History of St Albans

St Albans is in southern Hertfordshire, England, around 22 miles (35.5km) north of London, beside the site of a Catuvellauni settlement and the Roman town of Verulamium. St Albans is Hertfordshire's oldest town, a modern city shaped by over 2000 years of continuous human occupation.

Pre-Roman times

The town is first recorded as Verlamion, a Celtic Iron Age settlement whose name means 'the settlement above the marsh'. After the Roman conquest of Britain in AD 43, it developed as Verulamium and became one of the largest towns in Roman Britain. Built mainly of wood, it was destroyed during the revolt of Boudica in AD 60-61, but was rebuilt and grew to feature many impressive town houses and public buildings. It was encircled by gated walls in AD 275.

The Romans leave

The fine Roman City of Verulamium slowly declined and fell into decay after the departure of the Roman Army in AD 410. However, its ruinous buildings provided building materials to build the new monastic and market settlement of St Albans which was growing on the hill above, close to the site of Saint Alban's execution. Indeed, in the Norman abbey tower, you can still see the Roman bricks removed from nearby Verulamium.

Much of the post-Roman development of St Albans was in memorial to Saint Alban, the earliest known British Christian martyr, executed in circa AD 250 (the exact date is a matter of some controversy, with scholars suggesting dates of 209, 254 and 304). The town itself was known for some time by the Saxon name Verlamchester. A shrine was erected on the site of his death following Emperor Constantine's adoption of Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire. In the 5th century a Benedictine monastic church was constructed.

The Abbey is founded

Another abbey was founded by King Offa of Mercia in 793. The settlement grew up around the precincts of another Benedictine monastery, founded in AD 900-950 by Abbot Ulsinus (also known as Wulsin). According to Matthew Paris, the 13th century chronicler of St Albans Abbey, Abbot Ulsinus (Wulsin) founded three churches in 948, reputedly to tend to the physical and spiritual needs of the growing number of pilgrims to Alban's shrine: St Peter's, St Stephen's and St Michael's. Each church was equidistant from the Abbey and on one of the main approaches to the town.

Also in 948, Abbot Ulsinus (Wulsin) founded St Albans School, an education establishment to this day.

Around 500 people lived in the town in 1086 (at the time of the Domesday Book).

The building of the Norman Abbey Church (now the Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Alban) was started in 1077 by Paul de Caen, the 14th Abbot and completed in 1089. It was 350 feet long with a tower and seven apses.

The head of the abbey was confirmed as the premier abbot in England in 1154. The abbey was extended by John de Cella (also known as John of Wallingford) in the 1190s, and again between 1257 and 1320 but financial constraints limited the effectiveness of these later additions. A convent was founded nearby in 1140.

In August 1213 the first draft of the Magna Carta was drawn up in St Albans Abbey.

In 1290 the funeral procession of Eleanor of Castile stopped overnight in the town and an Eleanor cross was erected 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 market was running outside the abbey from the 10th Century, it was confirmed by King John in 1202 and by a Royal Charter of Edward VI in 1553.


Abbey Gateway from the 1360s
Abbey Gateway from the 1360s

During the 14th century the Abbey came into increasing conflict with the townsfolk of St Albans, who demanded rights of their own. This led, among other things, to the construction of a large wall and gate surrounding the Abbey (for instance, the Great Gatehouse, the "Abbey Gateway", which is the only surviving monastic building other than the Abbey Church, dates from 1365).

St Albans played a role in the Peasants' Revolt of 1381: the peasants, led by a local man William Grindcobbe and Jack Straw, forced their way into the Abbey and demanded a charter for the freedom of St Albans from the Abbot ('Charter of freedom of the villeins of St Alban's forcibly obtained from the Abbot and Convent', 16 June 1381 ). However, this was short-lived. Once the 14 year old King Richard II had regained control of the capital and then the whole country, Grindcobbe was tried in the Moot Hall (on the site of the present day Town Hall) and adjudged a 'traitor' alongside John Ball ('the mad priest of Kent', one of the rebel leaders who had escaped from Smithfield to Coventry) and more than a dozen others. He was hung, drawn and quartered in July 1381.

Another notable building dating from around this time, the Clockhouse belfy or 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.

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.

Following the Reformation, the Abbey was dissolved in 1539 and the Abbey Church sold to the town in 1553 for £400: it became a protestant parish church for the borough and the Lady Chapel was used as a school. The great gateway was used as a prison until the 19th century. In May 1553, in response to a public petition, the first royal charter for the town was issued by King Edward VI, granting it the status of borough. The charter defined the powers of the mayor and councillors, then known as burgesses, as well as specifying the Wednesday and Saturday market days which continue to this day.

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

An early transport hub

Three main roads date from the medieval period - Holywell Hill, St Peter's Street, and Fishpool Street. These remained the only major streets until around 1800 when London Road was constructed, to be followed by Hatfield Road in 1824 and Verulam Road in 1826.

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. The large number of coaching inns is, in turn, one reason why the City has so many pubs today (another being that it was, and remains, a major centre for Christian pilgrimage).

The railway arrived in 1868, off-setting the decline in coaching since the 1840s.

Growth was always slow and steady, with no sudden burst: in 1801 there were 6,000 people living in St Albans, in 1850 11,000, in 1931 29,000, and in 1950 44,000.

The City Charter

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. Lord Grimthorpe financed a £130,000 renovation and rebuilding of the then dilapidated cathedral, which is most apparent in his generally poorly regarded Neo-Gothic-style rebuild of the west front (1880-1883). However, without Grimthorpe's money, it seems reasonable to assume that the Abbey Church would now almost certainly be a ruin, like many other former monastic churches, despite the work performed under Sir George Gilbert Scott in the years 1860 to 1877.

The football club was founded in 1880.

Ralph Chubb, the poet and printer, lived on College Street in St Albans from 1892 to 1913, and attended the Abbey School (the local name for 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.

Modern growth

Between the wars

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, while Hatfield became home to de Havilland (later Hawker-Siddeley). St Albans itself became a centre for the Marconi 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.

Post-war growth

The City was expanded significantly after World War II, as government policy promoted the creation of New Towns and the expansion of existing towns. Substantial amounts of local authority housing were built 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 pre-war programme.

In 1974 St Albans City Council, St Albans Rural District Council and Harpenden Town Council were merged to form St Albans District Council (part of a much wider local government reorganisation).

The 2001 census returns show a population of 129,000 for St Albans City and District.

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