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St Albans, Hertfordshire

Historical Description

Albans, St, an episcopal city, market and union town and municipal borough in Hertfordshire, 21 miles NNW of London, on the main line of the M.R. from London to Bedford, and at termini of branches of the G.N.R. and L. & N.W.R. Its site is the summit and the northern declivity of a hill, the abbey church being placed on the south side of the town, at the back of the High Street. It is skirted by the rivulet Ver, a tributary of the Colne, near the vestiges of the ancient town of Verulam and the line of the Roman Watling Street. Verulam or Verulaminm, according to the Roman historians, was founded by the Britons at an earlier period than London. According to Camden, it is the city or fortress of Cassibelan or Cassivellaunus, which was forced by Caesar. Milton calls St Albans "jugera Cassibelauni." In Nero's reign it ranked as a municipium or free city, enjoying the privileges of Roman citizenship. Boadicea, queen of the Iceni, surprised it in the reign of Claudius, and put the chief part of the inhabitants to the sword; but it soon recovered from this calamity. In A.D. 293, Alban, a citizen of Verulam who had embraced the Christian faith, was beheaded on a hill in the neighbourhood. In 429 Germanus, bishop of Auxerre, and Lupus, bishop of Troyes, held a synod here, to confute the Pelagian heresy. Verulam fell not long after into the hands of the Saxons, but was retaken by the Britons, and again reverted to the Saxons. While yet in ruins after these successive contests, Offa, king of Mercia, founded an abbey here in honour of St Alban, whose remains had just been discovered on the spot of his martyrdom. Matthew Paris-who was himself a monk in the abbey of St Albans-says that Ulsinus, the sixtli abbot, about 950, built a church on each of the three principal roads leading from the monastery, and that around these the present town of St Albans gradually arose. Pope Adrian IV. constituted the abbot of St Albans first abbot in England in order and dignity, and Pope Honorius in 1218 exempted the abbot from the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Lincoln, his diocesan. A sanguinary battle was fought here in 1455, between Henry VI. and the Duke of York, in which the Lancastrians were defeated. Money is said by Camden to have been coined here in the time of the Romans. On the introduction of printing into England a press was put up in the abbey of St Albans, from which issued some of the earliest English specimens of the art. Giles the physician, Sir John Mandeville the traveller, Alexander Neckham the poet, Sir John King the lawyer, Chief Justice Pemberton, and Humphry the nonconformist, were natives. Bacon the philosopher resided at the neighbouring seat of Gorhambury, and had the titles of Baron Verulam and Viscount St Albans. Verulam now gives the title of Earl to the family of Grimston, and St Albans gives that of Duke to the family of Beauclerk.

St Albans was incorporated in 1554: by Edward VI. It sent two members to Parliament till 1852, and was then disfranchised. It is governed by a corporation which consists of a mayor, 4 aldermen, and 12 councillors, who also act as the urban sanitary authority. Wells situated in the NE and SW parts of the city furnish an abundant supply of water. Courts of quarter sessions are held here four times a year for the trial of prisoners, and petty sessions for the city every Wednesday, and for the liberty division every Saturday. The chief occupation of the inhabitants is the manufacture of strawplait, hats, and trimmings; but there are also a silk mill employing about 300 persons, three breweries, some maltings, boot factories, and a brush factory. The principal buildings after the abbey and churches are the Corn Exchange, erected in 1857, and used also as a public hall; the Court House, a building in the Italian style, erected in 1826; the Abbey gatehouse, a fine Perpendicular edifice, formerly used as a prison, but now occupied by the Grammar School; H.M. Prison, in Victoria Road, erected in 1866, at a cost of £20,000; and a public library and reading-room, erected by subscription in 1880. The city also possesses a clock-tower, built between 1400 and 1427, in the Early Perpendicular style, similar'to those found in many Continental cities, but the only one of the kind in England. It was restored in 1866, and it still contains the curfew bell. There are several well-endowed almshouses, an hospital and dispensary erected by subscription in 1888, A public park and recreation ground, presented by Sir John Blundell Maple, and numerous charitable trusts and institutions. A is held every Wednesday, and a general market every Saturday. St Albans is a head post and telegraph office, has two banking offices, several good hotels, and publishes two weekly newspapers.

The original abbey, founded by King Offa, became ruinous about the time of the Conquest. The subsequent abbey was of vast extent and great magnificence; but most of it, except the church, has fallen. The church, however, with enormous nave, pinnacled transept, graceful choir, lofty square tower, and grand, ornate, rich interior, is an imposing object, inferior to no minster in the kingdom, either as a feature in the landscape or for its own attractions. It comprises a nave of thirteen bays with aisles; a choir, with aisles; a transept without aisles; a presbytery and ambulatory to the east; and a Lady Chapel, of three bays, with vestibule. The nave is 276 feet long, 65 feet broad, and 65 feet high; the choir is 175 feet long; the transept, 175½- feet; the entire edifice, 548½ feet. Three noble towers, in fine symmetry, formerly rose above it; but only the central one, without spire or pinnacles, now stands; and this is 32½ feet long, 30½ feet broad, and 144 feet high. The church was chiefly built in 1077-93, by Abbot Paul of Caen, but was extended and altered at subsequent periods by other abbots; and it exhibits specimens of every style from the Saxon, through the Norman, to the Perpendicular of the time of Edward IV. This edifice, remarks Lady Morgan, " though but a fragment of the once magnificent, mitred, parliamentary abbey, attests the grandeur of the whole, and the perfection of ecclesiastical architecture in England during the middle ages. There is still extant, in the interior, specimens of genuine Saxon architecture, a part of the original building, the rounded arch, the massy tower, and enormous pillar, whose rude but noble simplicity is forcibly contrasted with the elaborated elegance of the Gothic style. Screens of the most minute tabernacle work, pointed arches, feathery shafts, and a profusion of richly-sculptured tracery, display all the characteristic beauty of that most picturesque and fanciful epoch of the art. The high altar, the after-part of the choir, the chapel of Abbot Bamryge, and that of St Alban, are the most remarkable. There are also existing beneath the fretted roof of this beautiful abbey church monuments and tombs well-suited to revive remote associations with great events, and to awaken a poetic nationality in the most phlegmatic temperament. Of these, the tomb of the Protector, Duke of Gloucester, familiarly called the good Duke Humphry, stands on the southern side." The church, which had been for a long time neglected, was repaired in 1832, under the superintendence of Mr. Cottingham, and in 1870-78, when such work as was necessary for securing the building was carried out, by the late Sir Gilbert Scott, R.A. The repair of the structure was afterwards undertaken at the cost of the Right Hon. Baron Grimthorpe. A part of the south wall of the chapter-house, situated on the south side of the transept, is standing. The Abbey Church is now the cathedral of the diocese. The gatehouse, which formed the original grand entrance to the abbey court, and is now used by the Grammar School, stands parallel with the west end of the church, at the distance of about 150 feet.

St Michael's Church was founded about the middle of the 10th century, underwent careful restoration by Scott in 1866; and contains the tomb of Bacon, with a beautiful sitting statue of him erected by Sir T. Meautys. St Peter's Church was rebuilt on the site of a Saxon one, where many of the slain in the two battles of St Albans had been buried; and it contains a tomb of Dr. Cotton. St Stephen's Church was founded by Abbot Ulsinus in the 10th century, and portio'hs of this building still remain along with work of the 13th, 15th, and 16th centuries. It contains a very ancient brass lectern, and some interesting brasses and monuments. Christ Church, in Verulam Road, is a modern structure, which was commenced in 1847 for a Catholic church, but completed in 1856 for the Church of England. It is a building of Bath stone in the Lombardic style. The ruins of a nunnery, founded in 1140, stand at Sopwell in the south-eastern vicinity of the town. Lady Juliana Berners, who wrote treatises on hunting, hawking, and heraldry, was one of the superiors of this nunnery; and Henry VIII. is said to have been married to Anne Boleyn in its chapel. Other places of worship at St Albans are a Catholic chapel dedicated to St Alban and St Stephen, two Baptist, a Congregational, and Wesleyan chapels, a Salvation Army barracks, and a meeting-house for the Brethren.

The living of the abbey is a rectory; gross yearly value, £350 with residence, in the gift of the Bishop of St Albans. The living of St Michael's is a vicarage; gross yearly value, £305 with residence, in the gift of the Earl of Verulam. That of St Peter's is a vicarage; yearly value from tithe-rent charge, £247 with residence, in the gift of the Crown. The living of St Stephen's is a vicarage; yearly value from tithe-rent charge, £391 with residence, in the gift of a private patron. Christ Church is a vicarage; net yearly value, £180 with residence, in the gift of trustees.

The area of the city, which includes the abbey parish and parts of the civil parishes of St Peter's, St Michael's, St Stephen's, and Sandridge, is about 997 acres; population, 12,898. The entire area of St Michael's parish, which includes the hamlets of Childwick Green, Gorhambury, and Westwick Row, is 6558 acres, of which 18 are water. St Peter's, which includes the hamlets of Smallford and Sleap, has an area of 6656 acres of land and 17 of water. St Stephen's includes the ecclesiastical parish of Frogmore and the hamlets of Smug Oak, Windridge, Bricket Wood Common, Colney Street, and Park Street, and has an area of 7387 acres, of which 37 are water. The living of Frogmore is a vicarage; yearly value, £186 with residence. The church, one of the early works of the late Sir Gilbert Scott, R.A., is a building of brick and flint in the Early Norman style, and was erected in 1842. There is a station on the L. & N.W.R. for Park Street and Frogmore.

Among the chief country residences in the vicinity of St Albans are Gorhambury, the seat of the Earl of Verulam, a fine mansion erected on a hill in the centre of the extensive park bearing that name, which contains a fine library, many valuable paintings, and some extremely interesting historical relics; Batch Wood, a spacious mansion of red brick, the seat of the Right Hon. Lord Grimthorpe, Q.C., LL.D.; and Oaklands, a mansion in the Elizabethan style, which stands in a park of 333 acres.

Albans, St, Diocese of. The first bishop of St Albans was enthroned in 1877. The see comprehends all Essex, except parts of the ecclesiastical parishes of Bartlow, Bures, Haverhill, Kedington, Sudbury, with Ballingdon-cum-Brundon and Great and Little Wratting; all Hertfordshire except parts of the ecclesiastical parishes of All Saints Caddington, Studham and Whipsnade, Northwood, Edlesborough with Northall, and Latimer with Flaunden; and parts of Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, and of the county of London. It has a population of 1,006,648. There is a bishop suffragan at Colchester, and three archdeacons-one at Essex, one at Colchester, and one at St Albans. The income of the bishop is £3200 per annum.

Transcribed from The Comprehensive Gazetteer of England & Wales, 1894-5


The following is a list of the administrative units in which this place was either wholly or partly included.

Ancient CountyHertfordshire 
Ecclesiastical parishAlban's St. 
Poor Law unionWare 

Any dates in this table should be used as a guide only.

Church Records

Findmypast, in association with the Hertfordshire Archives & Local Studies have the Baptisms, Banns, Marriages, and Burials online for St Albans

Directories & Gazetteers

We have transcribed the entry for St Albans from the following:

Land and Property

A full transcript of the Return of Owners of Land in 1873 for Hertfordshire is online.


Online maps of St Albans are available from a number of sites:

Newspapers and Periodicals

The British Newspaper Archive have fully searchable digitised copies of the following Hertfordshire newspapers online:

Visitations Heraldic

The Visitations of Hertfordshire, 1572 and 1634. Edited by Walter C. Metcalfe, F.S.A. is available on the Heraldry page.

DistrictSt. Albans
Postal districtAL3
Post TownSt. Albans