“If you think about it, these cathedrals and castles are a lot older than my own country!” This was my reply to my husband years ago, when he asked why I find medieval constructions fascinating. He grew up among them so they don’t pique his curiosity. But to me they are truly interesting. I appreciate their history and art rather than their spiritual significance. From then on, he made a point of taking me to every medieval cathedral in England. St. Alban’s is the latest.
Who was St. Alban?
Alban lived in Verulamium in the 3rd century AD when the Romans ruled the British Isles. The story goes that he helped a Christian priest escape persecution by exchanging clothes with him. Alban, who sympathized with the Christian faith, got caught and the Roman authorities had him beheaded. Alban thus became the first British martyr. His grave became a place of pilgrimage. A simple church, which afterwards grew to become England’s most important Benedictine abbey, was built on this site, making this the oldest continuous site of Christian worship in the UK.
St. Alban’s Day is 22 June, also called Albantide.
Let’s have a wander round the cathedral.
This is the 12th century shrine dedicate to St. Amphibalus, the Christian priest that Alban saved. It sounds like amphibious, so every time i read the name, I imagine a frog-like creature (I hope this doesn’t make a heretic!)
The nave is 276 feet (85 metres) long. The arches at the front are Norman and date from 1077-1115. They were built with Roman bricks, which were to hard to carve so they were plastered over and painted. The arches can be seen just above the altar. The arches in the forefront of the photo were built in the 12th-13th centuries in the Early English, or Gothic, style. The ceiling was originally made of wood. This one is Victorian and replaces the decayed previous ceiling.
The tower and crossing were part of the Norman church built in 1077. The walls are 7 feet thick!
The nave screen consists of a carved stone rood screen that at the time divided the lay and monastic areas. The statutes were destroyed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries under King Henry III and were replaced by modern statures of Christian martyrs. I’m not sure I love how it looks but it probably takes some getting used to. The names of the martyrs are Elisabeth Romanova, Amphibalus, Oscar Romero, Alban, Alban Roe, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and George Tankerfield.
St. Alban’s shrine, of Purbeck marble, dates from the 14th century. You can still see traces of medieval paint. It must have been a riot of bright colours, like, I presume, the rest of the church.
Behind the shrine is the original Watching Loft, where the Watchers sat keeping an eye on the pilgrims. I wonder if they were trying to prevent acts of vandalism. This oak construction is original and dates from around 1400.
I found this rolling head on one of the walls of the shrine. At first, I thought it was the mark of the mason, as medieval masons were prone to leave little jokes in their work. Then I realized this must symbolize St. Alban’s head!
Something that caught my attention was this book stall in the cathedral. Nobody was manning it at the time. If you wanted to buy something, like I did, you had to go and pay at the gift shop. It relied on the honesty of the patrons.
St. Alban’s is located in southern Hertfordshire.
From London by train from Blackfriars Station.