Review: St Albans Cathedral
Attraction - Castles & places of worship
St. Albans, Hertfordshire, United Kingdom
Part 1 - Some history and the building
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Ask for a list the most important Cathedrals in England, and it is unlikely St Albans will feature. After all it is a fairly ‘modern addition’ to the list, as it only became a cathedral in the C19th.
St Albans should rank high in the list along with the great cathedrals of Canterbury, York and Durham. It is the oldest site of continuous Christian worship in England and a church has been on this site since the 3rdC. It has the only C11th crossing tower still standing. As well as having the longest nave in England, it has the shrine of St Alban and the only surviving wooden watching loft in Britain. Then there is the remarkable collection of late C12th to C16th wall paintings.
It’s history begins with the first English martyr, St Alban. Alban had given shelter to an unnamed priest who was later 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, with the central tower and the abbey was consecrated in 1115. 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. There is little decoration as brick, tile and flint is too hard to carve. Now exposed, this would originally have been covered with lime plaster to protect agains 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 his 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, and 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 broke 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. 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 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. 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. There is disabled access to all of the cathedral with a lift giving access to St Alban’s shrine.
The post code is AL1 1BY and the grid reference is TL 145071.
There is full disabled access to the cathedral and most of it can be reached on the level. Ramps or lifts are provided where there are steps. There is a disabled toilet.
Access to the restaurant is by a short flight of stairs, but these can be avoided by leaving the cathedral through the Slype entrance and re-entering by the chapter house entrance.
There are two disabled car parking spaces for visitors entered via Sumpter Yard
There is more information here.
There are more pictures here.
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This review is solely based on the opinion of a Silver Travel Advisor member and not of Silver Travel Advisor Ltd.