St Albans in transition – from monastic town to corporate borough, 1539-1580

Extract from Fowler's plan showing Romeland & Abbey gateway


In his article published in 2000 in The English Historical Review, Prof. James Clark considered the effects of the dissolution of St Albans Abbey on those who had been associated with it. In particular, he explored the failed attempt in the late 1550s to re-establish the monastery, its promoters thwarted by the death of Queen Mary and the accession of Elizabeth.

However, irrespective of Clark’s excellent article, our understanding of the history of St Albans in this period remains rather sketchy. For example, we know (very) little about the establishment of the new corporation following the grant of the 1553 borough charter. The project aims to address key gaps in our knowledge by questioning how the town community itself fared.


Expected to last 18 months, we do not anticipate this being an extensive project looking at every document from the period. Instead, our initial focus will be on the probate documents of a group of 33 men who appear to have been involved with the town’s administration between 1539 and 1553 (referred to below as the ‘city fathers’). What do these documents tell us about their attitudes to the loss of the monastery and the creation of the new corporation?

The 1558 will of the conflicted Henry Gape is instructive here: not sure whether to go with his head or his heart, Gape left land to the corporation and also to the Abbey were it to be re-established.1

In particular, we will be looking for evidence of legacies left to institutions such as the corporation, the school and the Abbey church as well as the provision of alms. Moreover, with Ailsa’s research into the life of one these ‘city fathers’ (Thomas Maningham) as our precedent, we hope to find detailed information about how these men – they are all men – navigated the transition from monastic town to corporate borough.2 Did they, or their families, have connections with, or employment in, the monastery? We will also focus on family reconstructions making the data accessible via a database.

We aim to recruit no more than a further ten Society members to join the group. Some of these will already have transcribing skills, an important facility as we aim to transcribe copies of core sources. Training will be provided to group members who don’t have those skills. This is an important aim of the project.

The project will be managed by Ailsa Herbert and Jon Mein, and we hope to draw on external experts for advice.


We have identified the following as our ‘core sources’ to which we expect to add following further reading and discussion.

1. Probate: discrete set of probate documents relating to the probable 33 ‘trustees’ of the former Charnel Brotherhood who signed the 1549 Clock Tower deed. (25 wills, 11 inventories). These men are who we called the ‘city fathers’ above;
2. 1553 borough charter;
3. Tax: 1545 lay subsidy (TNA E179/121/178); 1524/5 subsidy for comparison?
4. Letters Patent;
5. Property records e.g. Inquisitions post-mortem, deeds, Marian Survey etc.
Copies of other documents will be acquired for transcription as needs be. These include Chancery Court papers (TNA), the 1554 Archdeaconry visitation (LMA), material from the City Archives (HALS) etc.

Secondary sources will be important tools in our research and will include studies of other former monastic towns.


In the first instance we expect to publish our findings in the Society’s newsletter and on the website. A decision on whether to produce a Society pamphlet will be considered in due course. Short biographies of key personnel will be constructed.


The project will start in January 2022 and the aim is to finish in June 2023. The initial research phase will last 12-14 months.


If you would like to know more about this project, please contact Ailsa and Jon via

7 September 2021

1 Henry Gape’s will, 1558  (The National Archives, PROB 11/41/186)
2 See A. Herbert, ‘Music and Musicians of St Albans Abbey in 1539′, Alban Link, no. 85, Autumn 2016, pp. 4-7