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St Albans

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Summary Article: St Albans from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather guide

City in Hertfordshire, England, on the River Ver, 40 km/25 mi northwest of London; population (2001) 82,400. The chief industries are electrical engineering, hosiery, clothing, information and legal services, musical instruments, and orchid culture. Printing is very important: one of the early presses set up in the late 15th century by the ‘Scolemaster Printer’, and his The Book of St Albans contains the earliest example of colour printing in England. There are the ruins of the Roman city of Verulamium on Watling Street. A Benedictine abbey was founded in 793 in honour of St Alban, and it became a cathedral in 1878. Other features include the Clock Tower (1411) in the High Street; the Royal National Rose Society headquarters and gardens; Rothamsted Park agricultural research centre; the Organ Museum of mechanical musical instruments; and the Verulamium Museum, with its collection of Roman remains.

St Albans is the successor to the important Romano-British town of Verulamium. The martyrdom of St Alban traditionally took place there in 303; recent scholarship puts the date at about 254 or 209. St Alban was a Roman convert and the first Christian martyr in England. Offa, King of Mercia, is said to have rediscovered the coffin containing his bones. The Benedictine abbey founded by Offa in honour of the saint in about 793 and the medieval town, arose on the opposite side of the valley from Verulamium, that being the spot to which, according to tradition, St Alban was led for execution. Matthew Paris (died 1259), the historian monk of St Albans, mentions the benefactions of Abbot Wulsin or Ulsinus, who founded (950) the three parish churches, St Peter's, St Michael's, and St Stephen's, the abbey school, from which the present St Albans school claims direct succession, and the market. St Michael's church, which stands on part of the site of the forum of Verulamium contains a monument to Francis Bacon, Baron Verulam and Viscount St Albans (died 1626). Nearby are the impressive remains of the Roman theatre.

The cathedral The abbey church, the present cathedral, has one of the longest naves in Europe. The tower is built of thin Roman bricks taken from the ruined buildings of Verulamium. The Saxon church was rebuilt at the end of the 11th century by Paul of Caen, the first Norman abbot, whose Norman work is among the earliest in the country. In contrast to the massive unadorned forms of the Norman arches is the presbytery, with its delicate late Gothic reredos, and Abbot Ramryge's (died 1520) chantry chapel. Further contrasts are afforded by the nave arcades of various periods, and owing to its great length the nave gains from this piecemeal rebuilding. The series of wall paintings on the west and south sides of the Norman piers in the north arcade of the nave belong in part to the time of Walter of Colchester, sacrist, 1213–48, and Matthew Paris. In the abbey is the tomb of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester (died 1447), and an inscription to Sir John Mandeville.

The abbey gatehouse of stone and flint was built about 1360, supposedly from the designs of Henry Yevele, the king's master mason. Since 1871 it has formed part of the buildings of St Albans school, for the previous 300 years housed in the lady chapel of the abbey. The school was refounded in 1545 by Richard Boreman. Among its pupils were Alexander Neckam, foster brother of Richard the Lionheart, and possibly Nicholas Breakspear (the only English pope, as Adrian IV, 1154), and John Mandeville. The abbey and St Michael's and St Peter's churches alterations by Edmund Beckett, afterwards Lord Grimthorpe. In 1877 the abbey church was raised to cathedral status on the formation of the new diocese, though it is still widely known as the abbey.

The modern city The market established in Saxon times is still held in the market place near the abbey. In spite of modern shop fronts and some rebuilding, some old houses still survive near the clock tower, which has dominated the scene for more than 500 years.

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