Reformation and Restoration
Henry VIII broke with Rome and declared himself Supreme Head of the English Church in 1534. He soon began the process known as the Dissolution of the Monasteries. St Albans Abbey was closed and the monks pensioned off in December 1539. Other than the church and gateway, Sir Richard Lee demolished and carted away the rest for building materials. The library and treasures were dispersed and sold. The shrines were demolished and relics of St Alban disappeared, possibly hidden away or sent to the continent.
The townsfolk bought the Abbey church in 1553 for £400 for their parish church. It was too large to serve the needs of what was then still a modest town which could not afford to keep it in good repair.
A notable parishioner of the early 18th century was Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, one of the most influential women of her age. In 1660, Sarah (then Jennings) was baptised at St Albans Abbey. In addition to being a confidante of Queen Anne, Sarah was astute in financial matters and, unlike most people, made a fortune in the South Sea Bubble in 1717. She became one of the richest women in England but preferred Holywell House in St Albans to the Marlborough’s new home, Blenheim Palace. She returned here often and continued to worship at the Abbey. Her descendants, the Spencers, still own areas of St Albans, with streets named after them.
In the three centuries following the Dissolution the condition of the great church slowly declined and the nave fell into disuse. By 1832 the Abbey was in a sorry state, parts of the south nave walls and roof had collapsed.
Dr Henry Nicholson became Rector in 1835 and his interest in medieval monuments and strong leadership resulted in growing support for saving the building and restoring it. The magnificent set of medieval wall paintings were rediscovered and, though damaged by their 300 years old cover of lime wash, demonstrated more of the Abbey’s original glories.
Nicholson appointed Sir George Gilbert Scott as architect in 1856. Scott worked on the restoration of the Abbey until his death in 1878. Together with John Chapple, the Clerk of Works, he saved the tower from imminent collapse. In 1870 John Chapple was attending a church service and suddenly a loud cracking noise was heard coming from the 700 year old tower. Serious structural weaknesses were discovered and swiftly reported to Scott. Only rapid and major action by both men averted disaster, with workmen toiling for four days and nights to shore up and save the tower.
After the Dissolution, the Lady Chapel had become the local grammar school. Stones from the demolished shrines of St Alban and St Amphibalus had been used to build walls dividing the school from the church. When these walls were unblocked in 1872, around 2000 fragments of these shrines were recognised, laid out in the south transept and painstakingly reassembled. The shrines and Lady Chapel were restored and the school moved out to its present-day location beyond the western end of the church.
England’s population was growing and the Church of England needed new bishops and cathedrals to administer its parishes. In 1877 the Abbey church became the Cathedral for the new diocese of St Albans. After Scott’s death, a retired wealthy barrister, Edmund Beckett Denison (later Lord Grimthorpe), played a controversial role in the Cathedral’s restoration. He agreed to pay for work himself, provided that his own designs were used. He sometimes removed surviving medieval features, replacing them with his own unsympathetic ideas. The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings was founded to prevent anyone else doing such things in future.
Henry Huck Gibbs, Lord Aldenham, restored internal work – most notably the great High Altar Screen. He commissioned Harry Hems of Exeter to carve and replace its statues in 1899 – the originals having been destroyed at the Reformation.
Whilst sometimes controversial in their actions, the restorers of the 19th century ensured the medieval Abbey church survived and flourished into the 20th century. Its full title ‘The Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Alban’, a unique description, reflects its changing role over the centuries.