St Albans, Hertfordshire
History, tourist information, and nearby accommodation
HERITAGE HIGHLIGHTS: St Albans Cathedral & the shrine of St Alban
St Albans is a historic town in Hertfordshire on the peaceful River Ver. The first settlement here dates back to the 1st century BC when a Celtic tribe built its capital at a place they called Verlamion, which translates as 'place above the marsh'.
When the Romans invaded Britain in AD 43 they captured the settlement and established a fort beside the river crossing. They gave the fort a Latinised version of the Celtic name and called it Verulamium.
The Roman town was less than two decades old when it was burned to the ground by Queen Boudicca in her AD 61 revolt against Roman rule. Archaeologists have unearthed a layer of black ash left by the burning of the timber buildings. The Romans subdued the revolt and rebuilt the town, gradually replacing the original timber structures with stone buildings.
They made Verulamium into a bustling town with all the accoutrements of a civilised Roman settlement, including a forum, a basilica, and an amphitheatre capable of seating 6000 spectators. Verulamium grew to become the third-largest town in Roman Britain, behind only London and Colchester. They encircled the town with stone walls.
The town is named after a 3rd or 4th-century native named Alban, the first recorded Christian martyr in Britain. We do not know exactly when Alban lived or died; estimates of his death range from AD 209 to 313. The most lasting account of his life was written in the early 8th century by the Venerable Bede. Bede records that Alban was not initially a Christian, but he lived at a time when Christians were persecuted.
He met a Christian priest who was fleeing for his life, and out of kindness, he sheltered the priest in his house. The priest, who later came to be called Amphibalus, so impressed Alban with his piety that Alban converted to Christianity.
The authorities learned that Alban was sheltering the priest and came to seize him. Alban put on the priest's robes and allowed himself to be led away in his place. The judge declared that since Alban was offering himself up as the priest he would suffer in his place unless he abjured his faith. Alban refused to disavow his faith and was executed.
No contemporary documents mention Alban, and much of what we think we know about him was written centuries later. Even his very existence has been questioned by some modern historians. But whatever the truth, what happened next is not in doubt.
St Albans Abbey
The traditional site of Alban's execution was a hilltop across the River Ver from the Roman settlement. Early Christians made the site the centre of a cult. The site was visited in AD 429 by Germanus, Bishop of Auxerre, and the Bishop did much to promote the veneration of Alban and promote his cult. There seems to have been a shrine to St Alban, and possibly a small church, by the middle of the 5th century.
The Romans left Britain in the early 5th century and the town went into a decline. It became a territorial centre for the Saxon Waeclingas tribe, but the Saxon settlement did not reuse the Roman site but instead developed around a hill north of the River Ver, the same hill on which St Alban was said to have been martyred and buried.
King Offa's Monastery
In AD 793 King Offa of Mercia established a Benedictine priory, known as St Albans Abbey. The abbey developed around the site of Alban's death, and his shrine became a major destination for pilgrims. Just outside the Abbey was St Albans School, established in AD 948 by the 6th Abbot. The School is one of the oldest in Europe and the only British school to claim a pope among its graduates; Nicholas Breakspear, a 12th-century native of St Albans, was educated at the School and rose to become Pope Adrian IV.
As for the Abbey, it was a double house; that is, it housed both men and women. The first Norman abbot was Paul de Caen, appointed in 1077. Abbot Paul set about rebuilding the Abbey church in Romanesque style, with a huge tower made with Roman bricks from the nearby ruins of Verulamium.
The Abbey gained its second saint in the 12th century when the bones of St Amphibalus were discovered at Redbourn. The bones were moved to the abbey church and a second shrine was established. The abbey became a centre for medieval scholarship, with the famous chroniclers Roger of Wendover and Matthew Paris both serving as monks here.
The abbey was a popular destination for pilgrims, but in 1213 it was also a meeting place of a group of disgruntled nobles bent on breaking King John's habit of arbitrary taxation. Their meeting led to the signing of Magna Carta at Runnymede just two years later. The Abbey was hit hard by the Black Death in 1349 when over 60 monks died out of a total of just 100. The Abbey never truly recovered, though it remained active until it was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1539.
The Cathedral Today
After the Dissolution of the Monasteries most of the Abbey buildings were torn down and the material used for other building projects. The Abbey church survived, however, to become the parish church, and in 1876 it was given cathedral status. The only other part of the medieval monastery to survive is the Abbey Gateway, built around 1362. The Gateway housed one of the earliest printing presses in England and for centuries also served as the town gaol. It is now part of St Albans School.
One of the Cathedral highlights is St Alban's shrine, made by piecing together over 2,000 small pieces of the medieval shrine after it was demolished at the Reformation. Beside the shrine is a beautifully painted medieval watching loft, where monks kept watch night and day over the shrine. Opposite the shrine is the gilded tomb of Duke Humphrey of Gloucester, brother of Henry V.
St Albans suffered during the Wars of the Roses and on two occasions the town was at the centre of a fierce battle between supporters of rival claimants to the throne. The first was in 1455 when Richard, Duke of York defeated a royalist army and captured King Henry VI.
In 1461 the second Battle of St Albans was fought between a Yorkist army led by the Earl of Warwick (Warwick the Kingmaker) and Lancastrian supporters led by Anthony Trolloppe. The battle was fought in a biting snowstorm, with fighting centred in the lanes around the Clock Tower. The result was a comprehensive Lancastrian triumph and Henry VI was freed.
The Cathedral is not the only historic church in St Albans. There are three Saxon churches, begun on the orders of the 6th Abbot of St Albans in AD 948. The largest is St Peter's, a short walk north from the Cathedral. Nothing remains of the Saxon building; what we see today is a mix of 13th-century work and a 19th-century restoration. Look for the grave of Dr Nathaniel Cotton, an 18th-century pioneer in the treatment of mental illness, who counted the poet William Cowper among his patients.
The second Saxon church is St Stephen's, well south of the River Ver. Very little of the Saxon building remains beyond a small lancet window. St Stephen's is best known for the Dunkeld Lectern, an early 16th-century brass lectern looted from Holyroodhouse Abbey by Sir Richard Lee during Henry VIII's wars with Scotland. The Lectern was stolen by Scottish nationalists and hidden in a Highland grave for years before it reappeared. It is now in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.
The third Saxon church and the most gratifying to visit today, is St Michael's Church, just outside the Verulamium Museum. St Michael's stands on the site of the Roman basilica and was founded to serve pilgrims visiting the site of Alban's trial. You can see original 10th-century window and doorway openings, and Roman bricks in the walls. The historical highlight is the ornate memorial to Sir Francis Bacon of Gorhambury, the early 17th-century philosopher and the man who promoted the scientific method of investigation.
From St Michael's it is a very short stroll to the Verulamium Museum, a modern museum showcasing finds from the Roman city. One highlight is a 2nd-century bronze figure of a goddess known as the Verulamium Venus, and another is 'Postumus', a skeleton discovered buried in a beautifully crafted lead coffin.
A short walk across Verulamium Park from the museum brings you to a 3rd-century mosaic and hypocaust, protected by a low modern building. Beyond the mosaic and still within the park is the best-preserved section of the 3rd-century town wall and the foundations of one of the town's main gates.
If you follow a footpath along the south bank of the River Ver from the park you come to the ruins of Sopwell Nunnery, a 12th-century nunnery established by the Abbot of St Albans for 13 women. After the nunnery, sometimes known as Sopwell Priory, was dissolved by Henry VIII, it was given to Sir Richard Lee, the king's military engineer.
Lee tore down the monastic buildings and erected an elegant Tudor mansion, then immediately tore down the mansion and began building an even larger one, but he died before this second mansion could be complete. It is the ruins of this Tudor mansion, once visited by Elizabeth I, that we see today.
The Clock Tower
Not every historic remain in St Albans is Roman or linked to St Albans Abbey! A short distance north of the Cathedral on the edge of the market place stands the iconic Clock Tower, built around 1405. It is the only free-standing medieval town belfry in England. A plaque on the wall of the Clock Tower commemorates the Eleanor Cross that once stood near here. The Cross was built by a grieving Edward I to mark each place where the funeral procession carrying the body of his wife Eleanor on her journey to burial in London.
Signal Box Museum
One of St Albans most unusual museums is the delightful Signal Box Museum, housed in a restored 1892 signal box. See how trains were signalled during the days of steam locomotives and try your hand at the restored Victorian signals. A small museum on the ground floor of the signal box looks at the history of the railway in Hertfordshire and hosts a display of railway ephemera.
A short stroll from the Cathedral and Abbey Gateway leads to Ye Olde Fighting Cocks, a picturesque riverside inn that claims to be the oldest pub in Britain. Though the building we see above ground dates primarily to the 16th century, it stands on foundations thought to have been a part of King Offa's 8th-century royal palace.
The octagonal structure was later used by the Abbey as a dovecote. Tradition suggests that tunnels lead from the beer cellar to the nearby abbey. The pub takes its name from the fact that cock fighting took place in the bar during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Just outside St Albans is the elegant Palladian mansion of Gorhambury House, once the home of Sir Francis Bacon. In the grounds is Old Gorhambury House, built in 1563 by Sir Nicholas Bacon, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal to Elizabeth I and the father of Sir Francis Bacon. The best part of the ruins is the entrance porch, decorated with neo-classical medallions, heraldic symbols, and Renaissance symbols.
About St Albans
Address: St Albans, Hertfordshire, England
Attraction Type: Town
Location: On the A1057, four miles west of Hatfield.
Website: St Albans
Photo Credit: David Ross and Britain Express
NEARBY HISTORIC ATTRACTIONS
Heritage Rated from 1- 5 (low to exceptional) on historic interest
St Albans Clock Tower - 0.3 miles (Historic Building)
St Albans South Signal Box and Railway Museum - 0.3 miles (Museum)
St Albans Cathedral - 0.3 miles (Cathedral)
Sopwell Nunnery - 0.4 miles (Abbey)
St Albans Abbey Gateway - 0.4 miles (Historic Building)
St Albans, St Peter's Church - 0.4 miles (Historic Church)
St Albans, St Stephen's Church - 0.8 miles (Historic Church)
Verulamium Museum - 0.9 miles (Roman Site)
Nearest Accommodation to St Albans: