History of St Albans

St Albans is a city in southern Hertfordshire, England, 20 miles (32 km) north of London, beside the site of a Catuvellauni settlement and the Roman town of Verulamium on the River Ver. It is Hertfordshire's oldest town.


There was an Iron Age settlement known as Verulamium,[1] Verlamion, or Verlamio, near the site of the present city, the centre of Tasciovanus' power and a major center of the Catuvellauni from about 20 BC until shortly after the Roman invasion of AD 43.[2] The name "Verulamium" is Celtic, meaning "settlement over or by the marsh".[1] The town was on Prae Hill, 2 km to the west of modern St Albans, now covered by the village of St. Michael's, Verulamium Park and the Gorhambury Estate.[1] It is believed that the tribal capital was moved to the site by Tasciovanus (around 25 to 5 BC). Cunobelinus may have constructed Beech Bottom Dyke, a defensive earthwork near the settlement whose significance is uncertain.


The Roman city of Verulamium, the second-largest town in Roman Britain after Londinium, was built alongside the Celtic settlement in the valley of the River Ver nearer to the present city centre. The settlement was granted the rank of municipium around AD 50, meaning that its citizens had what were known as "Latin Rights", a lesser citizenship status than a colonia possessed. It grew to a significant town, and as such received the attentions of Boudica of the Iceni in 61, when Verulamium was sacked and burnt on her orders:[3] a black ash layer has been recorded by archaeologists, thus confirming the Roman written record. It grew steadily; by the early 3rd century, it covered an area of about 125 acres (0.51 km2), behind a deep ditch and wall. It was encircled by gated walls in AD 275. Verulamium contained a forum, basilica and a theatre, much of which were damaged during two fires, one in 155 and the other in around 250. One of the few extant Roman inscriptions in Britain is found on the remnants of the forum (see Verulamium Forum inscription). The town was rebuilt in stone rather than timber at least twice over the next 150 years.

Early Christianity

The city is named after St Alban, who is thought to have lived in the town and to have been martyred in either the third or fourth century AD.[4] He was probably buried outside the city walls in a Roman cemetery near the present Cathedral and his hillside grave is said to have become a place of pilgrimage. The site of Alban's burial is unknown and remains a topic for investigation. The site of a Roman burial was uncovered near the Cathedral in the late 20th century, in the area of demolished medieval cloisters, probably extending beneath the present building, but there is no evidence of a connection with Alban.[5][6]

In the eighth century, Bede referred to a Roman church dedicated to St Alban, built "when peaceable Christian times were restored" (possibly the fourth century) and still in use in Bede's time.[7][8] In 429 Germanus of Auxerre visited the church and subsequently promoted the cult of St Alban.[9][10][11][12] John Morris argued that the church was probably built in 396-8.[13] It has been suggested that several unearthed remains might have been Roman churches but there is no certain archaeological evidence.[4] An archaeological excavation in 1978, directed by Martin Biddle, failed to find Roman remains on the site of the medieval chapter house,[14] but recent investigation has uncovered a basilica near the Cathedral, indicating that it is "the oldest continuous site of Christian worship in Great Britain".[11]

Some historians doubt the historicity of St Alban and argue that his cult was invented by Germanus.[15]


Early Medieval

The Roman occupation ended between 400 and 450 and it is not known to what extent and for how long Roman civilization persisted at St Albans.[10] The Roman theatre was already derelict by the beginning of the fifth century, but at the same time the adjacent Romano-British temple was undergoing reconstruction.[16] Some large Roman villas were occupied for a considerable time after the withdrawal of Roman troops[1] and there is evidence of buildings of Roman type being constructed for at least another half-century after the Roman withdrawal, indicating the survival of Roman customs and ideas for longer than was once thought;[17] but gradually the town became the centre of the territory or regio of the Anglo-Saxon Waeclingas tribe,[18] possibly without violent conquest.[1] As late as the eighth century the Saxon inhabitants of St Albans nearby were aware of the Roman city, which they knew alternatively as Verulamacæstir or, under what H. R. Loyn terms "their own hybrid", Vaeclingscæstir, "the fortress of the followers of Wæcla", possibly a pocket of British-speakers remaining separate in an increasingly Saxonised area.[19] The medieval town grew on the hill to the east of Vaeclingscæstir.

There is a tradition that St Albans Abbey was founded by King Offa in 793.[10] The present building, begun in 1077, was the principal abbey in medieval England, used by the Benedictines. It became a parish church after the dissolution of the monasteries in 1539 and was made a cathedral in 1877. The scribe Matthew Paris (c.1200-1259) lived there and was educated at the associated school. In 1213 the first draft of Magna Carta was drawn up there.

St Albans School was founded in AD 948 and is the only school in the English-speaking world to have educated a Pope (Adrian IV). Now a public school, it has, since 1871, occupied a site to the west of the Abbey and includes the 14th century Abbey Gateway. One of its building was a hat factory, a link with the city's industrial past.

High and Late Medieval

A nunnery, Sopwell Priory, was founded in 1140 by Abbot Geoffrey de Gorham.

The head of the abbey was confirmed as the premier abbot in England in 1154. The abbey was extended by John of Wallingford (also known as John de Cella) in the 1190s, and again between 1257 and 1320 but financial constraints limited the effectiveness of these later additions.

The Liberty of St Albans was given palatine status by Edward I. In 1290 the funeral procession of Eleanor of Castile stopped overnight in the town and an Eleanor cross was put up at a cost of £100 in the Market Place. The cross, which stood for many years in front of the 15th century Clock Tower, was demolished in 1701. A fountain was erected in its place in 1872, now relocated to Victoria Square.

The clock tower built between 1403 and 1412, seems to have been intended both as a visible and audible statement of the town's continuing civic ambitions against the power of the Abbot. Between 1403 and 1412 Thomas Wolvey, formerly the Royal Mason, was engaged to build "Le Clokkehouse" in the Market Place. It is the only extant mediaeval town belfry in England. The tower's design was based on the Clock House at Westminster Palace that the architect Henry Yevele (Wolvey's master) built in 1365. The Clock Tower was used to sound the curfew until 1863. The Tower was also used as a semaphore station from 1808 to 1814 during the Napoleonic Wars. The architect George Gilbert Scott restored the structure of the tower in 1865-6; he also added the gothic spire and parapets. The original bell, named for the Archangel Gabriel (cast round the bell is the Latin rhyme "From Heaven I come/Gabriel my name"), is still in use, though chimed rather than rung; it last rang out for Queen Victoria's funeral in 1901. It sounds F-natural and weighs one ton. Gabriel sounded at 4 am for the Angelus and at 8 or 9 pm for the curfew. A small bell, dated 1729, was moved in the Clock Tower from the market place nearby, where it opened business until 1855. The ground floor of the tower was a shop until the 20th century. The first- and second-floor rooms were designed as living chambers. The shop and the first floor were connected by a flight of spiral stairs. Another flight rises the whole height of the tower by 93 narrow steps and gave access to the living chamber, the clock and the bell without disturbing the tenant of the shop. The old clock may have been removed in the 18th century and replaced by a pendulum clock. The present clock incorporates a four-legged gravity escapement invented by Lord Grimthorpe, the local horologist and restorer of the Abbey who designed Big Ben's mechanism.

On Abbey Mill Lane, the road between the Abbey and the school, are the palaces of the Bishops of St Albans and Hertford and Ye Olde Fighting Cocks, said by the Guinness Book of Records to be the oldest pub in England.[20]

A street market on Wednesdays and Saturdays, founded by Abbot Ulsinus, still flourishes.[21] It was confirmed by King John of England in 1202 and by a Royal Charter of Edward VI in 1553.

Abbey Gateway from the 1360s

During the 14th century the Abbey came into increasing conflict with the population of St Albans, who demanded rights of their own. In response, in 1365, the Abbey erected a surrounding wall and abbey gateway. (The gateway is the only surviving monastic building other than the Abbey Church.) Revolt began to stir in June 1381, when news came of rebellion in London.[22] There had been long-running disagreements in St Albans between the town and the local abbey, which had extensive privileges in the region.[23] On 14 June, protesters met with the Abbot, Thomas de la Mare, and demanded their freedom from the abbey.[22] A group of townsmen under the leadership of William Grindecobbe traveled to London, where they appealed to the King for the rights of the abbey to be abolished.[24] Wat Tyler, then still in control of the city, granted them authority in the meantime to take direct action against the abbey.[25] Grindecobbe and the rebels returned to St Albans, where they found the Prior had already fled.[26] The rebels broke open the abbey gaol, destroyed the fences marking out the abbey lands and burnt the abbey records in the town square.[27] They then forced Thomas de la Mare to surrender the abbey's rights in a charter on 16 June.[28] The revolt against the abbey spread out over the next few days, with abbey property and financial records being destroyed across the county.[29] News came to St Albans that Tyler had been killed and the rebels reduced their terms. Grindbcobbe was condemned as a traitor and hanged, drawn and quartered.

During the Wars of the Roses two battles were fought in and around St Albans. The First Battle of St Albans on 22 May 1455 was a Lancastrian defeat that opened the war. The Lancastrian army occupied the town but the Yorkist forces broke in and a battle took place in the streets of the town. On 17 February 1461 the Second Battle of St Albans on Bernards Heath north of the town centre resulted in a Lancastrian victory.[30]


Early Modern

In 1553, following the dissolution, the Abbey was sold to the town for £400 and became a parish church. The Lady Chapel became part of St Albans School and the Great Gatehouse was used as a prison until the 19th century, when the school took it over.

In response to a petition, King Edward VI granted the town a charter making it a borough with a mayor. The mayor, assisted by ten burgesses and serving for up to three years, had executive and judicial powers. The first mayor was John Lockey.

In 1555, during the reign of Queen Mary I, a Protestant baker from Yorkshire, George Tankerfield, was brought from London and burnt to death on Romeland for his refusal to accept the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation.

During the English Civil War (1642–45) the town sided with parliament but was largely unaffected by the conflict.

Nineteenth century

Before the 20th century, St Albans was a rural market town, a Christian pilgrimage site, and the first coaching stop of the route to and from London, accounting for its numerous old inns. Victorian St Albans was small and had little industry. It grew slowly, 8-9% per decade between 1801 and 1861, compared to the 31% per decade growth of London in the same period. The railway arrived relatively late. In 1869 the extension of the city boundaries was opposed by the Earl of Verulam and many of the townsfolk, but there was rapid expansion and much building at the end of the century, and between 1891 and 1901 the population grew by 37%.[31]

Population of St Albans in the Nineteenth Century[31]

1801 3,872
1831 6,582
1851 8,208
1861 9,090
1871 10,421
1881 10,659
1891 12,478
1901 16,181

Three main roads date from the medieval period - Holywell Hill, St Peter's Street, and Fishpool Street. These remained the only major streets until late 18th and 19th centuries when the modern road pattern was defined. London Road was constructed in 1754, Hatfield Road in 1824 and Verulam Road in 1833.[31] Verulam Road was created specifically to aid the movement of stage coaches, since St Albans was the first major stop on the coaching route north from London. Victoria Street was called Sweetbriar Lane until 1876.[31]

There were three railway stations in the town, two still active: St Albans Abbey and St Albans City. The first, St Albans Abbey, is the terminus of the branch line from Watford on the former London and North-Western Railway, opened on 5 May 1858. The Midland Railway ran traffic on the section of their main line from Bedford to London with a station at St. Albans, now St Albans City, from 1 October 1868. The Great Northern Railway Company opened their branch from Hatfield (now closed) on 16 October 1865.[32]

In 1877, in response to a public petition, Queen Victoria issued the second royal charter, which granted city status to the borough and Cathedral status to the former Abbey Church. The new diocese was established in the main from parts of the large Diocese of Rochester. The Abbey Church of St Alban had fallen into disrepair, despite work done on it under Sir George Gilbert Scott in 1860-1877, and some thought it ought to be allowed to decline into romantic ruin, but in the latter year, under the chairmanship of the Earl of Verulam, a restoration committee was formed, of which Edmund Beckett (later Lord Grimthorpe) became the dominant member. Grimthorpe put up £130,000 of his own money and by sheer force of personality brought about a restoration of the church (1880–1883) in Neo-Gothic style, sparking the ire of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. Nicholas Pevsner said that the Abbey "is the only one of the major churches of England that has a West Front completely, or almost completely, Victorian."[31] However, it seems reasonable to assume that, without Grimthorpe's money the Abbey Church would now be a ruin like many other former monastic churches.

The city's football club (St Albans City F.C.) was founded in 1880.

Ralph Chubb, the poet and printer, lived on College Street in St Albans from 1892 to 1913, and attended St Albans School. His work frequently references the Abbey of St Albans, and he ascribed mystical significance to the geography and history of the town.

Twentieth century

In September 1916, following an attack on St Albans, the German Airship SL 11 became the first airship to be brought down over England. But when London Colney was attacked, the nation was so angered it became united in its battle.

St Albans on the 1 inch to the mile map Ordnance Survey map of 1944

In the inter-war years St Albans, in common with much of the surrounding area, became a centre for emerging high-technology industries, most notably aerospace. Nearby Radlett was the base for Handley Page Aircraft Company, while Hatfield became home to de Havilland. St Albans itself became a centre for the Marconi plc company, specifically, Marconi Instruments. Marconi (later part of the General Electric Company) remained the city's largest employer (with two main plants) until the 1990s. A third plant - working on top secret defence work - also existed. Even Marconi staff only found out about this when it closed down. All of these industries are now gone from the area.

In 1936 St Albans was the last but one stop for the Jarrow Crusade.

The City expanded rapidly after World War II, as government policy promoted the creation of New Towns and the expansion of existing towns around London. The local authority built large housing estates at Cottonmill (to the south), Mile House (to the south-east) and New Greens (to the north). The Marshalswick area to the north-east was also expanded, completing a programme of mainly private house building begun before the war

In 1974 St Albans City Council, St Albans Rural District Council and Harpenden Town Council were merged, as part of a major national re-organisation of local government in the UK, to form St Albans District Council.

Twenty-first century

In 2011 the population of the St Albans City and District was 140,664, up 9% on the 2001 population of 129,000.

Visible remains

The city today shows evidence of building and excavation from all periods of its history. There are a few remains of the Roman city visible, such as parts of the city walls, a hypocaust still in situ under a mosaic floor, and the theatre, which is on land belonging to the Earl of Verulam, as well as items in the Verulamium Museum. More remains under the nearby agricultural land which have never been excavated were for a while seriously threatened by deep ploughing. Extant medieval buildings include the Abbey and the early 15th century Clock Tower.


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 Rosalind Niblett, Roman Hertfordshire, Wimborne: Dovecote Press, 1995
  2. John Wacher, 1976, The Towns of Roman Britain, p. 202, both for Tasciovanus and the Catuvellauni.
  3. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/boudicca.shtml
  4. 1 2 Rosalind Niblett, Verulamium, Stroud: Tempus, 2001
  5. St Albans Cathedral & Abbey, ed. A.Herbert et.al., Fraternity of the Friends of St Albans Abbey, 2015
  6. Martin Biddle and Birthe Kølbye Biddle, "The Origins of St Albans Abbey: Excavations in the Cloister 1982-1983", Occasional Paper No. 2, The Fraternity of Saint Albans Abbey, 1984
  7. Bede's Ecclesiastical History of England, p.18
  8. Bede, Ecclesiasticam Gentis Anglorum
  9. Constantius of Lyon; Trans. Vermaat, Robert. "The text of the Vita sancti Germani". vortigernstudies.org.uk. Retrieved 19 November 2014.
  10. 1 2 3 Martin Biddle, "Alban and the Anglo-Saxon Church", in Robert Runcie (ed), Cathedral and City: St Albans Ancient and Modern, Martyn Associates, 1977
  11. 1 2 "Story of St Alban", Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Alban.
  12. Kenneth. S. Painter, "Recent discoveries in Britain", Publications de l'École française de Rome, 1989, Vol.123, No.1, pp.2031-2071
  13. John Morris, "The Date of St Alban", Hertfordshire Archeology, Vol. 9, 1987
  14. "Chapter House History - The Cathedral and Abbey Church of Saint Alban". Stalbanscathedral.org. Retrieved 2013-11-13.
  15. Wood, Ian (2009). "Germanus, Alban and Auxerre". Bulletin du centre d’études médiévales d’Auxerre (BUCEMA). 13. Retrieved 19 November 2014.
  16. John T. Baker, Cultural Transition in the Chilterns and Essex Region, 350 AD to 650 AD, Hatfield: University of Hertfordshire Press, 2006
  17. William Manning, "Sheppard Frere obituary", The Guardian, 15 March 2015
  18. Williamson, Tom (2000). The Origins of Hertfordshire. Manchester: Manchester University Press. p. 64. ISBN 071904491X. Retrieved 2014-09-13.
  19. Loyn, Anglo-Saxon England and the Norman Conquest, 2nd ed. 1991:11.
  20. St Albans Millenary Pageant Souvenir Programme, n.p, 1948
  21. 1 2 Dunn 2002, p. 113
  22. Dunn 2002, pp. 112–113
  23. Dunn 2002, p. 114
  24. Dunn 2002, pp. 114–115
  25. Dunn 2002, p. 115
  26. Dunn 2002, pp. 115–117
  27. Dunn 2002, pp. 117–118
  28. Dunn 2002, p. 119
  29. History of Verulam and St. Alban's S. G. Shaw, 1815 pages 64-66. Accessed April 2011
  30. 1 2 3 4 5 Asa Briggs, "The Victorian City", in ‘’Cathedral & City: St Albans Ancient and Modern’’, ed. Robert Runcie, Martyn Associates, 1977
  31. British History Online


  • Dunn, Alastair (2002). The Great Rising of 1381: the Peasants' Revolt and England's Failed Revolution. Stroud, UK: Tempus. ISBN 978-0-7524-2323-4. 
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