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St Albans Cathedral

From Academic Kids

St Albans Cathedral from the west.
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St Albans Cathedral from the west.

What is usually called "St Albans Cathedral" is actually The Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Alban. It has the longest nave, at 106 metres, of any cathedral in England.

Contents

England's first Christian martyr

Saint Alban was a pagan living in the Roman city of Verulamium, where St Albans is now, in Hertfordshire, England, about twenty miles from London along Watling Street. Prior to Christianity becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire, local Christians were being persecuted by the Romans. Alban sheltered their priest, Saint Amphibalus, in his home and was converted to the Christian faith by him. When the soldiers came to Alban's house looking for the priest, Alban exchanged cloaks with the priest and let himself be arrested in his stead. Alban was taken before the magistrate, where he avowed his new Christian faith and was condemned for it. He was beheaded on the spot where the cathedral named for him now stands.

The date of Alban's execution is a matter of some controversy, and is generally given as "circa 250" - scholars generally suggest dates of 209, 254 or 304.

History of the Abbey and Cathedral

A memoria over the execution point and holding the remains of Alban existed at the site from the mid-300s (possibly earlier), Bede mentions a church and Gildas a shrine. Bishop Germanus of Auxerre visited in 429 and took a portion of the, apparently still bloody, earth away. The style of this structure is unknown, Paris (see below) claimed that the Saxons destroyed the building in 586.

The Saxon buildings

Offa II of Mercia, who ruled in the 8th century, is said to have founded the abbey and monastery at St Albans. All later religious structures are dated from the foundation of Offa's abbey in 793. The abbey was built on Holmhurst hill, across the River Ver from the ruins of Verulamium. Again there is no information to the form of the first abbey. The abbey was probably sacked by the Danes around 890 and, despite Paris's claims, the office of abbot remained empty from around 920 until the 970s when the efforts of Dunstan reached the town. There was an intention to rebuild the abbey in 1005 when Abbot Ealdred was licensed to remove building material from Verulamium.

With the town resting on clay and chalk the only tough stone is flint. This was used with a lime mortar and then either plastered over or left bare. With the great quantities of brick, tile and other stone in Verulamium the Roman site became a prime source of building material for the abbeys, and other projects in the area, up to the 18th century. Sections demanding worked stone used Lincolnshire limestone (Barnack stone) from Verulamium, later worked stones include Totternhoe freestone from Bedfordshire, Purbeck marble, and different limestones (Ancaster, Chilmark, Clipsham, etc.)

Renewed Viking raids from 1016 stalled the Saxon efforts and nothing, or very little, from the Saxon abbey was incorporated in the later forms.

The Norman abbey

Much of the current layout and portions of the structure date from the first Norman abbot, Paul of Caen (1077-1093), the 14th abbot, he was appointed by the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Lanfranc.

Building work started in the year of Abbot Paul's arrival. The design and construction was overseen by the Norman Robert the Mason. The plan has very limited Anglo-Saxon elements and is clearly influenced by the French work at Cluny, Bernay, and Caen and shares a similar floorplan to St Etienne and Lanfranc's Canterbury - although the poorer quality building material was a new challenge for Robert and he clearly borrowed some Roman techniques, learned while gathering material in Verulamium.

To take maximum use of the hilltop the abbey was oriented to the south-east. The cruciform abbey was the largest built in England at that time, it had a chancel of four bays, a transept containing seven apses, and a nave of ten bays - fifteen bays long overall. Robert gave particular attention to solid foundations, running a continuous wall of layered bricks, flints and mortar below and pushing the foundations down to twelve feet to hit bedrock. Below the crossing tower special large stones were used.

The tower was a particular triumph - it is the only 11th century great crossing tower still standing in England. Robert began with special thick supporting walls and four massive brick piers, the four level tower tapers at each stage with clasping buttresses on the three lower levels and circular buttresses on the fourth stage, the entire structure masses 5,000 tons and is 144 feet high. The tower was probably topped with a Norman pyramidal roof, the current roof is flat. The original ringing chamber had five bells - two paid for by the Abbot, two by a wealthy townsman, and one donated by the rector of Hoddesdon. None of these bells have survived.

There was a widespread belief that the abbey had two additional, smaller towers at the west end. No remains have been found.

The monastic abbey was completed in 1089 but not consecrated until Holy Innocent's Day, 1115, by the Archbishop of Rouen. King Henry I attended as did many bishops and nobles.

A nunnery was founded nearby in 1140.

Internally the abbey was bare of sculpture, almost stark. The plaster walls were coloured and patterned in parts, with extensive tapestries adding colour. Sculptural decoration was added, mainly ornaments, as it became more fashionable in the 12th century - especially after the Gothic style arrived in England around 1170.

In the current structure the Norman arches under the central tower and on the north side of the nave are the original ones, although the arches in the rest of the building are Gothic, following Victorian era restoration.

The abbey was extended by Abbot John de Cella (1195-1214) in the 1190s, as the number of monks grew from fifty to over a hundred, the abbey was extended westwards with three bays added to the nave. The severe Norman west front was also rebuilt by Hugh de Goldclif - although how is uncertain, it was very costly but its 'rapid' weathering and later alterations have erased all but fragments. A more prominent shrine and altar to Saint Amphibalus were also added. The worked was very slow under de Cella and was not completed until the time of Abbot William de Trumpington (1214-1235). The low Norman tower roof was demolished and a new, much higher, broached spire was raised, sheathed in lead.

Matthew Paris, a monk at St Albans from 1217, kept its chronicles; he died in about 1259. Eighteen of his manuscripts survive and are a rich source of contemporary information for historians.

Nicholas Breakspeare was born in St Albans and applied to be admitted to the abbey as a novice, but he was turned down. He eventually managed to get accepted into an abbey in France. In 1154 he was elected Pope Adrian IV, the only English pope there has ever been. The head of the abbey was confirmed as the premier abbot in England also in 1154.

13th to 15th century

An earthquake shook the abbey in 1250 and damaged the eastern end. In 1257 the dangerously cracked sections were knocked down - three apses and two bays. The thick Presbytery wall supporting the tower was left. The rebuilding and updating was completed during the rule of Abbot Roger de Norton (1263-1290).

On October 10, 1323 two piers collapsed dragging down much of the roof and wrecking five bays. Mason Henry Wy undertook the rebuilding, matching the Early English style of the rest of the bays but adding distinctly 14th century detailing and ornaments. The shrine to St. Amphibalus had also been damaged and was remade.

In the 15th century a large west window of nine main lights and a deep traced head was commissioned by John of Wheathampstead. The spire was reduced to a 'Hertfordshire spike', the roof pitch greatly reduced and battlements liberally added. Further new windows, at 50 each, were put in the transept by Abbot Wallington, who also had a new high altar screen made.

The Dissolution and after

After the death of Abbot Ramryge in 1521 the abbey fell into debt and slow decay under three weak abbots. At the time of its surrender on December 5, 1539 the income was 2,100 annually. The abbot and remaining forty monks were pensioned off and then the buildings were looted. All gold, silver and gilt objects carted away with all other valuables, stonework was broken and defaced and graves opened to burn the contents.

The abbey became part of the diocese of Lincoln in 1542 and was moved to the diocese of London in 1550. The buildings suffered - neglect, second-rate repairs, even active damage. Richard Lee purchased all the buildings, except the church and chapel and some other Crown premises, in 1550. Lee then began the systematic demolition for building material to improve Lee Hall at Sopwell. In 1551, with the stone removed, Lee returned the land to the abbot, the area was named Abbey Ruins for the next 200 years or so.

In 1553 the Lady Chapel became a school, the Great Gatehouse a town jail, some other building passed to the Crown, and the Abbey Church was sold to the town for 400 in 1553 by King Edward VI to be the church of the parish.

The cost of upkeep fell upon the town, although in 1596 and at irregular intervals later the Archdeacon was allowed to collect money for repairs by Brief in the diocese. After James I visited in 1612 he authorised another Brief, which collected around 2,000 - most of which went on roof repairs. The English Civil War slashed the monies spent on repairs, while the abbey was used to hold prisoners of war and suffered from their vandalism, as well as that of their guards. Most of the metal objects that had survived the Dissolution were also removed and other ornamental parts were damaged in Puritan sternness. Another round of fund-raising in 1681-84 was again spent on the roof, repairing the Presbytery vault. A royal grant in 1689 went on general maintenance, 'repairs' to conceal some of the unfashionable Gothic features, and on new internal fittings. The was a second grant from William and Mary in 1698.

By the end of the 17th century the dilapidation was sufficient for a number of writers to comment upon it.

In 1703, from November 26 to December 1, the 'Great Storm' raged across southern England, the abbey lost the south transept window which was replaced in wood at a cost of 40. The window was clear glass with five lights and three transoms in an early Gothic Revival style by John Hawgood. Other windows, although not damaged in the storm, were a constant drain on the abbey budget in the 18th century.

A Brief in 1723-24, seeking 5,775, notes a great crack in the south wall, that the north wall was eighteen inches from vertical, and that the roof timbers were decayed to the point of danger. The money raised was spent on the nave roof over ten bays.

Another Brief was not issued until 1764. Again the roof was rotting, as was the south transept window, walls were cracked or shattered in part and the south wall had subsided and now lent outwards. Despite a target of 2,500 a mere 600 was raised.

In the 1770s the abbey came close to demolition, the expense of repairs meant a scheme to destroy the abbey and erect a smaller church almost succeeded.

A storm in 1797 caused some subsidence, cracking open graves, scattering pavement tiles, flooding the church interior and leaving a few more arches off-vertical.

The Wallingford Screen - a  reconstruction (1884-89) of the original, destroyed in the . Statues of  and  stand on either side of the .
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The Wallingford Screen - a Victorian reconstruction (1884-89) of the original, destroyed in the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Statues of Saint Alban and Saint Amphibalus stand on either side of the altar.

The 19th century

This century was marked with a number of repair schemes. The abbey received some money from the 1818 "Million Act" and in 1820 450 was raised to buy an organ - a second-hand example made in 1670.

The major efforts to revive the abbey came under four men - L. N. Cottingham, Rector H. J. B. Nicholson, and, especially, George Gilbert Scott and Edmund Beckett, 1st Baron Grimthorpe.

In February 1832 a portion of the clerestory wall fell through the roof of the south aisle, leaving a hole almost thirty feet long. With the need for serious repair work evident the architect Cottingham was called in to survey the building. His Survey was presented in 1832 and was worrying reading, everywhere mortar was in wretched condition and wooden beams were rotting and twisting. Cottingham recommended new beams throughout the roof and a new steeper pitch, removing the spire and new timbers in the tower, new paving, ironwork to hold the west transept wall up, a new stone south transept window, new buttresses, a new drainage system for the roof, new ironwork on almost all the windows, and on and on. He estimated a cost of 14,000. Using public subscription 4,000 was raised, of which 1,700 vanished in expenses. With the limited funds the clerestory wall was rebuilt, the nave roof releaded, the tower spike removed, some forty blocked windows reopened and glazed, and the south window remade in stone.

Henry Nicholson, rector from 1835 to 1866, was also active in repairing the abbey - as far as he could - and also uncovering Gothic features lost or neglected.

In 1856 repair efforts began again, 4,000 was raised and slow moves started to gain th abbey the status of cathedral. Scott was appointed the project architect and oversaw a number of works from 1860 until his death in 1878.

Scott began his efforts by having the medieval floor restored, necessitating the removal of tons of earth, and fixing the north aisle roof. The restored floors were retiled in matching stone and copies of old tile designs from 1872-77. A further 2,000 tons of earth were shifted in 1863 during work on the foundation and a new drainage system. In 1870 the tower piers were found to have been shockingly weakened with many cracks and cavities. Huge timbers were inserted and the arches filled with brick as an emergency measure, repair work took until May 1871 and cost over 2,000. The south wall of the nave was now 28 inches from straight, Scott reinforced the north wall and put in scaffolding to take the weight of the roof off the wall then had it jacked straight in under three hours. The wall was then rebuttressed with five huge new masses and set right. Scott was lauded as "saviour of the Abbey." From 1870-75 around 20,000 was spent on the abbey.

In 1875 the Bishopric of St. Albans Act was passed and on April 30, 1877 the See of St Albans was created, which comprises about 300 churches in the counties of Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire. On June 12 of that year, Bishop Thomas L. Claughton (1877-1890) was enthroned.

Scott was continuing to work on the nave roof, vaulting and west bay when he died on March 27 1878. His plans were partially completed by his son, John Oldrid Scott, but the remaining work fell into the hands of Lord Grimthorpe, who's efforts have attracted much controversy - Nikolaus Pevsner calling him a "pompous, righteous bully." Much of the immense 130,000 for the work was donated by Grimthorpe.

Scott's work had clearly been in sympathy with the existing building, Grimthorpe's plans reflected the Victorian ideal - indeed he spent considerable time dismissing and criticising the work of Scott and the efforts of his son.

Grimthorpe first directed the return of a nave roof matching the original high-pitched design, although the battlements added for the lower roof were retained. Completed in 1879 the roof was leaded, following on Scott's desires.

His second major project was the most controversial. The west front, with the great Wheathampstead window, was cracked and leaning, and Grimthorpe, never more than an amateur architect, designed the new front himself - attacked as dense, misproportioned and unsympathetic, "his impoverishment as a designer... [is] evident," "this man, so practical and ingenious, was utterly devoid of taste... his great qualities were marred by arrogance... and a lack of historic sense". Counter proposals were deliberately substituted by Grimthorpe for poorly drawn versions and Grimthorpe's design was accepted. During building it was considerably reworked in order to fit the actual frontage and is not improved by the poor quality sculpture. Work began in 1880 and was completed in April 1883, having cost 20,000.

Grimthorpe was noted for his aversion to the Perpendicular - to the extent that he would have sections he disliked demolished as "too rotten" rather than remade. In his reconstruction, especially of windows, he commonly mixed architectural styles carelessly (see the south aisle, the south choir screen and vaulting). He spent 50,000 remaking the nave. Elsewhere he completely rebuilt the south wall cloisters, with new heavy buttresses, and removed the arcading of the east cloisters during rebuilding the south transept walls. In the south transept he completely remade the south face, completed in 1885, including the huge lancet window group - his proudest achievement - and the flanking turrets, a weighty new tiled roof was also made. In the north transept Grimthorpe had the Perpendicular window demolished and his design inserted - a rose window of circles, cusped circles and lozenges arrayed in five rings around the central light, sixty-four lights in total, each circle with a different glazing pattern.

Grimthorpe continued through the Presbytery in his own style, adapted the antechapel for Consistory Courts, and into the Lady Chapel. After a pointed lawsuit with Henry Hucks Gibbs, 1st Baron Aldenham over who should direct the restoration, Grimthorpe had the vault remade and reproportioned in stone, made the floor in black and white marble (1893), and had new Victorian arcading and sculpture put below the canopy work. Externally the buttresses were expanded to support the new roof and the walls were refaced.

Unfortunately, as early as 1897, Grimthorpe was having to return to previously renovated sections to make repairs. His use of over-strong cement led to cracking, while his fondness for ironwork in windows led to corrosion and damage to the surrounding stone.

Grimthorpe died in 1905 and was interred in the churchyard. He left a bequest for continuing work on the buildings.

The 20th century

John Oldrid Scott (d. 1913), despite frequent clashes with Grimthorpe, had continued working within the cathedral. Scott was a steadfast supporter of the Gothic revival and designed the tomb of the first bishop, had a new bishop's throne built (1903), commemorative stalls for Bishop Festing and two Archdeacons, and new choir stalls. He also repositioned and rebuilt the organ (1907). Further work was interrupted by the war.

A number of memorials to the war were added to the cathedral, notably the painting The Passing of Eleanor by Frank Salisbury (stolen 1973) and the reglazing of the main west window, dedicated in 1925.

Following the Enabling Act of 1919 control of the buildings passed to a Parochial Church Council (replaced by the Cathedral Council in 1968), who appointed the woodwork specialist John Rogers as Architect and Surveyor of the Fabric. He uncovered extensive death watch beetle damage in the presbytery vault and oversaw the repair (1930-31), he had four tons of rubbish removed from the crossing tower and the main timbers reinforced (1931-32), and invested in the extensive use of insecticide throughout the wood structures. In 1934 the eight bells were overhauled and four new bells added to be used in the celebration of George V's jubilee.

Cecil Brown was architect and surveyor from 1939 to 1962. At first he merely oversaw the lowering of the bells for the war and established a fire watch, with the pump in the slype. After the war, in the 1950s, the organ was removed, rebuilt and reinstalled and new pews added. His major work was on the crossing tower, Grimthorpe's cement was found to be damaging the Roman bricks, every brick in the tower was replaced as needed and reset in proper mortar by one man, Walter Barrett. The tower ceiling was renovated as were the nave murals. Brown established the Muniments Room to gather and hold all the church documents.

In 1972, to encourage a closer link between celebrant and congregation, the choir stalls and the massive nine-ton pulpit, and the permanent pews were dismantled and removed. The altar space was enlarged and improved, new 'lighter' wood choir stalls put in, and chairs replaced the pews. A new wooden pulpit was acquired from a Norfolk church and installed in 1974. External floodlighting was added in 1975.

A major survey in 1974 revealed new leaks, decay and other deterioration and a ten-year restoration plan was agreed. Again the roofing required much work, the nave and clerestory roofs were repaired in four stages with new leading. The nave project was completed in 1984 at a total cost of 1.75 million. The clerestory windows were repaired with the corroded iron replaced with delta bronze and other Grimthorpe work on the clerestory was replaced. Seventy-two new heads for the corbel table were made. Grimthorpe's west front was cracking, again due to too strong mortar, and was repaired.

A new visitors centre was proposed in 1970, planning permission was sought in 1973, there was a public inquiry and approval was granted in 1977. Constructed to the south side of the cathedral close to the site of the original chapter house of the abbey, the new 'Chapter House' cost around 1 million and was officially opened on June 8, 1982. The main building material was 500,000 replica Roman bricks.

Modern times

The current Bishop of St Albans is the Right Reverend Christopher Herbert (since 1995), and the current Archdeacon of St Albans is the Venerable Helen Cunliffe. On July 2, 2004, Canon Jeffrey John became the ninth Dean of the Cathedral.

Among the persons buried at St Albans are Thomas de la Mare, who died at the age of 87 in 1396, having been abbot for 47 years, and Sir Anthony (or Antony) Grey, who died in 1480 and was the brother-in-law of Elizabeth Woodville, the queen consort of Edward IV of England. The brasses are still on their tombs, all the others in the church having been destroyed at the time of the Dissolution.

The University of Hertfordshire holds graduation ceremonies in the cathedral.

Reference

  • The Hill of the Martyr: an Architectural History of St. Albans Abbey, Eileen Roberts (Book Castle, 1993), ISBN 187119212

See also

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