take my hat off to the unknown designer of this shrine. Or its base anyway: strictly speaking, of course, what survives of the shrine is the base only. This would have supported a feretrum, a kind of wooden sarcophagus covered with sculpted silver or gold plating and precious stones. I do not know whether at St Albans this was remade when the extant base was created — I would assume not. Henry of Huntingdon in his Historia Anglorum (History of the English), written in the second quarter of the 13C, already describes it as feretrum mirabiliter auro et gemmis choruscum, „a feretrum twinkling marvellously with gold and gemstones“. Clearly it was not then covered. Underneath the cloth must be some kind of imitation sarcophagus that merely serves as a reminder of the missing original. Even so the arrangement is quite visually striking.
Only in close-up will you see any traces of damage, though they are there. At the dissolution, some of the last monks are said to have taken the remains of the saint to Cologne, where the Benedictine abbey of St Pantaleon already possessed a shrine containing some bits of him or other. In 2002 St Pantaleon presented St Albans cathedral with a shoulder blade supposedly belonging to the saint. This was then placed in whatever is covered by that cloth. It is rather amusing to see this all this in an Anglican church. As late as perhaps 1850 anything that smelled of „Romanising“ — for example, lighting candles on the altar! — would have been sure to raise shouts of indignation, let alone this.
The choir stalls looking west from the high altar.
South aisle looking east towards the transept.
SACRED TO THE MEMORY
OF MRS BARBARA GRIFFITH, LATE WIFE OF EDWARD GRIFFITH
ESQ. & DAUGHTER OF RICHARD IENYNS LATE OF ST ALBANS ESQ.
WHO DYED AT LONDON Y° 22° DAY OF MARCH 1678 IN Y° 27TH
YEARE OF HER AGE, HAVEING LEFT ONE ONELY DAUGHTER, NAMED
Youth beauty virtue here intomb’d dos lye,
O death luxurious in cruelty!
Glutted with age & vice thy coṁon prey,
How greedily this life thou’st snatch’d away!
Which virtue & good manners did soe grace
Whose death dos sweeten & adorn this place
& cheeres the ashes of her ancient race:
Thus virtue disapoynts death’s cruell skill.
They onely dye untimely who dye ill.
Whose earely steps the sacred hight do clime,
‚Tis just theire happynesse should begin betime.
BARBARA ONLEY DAUGHTER
OF THE SAID MRS GRIFFITH
DYED THE 23° DAY OF
IULY 1679 & LYES
An inside view of Lord Grimthorpe’s new west end. From here it is not so bad.
The outside view.
The abbey precinct as it may have appeared at the dissolution. Photograph — courtesy of LepoRello (Wikipedia) — of a painting in the abbey church by Joan Freeman (of 1977, if I decipher the date in the bottom right hand corner correctly). Of the structures shown here only the abbey church itself and the great gatehouse (on the left) remain standing.
The great gatehouse. On the right a portion of Lord Grimthorpe’s new west front.
The sun was in and out that whole afternoon, with showers in between.
In its own way a rather magnificent building, which I found it hard to take my eyes off — even though I could not quite put my finger on the reason. The proportions? The slightly fierce, slightly grim grandeur, combined with a rather utilitarian character? (The two towers no doubt serve to house spiral staircases.)
By contrast, other people of course have other things they can’t take their eyes off.
This looks as if on this side too there once were twin spiral staircases.
What was once a Roman town (supposedly the third-largest in Britain) has literally reverted to a green field site. Since the new town that grew up around the abbey lies on the other side of the monastery, the Roman site was never built over. It was, however, used as a quarry for century after century, considering which it is a wonder anything visible is left above ground at all.
Looking in the other direction towards the abbey church, with the same ruin in the foreground. It is interesting to note that the Roman builders already made extensive use of flint — just as the builders of the abbey church (or the abbey gatehouse) did later, when they were not stealing Roman bricks. (Though it is more than likely that they also stole most of their flint.) Flint is not a particularly rewarding material for use in construction, but in this part of England it is the only stone found locally.
Remains of defensive perimeter wall, built — entirely of flint, it seems — probably in the third century to protect the core settlement. (But against whom? Such walls, never before necessary, went up throughout the Roman empire in the third century, even in places deep inside the empire like Athens, or little exposed to foreign invaders such as the coast of Asia Minor. Indeed, Rome itself aquired them. Here too, in what is now Hertfordshire, part of the „home counties“ bordering on London, it would not seem that foreign invaders could, at that period, have posed much of a threat, certainly not one justifying such massive building. The only possible conclusion is that these fortifications were occasioned by the internal unrest wracking the empire throughout much of the third century.) In the foreground are the foundations of a massive gate through which led the road to London.