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

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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.

IMG_0028
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/

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.

IMG_2678.JPG

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:

www.stalbanscathedral.org/whatson/exhibitions/matthew-paris-800

With thanks to guest blogger, Stephen De Silva.