St Albans Historical & Picturesque

Charles H Ashdown

Illus: Frederic G Kitton

Elliot Stock, London, 1893

 

The following extracts are from a very long review  from

The Antiquary

Volume 29, Jan-Jun 1894

[full review available online]

St. Albans : Historical and Picturesque, with an Account of the Roman City of Verulam. By Charles H. Ashdown. Illustrated by Frederic G. Kitton. Elliot Stock. 4to., pp. xii, 308, seventeen plates, and ninety-four text illustrations. Price 2 2s.

ST. ALBANS is an English town so brimful of interest and so justly entitled to distinction, that it is not a little remarkable that no monograph the least bit worthy of the place has hitherto been attempted. To Messrs. Ashdown and Kitton belongs the distinction of not only making the attempt, but of achieving a considerable measure of success. They do not, however, lay claim to any exhaustive search of records, and several of our towns have fallen into the hands of more erudite topographers ; but they are to be much congratulated on these pleasantly written, and in the main accurately compiled, pages, and more especially on the many charming drawings, which, alas ! but too often represent bits that have quite recently disappeared or have been improved and restored till they have lost all trace of true beauty or value.

[the review end]

This beautiful work, which does much credit to all engaged in its production, is limited to three hundred copies. We should think it probable that all or nearly all will have been taken up before this notice appears.

 

[The following paragraphs relate to the post-medieval period which is most relevant to visitors to this web site. Note the way the reviewer criticised the restoration of the Abbey.]

The next two sections are occupied with a descriptive account of the general features and component parts of the Abbey of St. Albans, as well of its various relics and furniture that are now extant, or of which we possess some definite record.

 
 
 
  Illustrations on this page from Live Auctions and the St Albans Museum web site,

ST. ALBANS is an English town so brimful of interest and so justly entitled to distinction, that it is not a little remarkable that no monograph the least bit worthy of the place has hitherto been attempted. To Messrs. Ashdown and Kitton belongs the distinction of not only making the attempt, but of achieving a considerable measure of success. They do not, however, lay claim to any exhaustive search of records, and several of our towns have fallen into the hands of more erudite topographers ; but they are to be much congratulated on these pleasantly written, and in the main accurately compiled, pages, and more especially on the many charming drawings, which, alas ! but too often represent bits that have quite recently disappeared or have been improved and restored till they have lost all trace of true beauty or value.

[the review end]

This beautiful work, which does much credit to all engaged in its production, is limited to three hundred copies. We should think it probable that all or nearly all will have been taken up before this notice appears.

 

[The following paragraphs relate to the post-medieval period which is most relevant to visitors to this web site. Note the way the reviewer criticised the restoration of the Abbey.]

The next two sections are occupied with a descriptive account of the general features and component parts of the Abbey of St. Albans, as well of its various relics and furniture that are now extant, or of which we possess some definite record.
 

 

In the centre of the Ante-Chapel to the Lady Chapel, otherwise termed the Chapel of St. Amphibalus, stood until recently the pedestal of the shrine of that saint, which was erected by Ralph Witchurch, sacrist, during the abbacy of Thomas de la Mare, 1349-96. The foolish modern notions of gaining "an uninterrupted view" as if a big church had been constructed to serve the purposes of an important Railway-station, through which it is imperative that the signalmen can see from end to end has caused the removal of this basement, together with the upper part of the shrine discovered in 1872, to the north aisle of the Saints' Chapel. Whether it is to be allowed to remain there we know not, so inexplicable are the ways and changing freaks of the autocrat of the abbey.

This shrine, which is in a much more imperfect condition than that of St. Alban, must originally have been a work of much beauty. It still bears the initials of the donor, "R. W.," on the north and south faces. The east front "was originally adorned with images and plates of gold and silver, while upon the summit rested the portable shrine or feretrum." A small altar stood at the west end of the shrine, at the foot of which William, Bishop of Chester, formerly Abbot of St. Albans, was buried in 1447.

Certain portions of the shrine of St. Alban were found in 1847, but when some material that blocked up a doorway and screen of the south aisle of the presbytery was being removed in 1872, an immense number of fragments of Purbeck marble were brought to light, from which the ancient early fourteenth-century shrine, most richly carved, has been to a great extent reconstructed. We are able to give Mr. Kitten's drawing of the most interesting fragment of this once noble achievement in stone.
 

 

The account of the unhappy " restoration " of the abbey church, which has been in progress from 1870 up to the present day, and the controversies the process has excited, are given in a brief form and with a most lenient and qualified judgment. This can scarcely be otherwise in a book not intended to be critical, but merely to satisfy the desire to have an artistic and fairly accurate memorial of an ancient city ; but never throughout Christendom has such irreparable mischief been done under the shelter of that terribly misused word "restoration." Mr. Ashdown shall tell the tale of the disastrous abandonment of the famed abbey church to the caprices of a man of undoubted ability, but of headstrong and defiant will, and, unhappily, bereft of any spark of historic sympathy :

"In 1877," says Mr. Ashdown, "a faculty was granted to repair and restore, the church, and fit it for cathedral and parochial services ; but the committee soon afterwards found themselves 3,000 in debt, and it was at this critical juncture that a new faculty was granted to Lord Grimthorpe (then Sir Edmund Beckett), by which he acquired unlimited powers to restore, repair, and refit the abbey at his own expense. There was no alternative open to the committee but to accept what must under the circumstances be considered as an extremely generous offer, notwithstanding the stringent and unalterable conditions imposed by the benefactor. For thirteen or fourteen years his lordship has sedulously carried out the requisite work, expending annually a sum estimated at 10,000. His method of procedure, however, evoked considerable adverse criticism from those interested in the abbey, who protested vigorously against the ruthless effacement of many notable features that were inseparably connected with the past history of the ancient building. The new west front and the windows inserted in the terminations of the transepts appear to be the chief points for divergence of opinion, and those of a thoughtful and artistic temperament have reason to regret that absence of sympathetic treatment with respect to the more interesting architectural features, the antiquity and integrity of which Sir Gilbert Scott endeavoured most conscientiously to retain. But whatever may be the merits or demerits of the method pursued by Lord Grimthorpe, the incontrovertible fact remains that to him St. Albans owes the preservation of her famous abbey church, which would undoubtedly have fallen into hopeless ruin but for his timely and princely munificence."
 

 

Subscription Leaflet

 

To the last sentence of this paragraph we object in toto. St. Albans does not owe the preservation of her famous abbey church to Lord Grimthorpe. Contrariwise he has been doing his best to obliterate it, and to give England in its place his own crude concaptions of what it ought to be. Had Lord Grimthorpe given, say, 20,000, to be expended on the careful preservation from decay of this great historic church, and spent another $20,000 on its reverent fitting-up for stately worship, he would, indeed, have been a benefactor ; but the squandering of 140,000, which his friends claim that he has laid out on the fabric, is a miserable misuse of his inherited or self-earned wealth. No personal sin, save that of the most over-weening egotism, has been involved in this expenditure ; but apart from moral grounds, and in the interests of the history in stone of England's past both in Church and State, it would have been far better had Lord Grimthorpe squandered this misused sum on the racecourse, or flung it away on the gaming tables of Monte Carlo.

We have almost exhausted the space at our bestowal, but one or two more paragraphs must be allowed to draw attention to the larger half of this fascinating volume, which yet remains for consideration. Chapter VIII is occupied with the story of the Peasant Revolt and an account of the great gateway of the monastery. To this follow birth notices of the famous English historians connected with St. Albans Roger de Wendover, Matthew Paris, Rishanger, and Walsingham and a well-written account of the Grammar School, its masters and famous scholars. The little that is known of the Saxon fortress-palace of Kingsbury and of the Priory of Sopwell are next put on record.

A short chapter is appropriately given to the parish church of St. Stephen, which was one of the three churches originally built by Abbot Ulsinus about the year 948. It was rebuilt temp. Henry I., and again much restored in the fifteenth century. In 1861 it fell into the hands of Sir Gilbert Scott, which was one of his worst periods. The most noteworthy feature of the church is the old brass lectern of massive workmanship. It bears the black-letter inscription : Georgius Creichtown Episcopus Dunkeldensis. There were two Scotch Bishops of Dunkeld of that name ; the first was consecrated in 1527, and the second (the nephew of the first) was consecrated in 1550 and was the last bishop of that see. It must have belonged to the first of these prelates. The most likely supposition to account for its presence in this church is that this eagle-lectern formed part of the plunder of the abbey church of Holyrood, and was brought here by Sir Richard Lee. The church of St. Gregory, Norwich, possesses a brass lectern almost identical with the one at St. Stephen's.

 
 

The White Hart Yard

Chapter XIV. is devoted to interesting gossip and reminiscences of Holywell Hill, the ancient cross, the numerous old inns, and the coaching days of yore. The High Street and St. Peter's Street and its by-ways are treated in a similar and well-illustrated manner in the next two chapters.

The Market Place, French Row, and the Moot Hall are the chief objects treated of in the seventeenth chapter. Some of the old bits that still happily remain lend themselves readily to the pencil of the appreciative draughtsman. Mr. Kitton gives several delightful sketches of these old details. " The Clock Tower and Curfew Bell," "George Street and Romeland," "St. Michael's and its Neighbourhood," and "The Tokens of St. Albans," are the titles of the last chapters.


 

CONTENTS

    Introduction
    List of Illustrations
  I Verulamium
  II Verulamium (continued)
  III Monastic Records of St Albans and Lives of the Abbots
  IV Lives of the Abbots (continued)
  V The Battle of St Albans: and Later Abbots
  VI St Albans Abbey
  VII St Albans Abbey (continued)
  VIII The Peasant Revolt, and the Great Gateway of the Monastery
  IX St Albans and its Famous Historians
  X The Grammar School
  XI The Saxon Fortress-Palace of Kingsbury
  XII Sopwell Ruins
  XIII St Stephen's Church
  XIV Holywell Hill and its Associations
  XV The High Street
  XVI St Peter's Street and its Byways
  XVII The Market Place and French Row
  XVIII The Clock Tower and the Curfew Bell
  XIX George Street and Romeland
  XX ST Michael and its Neighbourhood
    The Tokens of St Albans
    Appendix
    Index
    List of Abbots
    Authorities Quoted

The book has been digitised by the British Library and is available in book form. The many images are fainter than the original but are of an adequate quality, as shown by the following detail of an in-text engraving of a market stall at the foot of the clock tower.

 

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At the time this page was last updated second hand copies were available online. New copies of the 2008 reprint are widely available online.
     
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