St. Albans, Hertfordshire, is a city in the south-east of England, about twenty miles north of London. At the time of revision (June 2004), the population of the city is about 60 000, and its MP is Kerry Pollard, of the Labour party.
Southern central Hertfordshire has been inhabited for a long time, and there was an Iron Age camp at Prae Wood, near the edge of the modern city. St. Albans itself was originally called Verlamio, in the time before the Roman invasion, and it was a major tribal capital long before London was born or thought of. Tasciovanus, the son of Cassivellaunus, was king in Verlamio in the 1st century BCE, and coins from his reign were minted in the city. This settlement was in the valley of the River Ver, and it's thought the name means 'Below the Marsh'.
The Romans made the city Verulamium, one of their three great cities (Londinium and Camulodunum were the other two). All three of these cities were burned to the ground in Boudicca's rebellion, but were subsequently rebuilt in stone and brick. Some of the Roman construction can still be seen, as can the course of Watling Street, the Roman highway from London to Holyhead, now the A5. It is said that the main street of the modern town, St Peter's Street, stands on the site of a Roman Circus or Hippodrome. It's about the right size, but there's insufficient archaeological evidence either way.
One of the things the Romans did whilst at Verulamium was to execute Alban, a Roman citizen who had become a Christian. The story goes that the troops were actually looking for a priest called Amphibalus, but he and Alban switched cloaks and Alban was arrested. He confessed his Christian faith and was beheaded by sword on the hill outside the city. The date of this event is not known, although the fact that it happened is moderately well-attested. Some time in the third century CE or so is the usual estimate.
After the Romans left, a church was set up to St. Alban, protomartyr of Britain, and a shrine established. Although the bones of the martyr were carried off by the Danes to Odense, where it is said they remain, and where there is another cathedral dedicated to Alban, the Abbey remained a popular centre for pilgrimage. When the Normans invaded, this became a great Abbey, built with bricks from the abandoned Roman city. Several churches had already been founded nearby by the Saxon abbot Ulsinus, and the nunnery of Sopwell and the monastic cell at the Pré followed. A market grew up close to the abbey, and St Albans, as it was now called, became a thriving market town.
In 1356, after his defeat by the Black Prince at the battle of Poitiers, King John of France was held for ransom in the town. John was known as 'the Good', but he was something of a sap, and never properly regained control of France, as he was intent on acting honourably as a captive. The house in which he was held subsequently became an inn, the Fleur de Lys, which still stands, having only been rebuilt once in the intervening centuries.
There were two battles at the city during the Wars of the Roses. In 1455, Henry VI and his wife Margaret of Anjou were staying in St Albans when their enemies, the Yorkists, attacked. The king was a little mentally unstable, so the queen is likely to have been responsible for the royal defence. The Earl of Warwick commanded the Yorkists to victory and the king was wounded and captured. Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset was killed in this battle. Legend has it that he avoided castles following a prophecy that he would die in one, only to perish in the doorway of the Castle Inn, at what is now the junction of St Peter's Street and Victoria Street.
The second Battle of St Albans was six years later, and on this occasion Queen Margaret and her Lancastrians attacked the city, which was occupied by the Yorkists. The queen was victorious, rescued the by now insane king, and, accompanied by her army, looted the town. Various treasures were taken from the Abbey, which was never really the same again. Legend, as ever, claims that the queen found the king sitting under a tree sucking his thumb.
The Abbey was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1539, but by popular demand the large church was retained as the main parish church. Sopwell Nunnery was demolished and rebuilt as a manor house for Sir Richard Lee, a military engineer. The ruins of this house stand to this day.
Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, was a major force in the town in the early 18th century, essentially arranging the mayoralty and parliamentary represenation herself. She had been born in the town, the daughter of local MP Richard Jennings. She was a close intimate of Queen Anne, and was rumoured to have been her lover. The Queen's perpetual difficult pregnancies, rather than anything else, cast a little doubt on that theory. With a presciently hackish turn of phrase, Sarah lampooned her political rival, Samuel Grimston, in about 1710, as 'The Right Sensible the Lord of Flame'. Many places in the city today are named after the Churchill family.
St Albans was also a major stagecoach stop, being a day's slow ride or half a day's quick ride from London. As a consequence, the city is thought to be the location with the greatest concentration of pubs in the world. With the advent of the railways, three stations appeared as well (City, Abbey and London Road - the former two are still open) and the town expanded. In 1877, the Abbey was declared a Cathedral, and thus the town a city.
On December 15, 1991, a bomb exploded in the town centre, killing the two IRA terrorists who had been planting it. Had the device functioned as intended, it would have caught members of the public leaving a concert given by the band of the Blues and Royals. The previous year, the local railway line had been blown up just before the morning rush hour by the same group, although no lives were lost. Until 1997, the MP for the city was Peter Lilley of the Conservative Party, now MP for nearby Harpenden. He was moved for the safety of his seat by his party, and the vote went to local councillor Kerry Pollard.
Famous people from St Albans:
- Nicholas Breakspear, Pope Adrian IV - the only Englishman ever to be Pope.
- Sir Francis Bacon, scientist, statesman and rival of the Duke of Buckingham.
- Stephen Hawking, who attended St. Albans School, and hated it. He tells the story in Black Holes and Baby Universes.
- Samuel Ryder, donor of Golf's Ryder Cup, lived and worked in St Albans, became mayor, and founded what is now the city's Trinity United Reformed Church.
- Robert Runcie, Archbishop of Canterbury was bishop here, and Richard Chartres, the current Bishop of London, was his chaplain. Lord Runcie retired to the city as well.