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Entries about shrines

Britain’s first Christian martyr

St Albans

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The Cathedral and Abbey Church of Saint Alban, from the Vintry Garden

Saint Alban, or Saint Albanus in the Latin form, is generally considered to have been Britain’s first Christian martyr. He is traditionally believed to have been beheaded in the Roman city of Verulamium to the north of Londinium (modern-day St Albans) sometime during the 3rd or 4th century, and the city’s abbey church is home to his shrine and has been a place of pilgrimage for centuries.

While the date and place of his martyrdom, and the exact circumstances, are both subjects for considerable debate, there seems to be little doubt that he did have some connection to the city which now bears his name.

On a practical note, St Albans makes for an easy and enjoyable day out from London, being less than 20 minutes by train from St Pancras Station. I visited a friend there recently and we enjoyed a little photography walk around the abbey and surrounding streets.

The Cathedral and Abbey Church of Saint Alban

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The Cathedral and Abbey Church of Saint Alban

The cathedral and abbey church of St Alban, to give it its full name, is the oldest site of continuous Christian worship in Britain. It stands on the spot where the saint is believed to have been buried after being executed for his faith.

The details of his martyrdom are as I mentioned rather hazy, with several conflicting accounts (for example, giving either Verulamium or Londinium as the location) so I will reproduce here that given on the abbey’s own website:

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Shrine of St Alban

‘Alban is believed to have been a Romano-British citizen of the third century in the Roman city of Verulamium, in the valley below the present Cathedral. The earliest versions of his history say that he gave shelter to a stranger fleeing from persecution. This was a Christian priest, originally un-named but later called Amphibalus in the re-telling of the story. Alban was so moved by the priest’s faith and courage that he asked to be taught more about Christianity, then still a forbidden religion.

Before long the authorities came to arrest the fugitive priest. But Alban, inspired by his new-found faith, exchanged clothes with Amphibalus, allowing him to escape. Instead Alban was arrested and brought before the city magistrate. Alban refused to sacrifice to the emperor and the Roman gods. When asked to identify himself he declared: ‘I am called Alban and I worship and adore the true and living God, who created all things’.

The magistrate ordered that Alban should receive the punishment due to the priest. He was brought out of the town and up the hillside to the site of execution where he was beheaded. Despite escaping, Amphibalus too was later arrested and martyred at Redbourn, a few miles away. Alban was probably buried in the Roman cemetery now located by modern archaeological digs to the south of the present Cathedral. Alban is honoured as the first British martyr, and his grave on this hillside quickly became a place of pilgrimage.’

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Carving by the door we used

When we visited the abbey was undergoing some major building work, the construction of a new welcome centre, which meant that some entrances were inaccessible and others, including the one we used, partially obscured by hoardings.

Once inside however, any building work was hidden from sight and we could wander around freely. And I mean freely – unlike some other English cathedrals admission here is free, and they even offer free tours, although of course donations are welcome. The suggested £5 is reasonable, given the historical significance of the building and its sights.

While I didn’t find this the most attractive of cathedrals either outside (it is rather squat and solid) or in, I did delight in the wealth of detail I found here:

The shrine and chapel of St Alban

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The shrine of St Alban

St Alban’s shrine is the most significant feature of the abbey church. The base, dating from 1308, is of Purbeck marble and supports a modern red and gold canopy under which rests a shoulder-blade said to come from the original relics of the saint’s body. The canopy is embroidered with English wildflowers, commemorating Bede’s description of Alban going to his execution up a hill ‘adorned with wild flowers of every kind.’

The shrine is housed in a small chapel behind the choir, with carvings of saints, including John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary, looking down on him.

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Statues of John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary

On one side of the chapel is the medieval wooden watching loft, the only surviving example of one in the country. It dates from around 1400 and is decorated with carvings of what seemed to me to be small angels, although they are very worn. From here the monks and local people would keep watch over the shrine.

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The watching loft

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Detail of carving on the watching loft

The shrine of St Amphibalus

On the other side of the watching loft is another stone shrine, in a rather poor condition (and badly repaired at some point in the past, it seems). This is the shrine of St Amphibalus, the Christian priest to whom Alban gave shelter. Its poor condition can be explained by the fact that after the Reformation and Dissolution the Lady Chapel at the east end of the abbey church had been used as a school, and separated from the rest of the building by a wall built in part from the stone of this shrine and also St Alban’s.

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The shrine of St Amphibalus - detail

While the latter has been restored, this one is awaiting attention. A sign nearby explains that it is hoped that soon it will be possible to carry out a more sympathetic restoration.

The North Transept

From St Amphibalus’s shrine we came next to the North Transept which has this magnificent rose window with modern stained glass. The latter was added in 1989 and unveiled by Diana, Princess of Wales.

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The rose window

When we were there the North Transept was displaying a mosaic replica of the Bayeux Tapestry made from 3 million tiny pieces of steel left over from industrial textile manufacturing. The mosaic is 64 metres long and very intricate – a real labour of love by artist Michael Linton, who took 33 years to complete the work.

The High Altar Screen

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The High Altar Screen

The backdrop to the choir is the ornate High Altar Screen. This was restored in the late 19th century and Harry Hems of Exeter was commissioned to carve and replace the statues in 1899 – the originals having been destroyed at the Reformation.

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Details of the screen

The figures include one of the most famous of the abbey’s former monks, Nicholas Breakspear. In 1154 Nicholas became Pope Adrian IV, the only English pope.

The South Transept

I found various intriguing details in and around the South Transept, which is largely given over to the inevitable gift shop and an information desk. High on the wall I spotted this green-winged angel looking down on the bustle below. The cathedral has one of the oldest and most extensive series of medieval wall paintings surviving today, ranging from the late 12th century to the 16th century, and this is no doubt an example of these although there was no sign to tell me its exact date.

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Wall painting

Nearby I spotted the Maynard family vault. These were clearly both affluent and influential, judging by the size and ornamentation of the vault. Researching a bit later, I found that John Maynard was the local MP in 1553 and 1554. This ornate plaque commemorates his son, Raffe, as well as Raffe’s wife and his mother (John’s wife). I liked the slightly doggerel style of the poems that describe the three, but especially the women who were it seems paragons of virtue:

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Maynard family vault

‘Heere lyes intombed a woman worthie fame:
Whose virtuous life gives honor to her name:
Few were her years, she died in her prime,
Yet in the worlde fulfilled she much tyme:
Which virtuously she spent providinge still
The hungry bellies of the poore to fill:
Unto the God of heaven thrise every day,
With great devotion saint-like did she pray …’

And:

‘Lo here intombed lyes a widowe worthie prayse:
Who in the feare of God devoutly spent her days:
With charytable almes relevinge still the poore,
For empty handed none departed from her doore.
A mirror in her tyme for virtues of her minde:
A matron for her years, the like is hard to finde:
Beloved bewayled of all in life and death was she:
An honor to her sex as any of her degree …’

We didn’t walk the full length of the cathedral, thrown off our route a little by the detours necessitated by the building work. I will have to go back, as the nave is the longest in England (at 85 metres) and is separated from the choir by another screen which has very recently (2015) been augmented by the addition of seven statues of martyrs, including St Alban and St Amphibalus, and looks well worth seeing.

To finish our visit for now, here is a selection of other details I spotted, and liked, in the abbey:

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Inscription on a wall in the South Transept, and another part of the Maynard vault

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I have no idea who these represent, but I liked them!

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Stained glass window, and candle holder

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Carving detail

Near the cathedral

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In the Vintry Garden -
grapevine

There are some pleasant green spaces in the vicinity of the cathedral, including the Vintry Garden. The name of Vintry has been used for this area since the 14th century and is said to derive from the abbey vineyards – grapes are grown against the brick wall as a reminder of those times. For many years though this area was used as the monks’ graveyard. After the Dissolution in 1539 much of the land belonging to the abbey was sold off and this garden became the property of one of the houses on the nearby High Street (then Market Street). For much of the 20th century that building housed Barclays Bank but in 1974 the local council negotiated a lease for the land. Excavations revealed not only the monks’ graveyard but also the 19th century layout of the garden, which has largely been replicated in today’s version. There are pretty views of the cathedral from here (both my photos at the top of this page were taken in the garden)

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The Verdun Tree

Not far away is the Verdun Tree, a chestnut grown from a conker which came from one of the last trees left standing after the First World War Battle of Verdun. This tree was planted here in 1976 to mark the 60th anniversary of the battle. The descriptive sign next to it tells the story of the battle and also points out, interestingly, that ‘a horse chestnut is in fact in many ways appropriate to mark a battle, as the starch from its conkers is an essential component of cordite – unlike gunpowder, an almost smokeless explosive.’

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On the Verdun Tree

Clock Tower

After our visit to the cathedral we walked past the medieval clock tower, built between 1403 and 1412. A sign on the wall explains that it has a large curfew bell dating from 1335.

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Clock Tower and its doorway

The same sign points out a few historic details about this old part of the town. The Dauphin’s troops were stationed here in 1216 (hence the name of one of the streets, French Row). And King John of France was detained in the nearby Fleur de Lys inn in 1356. Anther sign on the tower marks the former Eleanor Cross that stood near here. This was one of a chain of crosses (the most famous is at Charing Cross in London) that were erected by her husband King Edward I to mark the resting places of the body of Queen Eleanor as she was brought from her place of death, Harby in modern-day Lincolnshire, to be buried at Westminster Abbey.

The Museum and Gallery

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Busker on Market Street

We had a walk through the market where my friend bought some fruit and I avoided buying a bracelet! By now we were well into the afternoon but before I headed back to London (refreshed by a cup of coffee and a chat at her home near the station) there was time to pop into the newly opened museum and gallery in the restored Town Hall.

We saw the beautiful Assembly Room on the first floor where in the past dances would have taken place, now to be used again for civic functions. On the ground floor the old courtroom has been turned into a café, and some of the cells beneath it are now toilets!

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In the museum - staircase and assembly room chandelier

We didn’t have time to properly look at the exhibits, nor was there time on this visit to St Albans to explore the Roman theatre and hypocaust (underfloor heating system) on the outskirts of town. I remember visiting these as a child however, so am keen to go back one day soon to see them again.

So watch this space ...!

Posted by ToonSarah 01:25 Archived in England Tagged shrines architecture history church museum garden cathedral Comments (9)

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