Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)/Abbey of Saint Albans

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Catholic Encyclopedia (1913), Volume 13
Abbey of Saint Albans

by Gilbert Roger Hudleston


Located in Hertfordshire, England; founded about 793 by Offa, king of the Mercians. Venerable Bede (Hist. Eccles., I, vii), writing at the beginning of the eighth century, speaks of a church, existing at that date, of wonderful workmanship and worthy of the martyrdom it commemorated. Offa's monastery seems to have been attached to this church, which he repaired, having personally obtained the papal approval for his foundation. Willegod, a relation of the king, was made abbot. By the year 1000 the old church was evidently in a dilapidated state again and Ealdred and Eadmer, the eighth and ninth abbots, collected materials to build a new church from the ruins of the Roman city of Verulam. The actual building was only begun in 1077, when Abbot Paul of Caen, a relative of Archbishop Lanfranc, undertook the work with such energy that the whole church was completed in eleven years; a large part of this church still remains. The abbey increased in wealth and importance; Adrian IV exempted it from episcopal jurisdiction and gave it precedence over all other English abbeys. In the Wars of the Roses St. Albans suffered much, and the unsettled state of the country involved the abbey in a long series of lawsuits by which it was much impoverished. In 1521 Cardinal Wolsey became abbot in commendam, the only instance of this practice known in England. On his disgrace in 1529 Robert Catton, prior of Norwlch, was elected abbot, but was deprived in 1538 to make room for a nominee of Henry VIII, Robert Boreman, by whom the abbey was surrendered to the king in the following year. The list of abbots may be found in Dugdale. Matthew Paris is probably the most famous monk of the foundation, which is notorious for refusing to accept Nicholas Breakspere, afterwards Adrian IV, when he begged for admission as a novice. The church of St. Albans escaped destruction at the dissolution of the abbey, and in 1553 was purchased from the Crown for £400 by the mayor and burgesses of the town, to be used as a parish church. Of the church built by Paul of Caen most of the nave, transepts, and presbytery still exist, but portions fell and were rebuilt in the style of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The eastern part of the presbytery with the Lady chapel beyond it also belong to the latter periods. In the second half of the nineteenth century the late Lord Grimthorpe undertook to restore the building at his own expense. In spite of all remonstrance he did this in such a way that "to grimthorpe" has now become an active verb signifying the unintelligent mutilation of an ancient building under the cloak of restoration. The church is 550 feet long, and 190 wide across the transepts, the central tower being 144 feet high. It contains a famous reredos of the late fifteenth century, the reconstructed base of St. Alban's shrine, and several fine chantries and monuments. Of the conventual buildings only the gatehouse now remains.

DUGDALE, Monasticon Anglicanum, II (London, 1846), 178-255; NEWCOME, History of the Abbey of St. Albans (London, 1795); BUCKLER, History of the Architecture of the Abbey Church of St. A. (London, 1847); BROWNE WILLIS, History of the Mitred Abbies, I (London, 1718), 13-27; COMYNS-CARR Abbey Church of St. A. (London, 1877); PERKINS, Cathedral Church of St. Albans (London, 1910).

G. ROGER HUDLESTON