Alban's (St.)

ALBAN'S (ST.) a borough and market-town having separate jurisdiction, and the head of a union, locally in the hundred of Cashio, or liberty of St. Alban's, county of Hertford, 12½ miles (W. by S.) from Hertford, and 20 (N. W. by N.) from London; containing, with those portions of the parishes of St. Michael and St. Peter which extend beyond the limits of the borough, 8604 inhabitants. This place, which is separated from the site of the Roman Verulamium by the small river Ver, derived its name and origin from the magnificent monastery established here by Offa, King of Mercia, in commemoration of St. Albanus, the protomartyr of Britain. Verulam, according to the Roman historians, was founded by the Britons, at an earlier period than London: it was the chief station of Cassivellaunus, at the time of the invasion of Cæsar, who describes it as a place of great military strength, well defended by woods and marshes; and appears to have consisted of rude dwellings constructed of wood, and to have been surrounded by a rampart and fosse. In the reign of Nero it was accounted a Municipium, or free city; in that of Claudius it was surprised by Boadicea, Queen of the Iceni, who slaughtered the chief part of the Roman and British inhabitants. After its restoration, it continued to be a primary station of the Romans until their final departure from Britain. During their occupation of it, Albanus, an eminent citizen, who had been converted to Christianity by Amphibalus, in 293, boldly refusing to abjure his new religion, was beheaded on the hill called Holmhurst; on which spot the monastery was erected at the close of the eighth century (in 793) for 100 Benedictine monks. About the middle of the fifth century, Verulam was occupied by the Saxons, and received the name of Watlingceaster, from the Roman highway called Watling-street, on which it stood.

According to Matthew Paris, the present town owes its origin to Ulsinus, or Ulsig, the sixth abbot, who, about the year 950, built a church on each of the three principal roads leading from the monastery, dedicated respectively to St. Stephen, St. Michael, and St. Peter, and encouraged the neighbouring inhabitants to erect houses, by supplying them with money and materials. Fritheric, or Frederic, the thirteenth abbot, opposed the march of the Norman conqueror, by causing the trees on the road side, near Berkhampstead, to be cut down and laid across the way; he was also principally instrumental in exacting from that sovereign an oath to observe the ancient laws of the realm. William subsequently deprived this church of a great portion of its lands, and would have destroyed the monastery, but for the interposition of Archbishop Lanfranc. The monks and the inhabitants had frequent quarrels; and, in the reign of Richard II., the insurgents in Wat Tyler's rebellion were aided by the latter in besieging the monastery. On their dispersion, the king repaired hither, attended by Judge Tresilian and 1000 soldiers, to try the delinquents, and many of the townsmen were executed. The king remained eight days, on one of which the commons of the county assembled by his command, and, in the great court of the abbey, swore to be thenceforward faithful subjects. A sanguinary battle was fought here on the 22nd of May, 1455, between Henry VI. and the Duke of York, in which the Lancastrians were defeated, their leader, the Duke of Somerset, killed, and the king himself made prisoner. On the 17th of February, 1461, another engagement took place on Bernard heath, north of the town, when Queen Margaret compelled the Earl of Warwick to retreat with considerable loss: after this action, the town was plundered and much damaged. On the introduction of printing into England, about 1471, a press was put up in the abbey, from which issued some of those early specimens that are now so eagerly sought for by collectors: the first translation of the Bible was also made here. During the civil war between Charles I. and the parliament, a party of soldiers, under the Earl of Essex, garrisoned the town, and destroyed the beautiful cross, which was one of those erected by Edward I. in memory of his queen.

The town is situated chiefly on the summit and northern declivity of a considerable eminence, and consists principally of three streets, the abbey church standing on the hill near the point where they meet. That part of it which forms the old line of the great north road is narrow, and contains many ancient houses; but the other parts are spacious and neatly built. It is well paved, and lighted with gas, under a local act obtained in 1803, and is supplied with water from wells in the upper part of the town. By a diversion of the main road, about three hundred yards to the south, the former circuitous and dangerous route through the town is avoided; and on this new line of road, which is about two miles in length, some handsome villas, and one of the most commodious inns in the county, called the Verulam Arms, have been erected. The manufacture of straw-plat, in which about eight hundred persons are employed, is the chief occupation of the lower class of inhabitants: a silk-mill, occupying the site of the abbeymill, affords employment to three hundred young persons; and in a mill for spinning cotton-wicks for candles, formerly applied to the cutting and polishing of diamonds, about sixty persons are engaged. Coal is conveyed for the supply of the town, from the Grand Junction canal at Boxmoor, about six miles distant. The market is on Saturday, for corn, straw-plat, and provisions: there is a fair on March 25th and 26th, for cattle and horses; and a statute-fair is held on Oct. 11th, and the two following days.

St. Alban's is styled a borough in the record of Domesday, in which it is stated to have contained fortysix burgesses, who were the demesne men of the abbot; and the town continued under his jurisdiction (with the exception of a brief interval in the reigns of Edward II. and III.) until the Dissolution, when the possessions of the monastery were surrendered to the crown. The inhabitants were incorporated in the 7th of Edward VI., by a charter which was modified in subsequent reigns, and confirmed in the 16th of Charles II. By the act of the 5th and 6th of William IV., cap. 76, the corporation bears the title of the "Mayor, Aldermen, and Burgesses," and consists of a mayor, four aldermen, and twelve councillors, together forming the council of the borough; the municipal and parliamentary boundaries are now the same. The town first received the elective franchise in the 35th of Edward I.: the privilege was suspended from the 5th of Edward III. till the first of Edward VI., since which time the town has continued to return two members to parliament. The right of election was formerly vested in the freemen, whether resident or not, and in those householders who had been six months resident in the borough, paying scot and lot; but by the act of the 2nd of William IV. it was confined to the resident burgesses and the £10 householders, the latter 709 in number: the mayor is returning officer. The limits of the parliamentary borough were extended by the act of the 2nd and 3rd of William IV., cap. 64; they formerly comprised, by computation, 308 acres, and are now estimated to contain 425. The mayor, the late mayor, and the recorder, are justices of the peace, and hold courts of quarter-session: the mayor presides at a court of aldermen, on the first Wednesday in every month, for the transaction of public business; and petty-sessions are held every Saturday. The magistrates for the liberty, also, hold quarter-sessions here. The liberty surrounds, and is entirely distinct from, the borough, the magistrates of the one having no jurisdiction in the other; it comprises the divisions of Barnet, Watford, and St. Alban's, and extends into twenty-two parishes. The powers of the county debt-court of St. Alban's, established in 1847, extend over the registration-district of St. Alban's, and the greater part of the districts of Hatfield and Welwyn, and Hemel-Hempstead. The former townhall was originally the charnel-house of the monastery; a handsome and commodious edifice was erected in 1830. The ancient prison of the monastery is now appropriated to the confinement of criminals committed for the borough and liberty.

The venerable abbey, rich in lordships and immunities, continued to flourish under a succession of forty abbots, who enjoyed both spiritual and temporal authority, having a palatine jurisdiction similar to that exercised by the Bishops of Durham and Ely; they had also a precedence from Pope Adrian IV. over all other abbots, with an exclusive exemption from the payment of Peter's pence, which, according to Camden, they possessed the power of collecting throughout the county, and applying to their own use. Henry VIII. granted the abbey, which at the Dissolution had a revenue, according to Dugdale, of £2102. 7. 1., to Sir Richard Lee; but retained the church, since made parochial, which Edward VI., in 1553, granted for a pecuniary consideration to the mayor and burgesses. The church is a cruciform structure, six hundred feet in length, and consists of a nave, two aisles, a choir, presbytery, lady chapel, and two transepts, with a large square tower rising from the intersection. The choir is separated from the nave by St. Cuthbert's screen, which, with the elaborately carved screen over the altar, the ceiling (partly groined, and partly enriched with Mosaic paintings), and the tombs of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, and Abbot Ramryge, presents a rich and imposing appearance. The tower, supported on four arches, the two transepts, and a great part of the choir, were built of Roman tiles from the ancient city of Verulam, about the year 1077, and exhibit the Norman style of architecture; the remainder, erected about the reign of Henry III., is in the early English style, with sharply pointed arches. Many fine brasses, in memory of the abbots, were taken by Cromwell's soldiers, and the church was much damaged by the prisoners who were confined in it during the parliamentary war.

The town comprises the parish of St. Alban, or the Abbey parish, and parts of the parishes of St. Michael and St. Peter. The living of St. Alban's is a rectory, valued in the king's books at £10; net income, £111; patron and incumbent, Dr. Nicholson, who purchased the advowson from the corporation. A lectureship was founded in the church in 1640, by Francis Combe, who endowed it with £10 per annum. The living of St. Peter's is a vicarage, valued in the king's books at £9. 0. 10.; net income, £308; patron, the Bishop of Ely. The church, erected by Abbot Ulsinus, in 948, has been rebuilt within the last fifty years. The living of St. Michael's is a vicarage, valued in the king's books at £10. 1. 8.; net income, £300; patron and impropriator, the Earl of Verulam. The church is a small edifice, erected by the same abbot, and contains, in a niche on the northern side of the chancel, a finely-sculptured alabaster statue of Lord Bacon, who was interred here. St. Mark's church, at Colney Heath, was consecrated in December, 1845; it is in the Norman style, and cost £1300: the materials externally are Cowley white brick, and Bath stone. The living is a perpetual curacy, in the gift of Trustees. There are places of worship for Particular Baptists, the Society of Friends, Independents, Wesleyans, and Unitarians. The Free Grammar school was erected in or about the year 1569, by the mayor and burgesses, under their charter of incorporation bestowed by Edward VI.; and was endowed by letters-patent of Elizabeth and James I., granting power to the mayor and burgesses to license dealers in wine in the borough. The schoolroom, adjoining the Abbey church, was the beautiful chapel of the Virgin. Dr. Aubrey Spencer, Bishop of Jamaica, and Dr. George Spencer, Bishop of Madras, were educated here. The almshouses called Marlborough Buildings, containing apartments for thirtysix persons of both sexes, were built and endowed by Sarah, Duchess Dowager of Marlborough, in 1736: they occupy three sides of a quadrangle, on the site of the old manor-house of Newland-Squillers; and the income, arising from property in the counties of Warwick and Surrey, now amounts to £757 per annum. The church lands, appropriated to the repairs of the abbey, together with several benefactions for the same purpose, produce a revenue of £220. The poor law union of St. Alban's comprises eight parishes or places, and contains a population of 17,051.

In the town is a high square brick tower with a house attached, called the Clock House, built by one of the abbots in the reign of Henry VIII., and conveyed to the corporation in the 29th of Elizabeth; the house and lower part of the tower are let as a shop, and in the upper part is a public clock. At the distance of half a mile to the south-east, are some fine remains of the nunnery of Sopwell, founded in 1140 by Abbot Geoffrey de Gorham, and of which the Lady Juliana Berners was at one time prioress: like the monastery, it was built of Roman tiles and bricks, and partly of flints. Of two hospitals founded by the abbots, and dedicated respectively to St. Julian and St. Mary de Pratis, there is not a single vestige. On the left of the road leading to Dunstable, a few fragments of the ancient walls of Verulam are still discernible; and in a field adjoining the town, called New England, are some hills supposed to have been the site of the camp of Ostorius, and thence vulgarly styled Oyster hills. There is a mineral spring in a garden near St. Michael's bridge. Matthew Paris, one of the most eminent of the old English historians, was a monk in the abbey; and among the most distinguished natives of the town may be enumerated Alexander Necham, a poet and scholastic divine; Sir John Mandeville, the celebrated traveller; and Sir John King, and Sir Francis Pemberton, two eminent lawyers. Breakspear's farmhouse, in the vicinity, was the birthplace of Nicholas Breakspear, the only Englishman that ever sat in the papal chair; on his elevation he assumed the name of Adrian IV.: he was a great benefactor to the abbey. St. Alban's gives the title of Duke to the family of Beauclerc; and the representative of the family of Grimstone enjoys the title of Earl of Verulam.

Transcribed from A Topographical Dictionary of England, by Samuel Lewis, 7th edition, published in 1848.