St Albans abbey: The monastic buildings

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: The monastic buildings', in A History of the County of Hertford: Volume 2, (London, 1908) pp. 507-510. British History Online [accessed 24 May 2024].

. "St Albans abbey: The monastic buildings", in A History of the County of Hertford: Volume 2, (London, 1908) 507-510. British History Online, accessed May 24, 2024,

. "St Albans abbey: The monastic buildings", A History of the County of Hertford: Volume 2, (London, 1908). 507-510. British History Online. Web. 24 May 2024,


Of the monastic buildings other than the church hardly anything remains, and there is so much documentary evidence about them that their destruction is all the more to be deplored. The size and general arrangement of the cloister can be laid down with fair certainty, its length from east to west being preserved by the arcading on the south wall of the nave, and the clearing of its south-west angle a few years since has fixed its other dimension. The first cloister on this site, (fn. 1) that built by Paul of Caen, seems to have continued in use till part of its north walk was destroyed by the fall of the nave in 1323. (fn. 2) The new work whose mutilated remains still exist against the south wall of the church was begun by Richard of Wallingford, 1326–35, but carried on very slowly, and in 1343 was complete to the top of the walls, but not vaulted. Its design may be recovered from what is still left, and shows a marked retention of geometrical forms in the tracery, a curious commentary on the early introduction of flowing lines in the Lady chapel. From a later entry (fn. 3) it appears that Michael of Mentmore, 1335–49, built in part two sides of the cloister, the vaults of which were only added by William Heyworth after 1401. (fn. 4) Thomas de la Mare, 1349–96, glazed two sides of the cloister, presumably those begun by Michael, and built a new lavatory in the cloister, no doubt on the south side. John de la Moote, while prior (before 1396), built two sides of the cloister, with studies and a library, and a library over the vault of the cloister. (fn. 5) These were apparently the east and the south sides, completing the rebuilding, as far as the main walls were concerned. In the time of his abbacy, 1396–1401, he is said to have worked on the south walk, 'on the frater side next the wall of the studies,' making a rain-water tank there, and the final completion of the masonry work seems to have been reached under William Heyworth, 1401–20. (fn. 6) John Stoke, 1440–51, glazed some of the windows, (fn. 7) and John of Wheathampstead, in his second abbacy (1452–64), did the same.

The buildings on the east side of the cloister were (1) the passage to the monks' cemetery called the slype, (2) the chapter-house, (3) the dorter, with rooms beneath, divided from the chapter-house by the inner parlour. Of these the first was rebuilt by Robert of Gorham, and remained till lately in a fair condition. It was covered with a barrel vault, and on its side walls were arcades of intersecting arches ornamented with a banded roll, the capitals being carved with a variety of finely cut foliage and figures. (fn. 8) The chapter-house, first built by Paul of Caen, was rebuilt by Robert of Gorham, and parts of its north wall are known to exist beneath the path running along the south side of the church. It was repaired by John of Wheathampstead in his second abbacy, being then 'aged and ruinous,' and William Wallingford continued this work, which must have nearly amounted to a rebuilding, as he spent £1,000 on it. On the south of the chapter-house was the inner parlour, also rebuilt by Robert of Gorham, (fn. 9) and called in the Gesta regale locutorium, an epithet which is possibly a mistake for regulare. The first dorter, built by Paul, was rebuilt with the reredorter by John de Cella before 1214, and his successor William of Trumpington finished it, fitting it with oaken beds. (fn. 10) It was repaired, and the arches of its sub-vault strengthened by John de la Moote, 1396–1401, who made part of it, hitherto used as the day room for the minuti, the monks who had been bled, into a warming-house. He also built a new and sumptuous reredorter, with a room for the use of the abbot's guests at the south end of it, when the house was very full. On account of the fall of the ground, this end of the dorter range was evidently lofty, and the new room at the end of the reredorter seems to have had three stories below it. The reredorter was in line with the dorter, and not at right angles with it, as usual. On the east side of the dorter was the chapel (fn. 11) of St. Cuthbert, also known as the Hostry Chapel, originally built by Richard D'Aubeney soon after his return from the translation of St. Cuthbert at Durham in 1104, (fn. 12) and consecrated in honour of St. Cuthbert and St. John Baptist by Hugh Pudsey, bishop of Durham between 1164 and 1183. (fn. 13) William of Trumpington rebuilt it, with a high leaded roof over its stone vault, the space between the roof and vault being used as an extension of the dorter, and giving room for twelve beds. It was reconsecrated by John bishop of Ardfert in honour of St. Cuthbert, St. John Baptist, and St. Agnes. A wooden pentice was at this time built from the east end of the regular parlour, adjoining the south wall of the chapter-house, to this chapel, as a protection from the rain. This shows that the chapel was at a little distance from the chapter-house, perhaps about the middle of the east side of the dorter. It is again mentioned in the time of Michael of Mentmore, 1335–49, as adjoining the dorter, and having studies made close to it, because the place was quieter than the cloister. At the time of the Suppression it is called the 'Oystre chappell,' and had a room over it called the subprior's chamber. (fn. 14) The Hostry or guest house for which it served as a chapel was probably that for Benedictine monks, hostillaria Nigri Ordinis, (fn. 15) whose site was east of the dorter and north of the infirmary, but cannot be more precisely indicated. An accident to a monk repairing the seats of its latrine is mentioned in the time of Hugh of Eversdon. (fn. 16) The prior's lodging was close to, or may have formed part of the Hostry buildings, with a garden on the east, the prior's hall being close to the infirmary. (fn. 17) In the prior's chapel was an altar of St. Simeon, (fn. 18) which suggests that it was the same chapel of St. Simeon as that built by Abbot Simon, 1167–83, over the site of Robert Mowbray's grave not far from the chapterhouse, (fn. 19) or in other words in the west part of the monks' cemetery. The prior's camera and chapel are again mentioned as being approached by a walk or passage entered from the regular parlour, (fn. 20) and elsewhere it is said that the prior's chamber was over the dorter chapel, (fn. 21) and that a drain from it went too near to the altar of the Hostry chapel. All this, in the absence of any definite remains of these buildings, is confusing, and the mention of the dorter chapel in the same sentence as the Hostry chapel, which certainly adjoined the dorter, seems to show that there were two chapels on the east side of the dorter, both having chambers over them. A third chapel, which must have been near at hand, is that of St. Nicholas. It was built by Robert of Gorham, 1151–66, and is mentioned in connexion with the chapter-house and parlour. (fn. 22) John de la Moote, while prior, seems to have rebuilt it, (fn. 23) and under John of Wheathampstead cupboards were made under it for the use of the keeper of the minuti. (fn. 24)

The frater, which stood on the south side of the cloister, was first built by Paul of Caen, and rebuilt by John de Cella. Thomas de la Mare, 1349–96, pulled down its north wall, which formed the south side of the cloister, and rebuilt it more strongly. Robert of Gorham built the lavatory, which probably stood in the cloister on the south side, and was superseded at the rebuilding of this part of the cloister by Thomas de la Mare by a new lavatory which cost £16 13s. 4d. Excavations (fn. 25) have shown the position of the west end of the frater, the north side, towards the cloister, having two parallel walls, both rather slight, with a space of 3 ft. between them, while on the south side are traces of a thin wall running within the main wall which could only have served to carry some wooden construction, as a platform. The brickwork and mortar are said to have been like that in John de Cella's work in the foundations of the west front of the church. East and west of the frater were passages running southwards to a second quadrangle, of which the frater formed the north side, and which may be called the kitchen court. On its east side it had the reredorter, continuing the line of the dorter, with a two-story cloister walk towards the court, and having beneath it, or at its south end, a passage leading to the Hostry and prior's lodgings on the east. On the west side were the kitchen buildings, with a similar cloister walk towards the court, and on the south the oriole, attached to which seems to have been the guest house for White Monks. The walk running in front of the oriole may be that called the alura, from the monastic kitchen to the prior's camera. (fn. 26) South-west of this court was the tailory, approached by a passage at the west end of the oriole. Of this group of buildings, the oriole appears to be first mentioned in the time of Michael of Mentmore, 1335–49, who made regulations about the eating of meat there, (fn. 27) in a way which suggests that it was used as a misericorde. John de la Moote, 1396–1401, rebuilt the Oriolum Conventus, with larders and a fish store below it, and did certain work to the White Monks' guest house, in that part of it next the passage to the tailory. Of the monastic kitchen and its surrounding buildings little is said in the records, and beyond its approximate site nothing is known of it.

To the east of this court stood the infirmary, having the prior's lodgings on the north, and a garden on the east. The first infirmary hall and chapel, built by Paul of Caen, gave way to another built by Geoffrey of Gorham between 1119 and 1146, which was of the regular plan, a hall with a chapel at the east. An infirmary cloister existed at least as early as the time of William of Trumpington, 1214–35. In the time of Roger of Norton, 1260–90, a new infirmary was built, but part at any rate of the old building was left standing, and in the Book of Benefactors Geoffrey's infirmary is noticed as still in existence. In the chapel was, appropriately enough, an altar of St. Cosmas and St. Damian, and in the time of Thomas de la Mare, 1349–96, William Wynturshulle set up a Lady altar 'in the aisle of the body of the ancient infirmary of the monastery, where the sick used to lie.' (fn. 28) John of Wheathampstead during his first abbacy, 1420–40, is said to have repaired the chapel and remade the separate chambers into which the infirmary hall was by now divided, at a cost of £564, (fn. 29) but from another notice (fn. 30) the work seems to have almost amounted to a rebuilding, as in 1427 John Saham, a monk, died in the new infirmary, being said to be the second person to die there, so that it could only just have been finished at the time.

Returning to the great cloister, it is clear that the range of buildings on its west side was occupied in part by the abbot's quarters. They adjoined the church, and are first mentioned as having been built by Ralph of Gobion, 1146–51, (fn. 31) and were renewed by Roger of Norton, 1260–90. (fn. 32) The abbot's chapel appears to have formed the north-east angle of the block, being built against the wall of the south aisle of the nave, and traces of its vaulted substructures have been found, the bases of the responds being still to be seen against the wall of the church. The outer parlour, or entrance to the cloister from the great court, must have been beneath or just to the south of this chapel, and the abbot's door (ostium abbatis) is mentioned in the Book of Benefactors as being at the west end of the north walk of the cloister. It is notable that here, as at Worcester, there seems to have been no door into the church from the north-west angle of the cloisters, but there was one in the west bay of the sub-vault. Thomas de la Mare, 1349–96, built a chamber for noble guests next the existing abbot's chamber, adjoining the wall of the church, (fn. 33) and under the same abbot John de la Moote, as cellarer, rebuilt the abbot's chamber. (fn. 34) The other buildings in this part of the monastery were the offices of the abbot's house, the bakehouse, kitchen, &c., and at the south end of the range must have been the cellarer's rooms, adjoining the monastic kitchen and offices. To the west lay the great court, having an area, according to the survey taken after the Suppression, of an acre and a half, and surrounded by buildings for the reception of guests and for the officers who attended to them. On the north side stood, and still stands, the great gate built by Thomas de la Mare after the destruction of its predecessor in a great storm of wind, probably in 1363. Its site seems to have been formerly occupied by an almonry built by Richard of Wallingford, (fn. 35) 1326–35, and a new almonry was built from the foundations, perhaps on the east side of the new gate, as a wall is said to have been built to it from the aula regia. (fn. 36) This, which was primarily intended to accommodate the king on his visits, or people of royal blood, (fn. 37) seems to have stood on the east side of the great court, conveniently close to the abbot's lodging, from which it would be served. It is probably to be identified with the ampla et nobilis aula cum duplici tecto, built as a guest house by Geoffrey of Gorham, 1119–46, with a queen's chamber (thalamum reginae) adjoining it. (fn. 38) A guest hall built by John of Hertford, 1235–60, of two stories, the lower being vaulted and having fireplaces, (fn. 39) is called aula regia in the Book of Benefactors, (fn. 40) and may have been a rebuilding of Geoffrey's work. In Thomas de la Mare's time it was in bad repair and he built two buttresses against it, and took down its high-pitched roof to lessen the strain on the walls, replacing it by a leaded roof of low pitch. (fn. 41)

The west side of the great court was taken up by a long range of stabling and the south side by a two-story range, apparently of guest houses, built by John of Hertford. Through this side there must have been a way down to the water-gate and the River Ver; the tower of the water-gate (fn. 42) was standing till 1722, and is shown in a drawing by Lievens in the British Museum as a three-story building, embattled, and with diagonal angle buttresses.

The great gate-house already mentioned stood about midway in the north side of the great court, and still exists, having been used as a gaol till modern times, and since then as a grammar school. It is a fine building of three stories with a vaulted entrance in the centre and vaulted chambers on either side on the ground floor. One of these, on the west side of the gate, has a ribbed vault of early thirteenth-century detail, which is probably old work re-used. The original oak doors of the gateway are now preserved in the north aisle of the presbytery.

On the first floor there are three rooms on either side of the central gateway, containing nothing of special interest and no fireplaces. Above them on the second floor are large rooms, with a third room of slightly smaller size between them over the gateway. All three rooms have fireplaces, and the eastern room has two, one of which has over it the royal arms of Charles I. This room is supposed to be that in which the early printing press was set up c. 1480; the ceilings have deep beams resting on carved stone corbels, and modern partitions have been inserted. Above are attics in the roof, the flooring of which is said to be much decayed; they seem to have been put into their present condition in 1789, when certain French prisoners of war were kept here.

The bells, which were previously hung in the present ringing chamber, are now in the top story of the tower, and are eight in number. The treble and second were recast in 1901, and the third, fourth, seventh, and tenor are by Philip Wightman, 1699. The fifth is by Richard Phelps of Whitechapel, 1731, and has on the shoulder a small winged figure of Father Time with an hour-glass. The sixth is by Lester and Pack of Whitechapel, 1758.

In the bell-chamber is also a small uninscribed Sanctus bell of rather early shape.

There is a mechanical instrument for tune-playing and a chiming clock, both of local construction.

Many mentions of the abbey bells occur in the chronicles. Paul of Caen stocked (instauravit) the great tower with bells, though it is not known how many he caused to be made. Two were added to their number shortly afterwards by a Saxon, Lyolf, and his wife, and about 1160 the abbey bells were hallowed by Geoffrey, bishop of St. Asaph. A new bell was added by William of Trumpington (1214–35) for use at the masses of our Lady, and under Roger of Norton (1260–90) four old bells were recast into three new ones, named 'Amphibal,' 'Alban,' and 'Katherine.' The two former are mentioned as being hallowed in the time of Michael of Mentmore, 1335–49, but the Amphibal bell soon broke and was recast in the hall of the sacrist's house by Brother Adam de Dankastre. Thomas de la Mare, 1349–96, gave a new bell named 'Christ,' and by a bequest of John Stoke, 1440–51, a bell called 'John' was made.

The cathedral plate consists of an Elizabethan chalice bearing the hall mark for 1560; a chalice with hall mark for 1639 and the inscription 'Ex dono Janae Pitchford vid, nup. uxoris Roberti Pitchford generosi defuncti 1640'; a large paten with hall mark for 1697, and the inscription 'Ex dono Gulielmi Crosfield Londini in usum eucharisticum Templi Sci. Albani.'; a straining spoon with hall mark for 1709; a flagon with the inscription 'Given by John Fothergill, clerk, for the use of the Abbey Church in St. Albans Anno Domini 1721' (the Fothergill arms are above the inscription) a silver paten, 1869; a copy of a mediaeval chalice supposed to have belonged to St. Albans Abbey, now at Trinity College Oxford; two other Tudor chalices and a flagon presented by the clergy of the diocese in 1878 on the abbey church becoming a cathedral; a silver gilt almsdish bought by subscription at the same time, and a silver chalice and paten given in memory of Bishop Festing, with his episcopal ring round the stem of the chalice.

There are eight volumes of parish registers to 1812, beginning in 1558.


  • 1. Nothing can be said of the position of the Saxon buildings.
  • 2. Except the east walk, which is said to have been rebuilt by Robert of Gorham 1151–66.
  • 3. Gesta Abbat. (Rolls Ser.), iii, 496.
  • 4. After the fashion of the part already finished by John de la Moote. Reg. Whethamstede (Rolls Ser.), i, 450.
  • 5. Gesta Abbat. (Rolls Ser.), iii, 441.
  • 6. In the Book of Benefactors is mentioned a legacy of 20 marks, £10 of which was assigned to the works of the cloister in 1401.
  • 7. Book of Benefactors, Cott. MS. Nero, D. vii.
  • 8. Now in part set up below the new windows in the south transept, together with the remains of the doorway formerly opening from the passage to the cloister.
  • 9. Gesta Abbat. (Rolls Ser.), i, 179.
  • 10. Ibid. 280.
  • 11. There were chapels in a like position at Peterborough and Westminster.
  • 12. Gesta Abbat. (Rolls Ser.), i, 70.
  • 13. Ibid. 190.
  • 14. Land Revenues 66/5, Articles for Survey.
  • 15. Gesta Abbat. (Rolls Ser.), i, 290.
  • 16. Ibid. ii, 128.
  • 17. Ibid. iii, 443.
  • 18. John Amundesham, Ann. Mon. Sti. Albani (Rolls Ser.), App. 448.
  • 19. Matt. Paris, Vitae xxiii Abbatum Sti. Albani (ed. Wats), 1118.
  • 20. Gesta Abbat. (Rolls Ser.), 302. Studies were made over this passage juxta Dormitorium.
  • 21. Ibid. iii, 443.
  • 22. Ibid. i, 179.
  • 23. Ibid. iii, 441.
  • 24. John Amundesham, Mon. Ann. Sti. Albani (Rolls Ser.), ii, 272.
  • 25. The results of the excavations made here by Mr. W. Page in 1898, in the churchyard along the north side of the nave in 1900, and at the north-west end of the nave, on the site of St. Andrew's Chapel, are shown on the accompanying plan.
  • 26. Reg. Whethamstede i, 456.
  • 27. There was a porch or oriolum attached to the guest-house built by John of Hertford, but this house, being called aula regia in the Book of Benefactors, was probably on the east side of the great court. See Gesta Abbat. (Rolls Ser.), i, 314.
  • 28. John Amundesham, Ann. Mon. Sti. Albani (Rolls Ser.), App. 449.
  • 29. Reg. Whethamstede, i, 456.
  • 30. John Amundesham, Ann. Mon. Sti. Albani (Rolls Ser.), i, 18.
  • 31. Gesta Abbat. (Rolls Ser.), i, 107.
  • 32. Ibid. 482.
  • 33. Ibid. 386.
  • 34. Ibid. iii, 441.
  • 35. Ibid. ii, 282.
  • 36. Ibid. iii, 386. This was part of the boundary wall of the abbey, running from the west front of the church westward towards the great gate, and was probably built in pursuance of the licence to crenellate in 1357.
  • 37. See the story in Matt. Paris, Chron. Maj. (Rolls Ser.), sub anno 1252.
  • 38. Gesta Abbat. i, 79.
  • 39. Ibid. i, 314.
  • 40. 'cum thalamis et adjacentibus capellis.'
  • 41. Gesta Abbat. (Rolls Ser.), iii, 386. The number of buttresses is given in the Book of Benefactors, Cott. MS. Nero, D. vii.
  • 42. Also known as the Hamme Gate.