It stands upon the place where St Alban was buried, having been executed for refusing to renounce his Christian faith over 1,700 years ago, at the very birth of Christianity on these islands. I'll tell you more about the Saint and his story in the next post. The place became a major focus for pilgrimages and a huge medieval abbey grew up around the site. What is now the Cathedral was the Abbey Church at that time.
Unsurprisingly, in the light of its external dimensions, it also has the longest nave in England. Although there has been much building over the years a surprising amount of the Norman church remains.
These massive pillars in the nave still have their original medieval painting. This was discovered beneath the whitewash which had hidden them since the Reformation in the sixteenth century. Each pillar would have had a small altar beneath it and pilgrims would have prayed at each pillar on their way to St Alban's shrine.
On the above picture you can just about see the rounded Norman arches. The paintings were done by various artists, including one Walter of Colchester. You won't find anything like them in any other great church in England, and very few as well-preserved in smaller churches.
Paint and colour have survived here in all sorts of places, giving some idea of what our old churches must have looked like in earlier times. The ceiling in the bell-tower is actually a replacement and shows the brightness of the original colours. In fact it's not actually a replacement as the old ceiling has been preserved above the new one. You can also see the geometric patterns on the underside of the arches.
The High Altar Screen looks in remarkably good nick for 1484 and I was not surprised to learn that the statues in the recesses had been restored in the late nineteenth century. The lines of the screen led ones eyes upwards, as it was designed to do, though my heathen eyes stopped short of heaven and fell upon.....
....the painted ceiling of the Presbytery. It looks like it might be stone vaulting, but was in fact constructed entirely from wood way back in the thirteenth century. The wonderful decoration was added a couple of hundred years later.
The ceiling in the Quire, which was where the monks prayed separately from the congregation, still has its square panels which were painted in the medieval period.
And so we come to the Shrine of St Alban which has been the goal of so many pilgrims throughout the ages. Beside it, to the left of the picture above, is the only surviving example in the country of a wooden Watching Chamber. It's where monks would have sat to supervise pilgrims visiting the Shrine. It has some fine wood carving....
The symbol of St Alban is the rose. Every year, around the 22nd of June (which is claimed to be the anniversary of his death) roses are placed around his Shrine to honour his martyrdom. From the raised area of the Shrine you get a fine view of the beautiful Lady Chapel at the eastern extremity of the Cathedral.
We'll be back again at St Alban's Cathedral in the next post to see something more modern, but with deep roots in the past. You might have glimpsed it in a couple of the photos earlier in this post.