An Update from the Archaeologists

An Update from the Archaeologists

On 4th October, Cathedral Guide Laura Bloom talked to Ross Lane, one of the Archaeologists working on the dig taking place outside the Cathedral.

The dig the archaeologists are currently undertaking, is exploring the foundations of the new Welcome Centre, being built as part of St Albans Cathedral’s Alban, Britain’s First Saint Project.

Ross has worked for the Canterbury Archaeological Trust for over 10 years, having studied Archaeology at the University of Southampton and later moved back to Canterbury, where he grew up. He has worked with the trust on various projects, from medieval urban centres to rural landscapes.

LB How has this dig been different from some of the other locations you have worked at?

RL This dig is unique because we’re doing a very concentrated graveyard. There are 100 or more skeletons to reveal, dig carefully around and remove. I haven’t worked with that concentration of skeletons before.

LB Can you describe a typical day here on this site?

RL We arrive and start working at 8am. Immediately, we find new burials and dig backfill (excavated earth put to one side, which is later used to refill the excavation) to reveal the coffins and skeletons within. This requires digging with hand tools, spades and trowels. We then record the finds using photography. Everything we dig up is given a unique number and a record to go with it before it is finally lifted out of the ground. Soon, we hope to reach the layers associated with medieval St Albans Cathedral and to find other artefacts.

LB How many archaeologists are on site working?

RL There are currently three, but for the majority of the project there are six professional archaeologists working alongside Thomas Sinden, the principle contractor.

LB When we spoke to Professor Martin Biddle back in December, he told us a lot about the burials and the parish cemetery that were on the site. Can you tell us a bit about what else you’ve discovered, other than the burials?

RL The burials themselves are actually a very interesting assemblage. We’ve already noticed that the skeletons, which date from 1750-1850, display a lot of pathology, so you can see the various diseases that affect the bones and are present in this population. The age of the population is varied – from infants to more elderly people. That holds a lot of data for us, so further study will be important. We haven’t found many artefacts to go with them, as it is a Christian cemetery, but the skeletons are buried in coffins, some of which are very ornate. We have one coffin in particular which has two plates on top. They’re degraded but one of them depicts the legs of what we think is Christ on the cross. Further down the body we also found a plate which would have displayed the name of the individual and when they died. Unfortunately, that had degraded as well.

LB Are those things you would expect to find on a site like this?

RL Yes. There are lots of examples of Victorian and slightly earlier coffins that have been uncovered across England, so the dig in St Albans adds to that quite nicely. We’ve also found artefacts associated with the grave diggers themselves, for example, a really lovely decorated clay pipe, quite intact, and some coins.

LB What do you do with those artefacts when you find them?

RL We catalogue and record all the objects that we find and send them back to the office for specialist assessment. Many of the objects we find can be dated stylistically and we hope to have a full assemblage dating back to at least the Norman period when the Church of St Alban was first constructed.

We’ve been using some of the more interesting artefacts as educational objects during visits from several local schools. We have been able to show the pupils some of these artefacts and tell them the stories of the gravediggers and the people they were burying. We hope that other artefacts will come to light and, as we go past the burials into the medieval layers, we hope to find more pottery and coins associated with those people.


LB What are the differences between the dig you’re doing now, and the one you did in the same place in December?

RL We’ve opened up the entire site now and it’s great to see it all in context. Some of the graves are cutting through earlier material so we have been able to identify the foundations of a large, thirteenth century structure that was built against the Transept and Presbytery walls. We think the structure was probably part of the Abbot’s Quarter and may have contained chapels entered from the Presbytery and a Sacristy and Treasury entered from the Transept. We’ve also got glimpses of part of the massive foundations of one of the Norman, apse ended chapels that were originally included within the Abbey Church of St Alban.  We are hoping to reveal more in the coming weeks.

LB What do you hope to have achieved or learnt by the end of this dig, about the site itself?

RL As we’re going through, we hope to add to the story of how the Cathedral was conceived, altered and ultimately used during its life to date as it fulfilled its purpose as a place of pilgrimage and worship. We hope to have evidence of some of the earliest Roman graves in order to prove just how extensive the beginning of the Christian cemetery was across the hill top (Holywell Hill). All the artefacts we recover will help bring us closer to the people who made and used them and we hope to have material from the Roman through to the most recent events to have taken place at the Cathedral.

LB Like you said, anything you find is adding to the great story that we have here at the Cathedral so it’s a very exciting time to be in St Albans. Thank you very much for talking to us today.

RL You’re welcome. Thank you.

Aerial View of dig.JPG


Cathedral Characters: Celebrating 800 years of Matthew Paris

Cathedral Characters: Celebrating 800 years of Matthew Paris

Our plans for the Alban, Britain’s First Saint (ABFS) project include celebrating St Albans as an important place of learning, a reputation that goes back to the Abbey scriptorium and monks such as medieval chronicler, Brother Matthew Paris. Work is just beginning on our new Welcome Centre and improved displays and information for our many visitors forms an important part of the ABFS project.  It’s vital that more people know about us – so, this July, as part of rediscovering St Albans’ place in history, come and learn more about Brother Matthew and his colourful outlook on the world.

“Poison kills the Sultan of Babylon and the King of Scots drops dead mounting his horse, a Norfolk knight is castrated by a lynch mob, relic-hunters cut off St Edmund’s right arm and Queen Eleanor buys a dwarf in the Isle of Wight…Brother Matthew says it all”
(Jonathan Keates, writing in The Observer)

Matthew Paris is one of the most famous English medieval chroniclers. To this day, his writings are a valuable historical source. He took his vows as a monk here at St Albans Abbey on 21st January 1217 and we are commemorating this 800th anniversary with a special free exhibition on the life and times of Brother Matthew.

We can sometimes forget how great a role the Abbey played in English history in the 13th century. Matthew Paris became the Brother Chronicler – keeping a record not just of what happened at St Albans but also logging and commenting in colourful style the national and international news that came his way. His Chronica Maiora remains an important source for historians. Amongst his other writing is his beautifully illustrated Life of St Alban (now kept at Trinity College, Dublin) which was written in the Anglo-Norman French of his day. He wrote and illustrated this within the Abbey scriptorium, where some of England’s most glorious books and manuscripts were produced.

Matthew was well-regarded by King Henry III and often wrote for the king or acted as a royal or noble emissary. He was at ease in a world of church and national politics, and a royal court which frequently passed through St Albans, which was England’s leading Benedictine Abbey. Matthew was his own man, though; he may have sometimes written for the King but he did not always write kindly about the King!

To find out more about this fascinating figure in the Cathedral’s history, visit our Matthew Paris exhibition from 6-30 July.

Further information and opening times can be found here:

With thanks to guest blogger, Stephen De Silva.

The Alban Pilgrimage: Celebrating Britain’s First Saint

The Alban Pilgrimage: Celebrating Britain’s First Saint

On Saturday 24th June, a spectacular procession of puppets will take to the streets for St Albans Cathedral’s Alban Pilgrimage – a unique event which tells the remarkable story of Alban, Britain’s First Saint. One of the most important days in the Cathedral calendar, the day celebrates the city’s namesake and reminds us of Alban’s role in history as Britain’s first saint and martyr.

St Alban died on 22nd June, over 1700 years ago. He was executed for giving shelter to a Christian priest later named Amphibalus who was fleeing persecution by the Romans. Moved by the priest’s faith, Alban became a Christian and the two men swapped cloaks, enabling the priest to escape. Alban was arrested instead, brought to trial and executed on the hill where St Albans Cathedral now stands.


In addition to being important in the context of the Cathedral’s history, the story of St Alban and St Amphibalus are integral to our Heritage Lottery funded project, Alban, Britain’s First Saint: Telling the Whole Story. The project will enable us to refresh the story of Alban within the Cathedral, which is home to the saint’s Shrine. The priest Amphibalus, whom Alban gave his life for, also has a medieval shrine in the Cathedral, dating back to 1308.

At the Reformation, the shrines of Alban and Amphibalus were destroyed; smashed into thousands of pieces. These pieces remained lost until the 1870s when they were rediscovered in walls which had been built to divide the Cathedral from the Lady Chapel, then St Albans School. Both shrines were roughly reassembled and Alban’s Shrine was fully restored 30 years ago. The Shrine of Amphibalus, remains in poor condition but, as part of the project, the Shrine will be restored to its former glory.

“At a time when Christianity is less and less understood, the Church is emphasising the importance of every Christian being prepared to share their faith with others. Amphibalus encourages us to invite others in, not just to the glory of our building and heritage, but, much more importantly, to the glory of the faith that inspired them in the first place.” – The Very Revd Dr Jeffrey John, Dean of St Albans

Find out more about the day which celebrates the story of St Alban and St Amphibalus by visiting our website:

You can follow the day as it unfolds by following us on Twitter and using the hashtag #AlbanPilgrimage.

St Albans Cathedral Prepares for Transformation

St Albans Cathedral Prepares for Transformation

The capital works phase of our development project, Alban, Britain’s First Saint, is almost ready to begin. A huge amount of work by volunteer logistics consultant John Robinson and his team and the Cathedral’s Ops Team has taken place over the past few months to empty the Cathedral’s Chapter House and divert services for its transformation into a new education centre, alongside the construction of the new Welcome Centre.

The Abbot’s Kitchen

The Abbot’s Kitchen was successfully moved to its new home at the end of March and is now located in a marquee overlooking the park, alongside the Cathedral. The café is already attracting lots of visitors and is a lovely place to grab a drink and a bite to eat, especially on a sunny day! Opening times remain the same; 10am-4.30pm Monday-Saturday and 12pm-4.30pm on a Sunday.

The Library

In addition to the relocation of the Abbot’s Kitchen, the Cathedral Library has recently moved to the Lawrance Room in the Deanery, with the move of the books expertly overseen by Adult Learning Officer, Caroline Godden. Over the course of 5 days the library’s generous volunteers spent a collective 115 hours helping with the move, with over 5000 books being meticulously cleaned, checked and moved across to their new home. Membership to the library is now free until the end of August 2018 and all are welcome to continue to make use of the library’s extensive collections. The Library is open 10am to 2.30pm on weekdays and on first and third Saturday of the month, 10am – 1pm.

Library Panorama

The Information Desk

The Cathedral’s Information Desk has moved into the South Transept of the Cathedral, and is located next to the Cathedral Shop. This is to become a combined Cathedral and City Information point as well as a central part of the Cathedral’s welcome. St Albans City Council have funded the leaflet racks, signage and tablet for use by our great team of volunteers.

The Song School

The Song School has been carefully moved to and unpacked in a refreshed Deanery Flat, which is the new location for rehearsals by the Cathedral Choir, Abbey Girls Choir, Abbey Singers and any visiting choirs. It accommodates two dedicated rehearsal spaces, as well as an area for choir teas.

Parish Groups

Parish  groups will be sharing the marquee café space in the early evenings and Sunday mornings and also now have available the refreshed studio at the end of Sumpter Yard.

Marketing Executive

Last month also saw the implementation of the first Heritage Lottery Funded post. Helena O’Sullivan was appointed to the role of Marketing Executive after almost 2 years as Marketing Assistant.

The purpose of this new role is to

  • Assist the team in developing and communicating with new audiences
  • Ensure that the audience targets set out in the Heritage Lottery Funded Activity Plan are being met
  • To undertake communications outreach, whilst establishing new communication channels within St Albans and surrounding areas.

Marketing is central to the project and the Marketing Department will continue to expand over the next few weeks with the appointment of a new Marketing Assistant. This will enable the team, headed up by Marketing Manager Hayley Lewis, to raise the profile of St Albans Cathedral on a national and international stage and to continually improve and promote the visitor experience.

Looking ahead

With the Chapter House now completely empty, work is ready to begin on and the new Education space. Work on the Welcome Centre must await a second archaeological dig to further prepare the foundations of the location of the new building. Following a tendering exercise, the Cathedral’s project team have identified a preferred contractor for the works.  Contract negotiations continue with the contractor expected to be on site before the end of May.

And so, the countdown begins! Click subscribe at the top of this blog post and keep an eye on our social media to keep up to speed with the latest developments.

Alban, Britain’s First Saint Project is Underway!

Alban, Britain’s First Saint Project is Underway!

Over the past week and a half, you may have noticed some changes taking place in Sumpter Yard, next to the Slype entrance of the Cathedral. This archaeological dig, in what is known as the ‘Monk’s Graveyard’, is the first step of our exciting Heritage Lottery Funded project, Alban, Britain’s First Saint which will transform the Cathedral’s visitor welcome over the next few years.

The first of these changes was the removal of a self-seeded Yew tree, which had been growing unchecked next to the Cathedral. Importantly, the removal of the self-seeded tree created the space needed to excavate what is known as ‘The Monk’s Graveyard’ (1).

The Canterbury Archaeological Trust have sent three of their archaeologists to perform a dig on the site, the purpose of which is to discover as much as possible about what lies there, so that we can ensure that the archaeology is not damaged or disturbed by the building of the new Welcome Centre, and that the new building will have solid foundations.


Cathedral Archaeologist, Professor Martin Biddle, has been overseeing the work which is taking place. Professor Biddle also oversaw the excavations that took place in the 1980s, in preparation for the then ‘new’ Chapter House, so has a long history with the Cathedral and its archaeology. He explains in detail the purpose of the dig and what we hope to find:

Our long awaited Welcome Centre starts now! First the yew tree has been cut down, but only to the ground because the next step is archaeology. The bole and roots of the tree will reach deep into the ground and into the archaeological layers. If we were just to grub out the roots, the archaeology would be damaged – sight unseen.

The Canterbury Archaeological Trust have dug a series of trenches very carefully designed to tell us as much as possible about what lies there, while disturbing the ancient remains as little as possible.  We have a pretty good idea that there were originally two apses projecting from the east side of the south transept (2) (and from the east side of the north transept too (3)).  The apses were all demolished perhaps in the 13th century and those against the south transept were replaced by a large rectangular building in the angle between the transept and the presbytery (4). We know nothing about this building of the later 13th or 14th century. What was it for? We hope to find out.


There was also a series of chapels against the south side of the presbytery.  We know a little about those because some traces of them can be seen in the south wall of the presbytery (5). Again, we hope to find out more.

These buildings in the angle between the south transept and the presbytery were all removed after the Dissolution of the abbey in 1539. For the next three centuries, until 1852 or so, the area served as the parish graveyard – some of the grave slabs can still be seen.  The graves will be disturbed as little as possible. Even the service trenches for the water needed for the new Welcome Centre will, as far as possible, be sited to reuse the trenches dug over the last century or so for the existing services.  Re-opening these trenches will allow us to see something of the medieval buildings which once stood and where the Welcome Centre will stand. In opening these older trenches we hope to learn a lot more about the architecture of the lost buildings.

The numbers on the map indicate where we think the ancient buildings would have been.

This is a very exciting first step in our Alban, Britain’s First Saint project. We’ll be posting any updates and exciting finds on the Blog so keep an eye out! In the meantime, visitors are very welcome to drop by and see the work in process. Can’t get here? Check out a clip from the time lapse video we are creating.

Heritage Lottery Fund Awards £3.9million grant to St Albans Cathedral

cropped-2149-00-st-albans-welcome-centre-from-south-east-daytime-16-07-18.jpgSt Albans Cathedral is pleased to announce that the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) has awarded a grant of £3,872,900 for its development project Alban, Britain’s First Saint: Telling the Whole Story.  With this grant, the Cathedral now has the permissions and funds in place to make their transformational project a reality.

In addition to the HLF grant, a further £3million has been raised as a result of the generosity of over 1000 donors. We are grateful for the support of the Congregation, Friends, private individuals, the local community and trusts and foundations, including Tarmac Ltd Landfill Communities Fund, the Garfield Weston Foundation and the Laing Family Trusts amongst many others.

The Dean of St Albans, the Very Rev’d Dr Jeffrey John, said, “This is wonderful news from the Heritage Lottery Fund. The Fund exists to make more people aware of the riches of our national heritage, and St Albans Cathedral deserves to be far better known as the oldest Christian site in Britain, with a uniquely long and rich history to tell.

“With this grant, and with the match funding that has so generously been given by trusts and by over a thousand individuals, we shall create a beautiful new welcome centre, a new centre for schoolchildren, a new exhibition area, and a new adult study centre and library. We shall be able to present the Cathedral’s treasures in a much more attractive way, which includes illuminating the medieval wall paintings and rebuilding the ruined medieval shrine of St Amphibalus. Working with the City’s own Museum project and visitor strategy, we shall make St Albans a first-choice destination for tourists and pilgrims alike.”

The project will also deliver a refreshed programme of events and activities for all ages, vastly improved visitor facilities with, for the first time, level access to the Cathedral, café, shop and toilets.

Chair of the Alban Appeal Executive, Gerald Corbett, hailed the news as “a great day for St Albans, Hertfordshire and all of the Diocese” and paid tribute to the host of individuals who have championed the project and who have helped secure the funds necessary to unlock the grant awarded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Robyn Llewellyn, Head of HLF East of England, said: “From its role in the evolution of Christianity, to the story of the city that grew around it, St Albans Cathedral is home to an incredible collection of artefacts, stories and architecture dating back 1700 years.

“Thanks to National Lottery players, this project will secure that heritage for future generations to enjoy, transform access and facilities to enable even more people to visit and create exciting opportunities to get involved in the St Albans story.”

The project will work with and complement the nearby development of the Town Hall Museum, also made possible by National Lottery players thanks to a grant of £2.8million from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Preparatory work will get underway in the autumn with the building works due to be completed by the summer of 2019. The programme of HLF funded activities will continue for several years.