The Medieval Abbey

Infirmerar monk

Tradition claims that a monastery was founded here in 793 by King Offa of Mercia.  We know little of this early foundation other than that it was a double house of both men and women and that it followed the rule of St Benedict.

The first Norman abbot, Paul of Caen, was appointed in 1077 and immediately set about rebuilding the Abbey church in the Norman (or Romanesque) style, starting with the great tower.  This Norman church was built from bricks and tiles stockpiled from the ruined Roman town of Verulamium. It was completed in 1115 under Abbot Richard d’Albini.   

St Alban’s Abbey, with the shrine of England’s first martyr, became prestigious and important. Throughout most of the medieval period it was England’s premier Benedictine abbey with numerous daughter houses stretching from Tynemouth in the north to Binham near the Norfolk coast.  A second shrine, dedicated to St Amphibalus, was erected in the 12th century after bones thought to be those of the priest-saint were discovered at Redbourn and moved to the Abbey.

Learning flourished here and the Abbey’s scriptorium was renowned for its manuscripts and writings.  An example can be seen in the cathedral today – a high quality facsimile of a Psalter made in the 12th century. It was associated with Christina of Markyate - a holy woman and prioress of a community of nuns.  The original is now in Hildesheim in Germany.

Famous chroniclers who were monks here included Roger of Wendover, Matthew Paris and Thomas Walsingham: their writings are still valuable historical sources.     Among the monks we find not only theologians, philosophers and historians but also artists such as Walter of Colchester, poets, scientists and even a very early clockmaker, Abbot Richard of Wallingford.

Perhaps the most successful son of St Albans was Nicholas Breakspear, whose father was a tenant of the Abbey. Originally refused admittance as a monk a St Albans, in 1154 Nicholas became Pope Adrian IV – the only English pope. He is commemorated on the High Altar Screen.

The remains of a number of medieval Abbots and other monastic officials (including the father of Adrian IV) now rest under a slate slab in the Presbytery which was designed by David Kindersley. Following a major archaeological excavation of the Abbey’s Chapter House, their original burial place, the remains were reinterred with great solemnity in 1979.

The Benedictine rule required that all guests were received as though they were Christ himself.  Many visitors passed through the Abbey and the town which grew up around it.  Pilgrims came to pray at the shrines, and kings frequently came on progress with their courtiers.  Henry III is believed to have made nine visits.

In 1213 St Albans Abbey was the meeting place for a particular group of churchmen and nobles, displeased with the arbitrary taxation imposed by King John. Their discussions led to Magna Carta which was reluctantly sealed by the king at Runnymede in 1215.

The Abbey was a self-contained community.  The buildings included a great gateway, cloisters, a refectory, kitchens, storerooms and dormitories.  The long stable block could house 200 horses- the Abbey was one day’s ride from London.   Before the Dissolution the outside of the church was rendered with lime plaster to protect against weather damage as well as to disguise the mixture of building materials.   The plaster was later removed.  Seen from afar, the Abbey church still dominates the skyline, and has no doubt been a welcome sight for approaching pilgrims over the centuries.

At its height there were approximately 100 choir monks and, although numbers never quite recovered after the Black Death in 1348-50, it appears that the monastery remained vibrant and a significant place of learning until its closure in 1539.  It possessed one of the earliest printing presses in England.

Lay people joined the medieval Fraternity of St Alban and this group included many who gave gifts to the Abbey.  The Fraternity was re-founded in the 20th century as the Friends of the Abbey.

Today the surviving buildings of the great medieval Abbey can be seen in the strong, sturdy gatehouse and the central core of the church, including its magnificent tower.  

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