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.