The town is first recorded as Verlamion, a Celtic British 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 but was later destroyed during the revolt of Boudicca in AD 60-61 before being rebuilt.
One of the most significant events in the town’s history and its namesake was the execution of Alban in around AD 250. Alban was a pagan living in Verulamium who was converted to Christianity when he sheltered a Christian priest. The legend goes that Alban switched cloaks with the priest and was arrested in his stead by Roman soldiers and subsequently executed for his faith. Alban’s declaration "I worship and adore the true and living God who created all things" is still used in prayer at St Albans Abbey. He was later made a saint and named as the first Christian martyr. A shrine was built on the site of his death following Emperor Constantine's adoption of Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire.
The Roman City of Verulamium slowly declined and fell into decay after the departure of the Roman Army in AD 410. However, the ruined buildings provided materials to build the new Norman Abbey and the Roman bricks removed from Verulamium are still evident in the Abbey today.
Much of the Roman town was uncovered in the 1930’s including a hypocaust, mosaic flooring and remaining walls. These are on view in Verulamium Park today. Many of the artifacts are housed in the Verulamium Museum, also in the park. There is also the nearby open air privately owned Roman theatre. Also in the park is reputedly one of oldest pubs in England, Ye Olde Fighting Cocks, having one of the longest running continuous licences.
The founding of the Abbey and medieval conflict
In 793, King Offa of Mercia further endowed an existing Benedictine monastic abbey. The current church was begun in 1077 by Paul de Caen, the 1st Norman Abbot and was consecrated in 1115. It was 350 feet (110 m) long with a tower and seven apses.
The head of the abbey was created as the premier abbot in England in 1154. In the same year, Nicholas Breakspear, who was born near St Albans and trained in France, became the first and currently only English Pope, elected as Pope Adrian IV. The abbey was extended in the 1190’s and again between 1257 and 1320. The first draft of the Magna Carta was possibly drawn up in the Abbey in August 1213.
In 1290, the funeral cortege of Eleanor of Castile stopped overnight in the town, with an Eleanor cross erected in Market Place. As with other resting places of the procession, it was demolished in 1701. A plaque now adorns the Clock Tower, built between 1403 and 1412, near where the cross once stood. The Clock Tower is one of only two remaining medieval belfries in England and was used as a symbol of defiance against the Abbey, as it allowed the townspeople to know the time of day without relying on the Abbey’s bells. The bells were also rung in the morning and at curfew, as well as warning against fires, and the beginning and ending of market selling.
During the 14th century, the Abbey came into increasing conflict with the townsfolk of St Albans, who demanded rights of their own. This led to the construction of a large wall and the Abbey Gateway in around 1365, now part of St Albans School. The gateway is the only surviving monastic building other than the Abbey itself. The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 hit St Albans when local townspeople stormed the Abbey and demanded a charter for the freedom of St Albans from the Abbot. However, once the 14-year-old king, Richard II, had regained control of the capital and then the whole country, one of the men, William Grindcobbe was tried in the Moot Hall (possibly the site of the present-day W H Smith stationery shop, where a plaque commemorates the event) and was convicted with more than a dozen others.
The opening conflict of the Wars of the Roses happened in St Albans. On 22nd May 1455, the First Battle of St Albans resulted in a Lancastrian defeat after King Henry VI occupied the town but was ousted by Yorkist forces led by the Earl of Warwick after a skirmish in the town centre. The Second Battle of St Albans occurred on 17th February 1461 and this time resulted in a victory for the Lancastrians who were led by Queen Margaret and which took place on Bernards Heath, just north of the town centre.
A market town and transport links
After the Reformation, the Abbey was dissolved in 1539 and sold to the town in 1553 for £400, becoming a Protestant parish church. A market had been running outside the abbey since the 10th century and was confirmed by King John in 1202. It was not until May 1553 that, in response to a public petition, the town received a Royal Charter by King Edward VI. The Charter granted St Albans the status of borough as well as defining the powers of mayors and councillors. It was also in the charter that the market days of Wednesday and Saturday were specified, which continue to this day.
In the late 17th or early 18th century, reputedly in around 1736, Sarah Churchill, the 1st Duchess of Marlborough built and endowed the almshouses on Hatfield Road, which are currently still standing. These were used for the comfortable support and maintenance of 36 poor persons - 18 poor men, and 18 poor women. The Duchess, who was a favourite of Queen Anne, had land in St Albans via her marriage with John Churchill, who lived in Sandridge. The Marlboroughs retired to Blenheim Palace, which Sarah completed building after her husband's death in 1722.
The growth of the town was facilitated by the market as well as the proximity to London. Verulam Road was created specifically to aid the movement of stage coaches, as St Albans was conveniently placed as a first night’s stop on the journey from London. This is why there are a large number of pubs in the city, reportedly the most per square mile in Britain, as they were previously used as coaching inns. The coaching industry declined after the 1840’s, when the railway arrived in 1858. There were originally three lines into the city, firstly the route to Watford, then a now defunct line to Hatfield in 1865 and finally the mainline service to London and Bedford in 1868.
It was these transport links that attracted a local seed merchant, Samuel Ryder, to locate his business to St Albans, eventually moving to offices and a large packing workshop on Holywell Hill, located where the Comfort Hotel and Café Rouge stand today. He served as Mayor of St Albans and remained a councillor for several years after his term. In his later life, Ryder began to suffer from poor health and was advised to take up golf as exercise. He joined the local Verulam Golf Club, making large donations to the club including the famous Ryder Cup and sponsorship of the tournament.
The granting of city status
In 1877, again in response to a public petition, Queen Victoria issued a second Royal Charter to grant city status to the borough and Cathedral status to the former Abbey church. By now, the Abbey had somewhat fallen into disrepair and after initial work by Gilbert Scott, was rebuilt by Lord Grimthorpe who financed a £130,000 renovation of the then dilapidated cathedral, transforming the west front of the building in Neo-Gothic style. Much of the medieval and Victorian history of the city can be seen at the Museum of St Albans, which focuses on the social history of the area, which was founded and built specifically as the Hertfordshire County Museum in 1898.
During 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, particularly with Hatfield becoming the headquarters for de Havilland. While all the aerospace industries have now left the area, London Colney now hosts the de Havilland Aircraft Heritage Centre and Mosquito Museum.
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. The city today continues to expand as a commuter town.
Timeline of some notable events in St Albans history
• End of First Century BC A large settlement of the Celtic Catuvellauni developed and was known as Verlamion.
• AD50 The Roman City of Verulamium founded.
• 60 Verulamium destroyed by Queen Boudicca (Boadicea).
• Third Century (circa AD250) Alban a citizen of Verulamium martyred for his Christian faith.
• c. 450 By this date the Roman City had almost ceased to exist.
• 793 St. Albans Abbey "founded" by King Offa of Mercia. Eventually the town of St. Albans grew up around the Abbey.
• 948 St Albans School is founded by Abbot Ulsinus (Wulsin).
• 1086 At the time of Domesday Book about 500 people lived in the town.
• 1140 Sopwell Nunnery is founded by Abbot Geoffrey de Gorham.
• 1213 Council held at the Abbey at which Barons and Churchmen first discussed their grievances - this was the first step towards the Magna Carta of 1215.
• 1217 After Magna Carta was ignored by the King, the barons invited French help to depose John. The Dauphin of France occupied the town in 1217. A month an army led by the notorious Faulkes de Breaute sacked the town leading to the Dauphin returned to despoil the town.
• 1349 The Black Death caused many deaths in the town and Abbey.
• 1381 The Peasants Revolt gave the townsmen an opportunity to press their claims again. The abbots warrens and woods were broken into, four houses destroyed and the Abbot’s prison broken open. In the retribution that followed 17 men were hanged and many of the leading townsmen imprisoned. John Ball one of the national leaders of the rebels was brought from Coventry and tried in front of the King, in the Moot Hall. He was condemned to drawing, hanging, beheading, disembowelling and quartering!
• 1455 The First Battle of St. Albans opened the War of the Roses. The Lancastrian army led by King Henry VI occupied the town but the Yorkist forces of the Earl of Warwick managed to break in and a battle took place in the town centre. King Henry was wounded by an arrow and captured.
• 1461 The Second Battle of St. Albans led to victory for the Lancastrians under Queen Margaret who brought her forces down Watling Street from Dunstable. Much of the fighting took place on Bernards Heath on the north of the town and the Yorkists in retreat left the King (who had been released from his first captivity at St. Albans and then retaken) sitting under an oak tree on Nomansland common.
• 1539 The Abbey was dissolved on Dec. 5th by King Henry VIII.
• 1553 King Edward VI granted a charter to the town by which it became a Borough with a Mayor and Corporation. The King sold the Abbey Church to the town for £400.
• 1555 George Tankerfield, a protestant Yorkshire baker was brought from London and burnt to death on Romeland - as an example to others.
• 1642 During the English Civil War the town sided with parliament but was largely unaffected by the conflict.
• 1643 The High Sheriff of Hertfordshire was arrested by Captain Oliver Cromwell after he had unwisely read a Royal Proclamation, from the steps of the Eleanor Cross. Later that year the town was the headquarters of the Earl of Essex's Parliamentary Army.
• 1645 The New Model Army was reviewed by Fairfax at St. Albans.
• 1648 An Army Council was held in the Abbey Church which effectively sealed the fate of King Charles I.
• 1852 The town deprived of representation in Parliament because of bribery and corruption at elections.
• 1877 The Abbey Church was granted Cathedral status and the town a City charter.
• 1880 The city’s football club, St Albans City FC was founded.
• 1916 In September, following an attack on St Albans, the German airship SL 11 became the first airship to be brought down over England.
• 1972 The first meeting of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) 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.
• 1974 St Albans City Council, St Albans Rural District Council and Harpenden Town Council are merged to form St Albans District Council as part of a much wider local government reorganisation.
• 2001 Census returns show a population of 129,000 for St Albans City and District.
Date of last review: 06 February 2012
Useful Links and Books
Chris Saunders www.salbani.co.uk
Corbett, James. (1997) A History of St Albans. Chichester: Phillimore
St Albans and Hertfordshire Architectural and Archeological Society www.stalbanshistory.org
Freeman, Mark. (2008) St Albans: A History. Lancaster: Carnegie Publishing
Fry, Peter. (2010) Samuel Ryder The Man Behind The Ryder Cup. Dorset: Wright Press