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.

Friday 22 May 2020

Our Lady of the Four Tapers St Albans

The altar of Our Lady of the Four Tapers in the abbey at St Albans, yesterday’s destination on the spiritual Marian pilgrimage, is one of the few such shrines to have been reinstated in modern times.

According to the Victoria County History of Hertfordshire in the time of Abbot William of Trumpington 1214-35, the most important work, however, was the fitting up of the altar of our Lady and St. Blaise in the south aisle of the presbytery as it then was for the newly introduced Lady Mass ad notam. This entailed the repair of the surrounding walls which had been damaged by some fall of masonry not clearly specified, and the insertion of two wide windows near the newly fitted altar, which, when complete, was hallowed in honour of Our Lady by John bishop of Ardfert.

As a consequence the old Lady altar in the south transept became of secondary importance by this change but it received at this time an endowment for two candles in addition to the two it already possessed from the time of Adam the Cellarer (temp. Abbot Symon, 1167–83), and for this reason eventually became known as 'the altar of the Four Tapers.'

A beautiful image of Our Lady in the south transept, set up by Abbot Robert 1151–66, was now replaced by a still more beautiful work by Walter of Colchester. The old image was moved to the new Lady altar in the south aisle of the presbytery, but was, as it seems, very soon moved once more, this time to the north side of the church, in company with the old Rood, perhaps dating from the consecration of the Rood Altar in 1163, which had been taken down at the building of the pulpitum. The old altar beam made by Adam the Cellarer was removed and set up over the new image of Our Lady in the south transept, and at the same time the roof above the image was ceiled or panelled to hide the old blackened beams of the roof. As the transept chapels were almost certainly vaulted this roof must be that of the main south transept, a conclusion which agrees with the other evidence as to the position of the image. This was probably on the pier between the western arches of the transept chapels. This was certainly the position of the later image, which at some time after the completion of the eastern Lady Chapel, and the removal of the altar of the 'Four Tapers' to its vestibule, at the end of the south aisle of the presbytery, was set up in a chapel on the south side of the nave, and as the ‘Fair Mary’ became an object of special veneration to the townspeople. The altar beam of Adam. the Cellarer accompanied it thither.

The work rebuilding and extending the east end of the abbey church began in 1257, but the new eastern Lady Chapel was not completed until 1308-10. The Four Tapers altar lay just outside it.

It was before the important altar of our Lady of the Four Tapers in its new home that the heart of Abbot Roger Norton was buried in 1290. Part of a box of oriental origin was found here in 1872 in a stone hollowed out to contain it, and may have been the case in which the heart was inclosed. His body was interred in the presbytery alongside other abbots.

In the twentieth century the chapel has once more had the Four Tapers to augment it. The first time I saw it they were quite impressive but on a more recent visit the tapers were less striking.

It serves as the Mothers Union chapel for the diocese and there are now plans to fully restore the shrine base of St Amphibalus the priest that St Alban rescued, but who was later martyred in Redbourn. He also had a shrine in the middle aged but since its discovery during Victorian restoration works until now it has not been properly rebuilt and has remained a heap of stones, languishing in the corner of the north Ambulatory. The plan is to reconstruct it in the Four Tapers Chapel, and also to commission a painted reredos there telling the story of Alban and Amphibalus in medieval style.

Our Lady of the Four Tapers of St Albans, pray for us

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