The Master led a group from the Livery and their guests to St Albans Cathedral to celebrate the anniversary of Queen Elizabeth I’s signing of our Royal Charter on 3rd August 1568. It was a very apposite choice of location as the monarch was at that time staying at Gorhambury on the outskirts of St Albans (although it was then in open countryside), not at one of her London palaces.
We gathered in the newly-built Welcome Centre, opened in 2018 and successfully designed to fit in with the south transept, using the same building materials of flint, stone and brick. The bricks in the central tower of the Cathedral are re-used Roman bricks, salvaged in the 11th century from the ruins of Verulamium at the bottom of the hill. When the Chapter House was built in the 1980s a local brickmaker supplied bricks to match the Roman bricks in the tower (being longer and thinner than standard modern bricks). The bricks used for the construction of the Welcome Centre were also specially made, in this case by York Handmade Bricks, the company of which Liveryman David Armitage is chairman.
The entrance to the Welcome Centre with the tower of St Albans Cathedral behind
We were divided into different groups: those with strong knees and lithe hips (with whom your reporter can no longer be numbered) were taken by one of the cathedral guides up innumerable steps and through the narrowest of passages to enjoy a spectacular view from the top of the tower (a trip undertaken by our much fitter Master, whose report appears below) while the others joined a further two of the 90-or-so trained volunteer guides to learn about the fascinating history and architecture of the building.
Alban was the first British Christian martyr. He was a citizen of the Roman Empire, and as such was entitled to wear a cloak of a particular colour: on being asked for urgent help from a good Christian friend (Amphibalus – see below) who was to be executed, he gave him the cloak, enabling the man to escape. When Alban’s act, regarded as treachery, was discovered by the authorities, it was Alban who was executed. The precise site of his death is not known but it was undoubtedly close to where the cathedral now stands. It became a centre of pilgrimage, especially after King Offa established a Benedictine abbey in 793. It went through hard times during the 9th and 10th centuries and there is now nothing remaining of those first buildings. In the 1080s, Archbishop Lanfranc of Canterbury appointed his nephew Paul of Caen as the reforming abbot; he it was that started the construction of what soon became one of the largest monastic buildings in England. In 1323 part of the south side of the nave collapsed (the foundations on marshy soil had proved inadequate) and were rebuilt in the contemporary style of Gothic: they either complement or conflict with the round-arched Romanesque style of the earlier parts, depending on your own viewpoint. The monastic foundation was forcibly dissolved by Henry VIII in the late 1530s but the townspeople managed to raise the funds to take over the whole of the very large church, although the extensive range of monastic buildings gradually became ruinous (having in part been denuded of its brick and stone to supply building materials to other projects). The Protestant Reformers soon defaced the wonderful series of 13th century wall paintings on the round-arched north side of the nave, leaving headless figures; recently an ingenious and very successful lighting installation has been installed to show what the originals would have looked like.
In the 1870s the building became the cathedral of a new diocese - created to relieve the strain on the overstretched diocese of London -which now covers Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire and the London Borough of Barnet. Sir Gilbert Scott had been slowly working on the restoration of the mediaeval building; on his death, the brash and bullying (but very rich) amateur architect Lord Grimthorpe imposed his will, largely at his own expense, on the restoration, some of which was ill-considered. Today the cathedral is the much-loved mother church of the Diocese of St Albans; some of that love was evident to us in the excellent condition of what is one of the larger cathedrals in the country, among which might be mentioned Alan Younger’s memorable stained glass of the 1980s in the big window of the north transept.
The restoration work continues. In 2021 the restoration work on the shrine of St Amphibalus was completed. St Amphibalus was the priest who was rescued by Alban and who taught him the Christian faith, but who was later caught and executed himself. His relics were placed in a shrine near to St Alban’s shrine, but both were destroyed at the Dissolution, and the rubble was used to build a wall separating the Abbey from the Lady Chapel. When the two buildings were reunited in the 1870s, the shrines were rediscovered and roughly rebuilt. St Alban’s shrine was properly restored in 1993, and now St Amphibalus’ shrine too has been restored to its former glory. Amongst the range of carvings on the medieval shrine, there is a face wearing a face-mask to commemorate the shrine’s restoration project taking place during the pandemic.
After our enjoyable tours were complete, we repaired to Lussman’s, a restaurant only yards from the cathedral, for a fine lunch with much animated conversation. Thank you, Master, for taking the Company on such an interesting visit - with much help from our Learned Clerk, who was the administrator of the cathedral until joining the Company last year.
Climbing the Tower
There are 211 steps from the floor of the north transept to the roof of the tower. The spiral staircase is relatively broad at the bottom (Victorian) but gets progressively steeper and narrower as you climb higher in the 11th century tower but the view from the top is worth the effort. We were able to go into the roof space above the chancel roof where the oak panels are so thin that a dropped coin would apparently go through the timber and into the cathedral below.
We also visited the bell chamber. The 13 main bells were installed in 2010 and are named after the apostles. The largest bell (the tenor) is called Alban and weighs a tonne. There are also eight bells from the previous ring of twelve attached to an electronic control mechanism called a carillon. These chime the hour and they can be programmed to play a tune. During the 2012 Olympics the Chariots of Fire theme rang out for every medal Great Britain won.
Roman bricks in the bell chamber
And finally to the roof of the tower with splendid views over the city of St Albans and the surrounding countryside and even a glimpse of one of the pair of peregrine falcons which successfully raised a chick on the roof of the Cathedral in the spring.