St Albans abbey: History

A History of the County of Hertford: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1908.

This free content was digitised by double rekeying. All rights reserved.


, 'St Albans abbey: History', in A History of the County of Hertford: Volume 2, (London, 1908) pp. 483-488. British History Online [accessed 24 May 2024].

. "St Albans abbey: History", in A History of the County of Hertford: Volume 2, (London, 1908) 483-488. British History Online, accessed May 24, 2024,

. "St Albans abbey: History", A History of the County of Hertford: Volume 2, (London, 1908). 483-488. British History Online. Web. 24 May 2024,


Materials for a history of the buildings of the abbey are plentiful from the time of the general rebuilding undertaken by the first Norman abbot, Paul of Caen. The most important sources of information are the Gesta Abbatum compiled by Thomas Walsingham, and incorporating the work of Matthew Paris; the Annales of John Amundesham; and the Book of Benefactors. (fn. 1) Of these the first two, printed in the Rolls Series, contain respectively the history of the abbey from 793 to 1411, and from 1421 to 1440, and the third, not as yet printed, was compiled about 1380 by Thomas Walsingham, and is continued in various hands down to the time of Abbot Ramryge 1490–1521. The last date entered is 1512. Other details are to be found in the registers of Abbots John of Wheathampstead, William Albon, and William Wallingford, and in the Chronica Majora of Matthew Paris, all printed in the Rolls Series, and in the Vitae xxiii Abbatum Sti. Albani, written by Matthew Paris and printed by Wats in 1683. The history of the abbey may be said to begin with the foundation of a monastery in 793 by Offa, King of Mercia, but that the martyrdom of St. Alban (under the edict of Diocletian, issued in 303) was before this time commemorated by the building of a church, we have the evidence of Bede, (fn. 2) who ends his account of the martyrdom thus:—

'The blessed Alban suffered on the tenth day before the kalends of July (i.e., 22 June), near the city of Verolamium, which now is called Verlamacaester or Vaeclingacaester by the English, where afterwards when the peace of Christian times returned, a church was built, of admirable workmanship and worthy of his martyrdom. In which place the healing of the sick and the working of many miracles cease not to this day.'

Matthew Paris (fn. 3) tells us that this church was destroyed by the pagan Saxons and not rebuilt, though the site was still held in honour as the burialplace of the martyr. The actual position of the tomb had been lost, but was miraculously revealed to Offa, who discovered the saint's body with other relics of apostles and martyrs brought there by St. German, (fn. 4) in a wooden chest in which they had been buried at the time of the Saxon invasion. They were removed for the time to a little church outside the walls of Verulam, till the church of the intended monastery could be built.

This little church had been built by St. Alban's converts on the site of his martyrdom, and being very small was not thought worth destroying by the pagans. It seems to have been preserved by Offa, when he was setting out the buildings of his new foundation, (fn. 5) but how long it survived we do not know, though its existence may be implied by the mention of the major ecclesia under Abbot Wulnoth. It is a tempting theory that it was dedicated in honour of St. Andrew, who was certainly the patron saint of the parish in which the abbey was situated. (fn. 6)

Offa's foundation, made on the occasion of the 'invention 'of the body of St. Alban on the day of St. Peter ad Vincula (1 August) 793, was for Benedictine monks, and the first abbot, Willegod, was consecrated in that year. A church and monastic buildings of some kind were built at this time, (fn. 7) though no details are given. (fn. 8) Wulsig, third abbot, set up a house of nuns, 'in domo nimis vicina ecclesiae,' and his successor Wulnoth removed them to the Almonry, ordering them to attend mattins and the daily hours 'in the greater church.'

In Wulnoth's time the abbey was attacked and plundered by the Danes, who carried off the bones of St. Alban to Denmark, to the abbey of 'Owense,' (fn. 9) whence they were recovered by Egwyn the sacrist, who went to Denmark and became a monk at 'Owense,' and being in course of time chosen sacrist and keeper of the shrine where the saint's bones were kept, found means to abstract them and send them to England.

Nothing is recorded about the monastic buildings in the time of Eadfrith, fifth abbot, or Wulsin, sixth abbot, but in the time of the former the chapel of St. German, in the marshy ground by the river, was built, and in Wulsin's time the three churches in the town of St. Albans—St. Stephen's, St. Michael's, and St. Peter's. Wulsin probably died about 968; of his successor Ælfric nothing in the way of building is recorded.

A rebuilding of the monastic church was intended by Ealdred, eighth abbot, and to that end he dug over parts of the site of Verulamium, to get materials for the work, storing up all the stone and perfect bricks that were found in the excavations. Eadmar, ninth abbot, carried on this work, evidently doing a vast deal of damage to the ruins in the process, and a very curious and interesting account (fn. 10) of the antiquities found in the course of the work is given by the chronicler. Leofric, tenth abbot, gave away during a time of famine much of the store of valuables and building materials which had been collected by his predecessors. The abbacy of Ælfric, eleventh abbot, is chiefly distinguished by one of the discreditable monastic squabbles over relics with which the middle ages abounded. On an alarm of a Danish invasion, the abbot hid the shrine of St. Alban, with its contents, in a safe and secret place beneath the altar of St. Nicholas, but took the precaution of sending a spurious set of relics to Ely for safe keeping, giving out that they were really the bones of St. Alban. The expected invasion did not take place, and a deputation was sent to Ely to bring the supposed relics back to St. Albans. The monks of Ely at first refused to return them, but finally agreed to do so and sent back the shrine, fraudulently substituting another set of bones for the already fraudulent relics which they had received. Policy dictated that, for the moment, these doubly spurious treasures should be accepted as genuine at St. Albans, but afterwards the production of the real shrine from under the altar of St. Nicholas settled the matter satisfactorily from the point of view of the rightful owners, and the genuine relics were publicly set up 'in the midst of the church.'

The time of Leofstan, twelfth abbot, was one of prosperity for the abbey, but there does not seem to have been any attempt to carry out the long-projected rebuilding of the church. Frederic, thirteenth abbot, 1066–77, was too fully occupied with the troubled times which followed the Conquest to find leisure for improving the buildings of his monastery, and it was left to his successor, Paul of Caen, the first Norman abbot (1077–93), to carry out at length the longdeferred work. (fn. 11) He rebuilt the church and all the other buildings except the bake-house and the buttery (pinsinochium), with the stones and tiles of the old city of Verulam and the timber which he found collected and stored up by his predecessors. All the church and many other buildings, in brickwork, were finished by 1088, (fn. 12) both Lanfranc and afterwards Anselm giving substantial help to the work. It is to be inferred that a clean sweep was made of the old buildings, and no evidence as to their site has been preserved. The Norman abbot's contempt for his Saxon predecessors, whom he called (fn. 13) rudes et idiotas, led him to destroy their tombs, and he doubtless laid out his new buildings without attempting to accommodate them in any way to those previously existing on the site. But he preserved and used up in his new church some of the stonework of the old building, giving a very prominent place to the turned shafts which still remain in the transepts, and are the most notable relics of the Saxon building.

Though the fabric of the church seems to have been completed by Abbot Paul, and no reference to further work on it occurs in the time of his successor Richard d'Aubeney, 1097–1119, the consecration did not take place till 1115. (fn. 14)

The building then consecrated had an eastern arm of four bays with north and south aisles, the eastern end being apsidal for the main span, while the aisles were probably square-ended externally and apsidal internally. (fn. 15) The aisles and the principal apse (fn. 16) were vaulted, and it is possible that the main span was actually so covered, (fn. 17) as there are evidences of an intention to do so. The fact that this part of the church was in need of structural repair early in the thirteenth century, (fn. 18) and was so insecure that it had to be pulled down in 1257, (fn. 19) points in the same direction. The transepts were aisleless, but each had two apsidal chapels on the east side, those adjoining the aisles of the eastern arm being of greater projection than the other two, thus giving room for arches opening into the aisles. The chapels were probably vaulted, but the transepts had open timber roofs. The tower over the crossing still stands much as its first builders left it, save that its roof and parapets are later alterations and that it has lost the outer coat of plaster and whitewash with which it and all the rest of the church was originally covered. The nave was probably of ten bays, with north and south aisles; the form of its west end is uncertain, but it does not appear to have had either one central or two flanking towers. The work in the nave was plainer than in the eastern parts of the church. There seems to have been a north-west chapel of St. Andrew in the same relative position as that which served as the parish church till the Suppression.

In size and proportions Abbot Paul's church could compare with any building of the time, but the materials of which it was composed, Roman bricks, flints, and plaster, with a sparing use of stone, made for simplicity in design and detail. The site falls considerably from east to west, and it seems that there has never been an eastern crypt. The shrine and presbytery took up the eastern arm, and the quire probably occupied the crossing and the two eastern bays of the nave.

The ostia presbyterii, or upper entrances to the quire, were in the first bay east of the crossing, as their thirteenth-century successors still are. At the west of the quire was a screen with a rood. Records of the dedications of various altars in this church have been preserved, but with a few exceptions their sites cannot be certainly identified. The Lady altar seems to have been in the northern of the two apses of the south transept; that of St. Nicholas (fn. 20) and St. Blaise, afterwards of our Lady and St. Blaise, in the south aisle of the presbytery; and the north aisle possibly contained the altar of the Holy Innocents. A rood altar was dedicated in 1163 or 1164, and the altar of our Lady and St. Blaise in the same year. (fn. 21)

No structural alterations (fn. 22) were made in the church during the twelfth century until in its last years Abbot John de Cella, 1195–1214, began to build a new west front. This work had been in contemplation for some time, and Abbot Warin, 1183–1195, left 100 marks 'for renewing the front of the church.' (fn. 23)

Abbot John was unfortunately not a man of affairs, and entrusted the work to Master Hugh, of Goldclif, 'an untrustworthy and deceitful man, but a consummate craftsman.' (fn. 24) The digging for and putting in the new foundations used up Abbot Warin's 100 marks and much more beside, and the walls had not reached the ground level before all the funds provided for the work were exhausted. But nevertheless Master Hugh by his 'treacherous advice' led the abbot into further expenses on unnecessary, trifling and excessively costly carvings, till at last the abbot became tired of the work and alarmed at its cost, and building was suspended, before the half of the work had risen as high as the tabulatus domitialis. (fn. 25) The unfinished building was left exposed to the weather, and the winter frosts soon reduced it to a heap of ruins; the workmen in despair abandoned the work and went away unpaid. This seems to have been in the winter of 1197–8.

A fresh start was however made in 1198, under a new master of the works, brother Gilbert of Eversolt, evidently a member of the community, and new revenues were assigned for the expenses of building. But the work was unlucky; it swallowed up the revenues as the sea the rivers, and made no progress. (fn. 26)

Gilbert of Eversolt died, and the care of the 'dead and languishing' work fell on brother Gilbert of Sisseverne. It was in his charge for thirty years, and in all that time hardly grew two feet in height; (fn. 27) Abbot John paid little attention to it, and employed himself with better success in the rebuilding of the dorter and frater. The west front was at length finished by Abbot William of Trumpington, 1214–35, a wooden roof being put on and covered with lead, the windows glazed, and the whole work completed in a short space of time. The design was simplified and curtailed, the abbot's anxiety being clearly to get it finished, so that he might devote all his time to the works going on elsewhere in the church, under the direction of Matthew of Cambridge, and the famous Master Walter of Colchester. (fn. 28)

De Cella's original scheme included the lengthening of the nave by three bays, and the building of a west front with three projecting vaulted porches, flanked by towers 40 ft. square. The chapel of St. Andrew, at the north-west of the old nave, was lengthened westward in the course of the work.

The only parts of the design which were entirely abandoned were the two towers; but what remains of the rest of the work shows evidence of simplification in several respects, which will be noted below.

The time of William of Trumpington was marked by many minor alterations in the church, as the substitution of new windows with ashlar masonry for Paul of Caen's brick windows in the 'spacious wall above the place where the great ordinal lies, where the minuti (those who had been blooded) are accustomed to sing matins and the hours,' (fn. 29) and also in the north and south alae of the church. (fn. 30)

The most important work, however, was the fitting up of the altar of our Lady and St. Blaise in the south aisle of the presbytery for the newly introduced Lady mass ad notam. (fn. 31) This entailed the repair of the surrounding walls which had been damaged by some fall of masonry not clearly specified, and the insertion of two wide windows near the newly fitted altar, which, when complete, was hallowed in honour of our Lady by John bishop of Ardfert. The old Lady altar in the south transept became of secondary importance by this change, as will be seen later on, but it received at this time an endowment for two candles in addition to the two it already possessed from the time of Adam the Cellarer (temp. Abbot Symon, 1167–83), and for this reason eventually became known as 'the altar of the Four Tapers.' No other masonry work in the church is recorded in the time of this abbot, unless the work 'round the high altar' (fn. 32) was in any part of that nature, but he repaired with new oak the decayed roof-beams of both alae of the church which let in the rain. The old roof of the great tower was in his time taken down and replaced, under the supervision of Richard of Tyttenhanger, by a tall octagonal leaded spire, whose outline, however, did not satisfy the abbot, and after Richard's death he stripped the lead from it and improved it by adding rolls at the angles and broaches at the base, the sturdier proportions thus obtained agreeing better with the massive tower from which it sprang. (fn. 33)

The pulpitum (fn. 34) west of the quire was at this time set up by Walter of Colchester, with a new rood altar, and a new Rood with our Lady and St. John. When it was finished the shrine of St. Amphibal was brought from the north aisle of the presbytery, where it had stood since its first setting up, about 1180, and placed over the new rood altar.

A beautiful image (fn. 35) of our Lady in the south transept, set up by Abbot Robert 1151–66, was now replaced by a still more beautiful work by Walter of Colchester. The old image was moved to the new Lady altar in the south aisle of the presbytery, but was, as it seems, very soon moved once more, this time to the north side of the church, in company with the old Rood—perhaps dating from the consecration of the rood altar in 1163–4—which had been taken down at the building of the pulpitum. A new altar beam, carved with the story of St. Alban, was set up over the high altar, which was at this time further adorned with some beautiful work set round it, which is not otherwise described, but probably consisted of a low screen or reredos and perhaps sedilia on the south side. The old altar beam made by Adam the Cellarer was removed and set up over the new image of our Lady in the south transept, and at the same time the roof above the image was ceiled or panelled to hide the old blackened beams of the roof. As the transept chapels were almost certainly vaulted this roof must be that of the south transept, a conclusion which agrees with the other evidence as to the position of the image.

The finishing touch to the adornment of the church was the white-washing of the walls.

During the time of John of Hertford, 1235–60, there is no record in the Gesta Abbatum of any work in the church beyond the finishing of a small structure of stone to the south of the high altar; perhaps the completion of the work undertaken in this part of the church by the preceding abbot, and the collection from the cemetery of the bones of the monks who had been dead 180 years, i.e. before the time of Paul of Caen, and the storing of them in a charnel, described as an arch on the outside of the wall. (fn. 36)

But from other sources (fn. 37) we know that in 1257 the dangerous condition of the east end of the church made it necessary to pull down the whole of the two eastern bays to avoid a catastrophe. This being done, an eastward extension of the church was planned, consisting of a Lady chapel with a vestibule, (fn. 38) the latter continuing the lines of the aisles of the presbytery eastward. The presbytery was completely remodelled, though parts of the old walls were left standing in the western bays, doubtless because it was felt to be a dangerous thing to remove the whole of the abutment of the tower on the east. That the work undertaken at this time was one of necessity, and not premeditated, is clear from the evidence of the architecture. In a normal instance the eastern part of the work, the Lady chapel and its vestibule, would have been first undertaken, and the process of rebuilding would gradually have been carried westwards. But here the presbytery itself was first begun, and then the vestibule, the Lady chapel remaining unfinished for more than fifty years from the beginning of the work. The cost must have been great, and though, curiously enough, there is no account of the progress of the work in the Gesta Abbatum, it is clear that it had to be altered and stopped for want of money, probably more than once. A stone vault was designed for the presbytery, and the springers of the vault and the abutments of flying buttresses were built; but the idea was abandoned, and a wooden vault substituted. The flying buttresses being no longer necessary were never completed, and their abutments remain in the clearstory walls in witness of the original intention.

The details of the work show that the presbytery and the greater part of the vestibule were finished before the end of the thirteenth century, and Abbot John de Maryns, 1302–8, 'moved and adorned 'the tomb and shrine of St. Alban, (fn. 39) which goes to show that this part of the church was now complete and being fitted up. (fn. 40) The broken structure now in the feretory is the tumba made at this time as a pedestal for the shrine. After long delays and a constant struggle for the necessary funds, the Lady chapel was at last finished by Abbot Hugh of Eversdon, 1308–26. Here also as in the presbytery, a wooden vault rested on the stone springers, (fn. 41) probably witnessing to the abandonment of a more costly design for a stone vault. The last part of the work was the roofing of the middle span of the vestibule. The original intention had been to subdivide it by two rows of pillars into three aisles, the whole to be vaulted in stone, but the lack of funds led to the omission of the two rows of pillars and the vaulting (the sleeper walls for the pillars still exist below the floor level), and in the end Abbot Hugh put a flat panelled wooden ceiling over the whole space, painting it with the Assumption of our Lady, the springers of the abandoned vaulting being roughly cut back to their present condition.

For a while the abbey's affairs were more prosperous as far as concerns the fabric fund, for Abbot Hugh being in favour at Court obtained from King Edward II 100 marks and the timber for making a new set of quire fittings, the work being entrusted to a skilful craftsman, Master Geoffrey. And some work on the east side of the south transept was also in progress about this time. But in 1323 another calamity occurred. (fn. 42) On the cay of St. Paulinus, after the celebration of the Lady mass, while a great multitude of men and women were in the church, two great pillars on the south side of the nave fell to the ground one after the other through the failure of their foundations, and shortly afterwards that part of the nave roof which had rested on them, with the south aisle wall and nearly all the adjacent part of the cloister, fell down also. A beam fell on the shrine of St. Amphibal, at this time at the rood altar, and broke the marble shafts of its pedestal, but did not in any way injure the wooden shrine, or a monk who had just finished celebrating mass at the altar. Nor was anyone in the church hurt, and a few days afterwards a man who was knocking down pieces of the shattered masonry from the top of the walls, dislodged the piece on which he was standing, and fell with it to the ground, but got off with nothing worse than a broken thigh.

The work of repair was begun at once, and a great part of it finished before the death of the abbot in 1326, Master Henry Wy being the magister operum. The arcade was first undertaken. Richard of Wallingford, 1326–35, was more interested in the great clock, which he made and set up in the church, than in the repair of the nave, and the work was not carried on with any vigour. This was naturally a ground for complaint, and even Edward III thought well to call the abbot's attention to the matter, who answered 'with due respect' that there would in the future be plenty of his successors who could see to the repair of the church, but that none would be able to complete his clock, if it were left unfinished at his death. (fn. 43) He did, however, lay the foundation stone of the new cloister, and began to build the south wall of the nave, starting from the abbot's camera at the west.

Michael of Mentmore, 1335–49, acquired part of the quarries of 'Eglemunt,' whence to obtain stone for his buildings whenever it was needed. He finished and roofed the repaired part of the nave, which had taken twenty years to complete, and built the walls of the north walk of the cloister, 'from the Abbot's door to the church door,' to their full height, but did not carry out the vaulting. He vaulted the rebuilt south aisle of the nave, and set up three altars against three pillars of the new south arcade, those of our Lady, of St. Thomas of Canterbury and St. Oswin, and of St. Benedict and other doctors of the church. At the same time apparently two new altars, whose dedications are not mentioned, were set up on the north side of the church under the roodloft, 'sub solario crucifixi.' The work carried out between 1323 and 1343 affected five bays on the south side of the nave, namely the fourth from the east to the eighth. The piers which fell in 1323 were probably the fourth and fifth, as one of the roof-beams fell on the shrine of St. Amphibal at the rood altar. Whether Walter of Colchester's work was still standing at the time, or had been taken down during the refitting of the quire in 1315, is not clear; at any rate it is probable that the present stone rood-screen has some connexion with the events of this time, though it is probably twenty years later than the date of the completion of the repairs in the nave. It is a possible inference that it was contemplated at the time of the abbot's death in 1349, and that the effects of the Black Death caused the work to be abandoned temporarily.

Thomas de la Mare, 1349–96, did little of importance to the church. The great clock, left unfinished after all by Richard of Wallingford, was completed in his time, and the shrine of St. Amphibal, which had been moved from the rood altar after the catastrophe of 1323, and placed in loco nimis abjecto behind (fn. 44) St. Hugh's altar, was set up in the middle of the vestibule of the Lady chapel on a tumba of stone by Ralph Whitchurch, sacrist. The west part of the church was paved; it seems that before this time there was no pavement, and the Book of Benefactors says it was turpis nimis et foeda. (fn. 45) Building was at this time going on in the vestry and chapel of St. Stephen, on the east side of the south transept, (fn. 46) and the upper treasury, which probably adjoined the vestry on the north, was being vaulted with stone.

No work in the church is recorded of either of the next two abbots, John de la Moote, 1396–1401, and William Heyworth, 1401–20, but from a note in the Book of Benefactors it seems that the wooden gallery, 'nova camera feretrarii juxta majus altare,' was set up in the early years of the latter abbot. (fn. 47)

John of Wheathampstead, during his first abbacy, 1420–40, built a small chapel, consecrated in 1430, as a tomb chapel for himself, opening from the south aisle of the presbytery abreast of the feretory of St. Alban. (fn. 48)

Other works belonging to the time of Wheathampstead's first abbacy included a wooden structure at the west end of the quire for the reading of lessons, which cost £43; from another source it is known that the new organ given at this time was set up on it; the work was therefore an addition to, or a rebuilding of, the pulpitum. (fn. 49) A window also was inserted at the west end of the church, (fn. 50) and the wording of the record implies that it was a ready-made window worked in the north country—in partibus Boree. The vestry at the south-east angle of the Lady chapel belongs to this time, the altar of the Transfiguration in it having been consecrated in 1430, and the two apsidal chapels of the north transept may have been removed about this date.

Of John Stoke, 1440—51, nothing is recorded except that he made the stone canopy set up over the duke of Gloucester's grave on the south side of the feretory. (fn. 51)

In 1451 John of Wheathampstead was elected abbot for the second time, and held office till his death in 1465. The most important work recorded during this time is the rebuilding of the chapel of St. Andrew in 1454, a work which, from the evidence of local wills, had long been contemplated. This chapel, originally built by Paul of Caen, and enlarged by John de Cella and William of Trumpington, served as the church of the parish of St. Andrew, and the parishioners had also certain rights of access to the nave and north transept of the monastic church. In the register of John of Wheathampstead it is said that the abbot pulled down 'vilem veterem et vetustam capellam' of St. Andrew, (fn. 52) and caused a new one to be built of adequate size, and more pleasing to God and all men. This new chapel, which was finished about 1458, was on the site of its predecessor, adjoining the north-west part of the north aisle of the monastic church, which it overlapped for six bays. It was eventually pulled down in 1553, when the abbey church became the property of the parish. William Albon, 1465–75, seems to have done nothing of importance to the church, but to his successor William Wallingford, 1476–84(?) is due the great stone screen behind the high altar, which completely shut off St. Alban's shrine from the presbytery. He also inserted the large windows in the fronts (fn. 53) of the north and south transepts, which were destroyed in 1888, and though there is no record of the work, it is probable that in his time the west front of the church was brought to the condition in which it till lately remained. He built for himself a tomb chapel on the south side of the church next to the high altar, at a cost of £100; the chapel which still occupies this position is now, and has been for nearly 300 years, known as that of John of Wheathampstead, but the documentary evidence is all in favour of its attribution to Wallingford. All these works are recorded to have been finished by 1484.

From this time onward to the Dissolution the records contain nothing in regard to any structural alterations to the church, and it is clear from the building itself that no important changes were made. The chantry chapel of Abbot Thomas Ramryge, 1492–1520 (?), on the north side of the presbytery next the high altar, is the only work of any size which remains to us of this date.

Cardinal Wolsey held the abbey in commendam from 1521 to 1530, but there is no evidence that he ever came to St. Albans, and his successor, Robert Catton, was deprived in 1538 to make room for Richard Boreman, a royal nominee appointed for the express purpose of surrendering the abbey. It is unlikely that any of these three would have added to the buildings, and their years of office have left no architectural record. After the Suppression, the monastic buildings, excepting the Lady chapel and the Great Court, were granted, in 1550, to Sir Richard Lee. The abbey church was retained by the Crown till 1553, when it was sold to the mayor and burgesses of St. Albans, to be their parish church instead of St. Andrews, which was then pulled down; and the Lady chapel was at the same date cut off to be used as a grammar school.

The maintenance of the great church must at all times have been a heavy charge on the parish funds, and it is not to be wondered at that when, in the last century, repairs were undertaken on a large scale, it was found that the building was in a very unsafe state. It has emerged from the ordeal with the loss of many of its ancient features, but is at least structurally sound. (fn. 54) As it stands to-day, its great length, and the warm tone of its ancient brickwork, suffice to make it a striking and picturesque building; but not even time can ever make the new fronts of the transepts tolerable. The central tower, with parts of the north transept and the eastern bays of the nave, are the only parts of the building which preserve an ancient exterior, and have undoubtedly gained by the loss of their original coating of plaster and whitewash. The west wall of the north transept is the most characteristic piece of early masonry, with courses of Roman brick alternating, though irregularly, with lines of large undressed flints, while the more careful work of the central tower is entirely faced with brickwork, the only other material employed being the Barnack stone of the shafts and capitals. The walling of the clearstory of the presbytery retains its thirteenth-century surface of reused Roman brick, with a band of later and more deeply-coloured brickwork above it, but hardly any other part of the exterior has any claim to antiquity. Roofs, gables, buttresses, pinnacles, windows, all are alike new, and it will be long before the cathedral church regains that look of reverend antiquity which was one of the chief charms of the abbey church a generation ago.

The main dimensions of the building are as follows:—Extreme length, east to west, 550 ft.; extreme width across the transepts, 192 ft. Internal dimensions: Lady chapel, 56 ft. by 23 ft.; vestibule, 44 ft. 2 in. by 77 ft.; presbytery with feretory, 92 ft. 4 in. east to west; tower, 32 ft. 2 in. east to west, by 30 ft. 10 in. north to south; north transept, 65 ft. 4 in. north to south, south transept 65 ft., the span from east to west being approximately that of the tower, though the north transept is a few inches wider at its north end; nave, 275 ft. 6 in. long, 77 ft. 9 in. wide at the west, 75 ft. at the east.


  • 1. Cott. MS. Nero. D. vii.
  • 2. Hist. Eccl. (ed. Plummer), vol. i, cap. 7.
  • 3. Vita Offae Secundi (ed. Wats), 983.
  • 4. See the account of the monastery in the section on Religious Houses.
  • 5. Vita Offae Secundi, 986.
  • 6. The existence of more than one church is a feature common to many of the early monastic houses in England, and what evidence remains goes to show that they were generally built in a line on the same axis, east and west.
  • 7. Gesta Abbat. (Rolls Ser.) i, 4, 19.
  • 8. The chapter-house is first mentioned under Abbot Wulnoth.
  • 9. Odensee. There was a Benedictine house here, refounded in the time of William Rufus, a colony of twelve monks being sent thither from Evesham. Whether the story of the relics of St. Alban be true or no, there are evidences of a connexion with the saint in the fact that the market place and a church in Odensee bear his name.
  • 10. Gesta Abbat. (Rolls Ser.) i, 24.
  • 11. Gesta Abbat. (Rolls Ser. i, 52.
  • 12. Ibid. 53.
  • 13. Ibid. 62.
  • 14. Ibid. 71.
  • 15. See p. 490 for such evidence as exists.
  • 16. Gesta Abbat. (Rolls Ser.), i, 60.
  • 17. The account of the striking of the church by lightning about 1235 (Gesta Abbat. [Rolls Ser.], i, 299) may give a little evidence on this point. The lightning struck the upper roof of the church above (ultra) the Treasury, i.e. the presbytery roof, and perforating the lead set the beams on fire. But it happened that a barrel of water, set to catch the drippings from a leak in the roof, was standing near, and so the fire was put out. There must have been some sort of ceiling for the barrel to stand on, which may of course have been of wood, but a masonry vault would better suit the context.
  • 18. Gesta Abbat. (Rolls Ser.), i, 285.
  • 19. Matt. Paris, Chron. Maj. (Rolls Ser.), v, 608; Cal. Papal Letters i, 343.
  • 20. This altar seems to be otherwise known as that of St. Alexius.
  • 21. Matt. Paris, Vitae xxiii Abbat. Sti. Albani (ed. Wats), 1026.
  • 22. Robert of Gorham, whilst sacrist, i.e. before 1146, covered the greater part of the church with lead, and white-washed it within and without. The original roof covering may have been of shingles.
  • 23. Gesta Abbat. (Rolls Ser.), i, 215.
  • 24. Ibid. 218.
  • 25. The meaning is not clear.
  • 26. Gesta Abbat. (Rolls Ser.), i, 219.
  • 27. This is doubtless an exaggeration, because it is clear that a great deal had been done before the work was finally taken in hand by Abbot William. The alternative meaning 'two feet a year,' though nearer the mark, would err in the other direction.
  • 28. For the question of the position of the west wall of Abbot Paul's church see a paper by W. Page, F.S.A. in Arch, lvi, 21, where the evidence as yet obtainable is set forth. An excavation in the nave at the point shown might settle the matter.
  • 29. Gesta Abbat. (Rolls Ser.), i, 281.
  • 30. Ala is used indifferently for aisle or transept, and sometimes it is impossible to decide which is meant. Here it must mean aisles from the evidence of the building itself.
  • 31. As distinguished from the mass sine nota which had long been in use in the church.
  • 32. Gesta Abbat. (Rolls Ser.), i, 281.
  • 33. The detailed account of this alteration, given in the Gesta Abbatum, is very interesting as an attempt to describe this very technical matter in terms which may be understood by the amateur. As a protection for the new spire a Pope-blessed Agnus (a medallion of wax mixed with balsam and cream, blessed by the Pope on Easter even, and distributed on Low Sunday to be kept as a relic) was fixed to the top, but unfortunately did not fulfil its purpose, as the church was struck twice between 1235 and 1238.
  • 34. It seems to have been begun in the time of the preceding abbot, as a gift to the altar of Holy Cross and St. Amphibal, of 1208, is mentioned in Cott. MS. Jul. iii, 33. In the same MS. (fol. 13) is a mention of rent assigned to the making of St. Amphibal's shrine in 1264.
  • 35. Probably on the pier between the western arches of the transept chapels. This was certainly the position of the later image, which at some time after the completion of the eastern Lady chapel, and the removal of the altar of the 'Four Tapers' to its vestibule, was set up in a chapel on the south side of the nave, and as the Fair Mary became an object of special veneration to the townspeople. The altar beam of Adam. the Cellarer accompanied it thither.
  • 36. Gesta Abbat. (Rolls Ser.), i, 367.
  • 37. Matt. Paris, Chron. Maj. (Rolls Ser.), v, 608; Cal. Papal Letters, i, 343.
  • 38. The greatest internal length of this extension is exactly 100 ft. and its greatest width 77 ft.
  • 39. Gesta Abbat. (Rolls Ser.), ii, 107.
  • 40. It must be assumed that the middle span of the vestibule was covered with a temporary roof.
  • 41. Till destroyed by Lord Grimthorpe.
  • 42. Gesta Abbat. (Rolls Ser.), ii, 128.
  • 43. Gesta Abbat. (Rolls Ser.), ii, 281; Pat. 1 Edw. III, m. 10. A commission was appointed to inquire into the state of the abbey.
  • 44. Gesta Abbat. (Rolls Ser.), iii, 384.
  • 45. Cott. MS. Nero, D. vii, fol. 23.
  • 46. The small doorways blocking the western arches belong to the first half of the fourteenth century.
  • 47. Cott. MS. Nero, D. vii, fol. 114.
  • 48. Reg. Whethamstede (Rolls Ser.), i, 478. For the later history of this chapel see below, p. 504.
  • 49. MS. Arundel, 34, fol. 66a.
  • 50. Reg. Whethamstede (Rolls Ser.), i, 456.
  • 51. Bk. of Benefactors, Cott. MS. Nero, D. vii, fol. 35.
  • 52. Reg. Whethamstede (Rolls Ser.), i, 427.
  • 53. Ibid. i, 477.
  • 54. a The dates of the more modern repairs are 1681, 1704, 1721, 1764, 1832, 1856 (from this time till 1877 Sir Gilbert Scott was in charge of the works), and from 1877 onwards Sir E. Beckett, afterwards Lord Grimthorpe, having obtained a faculty which gave him an absolute control over the building, carried on the work in accordance with his own ideas.