St Albans

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St Albans
St Albans Cathedral
Grid reference: TL148073
Location: 51°45’18"N, 0°20’10"W
Population: 64,038  (2001)
Post town: St. Albans
Postcode: AL1, AL2, AL3, AL4
Dialling code: 01727
Local Government
Council: St Albans
St Albans

St Albans is a city in southern Hertfordshire. It is an ancient town, with predecessors in a Roman city and an Iron Age town before it.

Today's St Albans is dominated by St Albans Catherdral, which stands on the steep hill above the River Ver and around which site the mediæval town grew.

The town of Verlamion was founded as the capital of the ancient British Catuvellauni tribe and when the Romans came they drove a road here, now known as Watling Street. On the site of Verlamion they built the Roman city of Verulamium. The remains walls of Verulamium are still visible in Verulam Park, and its bricks in the tower of St Albans Cathedral.

The town takes its name and original from the Abbey of Saint Alban, built on the site of the martyrdom of Saint Alban, the first British Christian martyr. Alban was beheaded in the year 308 during the persecution by the Emperor Diocletian, and the town is not therefore built on the site of ancient Verulamium but on the other side of the river, albeit that the town has since spread to envelop Verulam and the fields far beyond.

St Albans today is a historic market town, and is now a sought-after dormitory town within the London commuter belt. It has a broad main street, St Peters Street, in which a busy market is held every Wednesday and Saturday.


The 15th century Clock Tower.
St Albans: French Row (to the left), Market Place (to the right), St Peter's Street and the tower of the St Peter's Church (forward).
Remains of Roman wall.

The St Albans area has a long history of settlement. The Catuvellauni tribe had a settlement at Prae Hill a mile or so to the west and a major town, perhaps their capital at Wheathampstead to the north. By the Ver they built Verlamion, which appears to have become their capital, for which evidence remains as Beeches Bottom Dyke.

The Romans arrived in the first century AD. Close to the British town they built the city of Verulamium, which became the largest town in Roman Britain after Londinium.

The Roman Theatre

Verulamium thrived as a Roman city. Remains from that age can be seen in the Verulamium Roman Museum today. A theatre was built, now to the west of the city and excavated, wealthy houses and a public bathhouse. A hypocaust has been found and is on display in place in Verulam Park. In the fourth century's troubled times, a stout defensive wall was built around Verulamium, and parts of this wall stand still, partially buried, in Verulam Park.

In 308 Saint Alban was martyred. Early sources tell that Albanus was a Roman soldier in Verulamium, who gave refuge to a Christian minister fleeing sentence of death for his faith. Alban, hearing his testimony, became Christian and switched clothes with his guest to allow him to escape. Alban then was sentenced to death and taken out of the city, across the river and up the opposite hill for execution. Gildas, writing in, the sixth century, tells that the river dried up as Alban crossed it (though Gildas says it was the Thames; a slight geographical confusion).

After the Roman retreat from Britain in around 410, Verulamium remained occupied and burials indicate that it remained in British hands for some time after the Coming of the English. In time though the city was abandoned and fell into decay.

In King Offa's time, an abbey was founded on the supposed site of St Alban's execution, and the town developed around this foundation. Some small pillars from Offa's abbey are still found in the Cathedral. The town was called Werlameceaster or Wætlingacaester by the English,[1][2] and later Sanctes Albanes Stowe ("Saint Alban's place").

Two other churches in the town have an Anglo-Saxon foundation: both St Stephen's, at the top of St Stephen's Hill, and St Michael's, at the western edge of the historical parts of the town, are said to have been founded in the early eleventh century, and both contain work of that age. St Michaels in particular, though it shows little sign of it from its exterior, is a particularly fine example of an Anglo-Saxon church.

The Abbey was revuilt in 1077 as a Benedictine foundation and grew over the centuries, to which its mixed Romanesque and gothic architecture testifies. The mediæval town grew up on the hill on which it stood, not in the place of the Roman town. The Abbey was, at one time, the principal abbey in England and the first draft of Magna Carta was drawn up there, reflecting its political importance.

Two battles of the Wars of the Roses took place in or near the town. The First Battle of St Albans was fought on 22 May 1455 within the town of St Albans itself, and the Second Battle of St Albans was fought on 17 February 1461, just to the north.[3]

The Fighting Cocks

In 1539 King Henry VIII dissolved St Alban's Abbey along with all the monasteries of England. The church was reformed and the relics of St Alban, the focus of mediæval pilgrimage, were cast out to eliminate superstitious practices. In 1553 the townsfolk bought the church to serve as a parish church. The 14th century Abbey Gateway became part of St Albans School, and so it remains, though the school itself is earlier. The shrine of St Alban was destroyed later in the century (the current shrine was built in 1993 from scattered stones).

In 1877 the Diocese of St Albans was created and the abbey church became St Albans cathedral. It is now known as the Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Alban but known locally as The Abbey. St Albans was created a city at the same time.

The growth of St Albans was generally slow before the 20th century, reflecting its status as a rural market town and the first overnight coaching stop of the route to and from London, a position which accounts for its numerous inns, many dating from Tudor times. In the inter-war years it became a popular centre for the electronics industry. In the post-Second World War years it was expanded significantly as part of the post-War redistribution of population out of the Metropolis that also saw the creation of new towns.

Sights of the town

St Albans Abbey, through a gap in the walls of Verulamium

The road between the Abbey and the St Albans School, running down to the River Ver is called Abbey Mill Lane. On this road are the palaces of the Bishops of St Albans and Hertford. The Fighting Cocks, one of the oldest public houses in England, is at the Verulamium Park end of this road. Also on the River Ver, at the St Michael's Village end of the park, is Kingsbury Watermill, which is now maintained as a museum.

The city today shows evidence of building and excavation from all periods of its history and is a tourist destination. Notable buildings include the Abbey and the early 15th century Clock Tower (pictured). The clock tower is one of only two similar towers in England; it is also the site of an Eleanor cross, which was pulled down in 1703 due to neglect, replaced by the town pump. A fountain was erected in its place in 1874, now relocated to Victoria Place.

Running into St Albans from the south is Holywell Hill, its name taken from the story of St Alban: legend has it that his severed head rolled down the hill from the execution site and into a well at the bottom (some versions have a well springing from the site at which the head stopped).

The Lake
Roman wall in the park

Across the river is Verulamium Park. Here the Ver has been channelled and part of its old course turned into a beautiful, broad lake with a wooded island in the middle. The lake is home to waterfowl and wildfowl of many sorts and is a favourite walk locally. In the park is a long ridge on which trees have grown but which, where it has been excavated, shows what has formed it: the Roman walls of the city of Verulamium, which lies beneath the sward.

Film and television

The historic character of St Albans and its proximity to London has made it a popular filming location.

The area of Romeland, directly north of the Abbey Gateway and the walls of the Abbey and school grounds, can be seen masquerading as part of an Oxford college in some episodes of Inspector Morse and several local pubs have served likewise. Fishpool Street, running from Romeland to St Michael's village, stood in for Hastings in some episodes of Foyle's War. Life Begins was filmed largely in and around St Albans. The Lady Chapel in the Abbey itself was used as a location for at least one scene in Sean Connery's 1995 film First Knight, whilst the nave of the Abbey was used during a coronation scene as a substitute for Westminster Abbey in Johnny English starring Rowan Atkinson. The 19th century gatehouse of the former prison near St Albans City railway station appeared in the title sequence of the TV series Porridge.

The 2001 film Birthday Girl starring Ben Chaplin and Nicole Kidman was also partly filmed in St Albans, using some the town's more workaday parts.

More recently, several scenes from the film Incendiary were filmed in St Albans, focusing in particular on the Abbey and the Abbey Gateway.

St Albans is also home to a popular stage school: Top Hat Stage & Screen School.


The west end of the Cathedral

St Albans has a thriving cultural life, with regular concerts and theatre productions held at venues including St Albans Abbey, Maltings Arts Theatre,[4] the Alban Arena, the Abbey Theatre,[5] St Peter's Church and St Saviour's Church, given by numerous organisations including St Albans Bach Choir,[6] St Albans Cathedral Choir, St Albans Abbey Girl's Choir, St Albans Symphony Orchestra,[7] St Albans Chamber Choir,[8] St Albans Chamber Opera,[9] The Company of Ten,[10] St Albans Choral Society,[11] and St Albans Organ Theatre.[12]

In addition, STARTS[13] is a registered charity dedicated to raising the profile of all the arts in St Albans and enriching the city’s cultural environment.

The Sandpit Theatre is a theatre attached to Sandringham School which hosts a wide variety of plays throughout the year, mainly performances put on by the pupils of Sandringham School. The school also hosts Best Theatre Arts,[14] a part-time theatre school for children aged 4 to 16.

St Albans Museum Service runs two separate museums: Verulamium Museum, which tells the story of everyday life in Roman Britain using objects from the excavations of the important Roman Town; and The Museum of St Albans, a social history museum.


Ye Olde Fighting Cocks public house
  • The Royal Navy has used six vessels with the name HMS St Albans. The current vessel is a Duke Class Type 23 frigate, its name taken from the Duke of St Albans, rather than the city.
  • The first meeting of the Campaign for Real Ale was held in St Albans on 20 November 1972, at the Farriers Arms pub which has a blue plaque commemorating the event. The organisation still has its head office in Hatfield Road. The local branch holds an annual beer festival in St Albans. In recent years this has been a four-day event starting on a Wednesday near the end of September.
  • From 1808 to 1814 St Albans hosted a station in the shutter telegraph chain which connected the Admiralty in London to its naval ships in the port of Great Yarmouth.
  • An experimental water tank was built alongside London Road, St Albans for the Vickers shipbuilding company in 1912 on a site measuring 680 feet by 100 feet. Three years later in 1915, the first private wind tunnel was also built here, but moved to their Weybridge works shortly after the First World War. From December 1918 the test tank was used in developing fuselage profiles for amphibious aircraft, such as the Vickers Type 54 Viking, completed during 1919.
  • Chiswell Green, directly south of the City, is home to the Royal National Rose Society, at the Gardens of the Rose.
  • St Albans was the name of a planet in the cult science-fiction television series Firefly.
  • In September 2007, St Albans replaced Mayfair as the most expensive square on a special UK Here and Now Edition Monopoly]] board, having won an internet vote.
  • The National Pharmacy Association the trade association for all of the UK's community pharmacies, is based in St Peter's Street, St Albans.
  • Butterfly World in nearby Chiswell Green was completed in 2011 and aims to be the biggest butterfly attraction in the world.

Picture gallery

Outside links

("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about St Albans)


  1. Old English translation of Bede: Wæs he ðrowigende se eadiga Albanus ðy teoþan dæge Kalendarum Iuliarum neah ðære ceastre ðe Romane heton Uerolamium, seo nu fram Angelðeode Werlameceaster oþþe Wætlingaceaster
  2. Text collected in "Shrine" by O Cockayne:Neah ðære ceastre ðe Bryttwalas nemdon Uerolamium and Ængla þeod nemnaþ nu Wætlingaceaster
  3. History of Verulam and St. Alban's S. G. Shaw, 1815 pages 64-66. Accessed April 2011
  4. "The Maltings Arts Theatre, St Albans". Retrieved 2010-07-17. 
  5. "Abbey Theatre, Trestle Arts Base, St Albans". Retrieved 2010-07-17. 
  6. "St Albans Bach Choir". St Albans Bach Choir. 2010-07-10. Retrieved 2010-07-17. 
  7. "St Albans Symphony Orchestra". 2010-07-11. Retrieved 2010-07-17. 
  8. Concerts Posted on April 25th, 2010 by admin (2010-04-25). "St Albans Chamber Choir". St Albans Chamber Choir. Retrieved 2010-07-17. 
  9. "St Albans Chamber Opera". Retrieved 2010-07-17. 
  10. "The Company of Ten, St Albans". Retrieved 2010-07-17. 
  11. "St Albans Choral Society". Retrieved 2010-07-17. 
  12. "St Albans Organ Theatre". St Albans Organ Theatre. Retrieved 2010-07-17. 
  13. "St Albans Arts". STARTS. Retrieved 2010-07-17. 
  14. "Best Theatre Arts". Best Theatre Arts. Retrieved 2010-07-17. 
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