St Albans Cathedral, which makes an easy day trip from London, is interesting for a variety of reasons - it shelters the shrine of England's first Christian martyr, it is constructed from the ruins of a Roman city, it boasts the longest nave in Britain, it has some fine Norman architecture, and retains numerous 13th- and 14th-century wall paintings.
History of St. Albans Cathedral
In 209 AD, a Roman soldier named Alban became England's first martyr - he was beheaded for giving shelter to a Christian priest. Pilgrims flocked to his tomb, especially after it became legal to do so (in 313 AD). St Germanus of Auxerre visited the site in 429.
A church was built on the site at an early date - in the early 700s, the church historian Bede wrote of "the beautiful Church worthy of all Alban's martyrdom where miracles of healing took place." A Saxon abbey was later founded on the site by King Offa of Mercia in 793 and refounded under a new monastic rule by St Oswald in the 960s.
For all these structures, the ruins of nearby Roman Verulamium provided plentiful building material. The Saxon abbey was replaced by a Norman abbey in 1077, also using the Roman materials, and it is the 11th-century abbey church that forms the bulk of today's cathedral. In the Middle Ages, it was one of the largest churches in the world.
All the monastic buildings and the 14th-century shrine of St Alban were smashed at the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539. But the church was purchased back from Henry VIII by the townspeople in 1553.
In 1856-77, a major Victorian restoration of the church was led by Sir George Gilbert Scott. In 1862, the nave murals were uncovered after being hidden under whitewash for almost 300 years.
In 1877, the diocese of St Albans was created and the church thereby attained cathedral status. Further restorations were undertaken by Lord Grimthorpe in 1880-85, including the addition of the west front.
Further restoration and additions were made throughout the 20th century, including a new chapter house dedicated by the Queen in 1982. In 1993, reconstruction of the Shrine of St Alban was completed and rededicated in the presence of the Queen Mother.
What to See at St. Albans Cathedral
St Albans Cathedral occupies a lovely, grassy location on a hilltop above the city. The extra-long (300 feet) and imposing Norman nave is capped with a fairly dull west front, added in the 19th century.
Inside, the scale of the nave is equally impressive. The north arcade is made of original Norman pillars; the south has Early English Gothic replacements in five bays (1323-1327). Several of the Norman pillars retain their 13th- and 14th-century murals, depicting Crucifixions (one on a living tree), saints, and other subjects.
Elegant Norman arches decorated with painted geometrical designs can be admired in the nave, choir and tower crossing. The huge lantern vault under the tower is decorated with colorful rows of coats of arms.
The nave ends at the finely constructed Gothic rood screen, which unfortunately is empty of all its statues. Behind the high altar is a stone reredos of 1484, its many niches filled with statues.
Beyond this is the reasons for the church's construction in the first place - the shrine of St Alban. This was smashed at the Reformation but painstakingly reconstructed from more than 2,000 fragments found all over the cathedral in 1993.
The Purbeck marble shrine is topped with a red canopy and retains some original carvings - look for the scene on the west end depicting the saint's martyrdom by beheading. The shrine, dedicated as the "Altar of the Persecuted," is still a place of pilgrimage and devotion today.
The far east end is occupied by the Lady Chapel, which was built in 1308-25. After the Dissolution it was used as a school, but was returned to religious use in 1870.
The cathedral treasury contains several items of interest, such as a medieval pilgrim badge depicting St. Alban's martyrdom, and is enriched by good explanatory signs.
Quick Facts on St. Albans Cathedral
|Names:||St. Albans Cathedral|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||51.750394° N, 0.342336° W|
|Address:||St Albans, England|
|Lodging:||View hotels near St. Albans Cathedral|
- Personal visit (January 2006).
- Rough Guide to England 7 (May 2006), 347-48.
- Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Alban - official website
- Eileen Roberts, The Hill of the Martyr: an architectural history of St Albans Abbey (Dunstable, 1994).
- Photos of St. Albans Cathedral - here on Sacred Destinations
Map of St. Albans Cathedral
Below is a location map and aerial view of St. Albans Cathedral. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.