The Restoration of St Albans Abbey

Report of a talk by Jane Kelsall to the Society on 25 June 2019

By Jean Gardner

Photo:The 'restored' west end, with the Norman tower and transept of 1070

The 'restored' west end, with the Norman tower and transept of 1070

Jane, who has been a guide in the Abbey for over forty years gave us an entertaining account of its history and restoration. Her many amusing anecdotes brought to mind the term 'restoration comedy' as she wove the work of restoration through the history with the aid of some interesting images. The first, showing the Abbey with the great red tower said to be on the site of Alban's martyrdom about 350AD. As he was the first English Christian martyr Jane felt that he should be our patron saint with St. George despatched to slay dragons in Wales. An image of the martyrdom of Alban, by Matthew Paris, shows him holding a Christian cross with a round head similar to that used by the Coptic Church.

History of the Abbey

The first known record of the Abbey dates from 793AD when King Offa founded a Benedictine Monastery on the site of Alban's death. It would have been built of wattle and daub and served until Paul de Caen was appointed Abbot in 1077 after the Norman Conquest. He set about reforming the Abbey using bricks recycled from the old Roman town. He rebuilt it adding a library and a school whose best known pupil, born in Bedmond, became the only English Pope: Adrian IV. The new building was lime-washed and highly visible for approaching pilgrims. Some Totternhoe stone complemented the red bricks but it was too soft for external use.

The Black Death, which is now thought to have been Ebola, reduced the population of the monastery to thirty-two monks but the community carried on until the monasteries were closed by King Henry VIII in 1539. Cardinal Wolsey emptied the treasury and much of the buildings fell into ruin. The Mayor and Corporation bought the Abbey Church for use as the parish church. The school moved into the Lady Chapel and the surviving gateway became a prison. The hungry prisoners used to lower their shoes down on a string to relatives who would put food in them giving rise to the saying 'living on a shoe string.'


Photo:This drawing from 1805 shows the state of disrepair

This drawing from 1805 shows the state of disrepair


Photo:The West front in 1856 - after a further collapse

The West front in 1856 - after a further collapse

St Albans Observer, 2005


The church gradually fell into disrepair. Attempts were made to patch up sections but by the end of the 18th century the only area fit for public use was beneath the tower. The west end crashed down in 1825 revealing the poor state of the building. Under the auspices of architect George Gilbert Scott great changes were made from 1856.

Then in 1870 a crisis occurred when one morning the tower cracked and began to sink in one corner. Investigations revealed that it had no foundation. The craftsmen from Miskin builders spent three days working twenty-four hours non-stop to prevent it from collapsing. The south side of the nave was sinking and needed to be jacked up until it could be underpinned.

As the man with the money, Lord Grimthorpe a lawyer and amateur architect, was able to persuade the Bishop to demolish and rebuild rather than restore the medieval buildings. He replaced John of Wheathampstead's perpendicular east window with what Jane described as an elephantine Gothic one and incorporated the present rose window in the north transept. His worst crime is recognised as the alterations to the west end of the nave where he destroyed the perpendicular work and replaced it with the present Early English facade.

The building today

Photo:The Nave

The Nave

┬ęSt Albans Cathedral

Jane took us through the west door into the longest nave in England and explained that some of the original pillars had fallen down and been replaced by those in the Gothic style which is why the sides do not match. The old pillars look massive but a cross section through them reveals that they are filled with rubble. But surprisingly the largest one has a spiral staircase to give access to the higher levels.

The rood screen, with its modern saints breaks up the length of the nave. Beyond it the Victorian choir stalls lead to the crossing where the ceiling of the tower incorporates both red and white roses, also refurbished in Victorian times. The original was installed by John of Wheathampstead who was Abbot during the Wars of the Roses.

Photo:Postcard view of the restored Wallingford Screen, St Albans Cathedral

Postcard view of the restored Wallingford Screen, St Albans Cathedral

Further east behind the high altar a second screen divides it from the chapel where the shrine of St. Alban stands. The remains of the shrine were found when the school moved to the old gate house from the Lady Chapel in 1872. The pieces were reassembled using ugly red brick inserts which some of us remember.

Photo:The restored shrine

The restored shrine


It was restored again in the 1970s' to the one we can see today and remains a place of pilgrimage.



Many thanks to Jane for a most informative and entertaining talk.


(Although often still referred to as an abbey, the building ceased to function as such in 1539 and has been a cathedral since 1877 - Editor)

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