Students from Oaklands College create Roman Chariot to join the Alban Pilgrimage

Students from Oaklands College create Roman Chariot to join the Alban Pilgrimage

Earlier this year, staff and volunteers from St Albans Cathedral’s Education Centre were delighted to welcome Supported Learning students from Oaklands College for a workshop with a twist. As part of the Cathedral’s Heritage Lottery funded project, Alban, Britain’s First Saint: Telling the Whole Story, the students worked alongside the Cathedral’s education team and carnival specialists, Mahogany, to create a new roman chariot to add to the spectacular procession.

Oaklands’ Supported Learning Work Placement Officer Rhys Wynne said: “For our students this project has benefited them in ways beyond just creating the puppets. It has boosted their confidence and skillsets and given them the opportunity to play a significant part in creating something that the entire city of St Albans will celebrate and enjoy later this summer. We can’t wait to see their creations come to life in the Alban Pilgrimage this June.”

Check out the video below to see how the puppet was created:

Don’t forget you can see the magnificent new chariot in action on Saturday 23rd June as part of the Cathedral’s annual Alban Pilgrimage. All are encouraged to line the streets of the city and to follow the procession as it makes its way through the streets to St Albans Cathedral.

For more information visit www.stalbanscathedral.org/whatson/the-alban-pilgrimage/

With thanks to the Media students from Oaklands College’s Welwyn Garden City campus, who shot this footage. Directed and edited by Jheryl Stewart.

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Abbot John of Wheathampstead: Where Is He Now?

Abbot John of Wheathampstead: Where Is He Now?

Following the archaeological excavation undertaken by Canterbury Archaeological Trust[1]  in advance of the new Visitor’s Centre between July 2016 and February 2017, work on the findings is now taking place.

One of the major discoveries of the excavation was the tomb of Abbot John Wheathampstead (c 1390-1465), whose well-preserved skeleton was accompanied by three lead papal bullae. John was Abbot of St Albans twice, from 1420-1440 and then again from 1451 until his death in 1465.

The bones of the abbot, so carefully recorded and removed during the excavation, are presently being studied by Dr Emma Pomeroy at John Moores University, Liverpool.[2]

Plate 1 - Osteological analysis of JW
Osteological analysis of John of Wheathampstead

Her work has demonstrated that the skeleton is that of an aged male, and she has detected ossification of cartilage particularly apparent around the ribs and tendons. The abbot had lost many of his teeth during life, perhaps not unusual for an individual of such advanced years. We hope that a digital reconstruction of the Abbot’s face will be possible, but this awaits further analysis.

Historic documents, previously examined by Prof. James Clark of The University of Exeter[3], indicates that the bullae which accompanied his body were granted to St Albans Abbey by Pope Martin V in 1423, at the Council of Siena-Pavia.  The documents suggest that these may be replicas, commissioned at the same time by Abbot John himself for personal use. This may explain why the bullae accompanied him to the grave, instead of remaining in the Abbey archives with the documents to which they were attached. Further study of associated documents later in the project may be able to tell us more about the history of these artefacts.

As excavated, the bullae were covered with soil and corrosion, but the objects have now been carefully cleaned and stabilised by conservator Dana Goodburn-Brown.

The cleaning process has revealed the inscription Martinus V (Martin V) PP Pastor Pastorum – ‘Shepherd of Shepherds’.

Plate 5 - Cleaned bullae 1.jpg
Cleaned bullae

On the reverse are the letters SPESPA, an abbreviation of Sanctus Petrus (St Peter) and Sanctus Paulus (St Paul).  The head of St Peter (left) and of St Paul (right) can now be clearly seen facing each other on the bullae.

Plate 6 - Cleaned bullae 2.jpg
Cleaned bullae

Further information on the archaeological investigations will be posted as post-excavation work progresses.

[1] http://www.canterburytrust.co.uk/

[2] https://www.ljmu.ac.uk/about-us/faculties/faculty-of-science/school-of-natural-sciences-and-psychology

[3] https://humanities.exeter.ac.uk/history/

With thanks to James Holman, Project Manager, and the team at Canterbury Archaeological Trust.

Interpreting the Story of Britain’s First Saint

Interpreting the Story of Britain’s First Saint

As the Cathedral approaches one year to the opening of a new welcome centre and learning facilities as part of our Heritage Lottery funded project, work is underway to develop how we will communicate the remarkable story of Britain’s first saint to our visitors.

Plans are being finalised for a new timeline in the welcome centre, giving our visitors historical context before they step into the building. Films and interactive displays will tell the story of the living, working building. Audio visual projectors will be installed to illuminate in colour our magnificent set of medieval wall paintings; this technical innovation is the first of its kind in an English Cathedral and will recreate the original effect of the paintings. Visitors will see the paintings as pilgrims would have seen them centuries ago.

The story of Alban is a remarkable account of bravery and standing up for what you believe in.  This is the story we want people to know and be inspired by when they visit.  There will be many ways to learn the story of Britain’s first saint as you travel through the building – and what a story it is to tell.


Alban lived around the year 300 in the Roman city of Verulamium, in the valley below the present Cathedral.  One day he gave shelter to a stranger, who turned out to be a Christian priest. At this time Roman citizens were still forbidden to become Christians, so Alban was taking a risk by welcoming the priest into his home.

Alban was so moved by the priest’s faith and courage that he asked to be become a Christian too. Before long the authorities came to arrest the fugitive priest. Alban, inspired by his new-found faith, enabled the priest to escape. The Roman soldiers arrested Alban and brought him before the city magistrate.   Alban refused to sacrifice to the Roman gods, and declared: ‘I am Alban and I worship and adore the true and living God, who created all things’.

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St Alban’s trial is re-enacted at the Alban Pilgrimage in 2017

The magistrate ordered that Alban should receive the punishment that the escaped priest should have suffered.  Alban was brought out of the town and up a hill to the site of execution. He is honoured as the first British saint and martyr, and his burial place on this hillside quickly became a place of pilgrimage. When Christians were finally permitted to worship freely they built a church here.

That first church was probably a simple structure over Alban’s grave, making this the oldest continuous site of Christian worship in Britain.  In 429 a European bishop called Germanus recorded his visit to St Alban’s church – he is the first pilgrim for whom we have a name and a date.  In the early eighth century the historian Bede told the story of St Alban and described ‘a beautiful church, worthy of his martyrdom’. 

The Anglo-Saxon King Offa founded an abbey of monks here in 793. They followed rules for life set out by St Benedict, who had said they should welcome every stranger as though that person was Christ himself. People came on pilgrimage in large numbers to Alban’s shrine.

Shrine (c) Arun Kataria BANNER
The Shrine of St Alban is still visited by pilgrims today

When the Normans arrived in England a new Abbot called Paul of Caen was appointed in 1077 – he built much of what you see today including the huge, strong tower. The church was enlarged several times by later generations. After the monks were sent away by Henry VIII in 1539, the townspeople bought the enormous building to use as their parish church. In 1877 it was chosen to become the cathedral and the spiritual home of the bishop for the new diocese of St Albans.

Alban’s welcome to a persecuted stranger was a powerful example of courage, compassion and hospitality. He is an inspiration to people of many faiths and none and his story is commemorated annually by the city as part of the Alban Pilgrimage. Every day pilgrims still visit his shrine and, in time, the surviving pieces of the historic shrine of Amphibalus, the priest who Alban saved, will be cleaned and re-built so that we can tell his story too.

New Faces for the Alban Britain’s First Saint Project

A wonderful part of the Alban, Britain’s First Saint project to date, has been welcoming new people to the team of staff that work behind the scenes of the Cathedral.

Two recent additions to the team have been for our two remaining Heritage Lottery funded posts; the Visitor Services Officer and the Community Engagement Officer. Volunteers continue to be at the heart of everything that goes on at the Cathedral and these two roles will ensure that this remains the case for years to come. They will also enhance our community outreach, ensuring that the Cathedral remains a welcoming place for everyone.

Here, they introduce themselves and give us an overview of what their roles will involve.

Laura Bloom and Lindsay Wong
Laura Bloom (Visitor Services Officer) and Lindsay Wong (Community Engagement Officer).

Lindsay Wong, Community Engagement Officer

I am very excited to be joining the Cathedral as the Community Engagement Officer working on the Alban, Britain’s First Saint project. Originally from Toronto, Canada, I first came to the UK almost 5 years ago to complete my Masters in Cultural Heritage Studies at UCL and quickly fell in love with the history and museums in England. Since then, I have enjoyed working at the Jewish Museum London as part of their Education Team, looking at how religion, history, and heritage intersect.

As the job title suggests, I am looking at how the Cathedral can make further links with the community and welcome groups that have never been before through outreach activities and new events at the Cathedral. I will also be working closely with our new Visitor Services Officer to ensure that we become a place that is accessible to all. I am thrilled to be joining the Cathedral during this new phase of its history and am looking forward to working with the rest of the team.

Laura Bloom, Visitor Services Officer

I am looking forward to beginning work as the Visitor Services Officer during the ABFS project. I moved to England in 2013 after completing my master’s degree in Medieval History, doing much of my research on St Albans. I then worked in the Tower of London sharing England’s rich history with visitors from all over the world before taking a job at the Cathedral 2 and a half years ago as Development Administrator and Diary Manager. I am delighted to be able to continue sharing the amazing history that surrounds us and most importantly, the story of Alban with our many visitors.

As VSO, I will work with volunteer groups and staff on the Cathedral floor to ensure visitors have the best possible experience while they are here. Lindsay and I will be recruiting more volunteers and looking into bringing different audiences into the Cathedral through new events, tours, and activities. I am looking forward to the completion of the new Welcome Centre and developing this into a warm, welcoming, and informative introduction to our incredible Cathedral.

We are always on the lookout for volunteers and this is a particularly exciting time to be involved in everything going on at the Cathedral. To find out more about our volunteering opportunities, visit our website: https://www.stalbanscathedral.org/community/volunteers/

World Thinking Day: What can we look forward to as part of Alban Britain’s First Saint?

World Thinking Day: What can we look forward to as part of Alban Britain’s First Saint?

Caroline Godden, our Adult Learning Officer, gives us a taster of some of the new activities coming up in Adult Learning as part of the project.

Well over a thousand years ago, one of my favourite historical figures, the Anglo-Saxon King Alfred the Great, wrote that ‘very often it has come into my mind what people of learning there were formerly throughout England’. Alfred drew inspiration from scholars from history to encourage learning throughout his kingdom with a passion which enthused his subjects and has inspired historians ever since.

It’s something that I often think about when I consider the history of learning at St Albans Cathedral – we can learn so much from those who went before us, and they can inspire and engage us even hundreds of years later. That’s one of the reasons that our project, Alban, Britain’s First Saint, offers so many exciting opportunities for learning today. We are drawing on our own rich history from the time of Saint Alban up to the present day to offer a whole series of engaging events, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

We’re fortunate to have a varied historical culture here – a thriving musical tradition, an abundant literary heritage, stunning artistic decoration, and a scholarly practice which since medieval times has encompassed not only theology but also other subjects, such as philosophy, poetry, history and science. Our Study Centre, the core of our Adult Learning programme, will be drawing on all of these aspects in an exciting new range of activities coming up, specifically designed as part of the Alban Britain’s First Saint project.

Over the summer we’re looking forward to welcoming the first of three Artists in Residence, who will be working with us to explore the historical graffiti hidden around the Cathedral, some of which dates back to the sixteenth century. You may not even have noticed these personal, and sometimes quite charming, traces of individuals who have, throughout history, made their mark on the Cathedral walls. This is our opportunity to show some of these fascinating strands of history in a new light, and engage the community in these tiny but remarkable traces of the past.

Swan Graffiti
Graffiti in the Nave of the Cathedral depicting a swan.

We’ll also be celebrating the incredible works scratched (perhaps more conventionally) onto vellum in the scriptorium at the medieval abbey. While little remains of the renowned medieval library in our Cathedral Archives, we nevertheless can lay claim to an enviable literary heritage. Working with the New Museum and Gallery in St Albans, we’re looking forward to reuniting some of the most significant manuscripts which were written in St Albans in a joint exhibition in the summer of 2020. Taking inspiration from local characters such as Matthew Paris, Roger of Wendover, and Thomas Walsingham, this cross-site exhibition will explore the people who dedicated their lives to learning, the beautiful works of art which they produced, and the fascinating and painstaking process of the creation of a manuscript. To complement this exhibition, we’re also going to be running workshops in calligraphy and palaeography (the study of writing) so that you can have some hands-on experience of the work of the monks who created these manuscripts.

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A page from the Alban Psalter, created by the monks of St Albans Abbey in the 12th Century.

There will also be a fabulous opportunity for the whole community to engage in a contemporary expression of the fine musical tradition at the Cathedral. Working with local musician Pete Letanka, we’ll be holding a ‘Big Sing Festival’ in Spring 2019 which celebrates the communities and cultures around the world which have connections to St Albans and the Cathedral, and incorporates music and song from these different places into a musical mélange rehearsed in a day and performed in the Cathedral itself.

There’s all this and more to look forward to as part of the ABFS project, and we are grateful to all those who join us as we continue to be inspired by the amazing heritage of this building and the history of the people who lived and worked here in St Albans before us.

You can keep up to date with progress of the project, by visiting our website or following this blog.

Caroline Godden, Adult Learning Officer

Turning Back Time: The Medieval Wall Paintings of St Albans Cathedral

Turning Back Time: The Medieval Wall Paintings of St Albans Cathedral

The 12th century medieval wall paintings of St Albans Cathedral are a national treasure of the highest importance. No other Cathedral has preserved so many wall paintings ranging from the Romanesque to the Tudor period and, as such, they are as important today as when they were first painted, allowing us to look into the past and gain an understanding of what it was like to be a pilgrim. What would I see? What would I learn? The wall paintings told stories then as they do now. These were the teaching aids of the mediaeval church.

Fast forward around 800 years and, as part of our Alban, Britain’s First Saint project, digital technology will help to recreate the original effects of the painting for visitor and pilgrim, bringing to life their original colours. This digital illumination of the Wall Paintings promises to be a very significant technical innovation, the first of its kind on this level at an English Cathedral.

We want to introduce you to the Wall Paintings, what they mean, how they were achieved and how we hope to use them today. Every Friday through Lent, we’ll be featuring one of the Wall Paintings on our social media, exploring the story and meanings behind each. Below is your introduction to these marvellous pieces of art.

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The first paintings to greet a visitor entering through the West End doors of the Cathedral are a fine set of scenes depicting the crucifixion and the life of the Virgin going from West to East on the north side pillars, towards the Shrine of St Alban. Although only the underpainting is left, they have a powerful image and you can still see a hint of the original colour. Freshly painted, these had the finest of palettes: gold leaf, lapis lazuli and, most expensive of all, red lake.

North Nave Dennis Gilbert
The crucifixion scenes on the north side pillars in the Nave.                Photo: Dennis Gilbert

Painted in a different style due to the climate, the images are not frescos as you might see in Italian churches, but  beautiful seccos, painted onto a dry surface and much easier to handle – you get to correct your mistakes!

On the same pillars but facing south are four monumental paintings, each 3 metres tall. Newly created they would have had a “3D” effect to the faces, which has faded as time has passed. Layers of whitewash had also covered them since the 1500’s and so the faces are likely to have been damaged when this was removed.

Nave North Facing Dennis Gilbert
Two of the four monumental paintings in the Cathedral Nave.                               Photo: Dennis Gilbert

Many of the original features of the Abbey were affected by the events of the reformation and the Wall Paintings are no exception. You can see the contrast when looking at the brighter and better preserved paintings in other parts of the Cathedral such as the St. William of York painting in the Shrine Chapel or the Doubting Thomas in the North Transept. However these four surviving nave figures will ultimately come into their own as part of the Alban, Britain’s First Saint project.

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The Doubting Thomas Wall Painting in the North Transept.

If you haven’t already visited St Albans, come and see the Wall Paintings and a whole lot more besides.

 

With thanks to Julia Low, Chair of the St Albans Cathedral Guides.

Look out for our Wall Painting posts on social media every Friday through Lent. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn.

The Lost Abbot: Who was John of Wheathampstead?

The Lost Abbot: Who was John of Wheathampstead?

Last month a unique and remarkable discovery came to light during an archaeological dig taking place as part of the Alban, Britain’s First Saint project at St Albans Cathedral. A 15th century skeleton was uncovered and, in an extremely rare development, was found to be accompanied by three papal bulls issued by Pope Martin V (1417-31), indicating that this was no ordinary burial.

Knowing that this was likely to be a person of some significance, the Cathedral sought the help of James Clark, Professor of History at Exeter University and an expert on the medieval history of the Abbey. Within hours he identified the skeleton as that of Abbot John of Wheathampstead due to the presence of the bulls which signify three special privileges made by the Pope to St Albans Abbey.

Cathedral Guide Laura Bloom spoke to Professor Clark, who has studied the life of Abbot Wheathampstead for 25 years, to find out more about this fascinating figure from the Cathedral’s history.

LB What were your thoughts when you first realised this was Abbot Wheathampstead?

JC The immediate feeling is quite strange because, as a historian, when you have been writing about someone for a while, they stop being real. There’s a lot I know about this man so to finally see him face to face was both amazing and unnerving. Ever since I started my PhD in 1992 I have been living with John of Wheathampstead and I’ve spent a good deal of my professional career handling the books he owned and reading his manuscripts. You’re getting to know someone through all the other attributes except through the self.

LB What does the discovery mean for your research?

JC It’s wonderful. I have three or four projects about St Albans moving forward in parallel so it’s good timing. There is more to be done on Wheathampstead, especially in relation to the interesting story of how he obtained the three papal bulls he was found with.

LB Why are the papal bulls so significant?

JC Abbot John visited Italy in 1423, hoping to secure an audience with the pope. Whilst there he became so ill that Pope Martin V sent his own physicians to tend to him; at one point officials administered Extreme Unction as one of the Last Rites. Though he came close to death, the Abbot went on to make a full and miraculous recovery. Rejoicing in his return to health, Abbot John was determined to secure some benefit from his visit and requested three special privileges for the abbey which would mark it out from its rivals. Pope Martin V willingly granted the privileges which allowed the abbey to exercise greater independence in its religious life and in the management of its income. On his return, the monks congratulated Abbot John for his achievement and to the end of his long life they celebrated him for these three papal bulls.  In his obituary, it was said that he should be remembered for his ‘three-fold’ character, a gesture to the recollection of the three privileges he had won for the Abbey so long before.

LB What were some of the other highlights of Abbot John’s life?

JC Wheathampstead was a builder in London, Oxford and St Albans – even today you can still see a trace of his work in the St Albans saltire on the wall outside Worcester College, Oxford. He was also a cultural patron of international reputation; a patron of writing in both Latin and English and of the scribes and artists who made the finest medieval manuscripts. He was an avid collector of books and also a writer himself. He compiled a vast encyclopaedia on historical, literary and political topics. He also wrote poetry, lively and colourful although much of it makes for difficult reading now. It is also worth emphasising that he was a public figure at a fascinating point in history, between the Battle of Agincourt (1415) and the height of the Wars of the Roses (1455-85). This is a man who knew personally Kings Henry V, Henry VI, Edward IV and their queens Katharine de Valois, Margaret of Anjou and Elizabeth Woodville (the ‘White Queen’). The final significant public act that Wheathampstead coordinated was a royal visit. In 1458 Henry VI came to St Albans with his entire household and visited all the holy places in St Albans, including the outlying chapels and nunneries. That spectacle of the nation’s great and good all coming to St Albans typifies the status of the place at that time. It’s one of the last moments Henry VI is lucid enough to make a royal progress.

LB Finally, what do we know about what Abbot John of Wheathampstead was really like?

JC I have to say I doubt he would have been very likeable. He was very pleased with himself. In fact, his self-esteem was almost out of control. The main annal of his own life is a reverse piece of ghost writing – it purports to be by another monk (it would not be very good monastic humility to write an autobiography!) but it appears to have been written by John himself. Yet, he was also a man of some vision. He was drawn towards the wider world beyond his own monastery and especially to the society and culture of mainland Europe. He was well aware that there were new movements in art, literature and learning passing out of Italy and across Europe – what we now see as the beginnings of the Renaissance – and he was eager for England to join them despite the fact that the descent into civil war threatened to isolate the kingdom for a generation.

Few of the abbots of St Albans are as colourful as Wheathampstead. We already knew much about him and his place his time.  With this discovery we have a piece of the jigsaw few would ever have imagined we would have.

The discovery of John of Wheathampstead comes at a momentous time for St Albans Cathedral. The Alban, Britain’s First Saint project currently underway will raise the profile of the oldest site of continuous Christian Worship in Britain and transform the visitor welcome. Abbot John was proud to say he had he had preserved the Cathedral’s treasures for future generations so it is appropriate that he has appeared as we are trying to do the same.

You can read more about John of Wheathampstead and his life at Professor James Clark’s Blog: http://blogs.exeter.ac.uk/medievalstudies/