A New Year Update from the Dean of St Albans Cathedral

A New Year Update from the Dean of St Albans Cathedral

At the year’s turning we are now well into the building phase of the ‘Alban Britain’s First Saint’ project. The Chapter House is having its insides completely changed to accommodate the new Education Centre, new Library and Adult Study Centre; and the revamped café is being raised to the level of the new entrance building on Sumpter Yard, so as to provide one open, accessible  welcome area. The virgers’ vestry has been demolished, and the old brick ‘pyramid’ which used to house the kitchen is also set to be brought down in the coming weeks. The archaeology dig will also end soon, and then we can start on the new build.

At the start of December the archaeologists made their most important discovery: the tomb of Abbot John of Wheathampstead, one of the most interesting and successful of the mediaeval Abbots of St Albans. The papal seals that were found in his grave are a testimony to the privileges that he won for his monastery, and of his own national and international influence as he steered the Abbey through the Wars of the Roses. John also improved and beautified the building, and attracted many new pilgrims – so it is a good omen that he should appear just as we are trying to do the same through the ABFS project, which above all aims to make the Abbey much better known, and to provide better resources to welcome and inform new visitors.


As John would wish, in due course his body will be laid to rest again, with proper prayer and ceremony.

Aside from the building work and archaeology taking place, lots is also taking place behind the scenes. Our interpretation scheme, which will help engage visitors with the history of the Abbey, is taking shape. The story is emerging through the footsteps of pilgrims with refreshed story themes, timelines, audio visual and web based aids and more traditional interpretation panels. The project has scope and funding for new guided trails and a host of activities from festivals and artists in residence to talks, café events and special exhibitions.

In parallel to the new interpretation, two specialist groups are working on the recolouring of the Wall Paintings (to bring some of the medieval wall paintings back to their former glory through illuminations) and the reconstruction and relocation of Amphibalus’ shrine. We hope the wall paintings illumination will be ready to be a key feature of the new interpretation scheme when it opens in 2019.

In the New Year we are joined by two new Heritage Lottery funded posts. Laura Bloom will become the new Visitor Services Officer, working with staff and volunteers to improve the whole visitor experience; and Lindsay Wong will join us from the Jewish Museum in London, to be the Community Engagement Officer, reaching out to some of our target audiences and drawing more people into the Cathedral.

Meanwhile, business has gone on as usual through the year, and we are especially pleased that this year our visitor numbers have continued to rise despite the building work.

We had a wonderful pilgrimage in June, when we welcomed the first woman diocesan bishop, Rachel Treweek, and the Dean of Christ Church, Oxford. In 2018 we shall welcome TV historian Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch and Brother Stuart Burns, from the Anglican Benedictine Abbey at Mucknell. Put the Pilgrimage date in your diary: Saturday 23rd June. Other special events to come are the installation of our new Sub Dean, Abigail Thompson, on February 24th; Holy Week and Easter preached by Bishop David Wilbourne (BBC Radio 4 will be broadcasting our 8.10am service and BBC Radio 3 will broadcast Evensong at 3pm); the diocesan Easter Monday pilgrimage; a big evangelistic event with Soul Survivor at Pentecost; and a number of special services and events, including Poppy Field, a son et lumière light installation, around the centenary of the end of World War I in November.

Guest Preachers Alban Pilgrimage Procession 2017
The Rt Revd Dr Michael Beasley, Bishop of Hertford, The Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, Bishop of Gloucester and the Very Revd Professor Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church, Oxford at the Alban Pilgrimage 2017.

Through all the upheaval, it has been a good year. Pray for a good 2018.


You are older than the world can be

You are younger than the life in me

Ever old and ever new

Keep me travelling along with you.


St Albans Cathedral Finds Lost Abbot

St Albans Cathedral Finds Lost Abbot

Archaeologists from the Canterbury Archaeological Trust (CAT) working at St Albans Cathedral have discovered the grave of John of Wheathampstead, a former Abbot of national and international renown, who died in 1465, and whose burial site has remained a mystery to this day.

In an extremely rare development, the team also discovered three papal seals, known as ‘papal bulls’, inside the grave, issued by Pope Martin V (1417-1431).


It is the presence of these bulls that confirm that this is the grave of Abbot Wheathampstead. Professor James Clark (University of Exeter), who is an expert on the Abbey’s medieval history, has found that early in his career Abbot John secured three special privileges at an audience with Pope Martin and that he was remembered ever after for his great success when visiting the papal court.

Professor Martin Biddle, working with the team from CAT and who led the excavation work for the Cathedral’s new Chapter House in 1978, commented, “The finding of three leaden seals is a unique discovery in archaeology.”

The dig at St Albans Cathedral is taking place in advance of the construction of a new Welcome Centre, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, and part of the Alban, Britain’s First Saint project.  The project aims to raise the profile of St Albans Cathedral, the oldest site of continuous Christian worship in Britain and birth place of Magna Carta.

The archaeological dig provides a unique opportunity to explore the buried history of the Abbey. For a hundred years from 1750 until around 1852 the area served as the parish graveyard where whole families were buried together often victims of devastating epidemics such as the great cholera outbreak of the 1830’s. Beneath these post-medieval burials are the substantial remains of a 14th to 15th century building which historians now think may be the chapel which Abbot John built. The foundations of this chapel overlie earlier evidence for the lost Norman Apsidal chapels that formed part of the original Cathedral built by Paul of Caen in 1077.

The Dean of St Albans, the Very Rev’d Dr Jeffrey John, said, “It is a wonderful thing to have found the grave and relics of John of Wheathampstead, one of the most interesting and successful of the Abbots of St Albans. The papal seals that were found in his grave are a reminder of some of the privileges that he won for his monastery, and of his own national and international influence on the Church at a time when (not unlike today) it was faced with threats of division and decline”.

He continued, “Abbot John added a great deal to the renown and the beauty of the Abbey, and attracted many new pilgrims from Britain and overseas. He also defended the Abbey from destruction during the Wars of the Roses and was proud to say that he had preserved its treasures for future generations. It seems appropriate that he should appear just as we are trying to do the same through the ‘Alban, Britain’s First Saint’ project, which aims to make the Abbey much better known, and to provide better resources to welcome and inform new visitors. As John would certainly wish, in due course his body will be laid to rest again, with proper prayer and ceremony, along with his fellow Abbots in the Presbytery of the Cathedral and Abbey Church. We trust he prays for us, as we do for him.”

Professor Clark said, “Not only did Abbot John raise St Albans Abbey to the pinnacle of the English church, he was also celebrated in his own right, a Renaissance man when the Renaissance was still in its infancy, a renowned churchman, scholar and politician, who was courted by princes as well as popes.”

Archaeological work continues at St Albans Cathedral until early 2018 and the new Welcome Centre opens in June 2019.

Abbot Wheathampstead

  • Born in c. 1390 in Wheathampstead and died on 20 January 1465.
  • Abbot at St Albans 1420–1440. He resigned due to ill health but was re-elected in 1451 and remained in office until his death in 1465.
  • He travelled to Italy in 1423 and secured an audience with Martin V. He made three requests to the Pope for privileges to be granted to his abbey and its monks. Pope Martin assented and three bulls were issued to the abbot, two dated 19 November 1423 and one 24 November 1423.
  • At his death, Abbot Wheathampstead was remembered for securing these three bulls from Pope Martin and details of them were recorded in the Abbey Book of Benefactors.
  • In his obituary, entered into the same book, it was said that he should be remembered for his ‘three-fold’ character which may be interpreted as a gesture to the recollection of the three privileges he had won for the Abbey so long before.
  • His relics have been found in a brick lined tomb, positioned close to both the presbytery and transept and almost certainly situated within a building dating from the fifteenth century.

Papal Bulls

  • The papal bulls discovered have been identified as those of Martin V, Pope from 1417 to 1431.
  • Initial enquiries to specialists suggest that a grave with more than one bull is highly unusual and marks the burial of a significant individual.
  • The bulls themselves consist of circular lead disks approximately 40mm in diameter. The name of the pope (written as Martinus) is semi-legible. Also visible is the legend PP.V, with the PP standing for Pastor Pastorum (Shepherd of Shepherds).
  • The bulls would have been attached to a vellum document by either hemp or silk cords depending on whether the role of the charter was respectively a letter of justice or grace. Traces of the cord may be preserved in the soil that adheres to the bulls, but identification requires further specialized analysis.

Canterbury Archaeological Trust Dig

  • The team from Canterbury Archaeological Trust are working on a long-closed parish graveyard to the South East of the Cathedral.
  • Over 170 recorded burials had been interred on the site from the Dissolution of the Abbey in 1539 until around 1852, when the burial ground was closed.
  • The dig taking place on the Cathedral grounds is unique for those working on it since it is such a concentrated graveyard which requires careful work to uncover and remove the finds.
  • The assemblage of human bone is well preserved and the work forms an excellent opportunity to provide information about the late 18th and early 19th century population of St Albans.
  • An exciting aspect of the current dig is the uncovering of original Norman apse ended chapels on the site which were demolished in the 13th century and replaced in the 15th century by a large rectangular building which was probably destroyed shortly after the Dissolution of the Abbey.
  • This building probably contained a treasury, sacristy, vestry and chapels accessed from the transept and presbytery. The building may also have formed the Abbot’s quarters with access via the slype to the cloisters.
  • Professor Martin Biddle is working closely with the team from CAT. With his late wife, he also led excavation work in 1978 on the site of the Cathedral’s new Chapter House (opened in 1982). During this excavation work, the graves of 11 abbots and four monks were discovered. Sadly, all but one had been robbed.
  • In the coming weeks the excavation will begin to explore these remains, revealing some of the features that would have been prominent during this period when the Abbey was a major centre of pilgrimage.

Images courtesy of Canterbury Archaeological Trust.



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: www.stalbanscathedral.org

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.