The History of St Albans
The name of the ancient settlement of Verlamion meant ‘the settlement above the marsh’ in the times of the Celts, who lived there before the Roman occupation of Britain. The settlement has survived two thousand years of history and grown into a large English city that is now known as St. Albans. The river that created those marshes, the River Ver, still runs through the town. The local Celtic tribes had been trading with the Romans prior to AD4, when the Romans arrived in numbers and subjugated them by force. The Roman rule was harsh and at times it provoked rebellion. Perhaps the most famous of them on British soil is the Boudiccan uprising of AD60/61 that resulted in the new Roman town of Verulamium being ransacked by the marauding Boudicca and her followers. It is said that the rebellious Celts dealt particularly nasty revenge on fellow Celts from St. Albans who had taken too easily to Roman life.
The Romans rebuilt the town in style, with public baths, a theatre, temples as well as many spacious private town houses. They employed underfloor heating in several of the buildings, for much needed warmth in the chilly English climate. The Roman town was left to decay after four centuries of Roman rule ended. The Romans had previously built a city wall in the 3rd century as the province became increasingly
tetchy under Roman rule. Roman St Albans now lies under Verulamium Park , the buildings themselves were all recycled to build the future town. The Norman Abbey tower was built using many of the fine Roman bricks that were conveniently to hand at the time in neglected old Roman structures.
The Abbey is the backbone of modern St Albans, and it was the engine that drove the growth of St Albans after the Roman era. A Saxon abbot laid down the ancient market square, which was further developed by Abbot Ulsinus in AD 984. The Domesday Book records the settlement as having a population of 500 in 1086, already thriving small market town at the time. The abbots were again behind attempts to stimulate the local economy when they built Market Place and St Peter’s Street in the 12th century. St Albans was central to the Peasant’s revolt of 1381 when popular unrest spilled over into open rebellion. The people of St Albans felt they were being oppressed by the church’s stranglehold on the local economy. Matters finally came to a head over the Abbey’s milling rights. The revolt was crushed and many of the perpetrators were hung at St Albans. The trial of Grindcobbe, one of the rebel leaders, took place in the old Moot Hall which is now the site of a shop. The people of St Albans erected the Clock Tower between 1403 and 1412 as a symbol of their economic independence from the church.
The Normans Abbey Church as it was known, was started in 1077 and is now St Albans Cathedral. Abbot Paul de Caen finished initial building works in 1089. The abbey was extended in 1190, and again between 1257 and 1320. St Albans abbey hosted the preparation of the first draft of the famous Magna Carta . Despite, or because of this, King John granted the market a charter in 1202 which was confirmed by a full Royal Charter by Edward VI in 1553. Once again the townsfolk were active in their struggle for independence and rights, having previously petitioned King Edward for the charter. A further public petition gained another Royal Charter, this time from Queen Victoria in 1877, granting the borough of St Albans City status and Cathedral status to the former Abbey Church. The abbey was dissolved in 1539 by King Henry VIII ’s infamous English Reformation. The town later paid £400 to purchase the Abbey Church in 1553. The abbey’s Great Gatehouse, was converted to a prison until the 19th century, when it became a school.
The abbey drew pilgrims to St Albans, all of whom needed to be accommodated and fed during their visit. The position of St Albans just north of London meant travellers would always be passing through and the town was an important staging post with numerous inns and stables. The city was the first staging stop for coaches heading from London and the streets were laid out to aid the flow of the numerous stages that were pouring in and out of St Albans. Coaching and the many stables and inns flourished until the coming of the railways in 1868. The arrival of main line rail link to London was a huge boost to any city and St Albans, already relatively close to the capital, was no exception. Despite the rapid growth, the medieval character of St Albans managed to survive along with many of the ancient buildings.
St Albans steadily modernised into the 20th century, still aided by it’s proximity to England’s rapidly expanding capital. Between the wars St Albans began to emerge as a centre for some of the many new technologies. The city became an important centre for the emerging Marconi company. After the Second World War the influence of Marconi upon the city grew an it became the largest single employer in St Albans. The plants all closed down in the 1990s, leaving St Albans, like many British towns and cities, with the task of reinventing itself to survive. St Albans recorded a population of 129,000 in the 2001 census.