Standing proudly in the city’s skyline, St. Albans Cathedral is by far the most recognisable landmark in the region, thanks to its unusual tower and sheer size. But where did this magnificent building come from?
The Cathedral Evolved From More Humble Structures
If you delve into the history of Britain’s greatest cathedral, you notice a common theme emerging. Practically all of them underwent developmental stages that transformed them from humble villas or shrines to the enormous places of religious observance. York Minster and Salisbury Cathedral are examples of this in practice.
The same happened to St. Albans Cathedral. The site grew from an early Roman settlement into the massively exquisite construction over the course of many centuries, culminating in the building we see today.
Historians believe that the site first became a religious place in 793 after King Offa of Mercia founded a monastery in the region, close to St. Alban’s grave.
Not much changed until the Norman invasion of 1066. William the Conqueror appointed deputy Paul of Caen to supervise the construction of a new church at St Alban’s.
The clearest evidence of this is the distinctive Norman tower. Builders used a combination of brickwork and tiles to construct the four-faced construction that would eventually consolidate the centre of the entire complex.
The project took decades to be completed – longer than Paul of Caen’s own life. But eventually, builders finished the project in 1115 under the superintendence of Abbot Richard d’Albini. The era of St Albans Abbey had begun.
The Flourishing Of The Medieval Period
The monastery flourished during the medieval period, and so did the town around it. In the 1190s, Abbot John de Cella – also sometimes called John of Wallingford – extended the abbey westwards, adding three bays to the knave to accommodate the increased population of monks living on the site. At that time, the cathedral was still somewhat “bare” with relatively few sculptures or paintings adorning the interior.
Later, St Albans welcomed the first and only English pope, Adrian IV, bringing formerly unseen special privileges and power to the town.
Following an earthquake, in 1250, the abbey suffered severe damages to its eastern end. Dangerously cracked sections had to be demolished and rebuilt several years later.
Over the following centuries, the cathedral went through various episodes of damage and restoration. At one point in the fourteenth century, two piers collapsed on the south side of the nave, bringing the roof and several bays with it.
The Dissolution And How The Abbey Survived
During the period of the dissolution, the annual income of the monastery was around £2,100 per year, which wasn’t much by contemporary standards. When the church was finally shut down as part of the Reformation, the remaining forty monks received a pension, as the rest of the church and buildings went to the crown.
The site was left in a state of disrepair. However, by contrast to many other monasteries, active vandalism and destruction were minimal. The crown and locals managed to repurpose some of the buildings on the site.
Thus, St Alban’s experience during the dissolution of the monasteries was somewhat uncommon. While most monasteries saw their estates shrink all the way back to the church and its immediate grounds, St Albans didn’t vanish.
In 1553, just fourteen years after the dissolution, the Lady Chapel was converted into a school. The grounds also remained intact and were repurposed as a school playground. Eventually, the chapel became a part of the London’s diocese, with the cost of maintenance falling on local people.
In order to keep the building standing, the parish implemented a variation of church tax on the townspeople at the end of the sixteenth century. This action raised around £2,000, which the parish used to make roof repairs and attempts to restore the building to its former glory.
Practically all of the Catholic heritage of the building was devastated, including all gold and silver objects, valuable artwork and stonework.
Later on, once the intensity of the initial Protestant era declined, the church started to receive assistance from the community. In 1706, a powerful storm damaged the church’s transept window. Repairs managed to replace it with a wood version in the Gothic Revival style, using funds extracted from locals.
Over the coming years, the diocese continued to issue Briefs on the population for various repairs. Cracks in the south wall in the 1720s, for instance, cost local parishioners more than £5,775.
Restoration In The Victorian Era
Renovators and architects in St Albans worked hard during the 19th century to protect the majestic structure of St Albans Abbey we see today. New wealth from industrialisation allowed for new and grander restoration projects to preserve the building’s exquisite heritage.
In the early Victorian era, repair workers mended major damage to the clerestory on the south side of the building, under the direction of architect Lewis Nockalls Cottingham. He estimated that the total cost to put the Abbey right would be around £14,000. However, the building only ever benefited from a small portion of that funding.
Eventually, the Victorians managed to repair several of the church’s features, including releading the nave roof, removing the tower spike that arrived at the time of the English Civil war, and remaking the south window in stone.
Over the following decades, the building required yet more repairs at great expense. However, thanks to the growing wealth of the era, the locals were able to provide this.
Eventually, in 1875, St Albans Abbey left the Diocese of Rochester, and welcomed a new Era by becaming a part of a new area called the See of St Albans – a site comprising more than 300 churches in Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire.
The church remains active and encompasses various new features, including the restoration of Alban’s shrine and new stained glass on the north transept, unveiled by the late Princess Diana.