Sopwell Priory, St Albans

Imagine you were travelling in medieval times from London to St Albans. The main road was still -as it had been since Roman times – Watling Street. Originally, Watling Street ran through the Roman town of Verulamium, but medieval St Albans and its abbey, founded by King Offa in 793, lay a bit to the northeast. According to the Gesta Abbatum Monasterii Sancti Albani, the medieval town was created by the sixth abbot Ulsinus (or Wulsin) in the mid-10th century[i]:

Abbot Wulsin was famous for his spiritual and worldly achievements. He loved the district and people of St Albans and looked after their interests. He brought the people from the surrounding areas together and made them live in the town itself, providing and enlarging a market place. He helped them construct buildings by providing money and materials. He built the churches of St Peter to the north, St Stephen to the south, and St Michael to the west, with a dedicated share of land, to improve both the appearance and resources of the town, and to care for the souls of its people.[ii]

The original route of Watling Street would have by-passed his new town, so he re-routed it to attract visitors to the town and his new churches. Now travellers were to turn off at St Stephen’s Church, go down St Stephen’s Hill and up Holywell Hill.

The new route was not without problems though. The River Ver needed to be crossed, initially there was a ford, but a bridge was built in the 12th century. And Holywell Hill was – and still is – rather steep. Travellers found it easier to go along Green Lane (now Cottonmill Lane) and Sopwell Lane, which turns into Holywell Hill after the steepest bit.[iii] As a consequence many inns and hostels were being set up along the route. To this day, Sopwell Lane is regarded as one of the “best pub crawls in England”.[iv]

Sopwell Lane

Beginnings of Sopwell Priory

This little detour took our medieval traveller not only to a pub but also to the topic of this post: Sopwell Priory, dedicated to St Mary. Sopwell was one of three local daughter-houses of St Albans Abbey, the other two were another nunnery, St Mary de Pré, and a leper hospital dedicated to St Julian.

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Abbot John of Wheathampstead visits Cologne

As we have seen in my last post, John of Wheathampstead, abbot of St Albans, travelled in 1423/24 to Italy to attend the Council of Pavia/Siena and to visit the Pope.  Both on his way to Italy and back, he visited Cologne.  This part of his trip was of particular interest to me, as I grew up in the Cologne/Bonn area of Germany.

Abbot John of Wheathampstead visits Cologne

Cologne in 1531. The unfinished cathedral is on the right.

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Digging deeper at St Albans

Digging deeper at St Albans

John Whetehamstede found at
St Albans Abbey

Most mornings, still half asleep, I have a look at Facebook on my phone to see whether anything monumental has happened overnight.  Most mornings I am disappointed, but the other morning I was suddenly wide awake:  Another cleric had been found, but not just any old cleric!  This one is John Whetehamstede, well-known to anyone interested in the late medieval period and the Wars of the Roses as an eye witness to the two battles of St Albans.

Digging deeper at St Albans

St Albans Cathedral seen from the east

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The Schoolmaster Printer

The Schoolmaster Printer –

the Medieval Printing Press in St Albans

Here endyth this present cronycle of Englonde wyth the frute of tymes, compiled in a booke and also empryted by one somtyme scole mayster of saynt Albons, on whoos soule God have mercy (Wynkin de Worde, 1497)

After the first book printed with movable type had had its debut at the Frankfurt Fair in 1454, Johannes Gutenberg’s invention quickly spread all over Europe.

William Caxton was the first to bring printing to England, when he set up his workshop in Westminster in the mid-1470s (either 1475 or – more probably – 1476).  Two years after Caxton opened his shop in Westminster, another printing press, in Oxford, published its first book (in 1478).  However, given my personal interest, I would like to find out more about the third English printing press – in St Albans. Continue reading

The Medieval Grammar School of St Albans

The Medieval Grammar School

of St Albans

St Albans School, which exists to this day, started life as a medieval grammar school. Even if the claim that it was founded in 948 is not supported by evidence, there is no doubt that the school has been in existence since the turn of the 11th to the 12th century. We know that the first Norman abbot, Paul de Caen (1077-1093) [1] wanted to establish St Albans as “a centre of learning” and among other buildings built the scriptorium.[2] Perhaps we can also thank him for the school. Continue reading

Cheese Making through the Ages

Cheese Making through the Ages

I love cheese.  So when I came across a reference to cheese during my research into Robert the Mason, I kept it in my mind’s “of interest” tray to come back to later.

In the 12th century, Geoffrey de Gorham, who was abbot of St Albans from 1119 to 1146, assigned to the monastery’s kitchen all of the cheeses from the Abbey’s demesnes of (St Paul’s) Walden, Abbot’s Langley and Sandridge (all in Hertfordshire). [1] It seems likely, as cheese was specifically mentioned in the Gesta abbatum, it had a high priority for the diet of the monks.

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A Builder of St Albans Cathedral

A Builder of St Albans Cathedral:

Robert the Mason –

Bob the Builder medieval style

Since first publishing this post, valuable information mainly about one of the properties given to Robert the Mason has been brought to my attantion by Victor, a friend of a friend of mine.  I am most grateful for his contribution and have revised my original post on 22 July 2015.

Ever since visiting St Albans for the first time 35 years ago, on the August Bank Holiday Monday in 1980, I have been very fond of and interested in the city and its cathedral. It was a special treat to read about its first architect, Robert the Mason. Continue reading

The First Battle of St Albans

Fighting in the Market Place –

the First Battle of St Albans

Today marks the 560th anniversary of the first battle of St Albans (22 May 1455), which is generally taken to be the first battle in what later became known as the Wars of the Roses. A lot has been written about the battle itself and its effects on national politics. However, knowing St Albans well, I was more interested in its perspective from the side of the town. Continue reading