top of page
  • richardtw

Profile: The Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Albans

Although much stronger in the Eastern parts of the Empire, Roman persecution of Christians still had a lasting impact on at least one English city...

Note the Roman brickwork of St Albans' Norman tower

At the start of my guided tour, there was just me and Stephen, the guide. “It’s going to be a personal tour,” he said, which was fine by me. He asked how long I had and what period of history I was interested in. All afternoon, I replied (I hadn’t endured the four hour, rain-soaked, mud-sucking walk to be fobbed off with a half hour highlights tour), and the Reformation. But also everything back to the Romans, really.

Luckily, the story of St Albans begins in Roman times, when the settlement was the third largest in Roman Britannia, was called Verulamium, and had municipal status - meaning, among other things, some residents could be called citizens of Rome.[1][2]

SS Alban and Amphibalus swap cloaks

Alban is supposed to have been such a citizen, and possibly a magistrate or some local worthy, who befriended a Celtic Christian priest at some point in the 3rd century CE (or even as late as 304CE)[3]. A date in the early 4th century would place Alban near the end of the Emperor Diocletian's reign, when the Roman Empire was pursuing its last great round of persecutions of Christians. The still-pagan empire considered Christianity a separatist sect, likely to cause unrest and civil discord, so had formally removed the rights of Christians and legally compelled them to follow imperial religious practices (like animal sacrifice and emperor-worship), as well as imprisoning their leaders and demolishing their churches. It was a dangerous time to be a Christian, even in a relatively remote outpost like Britannia, where the persecution was perhaps at its weakest. [4][5]

That background makes it all the more remarkable that Alban not only befriended this Celtic priest, but hid him from the authorities and supposedly gave himself up in the priest’s place, having swapped cloaks. Alban was put on trial, accused presumably of being Christian, and when he didn’t deny the charge or renounce the faith, he was sentenced to death. Alban then seems to have walked out of town, up a nearby hill, and got his head chopped off, as was the custom for citizens of Rome.[6]

Various miracles have been added to this story, including that a well sprang up either where Alban died or where his head rolled to (several street and place names nearby reflect this holy well), and that the executioner’s eyes immediately fell out of his head (for reasons best left to theological discussion).

Even if, as has been suggested, Alban's story actually took place much earlier than the Diocletian persecutions, most versions of the story seem to agree that the priest he shielded was sentenced to death, and that Alban took this punishment on himself. In any time, that's a remarkable act for the sake of a relative stranger, so we shouldn't be surprised that the event has taken on mythic status for what was still a marginalised but devout section of Roman society.

The lecturn, with altar screen in the background

The upshot of all this is that Alban became Britain's first Chrisian martyr and saint, with an early shrine built to house his remains, on the hill of his execution. St Albans now glories in the boast of having the first British martyr and saint, and being the 'oldest living place of pilgrimage' in Britain.[7][8] The 15th century altar screen features Victorian statues of not only St Alban, but his priest, later named St Amphibalus, and a local man named Nicholas Breakspear – who went on, after rejection by the abbey, to become Pope Adrian IV in 1154. Thus St Albans can claim the first British saint and the first (so far, only) British Pope.[9]

We're not sure who built the first church on this site (the most popular theory points to King Offa of Mercia), but there was a Saxon Benedictine Abbey for the Normans to rebuild in the 1070s. Rather than import stone from Normandy, as they sometimes did, or use local stone (the ground, after all, is fairly chalky), the Normans dismantled the nearby Roman ruins of Verulamium for building material. Many of these Roman bricks are still in evidence; in the transept arches a few have been exposed to view, and the outside of the central tower is distinctively built from brick, and not the more usual stone of a grand Norman church. Recently, these external bricks were suffering frost damage, and so over a period of seven years have each individually been turned to face the other way!

Later, in the 1200s, the western end of the nave was extended by four bays, then the east end was extended with a Lady Chapel, but the building's story since then seems to have been one of decline, debt and repairs (indeed, for some time, the Lady Chapel was walled off into a separate building to be used by St Albans School). When the Victorians came along, with their great zeal for 'restoring' medieval churches, St Albans was rebuilt and remodelled – with varying degrees of sympathy to the earlier designs – by noted architect and 'controversialist' Baron Grimthorpe (a man with a strong personal dislike of the Perpendicular style found throughout decaying parts of the church, and said to be 'notorious as a fighter'). [10]

St Albans therefore boasts not only the longest nave of any cathedral in England, but a hodgepodge of architectural styles that don’t always sit together well. Witness the inelegant join as Gothic arches crash into wide Norman square pillars on the left of the nave's western end.

The Lady Chapel, now re-attached

My joy at the solo tour was short-lived, when another guide came over and asked if four pensioners, who had just arrived from a local care home, could join us. My guide happily accommodated them on a slightly shorter version of his usual tour (not all of this medieval building is wheelchair accessible, despite the handy lift they've had fitted in the Shrine of St Alban).

Since we were already in the nave, he started with the illuminated pillar paintings. Afterwards, we all visited the Shrine of St Alban, and my own private tour continued later with the Lady Chapel and a closer look at the altar.

Those pillar paintings have a story worth telling, though, and it's one that can be found echoed up and down the land.

St Christopher, digitally restored

At least four of the pillars down the aisle of the nave at one time had paintings of saints on them, which of course were removed – with faces scratched out, in places – during the Reformation, then whitewashed. Along came the Victorians, who in their eagerness to 'restore' the medieval church possibly did more harm than good by applying a layer of varnish; the paint had been applied to dry plaster, so the varnish just removed yet more paint and made a restoration that much harder. So far, so typical.

What's different at St Alban's is the English Heritage grant to restore the paintings using new digital technology. Opposite each of the pillars is a discrete projector, operated by a tablet device the guides pass amongst themselves. With this, they can project various phases of the restoration work onto the faded paint and show the fruits of what must have been painstaking forensic research. Astonished visitors get to see not only line drawings illustrating where the paintings were, but also the areas targeted by iconoclastic scratchings and then the full-colour restoration. [11]

All this without actually touching the original surface, and avoiding a repeat of some of the more notorious recent restorations in some Spanish churches![12]

The illuminated paintings are just one part of the cathedral's recent modernisation efforts. There's a new visitor centre, and an exhibition on the power of pilgrimage, and of course, the Abbot's Kitchen cafe, serving the Alban Bun. With a secret recipe dating back to 1361, the Alban Bun is claimed to be the original hot cross bun, distributed to the poor by monks of the Benedictine Abbey before the Dissolution. Whether that's true is up for debate, but I can vouch for the fact that the bun itself is delicious, and a delight at the end of a pilgrimage to this oldest of British shrines.[13]

94 views0 comments


bottom of page