A brief history of the Abbey

Founded as a Benedictine monastery by King Offa

The Church dedicated to St Alban was founded by King Offa in 793, over 1200 years ago, as a Benedictine monastery.  Early in the eighth century Bede wrote of “a church of wonderful workmanship in which place there ceases not to this day the cure of sick persons, and the frequent working of wonders.”[1] Later abbots, intending to reconstruct the abbey between Viking invasions, collected brick and other building materials from the abandoned Roman city of Verulamium.

Rebuilt by the first Norman abbot, Paul of Caen

After the Norman conquest of 1066 Lanfranc was installed as Archbishop of Canterbury, and his new church there was finished by 1077, the year that the rebuilding of St Albans began – probably with the very same team of workmen.  The first Norman abbot at St Albans was Lanfranc’s kinsman, Paul of Caen.  The new church was even larger than Lanfranc’s at Canterbury.  It is built from the bricks saved from the Roman city of Verulamium, which determine its style, which is severe and strong, unadorned with carving.  The mortar of pulverised brick and lime replicates the enduring Roman work seen in the ruined city walls.  It was originally plastered outside, and plastered and decorated with masonry patterns inside.

Paul of Caen and St Albans Abbey.  Paul, born in Pavia, was a kinsman of Archbishop Leofric of Canterbury. Paul began as a monk at St Etienne, Caen, and became our first Norman abbot. When Lanfranc rebuilt Canterbury cathedral, Paul assisted and then went on to oversee the construction of the Norman Church of St Alban, begin in 1077, becoming its first abbot. The Abbey was the largest of the four built in William I’s lifetime. Paul died in 1093 and was buried in the chapter house. When the modern chapter house was built on the original site, Paul’s remains were reburied before the high altar. [Extract from Newsletter 164, February 2007]

Soon after this Nicholas Breakespeare was born at the nearby village of Abbots Langley, later to become Pope Adrian IV in 1154 ‑ the only Englishman to achieve this distinction.[2]

The famous chronicler of St Albans Abbey, Matthew Paris

In 1217 Matthew Paris, one of Europe’s outstanding medieval chroniclers, became a monk at St Albans.  He died here in 1259, leaving a huge collection of history and the deeds of prominent people in the chronicles of the monastery.  As a mirror to his age, this brilliant writer and artist is second to none: his pictures and words are alive with opinions and prejudices.  There are records of the abbey’s early history.[3]

Decline and fall of the monastery at the Dissolution

By the early 1520s religious orders were collapsing all over Europe as Renaissance notions began to replace those of medieval Christianity. The number of monks had dwindled from a hundred to forty.  Cardinal Wolsey was appointed Abbot, but remained in commendam, using the abbey’s income in order to build his own Cardinal College at Oxford.

Abbot Richard Stevenage surrendered St Albans to King Henry VIII’s Commissioners in 1539 and he and his monks were pensioned off.  He purchased the Lady Chapel from the King’s Commissioner and used it as a boy’s school.  He reverted to his original name, Richard Borman, and remained there as schoolmaster for the rest of his life.

Destruction of monastic buildings

This was the end of the monastery of St Albans.  All the conventual buildings were destroyed except for the Great Gateway, which continued in use as the prison.  The rubble was purchased for new building projects in the area.  The church was plundered and the shrine destroyed: 1,000oz of silver, much parcel gilt and cartloads of treasures and books were seized by the King’s men.  An eye‑witness account of the event makes grim reading.

Finally the church itself seemed to be under threat and in 1551 the local burgesses collected £400 and bought it from the King for use as their parish church.[4]  It then suffered 300 years of neglect as the small market town of St Albans attempted ‑ and failed ‑ to keep their enormous parish church in good repair.

The church becomes a cathedral

In 1877 the church was raised to the status of Cathedral for the newly‑formed diocese of Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire.  There followed an expensive and often insensitive period of restoration [5], paid for by Lord Grimthorpe, whose activities hastened the formation of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings ‑ alas, too late to save much fine medieval building work at St Albans.  However, the great church was saved from ruin and it still retains a strong spiritual atmosphere, and an enormous variety of building styles in the various parts of the building.

[1] The Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, The Venerable Bede, Dent, London 1975, p. 14.

[2] Liber Pontificalis, 2, Paris, 1886–92, pp.388–397.  Also DNB I, London, 1865–1900, pp. 143-6, and The Pontificate of Adrian IV, Cambridge Historical Journal, 1953–5, Vol 11, pp. 233–52.

[3] B. Lib. Cotton Claudius E IV, and Cotton Nero D I, V, VII.

[4] The Dissolution of the Monasteries: The Case of St Albans, J.J. Scarisbrick, St Albans 1990.

[5] For a brief description of the restoration process, see ‘Walter J. Lawrance: First Dean of St Albans‘.

The Abbey secured funding and supplies from estates it owned around the country. In ‘The Estates of the Abbey of St Alban’, Edward Miller discusses the administration of these estates.