Turn the page
Picturesque England
Turn the page


St Albans

T
HIS town is situated close to the site of the ancient Verulamium, a celebrated British town. Like London, Verulamium was favourable to the Romans, and had obtained some of the privileges of Roman citizenship when Boadicea rose against the conquerors, and in anger at the alliance of the town with the Romans subjected its inhabitants to a dreadful slaughter, destroying here and in London 70,000 Roman citizens and their allies. Suetonius Paulinus, the Roman governor, then attacked the British queen, gained a complete victory over her, and put 80,000 of her soldiers to the sword. Verulam was then rebuilt and remained eventless, and therefore, probably, fairly happy, till the reign of Diocletian, when the city was rendered famous by the martyrdom of the man from whom it has taken its modern name of St. Albans.

Alban was a heathen - a worshipper of the gods of Rome - but he was generous and hospitable, and when a Christian priest named Amphilabus craved shelter in his house from the persecutors - Diocletian had ordered a persecution of the Christians - Alban permitted him to enter, and concealed him. The fugitive spent days and nights in prayer, and Alban, questioning him as to his faith, was told the story of the Gospel, and believed it. For some days the Christian instructed his host, and his words fell on willing ears. But it was rumoured at last that Alban was hiding a Christian, and the governor of the city sent soldiers to search for him. Alban had already effected the escape of his teacher, and to delay pursuit, probably, put on the priest's long cloak or habit and gave himself up to the soldiers. He was brought before the governor, who recognised him and reproached him for concealing a Christian. Alban's defence was that he also believed in the Christ, and was willing to die for his faith. The governor was at the time worshipping his gods and ordered the soldiers to drag Alban before the altar. Here he commanded the Christian to bow down before the statue, but Alban resolutely refused. The governor ordered him to be most severely scourged; but the confessor remained firm in his refusal to burn incense to Mars or Jove, and after further torture the Roman ordered him to be put to death.

On their way to the place of execution they came to a river that ran between it and the town. A great multitude of people had followed the martyr, "and in their sight," says the legend, "the stream dried up for Alban to pass over." The executioner, who walked beside him with uplifted sword, saw this miracle, and on reaching the fatal spot where Alban was to die cast down his sword, and throwing himself on his knees, prayed that he might suffer with the martyr, or in his place.

Alban then ascended the little hill; it was covered with flowers and sloped to a beautiful plain. Here Alban prayed for water, and a living spring broke out at his feet.

A soldier struck off the martyr's head, but as he did so his eyes dropped out and fell to the ground. Alban was buried in a woody place near the town, and his disgrace, as the Romans styled his martyrdom, was inscribed on the city walls.

But time went on; all Britain became Christian, and the Pelagian heresy made its appearance. Germanus, Bishop of Auxerre, and Lupus, Bishop of Troyes, were sent on a mission to Britain to preach against it. Germanus had the remains of the first British martyr exhumed, placed them in a wooden coffin, and put holy relics in it to preserve it; then he solemnly buried the body amidst tears and lamentations, and raised a small church of timber over his remains to the holy man's memory. Many miracles were said to have been shown at his sepulchre; but the Saxon invasion came, and the ruthless adventurers levelled the martyr's church, as well as many others, to the ground, and all trace of his last restingplace was lost. Now Offa, King of Mercia, had committed a great crime. He had invited Ethelbert, Prince of the East Angles, to his court on presence of marrying him to his daughter; but had then killed him and seized on his dominions Anxious to do something in expiation of this guilt, being much tormented by his conscience, Offa determined to find the body of St. Alban and place it in a shrine. He had, tradition said, been ordered to do so by an angel. It is certain that he did seek for and found the wooden coffin containing the bones of Alban and the relics just as Germanus had left them 344 years before.

Offa is said to have placed a circle of gold round the skull, with an inscription signifying its name and title. He also erected an abbey, in which the sacred bones were placed, and on which he bestowed great privileges. As Alban was our first martyr, Pope Honorius granted to the Abbot of St. Alban's a superiority over all others. A hundred Benedictine monks, carefully selected, were placed in the Abbey, and it prospered for three hundred years. Then, a short time preceding the Norman Conquest, Abbot Paul began to build the present Abbey Church, which was consecrated in 1115. It was partly constructed of the ruins of the preceding building. The interior walls were full of Roman bricks, and the outside wall of the same. Nothing of the old abbey remains except the church and a large square gateway; all the monastic buildings were pulled down by Henry VIII. and Edward VI., but the townspeople purchased the church from the latter monarch for 400, and then made it their parish church. It is in the form of a cross; its extreme length is 556 feet, that is three feet longer than Winchester Cathedral, therefore longer than any of our cathedrals. There are two transepts 170 feet long, and a tower 150 feet high, of the Norman period. The carved oak ceiling of the Norman lantern is 102 feet from the pavement.

St. Albans was the scene of two of the sad battles of the Roses. The first encounter of the hostile factions took place there on May 22nd, 1455; it lasted only an hour, but was fiercely fought, and disastrous to Henry, who was wounded in the neck by an arrow, and became prisoner to the Duke of York. The king remained on the field till he was quite alone, then he sought refuge in a baker's shop. Here the conqueror found him, and with cruel mockery, bending his knee, bade the unfortunate Henry rejoice that "the traitor Somerset" was slain. He then led the king to the shrine of St. Alban, and afterwards to the royal apartments in the abbey.

The second battle of St. Albans was fought, Feb. 17th, 1461. Queen Margaret won it, and the defeated Yorkists fled, leaving their royal prisoner nearly alone in a tent with Lord Montague, his chamberlain, and a few attendants. Here Margaret and her little son, the Prince of Wales, flew to greet him. They then hastened to the abbey. At the doors they were met by a procession of the monks, headed by Abbot John, singing hymns of triumph and thanksgiving. The whole party then proceeded to the high altar to offer up their thanksgivings for the victory.

The Lancastrian royal family remained several days at the abbey. Abbot John, of Wheathampstead, entertained Edward IV., after his coronation, and he protected the abbey, but did not again visit it.

Richard III. showed much favour to St. Albans, and encouraged the monks to finish and publish the famous St. Alban's Chronicle.

In the Abbey Church the good Duke Humphrey, Protector during the boyhood of Henry VI., is buried.

The monument to St. Alban, found in broken pieces when the church was being restored, has been very cleverly reconstructed, and is of beautiful carved stone, on which is represented the story of the martyrdom. St. Albans is now a bishop's see.


Turn the page
Picturesque England
Turn the page
Picturesque England - Matthew Spong 2004