Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

St Alban

Whether you observe St Alban on June 20th, which we lost with it falling on a Sunday this year, and raises the question as to why he is only a memoria given that he is the proto-martyr of Britain, or on his dies natalis of June 22nd it is worth saying that a visit to St Alban's shrine church of the Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Alban is well worth while

It is a while since I visited it but it is a deeply moving building, one that has survived the ravages of time, including partial collapses of the nave in the middle ages and partial rebuildings, of the upheavals of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, neglect, a drastic and heavy handed "restoration" in the late nineteenth century and much besides. It still has one of the richest collections of surviving medeival art in a major church, with wall paintings and sculpture of the highest quality. Its survival at all is almost miraculous, and in that time honoured cliche it is a sermon in stone not only of English church history but also an eloquent one of the survival of the Church amidst all that the world can do to it.

There is an online account of its history at St Albans Cathedral and the informative cathedral website can be seen at  The Cathedral and Abbey Church of Saint Alban

Today the restored shrine base is the focus of prayer and devotion to St Alban, even if his relics are lost, or possibly in part in Germany.

Related image

The restored Shrine of St Alban

Image: Wikiwand

A reconstruction of the Abbey and its buildings on the eve of the dissolution
A painting by Joan Freeman

Image: Wikipedia


The abbey before Lord Grimsthorpe's "restoration"

Image: Herts Memories

Lord Grimsthorpe's drastic restoration campaign did save the building from collapse and his west front is more impressive than its predecessor, and probably what at least of the type at least one medieval abbot intended. Other changes to the main windows of the transepts, the re-roofing and the addition of buttresses cutting through medieval work are more than questionable, as is the loss of the " Hertfordshire spike" from the tower.

 Related image

The south wall of the nave built partly of reused Roman brick from Verulamium and local flint. The early fourteenth century cloister arcading is brutally cut by Lord Grimsthorpe's nineteenth century buttresses.

Image: vidimus.org

St Albans had agreat tradition of  chronicle writing in the middle ages, and is best known for the work of matthew paris in the thirteenth century and Thomas Walsingham in the later fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries.

As someone who already knew the abbey I was interested to find in my research on Bishop Richard Fleming a link. Like all self-respecting medieval Bishops of Lincoln - in whose diocese the abbey lay but with its autonomy protected by a series of Papal privileges - and with an Abbot qually keen, indeed obliged,  to uphold the status of his house as an anney nullius there was the inevitable clash of jurisdictions and furious exchanges of letters in the 1420s. This afforded a great insight into the exempt status of the abbey both then and throughout its history. It was fascinating to see how the monastic Archdeaconry of St Albans, transferred to the diocese of London from that of Lincoln in 1550 survived until the mid-nineteenth century, only being reconfigured in 1845 and close to the foundation of the modern diocese. There is something of its history at Archdeacon of St Albans

Humphrey Duke of Gloucester sponsored by St Alban before the Blessed Sacrament and Christ as the Man of Sorrows circa 1430-40


There is perhaps something of an irony that Humphrey Duke of Gloucester, a great patron of the abbey and is buried there, was to be Bishop  Fleming's principal adversary in the conflict over Fleming's failure to become Archbishop of York in 1424-6. The St Albans factor may have added to the attendant disharmony.

St Alban pray for us

No comments: