Ahead of our upcoming Tudor Summer, library volunteer, Michael Graham, explores the impact of the Tudor era on St Albans Abbey and Town. 

The Tudor dynasty (1485-1603) is one of the well-known periods in English history, featuring all sorts of political and social turmoil, intrigue in the royal court, and a variety of wars, dramas, executions and controversies. But whilst we still, as a country, hold a fascination for this period our attention generally stays with the kings and queens themselves.

Yet, to focus only on the Tudor monarchs is to miss some of the momentous parts of the era-and it is to overlook the effects of the actions of the monarchs themselves, especially in respect to St Albans Abbey and town.

One of the most well-known aspects of the era is the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the Reformation of the Church of England. The dissolution was a policy introduced in 1536 by Henry VIII (r.1509-1547) to close down and confiscate lands and wealth of all monasteries in the country. The closure of these Catholic institutions did not go without opposition or consequences, but in a few years all monasteries had been closed, buildings demolished and lands confiscated.

This plan was a lucrative element of Henry’s Reformation of the church and was begun largely because he wanted to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon because she had not produced a male heir, thus enabling him to marry Anne Boleyn. However, the Pope would not annul the marriage, so Henry broke away for the Roman Catholic Church and established the Church of England, with himself at its head. He was now able to divorce Catherine and marry Anne.

How did this impact on St Albans Abbey? Dramatically. It was not immune to these significant events and in 1539 it ceased to be a monastic institution. All the monks were pensioned off; the monastic buildings were demolished; land sold off; the library dispersed; and the Shrines of St Alban and St Amphibalus were broken up. The only building to survive was the Abbey church itself, which was purchased from the Crown, around 1553 for £400, to be used as the parish church for the townspeople of St Albans.

In the early part of the 16th century the Abbey had held an important position within the monastic community. It was the premier Benedictine Abbey in England with probably the largest residence of monks, with an extensive estate of buildings and land, and much wealth. The interior was extensively covered in coloured wall paintings, an important library of books, with the shrines of both saints richly adorned. This was now no more.

The Chantry Chapel of Abbot Ramryge had been completed in 1520 and showed wonderful perpendicular architecture incorporating a splendid fan-vaulted ceiling. Robert Fayrfax, composer and organist at the Abbey in the reign of Henry VII (1485-1509), was very prominent and influential at the time and was put in charge of the Chapel Royal by Henry VIII, and was buried in the Abbey in 1521.Even Thomas Wolsey, Lord Chancellor to Henry VIII was abbot at the Abbey for 11 years until his death in 1530.

However, by the middle of the century, the Abbey’s fortune had well and truly changed. With the move to Protestantism when Edward VI (1547-1553) became king, Catholic symbols were demolished or removed, the wall paintings were white-washed over and the shrines were no more. The Lady Chapel was completely separated from the Abbey church and was converted to a grammar school with a public walkway between the two buildings. Even the old parish church of St. Andrews attached to the north side of the Abbey church was no longer required and was demolished.

By comparison to the first half of the 16th century, the second half was less eventful. Religious policy veered again with the accession of Mary I (1553-1558). Being a Roman Catholic she had hoped to revive the Abbey, but the extent of the demolition and the uncoverable loss of its holdings compelled her to abandon that hope. However, outside the Abbey’s gatehouse, in Romeland, George Tankerfield, a cook from Yorkshire died bravely at the stake in 1555, for being a Protestant.

(see opposite for photo of the statue of George Tankerfield in the Nave at St Albans Cathedral)

During the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603), inscriptions (extracts from the Bible, the Lord’s Prayer, etc). were printed on the walls of the Abbey church to comply with the Queen’s instructions to “beautify the churches”. With the threat and later, defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, lead on the Abbey church roof was stripped and used to make bullets. What replaced the lead is not known.

The town of St Albans during this period saw it elevated to borough status by charter first given by Edward VI in 1553. Improvements to the link with London came with the construction of a new road by Sir Richard Lee, who had purchased much of the Abbey’s properties and estates.

Queen Elizabeth I visited the town three times, in 1570,73,and 77, staying at Gorhambury House, home of Sir Nicholas Bacon, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, and between 1579 and 1588, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, The Queen’s favourite, was high steward of St Albans.

As the 16th century came to a close, the Abbey had seen many changes over the previous one hundred years, most notably its religious orientation from Roman Catholicism to Protestantism and from being a premier monastic institution to a parish church. On the other hand, as a result of the dissolution, the town of St. Albans was freed from the control of the abbot and monks and the impact of the Reformation, enhanced by its new charter was radical.