St Albans is the red-headed stepchild of cathedrals, poor thing. Conceivably the oldest known site of Christian worship in England, and at 85 metres, the longest nave of any of the cathedrals, it’s a crazy quilt of design.
It sits perched on a hill above the Roman town of Verulamium, where, in 305 AD, St Alban became the first authentic English martyr. As the story is told, Alban encountered a Christian priest, Amphibalus, fleeing persecution. He invited the priest to shelter at his home for a few days and, impressed by their priest’s piety, was converted to Christianity. Sometime later, Alban presented himself in the guise of Amphibalus when the soldiers arrived to take the priest away. Alban was beheaded, and where his head struck the ground, a spring gushed up, and the site became a destination for pilgrims.
In 793, a Benedictine abbey was founded and resuscitated after the Norman Conquest in 1077 by Paul, Bishop of Caen and nephew of Lafranc at Canterbury. The family rivalry was alive and well; Paul was determined to outshine his uncle by building an even longer nave than that at Canterbury. The building that emerged subsumed an earlier Saxon building that had been started, and the shrine of St Albans got a further boost from the discovery of potential relics of St Amphibalus. In 1154, a monk of the Abbey, Nicholas Breakspear, became Pope Adrian IV, the sole English pope. The Abbey’s reputation as a centre of learning was enhanced, but none of this added to its financial security. Like many abbeys, there was a lot of friction with the townspeople (an early version of “town vs gown”). Funds were directed to building the monks’ Presbytery while the nave and transepts (the townspeople’s place of worship) was kept short of funds. Then came the Black Death in the mid-14th century, killing two-thirds of the hundred monks. The Dissolution of the Monasteries saw the monastic buildings destroyed, and the abbey church was sold to the town as a parish church for £400. The buildings slowly deteriorated for the next 300 years.
Things started to look up with the ecclesiastical renewal in the 19th century. In 1835, a new rector, Henry Nicholson, brought an entrepreneurial spirit to the church. He consulted with George Gilbert Scott to examine the fabric of the building and began to raise funds for its restoration by charging non-parishioners for entry. Regrettably, Nicholson died before much had been accomplished.
In 1845 St Albans was transferred from the Diocese of London to the Diocese of Rochester. In 1877 the See of St Albans was created, comprising about 300 churches. The Bishop of Rochester moved to a new position as the Bishop of St Albans. Finally, a Cathedral, more than ten centuries after Benedictine Abbey was founded.
George Gilbert Scott was working on the nave roof, vaulting and west bay when he died on 27 March 1878. The restoration committee was “redirected” by retired lawyer and amateur architect Sir Edmund Beckett, later Baron Grimsthorpe. My suspicions are the elevation to Cathedral status prompted Grimsthorpe’s sudden interest; it would undoubtedly have added to his self-aggrandisement. But, paying for everything himself, Grimsthorpe wrested control of the project.
While Scott’s restoration had been in sympathy with the existing building, Grimthorpe treated St Alban’s as his personal playground. He added battlements to the tower, meddled with the North and South Transept windows and built the new West Front to his design. Even the official guidebook (usually discreet to the point of obsequious regarding its patrons) describes his interventions as “Grim by name and grim by nature”. The renowned Nikolaus Pevsner deemed Grimsthorpe a “pompous, righteous bully.” His unsympathetic restoration inspired the creation and temporary popularity of the verb “to grimsthorpe”; his changes to St Albans prompted William Morris and others to establish the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings.
One of his more grandiose additions was statues of the four evangelists around the Western door of the Cathedral; the statue of St Matthew (complete with wings) bears Grimsthorpe’s face.
With that background, let’s step inside and see what the final product looks like, starting with the nave, where the crazy quilt of designs begins with original round Norman arches on the North (left) and Gothic pointed arches on the South (right).
As if that’s not enough, let’s step back further toward the West. See how the North (left) has both pointed Gothic arches and rounded Norman ones? Note the second pillar with the thick Norman base, which transitions to a fluted column above. Then look to the South (right), which is all Gothic, though two different styles. It’s because in the 1190s, the Abbey was extended westwards with three bays added to the Norman nave, and the addition was in the Early Gothic style of the time.
Then, in 1323, five of the original rounded Norman bays on the South (left side) collapsed. They were rebuilt in the contemporary Decorated style, leaving three distinct styles of arches in one nave.
You can see the three bays added in 1190 on the floorplan’s Western (left) side below. The four Gothic pillars (creating three spaces, or bays) are illustrated as diamonds with a clear centre, smaller than the solid round Norman ones further to the East (right). And the new Gothic columns added in 1323 are illustrated by smaller solid diamonds in the lower row.
One happy result of the multiple styles is that St Albans has retained some of the best medieval wall paintings found in an English cathedral (other than Canterbury’s crypt)—from the 13th to the 15th century. Though whitewashed during the Reformation’s ban on images in churches, the images have been rescued.
Proceeding down the aisle, we come to the first of two pulpitums or screens, behind which are two organ lofts.
The screen’s niches are filled with martyrs. From left to right, as described in the article Man & Machine: St Albans Cathedral Martyrs. Staggeringly lifelike, they are by sculptor Rory Young.
- Oscar Romero – Roman Catholic Archbishop of El Salvador, spoke out against poverty, social injustice and torture of the totalitarian regime in his country. He was assassinated in 1980 while celebrating Mass. The beatification for Oscar Romero was held in San Salvador on 23 May this year.
- St. Alban Roe – a Roman Catholic, imprisoned for a time in St Albans Abbey Gatehouse and hanged for treason in London in 1642 for being a Roman Catholic priest.
- St Amphibalus – a Christian priest given shelter by Alban in the third century AD when Christianity was still proscribed.
- St Alban – Britain’s first saint, a citizen of Roman Verulamium, martyred by the Romans on the site of the present-day Cathedral.
- George Tankerfield – a Protestant, was burnt to death in Romeland, overlooking St Alban’s Abbey, in 1555 because he refused to accept the doctrine of transubstantiation.
- St Elisabeth Romanova – granddaughter of Queen Victoria who married into the Russian Royal Family and converted to the Russian Orthodox Church. In her widowhood, she became a nun and Abbess before being killed by the Bolsheviks in 1918.
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer – Lutheran pastor and theologian imprisoned in a concentration camp for his opposition to the Nazis, tried without witnesses or defence and hanged in April 1945.
The stone statues were made with the help of a computerised 3m robot arm, StoneGenie™️, at Stoneworld in Oxfordshire. Carving each statue by hand from the block would have taken about eight months. Instead, after three days of preparation to load the programs to run the robot, they took a week of 24-hour-a-day attention from the robot. Rory Young and his assistant then spent 13 months finishing the carvings. How cool is that?
Behind the screen is the crossing.
Looking up, the medieval, flat wooden tower ceiling is divided into sixteen panels, deeply recessed with very heavily moulded cross timbers containing bosses at the intersections. It is likely the late fifteenth century.
The centre four panels comprise four shields of arms within wreaths (which look more like lifesaving rings to me), with ornaments at the corners.
- Upper left: France (modern) and England, quarterly, for England. These coats of arms were used from 1405 to 1603
- Upper right: Azure, a cross patonce between 5 martlets for St Edward the Confessor.
- Lower left. Argent, a cross gules, for St George.
- Lower Right: Azure, a saltire for St Alban.
The twelve surrounding panels are alternately white and red roses (likely 16th century). It’s not sure whether the roses reference the battle of St. Albans in 1461 during the Wars of the Roses or the Union of the Houses of Lancaster and York after 1485. But white and red roses we have.
The ceiling was in a very bad way. It had been restored and repainted at least six times since its installation. After considering several options, the main timbers were cleaned, treated with insecticide and undercoating, and then repainted in red, black and white. The bosses were gilded. New panels were created and placed over the originals (one was removed to be exhibited); the rest are behind the new panels. The new panels reflect the brilliant green, black, white and heraldic colours that would have been used in the 15th century, as startling as that is to us today. And remember, they are 100′ up in the air, a considerable distance from the naked eye.
A fuller description of the work taken to restore the panels is in a 2019 article on the Cathedral’s website.
The rose window in the North Transept is a Grimstorpe addition. Simon Jenkins describes it as a “poached egg pan” in England’s Cathedrals. That is quite a good description. The tracery is thick and clumsy.
Contrast it with the exquisite workmanship in the Bishop’s Eye window at Lincoln Cathedral.
The choir run West of the Crossing, abutting the first screen. You can see where the decorative ceiling of the choir joins up to the plain ceiling of the nave.
The painted ceiling of the choir.
Flowing Eastward from the crossing is the Presbytery, the monk’s place of worship, with its Perpendicular reredos of 1484.
Below the crucifix are replacement statues of saints; the iconoclasts and their clubs destroyed the originals in the seventeenth century. Height saved the rest.
Grimsthorpe detested statues, but for once, he didn’t get his way. Another donor, Lord Aldenham, paid for them, so they were installed, despite Grimsthorpe’s grumbling.
The presbytery vault is one of only two thirteenth-century wooden vaults over a main span to survive in England. It was thoroughly cleaned and restored from 1997–2002,
Just off the Presbytery, down a few steps, is the 12th-century shrine to St Albans and St Amphibalus. Unfortunately, the door to the shrine chapel was closed the day we visited, but you can see the steps up to where the faithful would enter to kneel at the base beneath the shrine itself. You can see what’s behind the door on the Cathedral website.
Further on, we come to the Lady Chapel.
It was built in the early 14th century in the Decorated style (note the exquisite four-square window).
Botanical carvings beneath the vaults include primroses,
Ah, my patient spouse, no doubt longing for a nearby pub and refreshing ale. Just a few more minutes—almost done!
Back through the Cathedral, I take note of the much disputed Grimsthorpe Window in the West Front. Again, it’s got clunky great tracery and not a patch on the Perpendicular window it replaced.
Back outside, one final look, and we are off.
And that, my readers, is the tale of St Alban’s Cathedral.