The Cathedral Church of Saint Alban, Saint Alban’s, Hertfordshire, 23 November 2021
Although we are not currently meeting for talks by the three Peters, we can see a taster of what is to come once lock-down is over.
In 731, the Venerable Bede had this to say: ‘A beautiful church worthy of Alban’s martyrdom was built, where sick folk are healed and frequent miracles take place to this day’
Nothing remains of the chapel built where Alban was martyred in 209, but he was executed for sheltering the Christian priest Amphibalus, so Christian worship was taking place in and around the city of Verulamium by that time. The earliest church was destroyed by Saxons in 586. Offa is said to have founded a double Benedictine monastery in 793, replacing the building of Bede’s time. This later building was, in turn, sacked by Danes around 890, after which the monastery hit hard times and there was no abbot between 920 and the 970s. However, Abbot Ealdred began to rebuild in 1005, but this work stalled under the pressure of Viking raids from 1016 onwards.
In 1077 when Paul of Caen was appointed the first Norman abbot, by his uncle Lanfranc Archbishop of Canterbury, he set about building a new church straight away, starting with the crossing tower. There was no good building stone near the site, only flints, so some stone was imported from Caen but the major part of the building was constructed from Roman tiles, found in abundance in the nearby ruins of Verulamium.
Today, the crossing tower, two western bays of the chancel and the transepts survive from the late 11th century. Eastern parts of the nave and much of the north arcade and aisle are also Norman work, of the 12th century, and four Western bays of the nave are Early English from the early 13th century, the presbytery, and retro-choir date from a mid-13th century rebuild and the Lady Chapel from the late 13th and early 14th century. The south arcade and aisle of the nave were rebuilt in the mid-14th century, documented 15th century work has been mainly replaced under later (Victorian) restorations.
After the dissolution of the abbey in 1539, practically all the claustral buildings were demolished for their building materials and the main church abandoned and neglected. In 1553 the citizens of St Albans bought the old abbey to use as their parish church, but repair and maintenance of such a large ancient building was beyond the means of the parishioners and by 1832 the main building was reported to be in a sad state of disrepair. But from 1871 remedial work was done under Sir G.G. Scott: to the nave clerestorey, the South aisle roof, stonework of the Lady Chapel and the structure of the crossing tower, but funds ran out after his death in 1878. This laid the way open for a local lawyer, Lord Grimthorpe, also an amateur theologian and an amateur architect to step in. He was a wealthy man and overall spent £130.000 of his fortune on his own ‘improvements’ and repairs to the structure, mainly in a version of Victorian Gothic. The whole West front was replaced by him and the roof heightened to a steeper pitch and well as other restorations throughout the structure. There is a carved portrait of him, represented as St Matthew, in the West porch.
The see and bishopric of Saint Alban’s was inaugurated in 1877 and the old Abbey church became the cathedral, whilst also remaining the parish church, dedicated to St Alban.