THE CATHEDRAL AND ABBEY CHURCH OF ST. ALBAN
t. Alban’s Abbey was built near the ancient Roman city of Verulamium, the home of England’s first Christian martyr.
Alban was a British pagan living in Verulamium in the third century. Alban hid a Christian priest from the Roman soldiers. Alban was so moved by the piety and faith of this priest that he became a Christian too. When the soldiers came for the priest, Alban went in his stead to see the local judge. The judge ordered him to renounce Christianity or face death. Alban’s response, “I worship and adore the true and living God who created all things.”
Alban was beheaded on the site where St. Alban’s Cathedral now stands. This holy place has been a center of pilgrimage for some 1700 years. An early Saxon abbey was replaced in 1077 by a Norman abbey that was, in turn, altered and enlarged over the next four centuries.
Largely abandoned after Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, the church was restored in the 19th century and, in 1877, received cathedral status. Although its exterior was largely rebuilt in the 1880s, much of St. Albans’ dazzling medieval interior remains intact. Perhaps the most remarkable survivals are its paintings and the Shrine of St. Alban in the Abbey’s Lady Chapel.
The paintings, found on the walls and columns, were made between the 13th and 15th centuries. Hidden under whitewash during the Reformation and later uncovered, they are the largest collection of such paintings in England.
The 13th century Shrine of St. Alban was smashed during the dissolution. Hundreds of pieces of the intricately-carved marble structure were later recovered, and the shrine reconstructed. Overlooking the shrine is a unique medieval survival, a wooden “overlook loft,” that allowed monks and high-ranking visitors to reflect in privacy.
Next to the Shrine is the Chantry Chapel (more like a decorative alcove) of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. The steps to his subterranean tomb are set in the floor, and covered by a metal grill. Humphrey played a prominent role in the minority government of his young nephew, Henry VI.
Humphrey’s brother, John, Duke of Bedford, served as Regent for Henry’s (claimed) realm of France and Humphrey served as Regent for England. Duke Humphrey’s reputation is mixed. He was a patron of literature and learning, and treated very sympathetically by William Shakespeare. He could also, however, be uncooperative, irresponsible and volatile. Humphrey’s last years were tainted by the conviction of his wife, Eleanor Cobham, for sorcery.
Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, is also buried in the Abbey, in an unknown location. Edmund, a grandson of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and his mistress (later, his third wife) Katherine Swynford, was the leader of the Lancastrian army of King Henry VI.
In the opening battle of the “War of the Roses,” the First Battle of St. Albans, on 22 May 1455, Edmund faced an army led by Richard, Duke of York. During the fighting, which raged through the narrow streets of the small town, Edmund was killed.
The Second Battle of St. Albans, on 17 February 1461, was a victory for the Lancastrians. Among their commanders was Edmund Beaufort’s son Henry, himself now the Duke of Somerset. The Lancastrian victory was to no avail. That same year, Edward of York was crowned king.
St. Albans is only a 20-minute train ride from London’s St. Pancras International Station. The walk to the Abbey, although not short, will take you through a picturesque historic town (with a wide variety of enticing options for tea or lunch). The Cathedral Church and Abbey of St. Albans has a website, at www.stalbanscathedral.org