1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/St Albans

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ST ALBANS, a city, municipal borough, and market town in the St Albans parliamentary division of Hertfordshire, England, on the main line of the Midland railway and on, branches of the London & North-Western and the Great Northern lines, 20 m. N.W. of London. Pop. (1891) 12,898; (1901) 16,019. St Albans became the seat of a bishop in 1877; the diocese covering the greater part of Essex and Hertfordshire, with small portions of Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire. The great cathedral, or abbey church, is finely situated on the steep hill, above the small river Ver, on which the central part of the city is placed.

Shortly after the martyrdom of St Alban, probably in 303, a church was built on the spot where he was slain, and in 793 Offa, king of Mercia, who professed to have discovered the relics of the martyr, founded in his honour a monastery for Benedictines, which became one of the richest and most important houses of that order in the kingdom. The abbots, Ealdred and Ealmer, at the close of the 10th century began to break up the ruins of the old Roman city of Verulamium for materials to construct a new abbey church; but its erection was delayed till the time of William the Conqueror, when Paul of Caen, a relative of Archbishop Lanfranc, was in 1077 appointed abbot. The cathedral at Canterbury as built by Lanfranc was almost a reproduction of St Stephen’s, Caen; but Paul, while adopting the same model for St Albans, built it on a much larger scale. The church was consecrated in 1115, but had been finished some years before. Of the original Norman church the principal portions now remaining are the eastern bays of the nave, the tower and the transepts, but the main outlines of the building are still those planned by Paul. It is thus one of the most important specimens of Norman architecture in England, with the special characteristic that, owing to the use of the flat broad Roman tile, the Norman portions are peculiarly bare and stern. The western towers were pulled down in the 13th century. About 1155 Robert de Gorham repaired and beautified the early shrine and rebuilt the chapter house and part of the cloister; but nothing of his work now remains except part of a very beautiful doorway discovered in recent times. About 1200 Abbot John de Cella pulled down the west front and portions of the north and south aisles. He began the erection of the west front in a new and enriched form, and his work was continued by his successor William de Trumpyngtone in a plainer manner. In 1257 the eastern portion was pulled down, and between the middle of the 13th and the beginning of the 14th century a sanctuary, ante-chapel and lady chapel were added, all remarkably fine specimens of the architecture of the period. In 1323 two great columns on the south side suddenly fell, and this necessitated the rebuilding of five bays of the south aisle and the Norman cloisters. Various incongruous additions were made during the Perpendicular period, and much damage was also done during the dissolution of the abbeys to the finer work in the interior. Structural dangers gave rise to an extensive restoration and partial rebuilding, begun under the direction of Sir Gilbert Scott, and completed in 1894 by Lord Grimthorpe, some of whose work was, and remains, the subject of much adverse criticism. The abbey’s extreme length outside is 550 ft., which is exceeded by Winchester by 6 ft. The nave (292 ft.) is the longest Gothic nave in the world and exceeds that of Winchester by about 20 ft. The length of the transepts is 175 ft. inside. The monastic buildings have all disappeared except the great gateway.

St Michael’s church, within the site of Verulamium, was originally constructed in the 10th century. Considerable portions of the Norman building remain. The church contains the tomb of Lord Chancellor Bacon. St Stephen’s church, dating from the same period, contains some good examples of Norman architecture. St Peter’s church has been in great part rebuilt, but the Early Perpendicular nave remains. The restored clock-house in the market-place was built by one of the abbots in the reign of Henry VIII. There is an Edward VI. grammar school. The principal modern buildings are the corn exchange, the court-house, the prison, the public baths, a technical school and the public library. There are two hospitals (one for infectious diseases), a dispensary and almshouses founded in 1734 by Sarah, duchess of Marlborough. The principal industries are the manufacture of silk, straw-plaiting, brush-making, letterpress and chromo-lithographic printing. There are also breweries and iron-foundries. A public park of 24 acres was opened in 1894, and a recreation ground in 1898. The increase in population is largely due to the growth of a residential district on the outskirts, owing mainly to the convenient proximity to London. The city is governed by a mayor, 4 aldermen, and 12 councillors. Area, 997 acres.

To the south-west of the present city of St Albans stood the ancient Verulamium (q.v.), one of the oldest towns in Britain, on Watling Street. The ruins served as a quarry not only to the builders of the Abbey, but also for the other churches and the monastic buildings of St Albans, and Roman bricks are found even in the fabric of the churches of neighbouring villages, as at Sandridge, 21/2 m. N.E. After being burnt by Boadicea, Verulamium revived, and its church was famous early in the 8th century. The origin of the royal castle of Kingsbury is variously assigned to the 6th and 8th centuries. In the 9th and 10th centuries the abbots enlarged the town, which was confirmed to them as a borough by Henry II. In 1253 a charter gave borough jurisdiction to the good men of St Albans; but the borough court was, apparently, discontinued for about 200 years after the rebellion of 1381. A charter of 1533, confirmed in 1553 and 1559–1560, incorporated the mayor and burgesses. Charters of 1663, 1664 and 1685, and the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835, altered the form of the corporation; and in 1877 St Albans became a city. Two burgesses' were returned to the parliament of 1306–1307, and to others, until, after 1336, such right fell into abeyance until its resumption in 1553. Its abolition, as a result of corrupt electioneering practices, took place in 1852.

During Wat Tyler’s insurrection the monastery was besieged by the townspeople, many of whom were. executed in consequence. At St Albans the Lancastrians were defeated on the 21st of May 1455, their leader, the duke of Somerset, being killed, and Henry VI. taken prisoner; here, too, Queen Margaret defeated the earl of Warwick on the 17th of February 1461. During the civil wars the town was garrisoned for the parliament. On a printing press, one of the earliest in the kingdom, set up in the abbey the first English translation of the Bible was printed.

See Victoria County History, Herts, vol. ii.; Peter Newcome, The History of the Abbey of St Albans (London, 1793); and Chronica manasterii S. Albani, edited by H. T. Riley for the “Rolls” series (1863–1876).