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St Albans Cathedral

History

Blessed Sacrament windowAlban, Britainís first Christian martyr, was a citizen of Roman Verulamium who gave shelter to a Christian priest and was himself converted to Christianity. As he refused to renounce his new faith he was executed, most probably in the mid 3rd century, and buried on the hillside where the Cathedral now stands. His grave soon became a place of pilgrimage.

In 793 King Offa of Mercia endowed a Benedictine monastery on the site. The present Abbey Church was begun in 1077. In 1163 St Albans was recognised as Englandís premier abbey. The Shrine of Saint Alban was rebuilt in the early 14th century. It was destroyed at the reformation, but rediscovered and rebuilt in the 19th century, and restored in 1993. A rare survival, it remains a centre of ecumenical worship.

After the dissolution of the monastery in 1539 the Abbey Church was bought by the town as its parish church, and continues as such. All other monastic buildings, except the great gateway, were demolished. During the following 300 years there were many changes. The Lady Chapel was divided off to become a school, and many parts of the building fell into disrepair. Repair and restoration began in the 1850s and the Lady Chapel was brought back into church
use in 1870.

In 1877 a new diocese of St Albans was created and the abbey and parish church became also a cathedral, serving Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire, Luton and Barnet. Further restoration was undertaken in the 1880s, under the direction of Lord Grimthorpe.

In the 1980s a new building was erected on the site of the monastic chapter house to provide visitor facilities, office space, and rooms for parish use. A modern interpretation of a monastic night stair provides a processional way from the new building into the church.

 

Architecture

The Norman church was built using Roman bricks and flint from the ruined city of Verulamium at the bottom of the hill. Its massive 11th century bell tower is the only remaining example of its type.

In successive centuries the building has been enlarged and altered. It now has the longest nave in England, which displays the Romanesque arches of the 11th century, Early English arches from the early 13th century enlargement, and decorated arches from a rebuilding after a partial collapse in 1323. The Lady Chapel dates from the 14th century.

In the nave and elsewhere there is a series of outstanding 13th and 14th century wall paintings, hidden after the reformation and rediscovered in the 19th century. The Presbytery has a unique 13th century wooden vaulted ceiling, which was redecorated in the 15th century.

The West front and the north and south transept windows owe their current design to the 19th century restoration. As well as the new Chapter House, other twentieth century additions include the stained glass in the north transept rose window, designed by Alan Younger, and an embroidered canopy for the shrine designed by Suellen Pedley.

Little remains of the monastic buildings. Remnants of the cloister are visible on the outside of the south side of the church, a large open area known as the Abbey Orchard. Beyond the West End of the church stands the Great Gateway, built in the 14th century and now part of St Albans School.

Local Interest

Verulamium Park, south of the Abbey Orchard covers some of the area of Roman Verulamium. Verulamium Museum displays many finds from the site, including spectacular mosaics. A building in the park houses a hypocaust. Nearby are the excavated remains of a Roman theatre.

In the town is an early 15th century clock tower, the Museum of St Albans, telling the story of the town from the end of the Roman period to today, and the three ancient churches - St Peters, St Michaels and St Stephens. There is a large and popular street market each Wednesday and Saturday.