Library Volunteer, Michael Graham, delves into the history of the Book of Benefactors of the Monastery of St Albans, a 15th-century copy of which is currently on display as part of our Lives and Legacies exhibition. 

The centrepiece of the Cathedral’s Medieval Summer plans is an exhibition showcasing the fascinating and beautiful medieval manuscript, The Book of Benefactors of the Monastery of St Albans. This was established by Thomas de la Mare, abbot of St Albans (1349-1396), and begun around 1380 during his abbacy.

Its purpose was to record the names of the benefactors of the Abbey who were to be remembered and prayed for at the services celebrated at the altar, where this lavish book resided. This was the original fraternity, the tradition of giving. The book explains:

And so Thomas, our venerable father and master, by the grace of God abbot of this monastery, with the agreement of our whole chapter decided that the spiritual blessings of this house should be shared with all those, whether groups or individuals, living or dead, who as a result of a vow had bequeathed to us and our church something from these goods given to them by God… To these same people should be granted full fraternity in the monastery so that they might share fully with us in masses, services of Matins, the canonical hours, almsgiving, fasts, vigils, processions, penances, prayers formal and private and all other benefits which take place in this monastery or in our daughter churches…..

As well as recording contemporary donors, the entries stretch far back into the Abbey’s past, beginning with King Offa of Mercia, who founded the Abbey in 793. Spaces were also left for future entries, and the Abbey continued to add the details of the new benefactors into the 16th century, when sadly, the Dissolution terminated this, sweeping away many of the medieval gifts and the fraternity itself.

Two copies of the book survive, the original held in the British Library and a copy, produced at the same time, presently on loan to St Albans Cathedral by the Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.

The job of compiling the book from the Abbey’s old documents was given to Thomas Walsingham, the precentor of the Abbey and a prominent historian. The scribe was a monk of the Abbey named William de Wyllum and the illuminator was a professional lay artist named Alan Strayler, who waived the cost of pigments in return for his place among the Abbey’s benefactors.

The book presents an orderly view of medieval society. The benefactors are organised according to social hierarchy, kings and queens, followed by popes, abbots, priors and monks of St Albans, bishops and finally lay people. All levels of society who could afford to donate are included.

Some examples of entries are as follows. Although not shown here, they are accompanied by lavish striking likenesses of the benefactors painted alongside:

Henry III was a most loyal protector of this house. He gave to the blessed Alban more frontals

 of the sort commonly called baldachins than any of his royal predecessors. He also adorned the

 church with two very precious copes…

Among the popes, one stands out:

Pope Adrian, a native of St Albans, granted pontifical ornaments to the abbot and many privileges concerning the liberties of this church. So that his memory should always be kept green in our church, he gave the monastery, relics… a magnificent cloak sent to him by the Holy Roman Emperor, precious sandals, a very precious ring, and a choir cope…

Other entries include:

Joan, countess of Kent, and princess of Wales and of Aquitaine (d. 1385) gave a gold necklace and 100 shillings. 

An early example of gifting:

AEthelgifu, a 10th century noblewoman gave lands, 30 gold mancuses, 30 oxen, 20 cows, 250 sheep a herd of pigs with a swineherd, 2 silver cups, 2 horns, a book, a curtain and a cushion.

And of lay people, there are many entries. Here are two:

Nigel the miller who gave a yearly sum of 4 shillings.

The widow of John of Cellewode gave 40 pence to the monastery for the soul of her man.

Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, the only royal to be buried in the Abbey in 1447, was welcomed into the fraternity and the Book of Benefactors states that when his second wife, Eleanor was welcomed into the fraternity she donated fine altar cloths and vestments to the Abbey. And on one occasion, after her toothache had been miraculously cured when she prayed at the shrine of St Alban, she sent a gold tooth to be hung by the reliquary in gratitude.

The entries are suffused with hints of stories that leave you longing to know more. For example, in the section on abbots of St Albans we learn of Abbot Ealdred who filled in the cave of a dragon, and the unfortunate Abbot John of Berkhamsted who "did nothing memorable in his life".

Unlike the chronicles that Thomas Walsingham would go on to write, this is a history not of momentous events but of the colourful characters, precious gifts and shared stories that were the fabric of the Abbey’s community for centuries.

This wonderful book with exquisite artwork, a survivor of the Dissolution, is on limited loan to St Albans Cathedral and can be viewed at the Lives and Legacies exhibition between 19th July and 3rd September 2021.

Michael Graham, Library Volunteer. 19th July 2021


  • Title Image: Pope Adrian I hands a charter to the Abbey's founder, King Offa of Mercia, from CCCC MS 007, f.105. 
  • Blog image 1: King Offa of Mercia depicted in the Book of Benefactors, from CCCC MS 007, f.103v. 
  • Blog image 2: Kings depicted in the Book of Benefactors, from CCCC MS 007, f.103v. 
  • Blog image 3: Heads of male and female benefactors depicted in the Book of Benefactors, from MS 007, f.108.