St Albans and the Abbey

If history were altogether silent on the subject of Verulam, and we knew nothing of the slaughter of its countless thousands of Roman inhabitants by the Britons under Boadicea, and of other scarcely less important events, that show the place to have been one of the most ancient and distinguished of British and Roman towns, a walk through the neighbourhood of its more modern representative, St. Albans, even at the present day, would tell us our footsteps were among the memorials of a mighty people, that we looked upon the site of what must have once been a great and magnificent place. There is no mistaking the character of these huge fragments of wall, or of these gigantic embankments, not unaptly denominated the Verulam Hills, or of the extent of the place both walls and embankments formerly enclosed. Nay, even the very Abbey Church of St. Albans, stamped as it is with an expression of the extremest antiquity in its general style of architecture, tells of something infinitely more ancient, in the heterogeneous materials of which it is built,—tiles, bricks, flints, the debris of Roman Verulam. But if we avail ourselves of the assistance of history, our wonder and admiration are indefinitely enhanced. Before London as yet was, Verulam existed, not only as an important city, but as the seat of a line of princes, the Cassii. After their overthrow, and the complete establishment of the dominion of the masters of the world, Verulam was one of the few places that rejoiced in the honour and advantages attending the elevation to the rank of a municipium or free city. Its wealth, as well as its large population, at the time of the British outburst under Boadicea, is evident from the allusion to it made by Tacitus, who seems to intimate that its riches formed an additional inducement with the Britons to attack it, and from the number of persons—seventy thousand—who are said to have fallen in Verulam, London, and some other less important places. It may be easily supposed that St. Albans must be a rich mine for the antiquary to delve in, though its choicest treasures have probably been already gathered. “Were I to relate,” says Camden, “what common report affirms of the many Roman coins, statues of gold and silver, vessels, marble pillars, cornices, and wonderful monuments of ancient art dug up here, I should scarcely be believed.” One of the most important discoveries was made some nine centuries ago, during the time of Abbot Eadmer, who having employed men to ransack the ruins, they “tore up the foundations of a great place in the midst of the ancient city; and while they were wondering at the remains of such large buildings, they found in the hollow repository of one wall, as in a small press, among some lesser books and rolls, an unknown volume of one book, which was not mutilated by its long continuance there; and of which neither the letters nor the dialect, from their antiquity, were known to any person who could then be found: but the inscriptions and titles in it shone resplendent in letters of gold. The boards of oak, the strings of silk, in great measure retained their original strength and beauty. When inquiry had been industriously made very far and wide concerning the notices in this book, at last they found one priest, aged and decrepit, a man of great erudition, Unwon by name, who, knowing the dialect and letters of different languages, read the writing of the before-mentioned book, distinctly and openly. In the same manner he read without hesitation, and he explained without difficulty, notices in other books that were found in the same room and within the same press; for the letters were such as used to be written when Verulam was inhabited, and the dialect was that of the ancient Britons then used by them. There were some things in the other books, written in Latin, but these were not curious; and in the first book, the greater one, of which I have made mention before, he found written ‘The History of Saint Alban, the proto-martyr of the English,’ which the church at this very day recites and reads; to which that excellent scholar Bede lends his testimony, differing in nothing from it. That book in which the ‘History of St. Alban’ was contained, was reposited with the greatest regard in the treasury of the Abbey; and exactly as the aforesaid presbyter read the book written in the ancient dialect of England or Britain, with which he was well acquainted, Abbot Eadmer caused it to be faithfully and carefully set down by some of the wiser brethren of the convent, and then more fully taught in the public preachings. But when the history was thus made known, as I have said, to several, by being written in Latin, what is wonderful to tell, the primitive and original work fell away in round pieces, and Mas soon reduced irrecoverably to dust.” (Whitaker’s ‘Ancient Cathedral of Cornwall.’) As may be supposed, the name, St. Albans, is derived from the Saint, whose history was thus strangely discovered. Alban or Albanus was a Roman citizen of Verulam, who, during the dreadful persecution instituted by Dioclesian against the Christians, gave shelter to one of their ministers or priests, named Amphilabus, who had fled to Verulam from Wales. His retreat was unfortunately discovered, and the judge of the city sent soldiers to arrest him; when Albanus, who had received some private intimation of their approach, sent away his guest in safety, and then putting on his habit, presented himself to the soldiers as the man of whom they were in search. By them he was conveyed to the judge; where, throwing off his cloak, and revealing himself, he proceeded to defend the act of heroism he had performed by one still more heroic,—a bold and unequivocal declaration of his belief in the doctrines of the Cross. Great was the excitement and indignation. At first he was scourged with the utmost severity, in the hope of inducing him to recant; but seeing all efforts ineffectual, he was taken the same day to a neighbouring hill, and there beheaded. Two miracles are related as having occurred at his death. The bridge over the river was so narrow that the multitudes who crowded to see the execution were unable to pass, until Albanus prayed that the waters might be divided and afford a safe passage. This was done; and the executioner, in consequence, refused to perform his office, and was himself condemned to death on account of his scruples. The other miracle has been thus recorded by a poetical writer of the time of James I., in an inscription which was placed below a painted window in the abbey, representing the martyrdom:—

“This image of our frailty, painted glass,

Shows where the life and death of Alban was.

A Knight beheads the martyr, but so soon,

His eyes dropt out to see what he had done;

And leaving their own head, seem’d with a tear

To wail the other head laid mangled there:

Because, before, his eyes no tears would shed,

His eyes themselves like tears fall from his head.

Oh, bloody fact, that whilst St. Alban dies,

The murderer himself weeps out his eyes.”

After the execution, the people of St. Albans had the story of Albanus’s disgrace, as they esteemed it, engraved upon marble and inserted in the city walls. Even then, however, no doubt St. Albans was secretly divided against itself; and men were heard still whispering to each other in solitary corners in something like the words of the scientific martyr of a later time—“It moves;” for both Bede and Gildas state that but a very few years later a church was founded, in honour of Alban, on the very spot where he had suffered. And then, too, the public record of his disgrace disappeared from the walls, to give place to the triumphant memorials of the new religion. And in high veneration did the place, afterwards known as St. Albans, remain from that time forward, though it was not till the eighth century that it enjoyed the honours usually accorded to all such sacred spots, of having a house of religious persons established on it. Offa, the great Mercian king, being then in much trouble of mind as to various incidents of his career, and more particularly as to the murder of Ethelbert, sovereign of the East Angles, determined to set all right by founding a monastery. Then came the question as to the whereabout. After awhile, being at Bath, as Matthew Paris, the historian of the Abbey, tells us, in the rest and silence of night, he seemed to be accosted by an angel, who instructed him to raise from the earth the ashes of the body of the first British martyr, Alban, and place them in a suitably ornamented shrine. To Humbert, Archbishop of Lichfield, and Unwona, Bishop of Leicester, his special counsellors, did Offa communicate the particulars of this vision; when the whole three set out to search for the relics. As they approached Verulam, the king saw a light, as of a torch, shining over the town, and, as a harbinger of success, gladly was it welcomed. “When the king, the clergy, and the people,” continues the historian, “were assembled, they entered on the search with prayer, fasting, and alms, and struck the earth everywhere with intent to hit the spot of burial; but the search had not been continued long when a light from heaven was vouchsafed to assist the discovery, and a ray of fire stood over the place, like the star that conducted the Magi to find the Holy Jesus at Bethlehem. The ground was opened, and, in the presence of Offa, the body of Alban was found.” It was then taken in solemn procession to the church before mentioned, which had been erected on the very spot where Alban had been beheaded, and there deposited it in a shrine enriched with plates of gold and silver. Offa himself placed a circle of gold, inscribed with Alban’s name and title, round the skull. And then was commenced the erection of the monastery around the church; a matter deemed of such vast importance, that Offa made a preliminary visit to Rome to procure the requisite powers and privileges, obtained at no less a cost than the making perpetual the payment of Peter-pence by the English nation (a custom that did last for several centuries), but which previously had been granted by Ina merely for the maintenance of a Saxon college at Rome. On his return to England, a great assembly was held at Verulam, of the nobles and prelates, when it was resolved that the monastery should not only be on a large scale, sufficient, indeed, for the accommodation of one hundred monks, but so amply endowed as to be able to exercise the rites of hospitality to the many travellers who passed through the neighbourhood along the Watling Street in their journeys between London and the North; a gratifying trait of the feelings, as well as an interesting glimpse of the manners of Saxon England. The monks were all carefully selected from the houses most distinguished for their regularity of discipline. The first stone was, of course, laid by Offa, who laboured at the undertaking with a zeal and perseverance that were, considering his position and the many duties it imposed, really extraordinary; and although the buildings were mostly erected in the course of the first four or five years, death found him still busily engaged in his labour of love and piety, rather than of remorse, in which it first originated. A touching story is told concerning his burial. From some unexplained cause, Willegod, the first abbot, seems to have thought it his duty to refuse permission to inter the remains of Offa in the monastery; two months after Offa’s death, Willegod himself died, partly through the grief he is said to have felt on account of that refusal. In the history of the subsequent abbots of St. Albans we might find ample materials for an interesting volume; we can, therefore, only attempt to select here and there a passage. During the life-time of the eleventh abbot, Ælfric, some alarm was felt lest, in the ravages of the Danes, the remains of St. Alban might fall into their unrespecting hands; and in consequence the monks came to a determination which does great credit to their shrewdness, and which led to an incident strikingly illustrative, in various points, of the monkish character. A wooden chest was brought, into which were put the saint’s relics, and the costly shrine, in which, we presume, they had been placed by Offa; to these were added some of the most valuable effects of the monastery. The chest, with its precious contents, was then let into a secret cavity in the wall of the church, and securely closed up. A few of the monks only were admitted into the abbot’s confidence. This completed one part of the arrangement. Another and very rich looking chest was now obtained, and the bones of a common monk placed therein with great show of respect. This, with some of the ornaments of the church, and an old ragged cloak, which it was insinuated was the very cloak that Amphilabus had worn, and in which Alban went disguised before the judge, were sent to the monks of Ely to take care of, who received them with undissembled joy. After the alarm had subsided, Ælfric demands his chest and other deposits; but the monks are determined to take such care of them, as never again to let them leave their own walls. Ælfric implores—but they care not; Ælfric threatens, and at last they are somewhat frightened; a schism takes place in the monastery, some insisting upon the return of the martyr’s remains, some insisting upon their detention: at last, however, there is a sudden unanimity; they will return the chest, but first open the bottom very subtilly, and replace the relics by others. No sooner, however, does Ælfric examine the chest on its return, than he sees the imposition, and, forgetting his own deception in his indignation at the deception of his brethren of Ely, exposes the whole affair, to the sorrow of many a pious spirit, the mirth of many a merry one, and the never ending annoyance and mortification of the poor monks of the Isle.

If the monastic character but too often, it is to be feared, was justly chargeable with these little deceptions, it had many excellent qualities by way of counterpoise. The records of the abbey of St. Albans exhibit various instances of noble devotion to the public good. Thus the predecessor of Ælfric, Leofric, son of the Earl of Kent, and afterwards Archbishop of Canterbury, during the prevalence of a grievous famine, first expended for the relief of the people the treasures that had been set apart for the erection of a new church, and then sold the very materials, the slabs of stones, the columns, and the timber that had been dug up for the same purpose from the inexhaustible quarry of the ruins of Verulam. To these also he added the gold and silver vessels that belonged to the church and to his own table. His wise liberality caused much dissension among the monks, but he had his reward in his own inward satisfaction, and in the gratitude of his fellow-men generally, some of whom, the most exalted in rank, warmly supported him. Another abbot, the successor of Ælfric, Leofstan, confessor to the Confessor, cut down the thick groves and woods that covered the Watling-street, and which had become the haunts of wolves, wild boars, stags, and wild bulls (these were among the inhabitants of Old England), as well as of a still more terrible class of ravagers, the human robbers and outlaws who made plunder their trade. And yet a third abbot must be mentioned, Frederic, descended from Saxon royal blood, and with the true current still pouring through his veins. It was his misfortune to be Abbot of St. Albans at the period of the Conquest. William, after the battle of Hastings, bad gradually made way to London, but finding his entrance resisted, roamed about the country for some time, doing all the mischief he could, thereby intimating, we presume, to the people, the advantage of quickly coming to a better understanding with such a reckless and potent enemy. On his return towards London, his road lay through St. Albans. As he approached that place, the passage was found to be stopped by masses of great trees that had been felled and drawn across the road. The Abbot of St. Albans was sent for to explain these demonstrations, who, in answer to the king’s questions, frankly and fearlessly said, “I have done the duty appertaining to my birth and calling; and if others of my rank and profession had performed the like, as they well could and ought, it had not been in thy power to penetrate into the land so far.” Not long after, that same Frederic was at the head of a confederacy, determined, if possible, to compel William to reign like a Saxon prince, that is, according to the ancient laws and customs, or to place England’s darling, Edgar Atheling, in his room. William submitted for a time, and, in a great council at Berkhampstead, swore, upon all the relics of the church of St. Albans, that he would keep the laws in question, the oath being administered by Abbot Frederic. In the end, however, the Conqueror grew too strong to be coerced into any measures, however nationally excellent or desirable, and he does not seem to have cared much about oath breaking, unless indeed it was when he had exacted the oath,—the unhappy Harold, for instance, found that no light matter—and so William became more oppressive than ever. St. Albans, as might have been anticipated, suffered especially from his vengeance, he seized all its lands that lay between Barnet and London-stone, and was with difficulty prevented from utterly ruining the monastery. As it was, the blow was enough for Frederic, who died of grief in the monastery of Ely, whither he had been compelled to fly.

We have before had occasion to notice the many able and zealous men whom William introduced into our bishoprics, and abbatial offices, in the place of the Saxon dignitaries, whom he displaced or killed off: St. Albans forms no exception to this general rule. Paul, said by some to be the king’s own son, was made abbot, who signalized his rule by a rebuilding of the entire Abbey, church included, from the enormous masses of materials that had been previously collected from the Roman city. The “young monks” of the Abbey possessed a less gratifying recollection of him. To these “young monks,” says Matthew Paris, “who, according to their custom, lived upon pasties of fresh meat, he prevented all inordinate eating,” by first stinting them in quantity, and then in substituting kar-pie, or herring-pie, made of “herrings and sheets of cakes.” One would have supposed there was no need of stinting the use of that dish. The new church was consecrated by the succeeding abbot, Albany, in 1115, when a goodly company were present, including Henry I. and Queen Maud, with a crowd of prelates and nobles, all of whom were for eleven days entertained by the Abbey at its own cost. The spiritual connection of St. Cuthbert with the Abbey began in this abbot’s time, who is said to have enjoyed “a wonderful cure of a withered arm” through the saint’s intercession. From the period of the erection of the new church, the Abbey gradually began to recover its lost prosperity, and to rise to even greater splendour. Abbot Gorham’s rule marks perhaps the most important era of this progress. He procured exemption for the Abbey from all ecclesiastical jurisdiction other than that of the Pope, a favour obtained through the personal recollections of the latter—Adrian, the Englishman, who then filled the chair of St. Peter, and who had been born at Abbot’s Langley. To this was added a grant of precedence; “as St. Alban was distinctly known to be the first martyr of the English nation, so the abbot of his monastery should at all times, among other abbots of the English nation, in degree of dignity be reputed first and principal.” Many disputes and heart-burnings arose through these privileges; the Bishops of Lincoln were discontented to be deprived of their usual jurisdiction; the Abbots of Westminster, of what they seem to have considered their proper seat, the one of highest honour and dignity in parliament. In the second point the Abbots of St. Albans were ultimately defeated through the supineness of one of their number, who was contented to be foremost in learning; but in the first they were perfectly successful, the Bishops of Lincoln giving up all opposition, after a very marked interference by royalty, during the abbacy of Gaurine. The king happened at the time to be a visitor to the Abbey, and thus addressed the astonished prelate: “By the eyes of God, I was present at the agreement. What is it, my lord of Lincoln, that you would attempt? Do you think these things were done in secret? I, myself, and the most chosen men of the realm, were present; and what was then done is ratified by writings the most incontestable, and confirmed by the testimony of the nobles. The determination stands good; and whoever sets himself to combat this abbot and monastery, combats me. What seek you?—to touch the pupil of mine eye,” “By no means, your majesty,” we can fancy the astounded prelate replying in a troubled and tremulous voice, and retiring back into perpetual silence on the subject thenceforth.

Literature and the arts appear to have ever found a welcome reception at St. Albans. The most eloquent of the monastic historians, Matthew of Paris, was a monk here, as was also Roger de Wendover, from whom the former transcribed a portion of his history; and William Rishanger, who continued the narration from the point where Matthew ceased. Then again, we read of several scribes and copyists being constantly employed in the monastery in the twelfth century, by Abbot Symond, and of a house having been built expressly for copyists in the fourteenth century. But the most interesting event of a literary nature, connected with the abbey, was the introduction of printing, almost immediately after its first introduction into England by Caxton. The earliest book known to be issued by the great English printer, from an English office, is dated 1474; the first book printed at St. Albans is of the date 1480, in which year no less than three publications appeared. The most remarkable of the St. Albans productions was the curious ‘Gentleman’s Recreation,’ printed here in 1486, and which consists of three treatises, having for their subjects hawking, hunting and fishing, and coat armour; and the principal author or compiler of which was a lady of rank and the head of a religious house, the nunnery of Sopwell, a subordinate establishment to the abbey. It is an interesting fact that two abbeys, those of Westminster and St. Albans, should have been the first English printing-offices; that the new art, one of the first consequences of which was the Reformation, and the dissolution of monasteries, should have had monks for its earliest patrons. The Arts have fared no less worthily than literature at the hands of the abbots of St. Albans, from the earliest times. Paul, the first Norman abbot, adorned the space behind the high altar of the church with “stately painting.” The shrine, made in 1129, by Abbot Gorham, for the relics of St. Alban, had for its artificer Anketill, who had been Mint-master to the King of Denmark, and who, during the construction of the superb work intrusted to him, appears to have grown so much attached to the abbey, that he would not afterwards leave it, but took the cowl, and became a member. When the great repair and improvements of the church took place during the rule of Abbot Trumpington, in the thirteenth century, and when, among other beautiful works, St. Cuthbert’s Screen was raised, we find, extraordinary as the fact seems and worthy of all admiration, that the chief architects and sculptors were the abbey’s own members, namely, its Treasurer, Richard of Thydenhanger; its Keeper of the Seal, Matthew of Cambridge; its Sacrist, Walter de Colchester; as to the last of whom, Matthew Paris says he was at once excellent in painting, sculpture, and carving. Looking at these and the many similar instances already pointed out, and which are probably but so many indications of the multitude of facts of the same kind that have been left unrecorded, it seems hardly possible to overrate the beneficial influence which these religious establishments of Old England must have had upon the national mind, humanizing, harmonizing, and ennobling it in a thousand ways, apart from any religious merits, and in spite of their many and notorious religious abuses.

All that is necessary to give a reader who has not seen St. Albans a faint glimpse of what it is (and those who have seen it do not need our aid), may be briefly told. With a preliminary reference, therefore, to the engraving (Fig. 606), we may state that its amazing size, the great variety of architectural styles, comprising, we verily believe, every one ever known in England from the days of the Saxons down to the fifteenth century, including the entire rise, prosperity, and fall of the Gothic, and the strange medley of the materials used in the construction, these are the characteristics that first strike every beholder. The building is in the form of a cross, extending from east to west above six hundred feet, and from north to south along the transepts, more than two hundred feet. A square tower of three stages or stories, with a spire, rises at the intersection. In the interior, the famous screen of St. Cuthbert divides the choir from the nave (Fig. 607); whilst the altar or Wallingford’s screen is placed, as its name implies, over the altar, separating the choir from the Presbytery: this is one of the most beautiful pieces of stone-work in the country, of the age of Edward IV. Although finished in the time of Abbot Wallingford, it was planned and commenced by Abbot Whethamsted, as his arms upon the screen yet show. Whethamsted was one of the worthies of St. Albans, a most liberal, able, and indefatigable man. During his rule the wars of the Roses were at the height, and we need only mention the name’s of the two great battles of St. Albans, in one of which Henry VI. was defeated and made prisoner, and in the other was successful, in order to intimate that the Abbot of St. Albans must have had a troubled time of it. This monument is one of the most remarkable in the church; where also, among many other monuments, may be particularly mentioned those of Abbot Ramryge, and of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, whose fate we have already alluded to in our pages. St. Alban himself lies in the Presbytery, where a stone in the middle of the pavement bears the inscription: “S. Albanus Verolamensis, Anglorum Proto-Martyr, xvii Junij, ccxcvii:” a date that does not exactly agree with the period referred to by the story ‘The Emperor Dioclesian’s persecution of the Christians,’ which took place in 303.

On the 3rd of February, 1832, a part of the wall of the upper battlement on the south-west side of the Abbey fell upon the roof below, in two masses, at an interval of five minutes between the fall of each fragment. The concussion was so great that the inhabitants of the neighbouring houses described it as resembling the loudest thunder; and the detached masses of the wall came down with such force that a large portion of the roof, consisting of lead and heavy timber, was driven into the aisle below. Besides the damage thus occasioned, the Abbey generally has been a good deal out of repair for several years. The nave has been restored; but there is still a great deal to be done, which cannot be attempted by local subscription. This is a national work, and a grant from Parliament might be far better employed on such a superb structure —having no revenues of its own—than on many a trumpery edifice —a Buckingham Palace for example, or a National Gallery—of our own day.