A History of St Albans

By Tim Lambert

Roman St Albans

The history of St Albans began about 20 BC when the local Celtic tribe built their capital there. It would have been a ‘town’ of wooden huts with thatched roofs surrounded by a ditch and an earth rampart with a wooden palisade. In 43 AD the Romans invaded Britain. When they subdued Hertfordshire they took over the Celtic settlement and called it Verulamium.

Roman St Albans was burned by Boudicca when she led a rebellion against the Romans in 61 AD. However, the town was soon rebuilt and wooden buildings were replaced with stone ones. Temples were built in Roman St Albans and a theatre with seating for 6,000 people. Early in the 3rd century, the earth ramparts were replaced with stone walls and the town prospered. St Alban the first British Christian martyr was executed there in 304 AD.

Then in the 4th century Roman civilization began to decline. The last Roman soldiers left Britain in 407. St Albans was still going strong when St Germanus visited in 429 but soon afterward the population began to drift away to the countryside. It was probably abandoned in the late 5th century.

Saxon St Albans

After the Romans left Saxons from Germany invaded England. They probably arrived in Hertfordshire in the 6th century. But in the 7th century, they were converted to Christianity. An abbey dedicated to St Alban was probably founded in the late 8th century. A village grew up by the abbey and it was called St Albans.

Meanwhile, a Saxon king built a fortified settlement nearby. It was called King’s burh (burh is an old word for a fort). Later the name changed to Kingsbury. This settlement developed into a flourishing little town and it overshadowed St Albans. Then in the middle of the 10th century, an abbot decided to enlarge St Albans and turn it into a town. He encouraged new settlers by giving them money and building materials. He also began a market. (In those days there were few shops and if you wished to buy or sell anything you had to go to a market).

However, there was not enough trade for the two towns. The people of Kingsbury made much of their livelihood from a large fish pool. An abbot purchased the pool from the king and drained most of it thus depriving the people of Kingsbury of a vital source of revenue.

Finally, in the early 11th century, an abbot purchased the whole of Kingsbury from the king and leveled it. Some of the inhabitants may have moved to St Alban’s. St Albans lay near the old Roman road of Watling Street. In the 10th century, an abbot closed Watling Street and diverted traffic through the town so more people spent their money there.

St Albans in the Middle Ages

At the time of the Domesday Book (1086), St Albans had a population of about 500. It would seem tiny to us but settlements were very small in those days. A typical village had only 100 to 150 inhabitants. Later St Albans grew larger. By the 14th century, it may have had a population of around 1,300.

In 1077 the new Norman abbot demolished the old abbey and rebuilt it. The new building was consecrated in 1136. In St Albans, there were the same craftsmen that were found in any Medieval town, like butchers, bakers, carpenters, and blacksmiths.

The main industry in St Albans was the manufacture of woolen cloth. After it was woven the wool was thickened and cleaned by being pounded in a mixture of clay and water. This was called fulling. The wool was pounded by wooden hammers, which were worked by watermills.

Unfortunately, the abbot owned the town so by law the townspeople had to full wool in his mills. Naturally, they resented this and wished to build their own. Not only that but the people of St Albans were obliged to grind their grain to flour in the abbot’s watermills. Again they resented this and wished to use hand mills in their own homes.

Most of all the people of Medieval St Albans wanted independence and resented being ruled by the abbot and his agents. There were frequent quarrels between the abbot and the townspeople throughout the Middle Ages. In the little town, there was a weekly market and 3 annual fairs. In those days a fair was like a market but was held only once a year. Fairs in St Albans would attract buyers and sellers from all over Hertfordshire and London.

During the civil wars known as the Wars of the Roses in the 15th century, there were 2 battles at St Albans. There were 2 sides in the wars, the Yorkists and the Lancastrians. They fought two battles at St Alban’s in 1455 and 1461.

St Albans 1500-1800

In 1539 Henry VIII closed St Albans Abbey. That meant the loss of pilgrims to the town but it also meant the end of the abbot. For centuries the abbots had owned and controlled the town and now the townspeople had the chance to become independent. St Albans gained its first charter in 1553. (A charter was a document granting the townspeople certain rights. In this case, St Albans was given a mayor and corporation and its independence).

In 1556 George Tankerfield, a Protestant was martyred in Romeland. Then in 1604 St Albans suffered an outbreak of plague.

Then in 1642, there was a civil war between the king and parliament. In 1643 the High Sheriff of Hertfordshire entered the Market Place with troops and called on the men of the town to join the king. However, some troops led by Oliver Cromwell attacked and they fought in the High Street. The parliamentary troops won a resounding victory. As a result, the High Sheriff was captured. St Albans remained in parliamentary hands for the rest of the war but the townspeople erected earthwork defenses around the town just in case.

At the end of the 17th century, the travel writer Celia Fiennes described St Albans: ‘There is a very large street to the Marketplace. It is a pretty town taking all’.

In the 18th century, St Albans remained a small market town with a population of perhaps 3,500. Yet it prospered, partly because it was on the road from London to the Midlands and the Northwest. Many stagecoaches passed through St Albans every day and there were several inns in the towns. In 1796 London Road was rebuilt to facilitate traffic. In 1736 Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough built almshouses in Hatfield Road. Meanwhile, in 1735 a ‘scavenger’ was appointed to clean the streets of St Albans.

St Albans in the 19th century

At the beginning of the 19th century, the population of St Albans was less than 4,000 but it quadrupled by 1900. In 1802 a silk mill opened in St Albans. There were also cotton mills in the 19th century. Another industry was straw hat making (although this had begun to decline by the end of the century). Other industries were brewing and, from the end of the century, printing.

In 1824 St Albans gained gas street lighting. In 1831 a new town hall was built. In 1836 the first proper police force was formed. A corn exchange where grain could be bought and sold was built in 1857. In the 1830s St Albans gained a piped water supply but no sewers were built until the 1880s. In 1877 St Albans was made a city. The first public library was opened in 1881 and Clarence Park was given to the city in 1896. The first museum in St Albans opened in 1899. A cemetery was opened beside Hatfield Road in 1882.

Perhaps the biggest change in 19th century St Albans was the coming of the railway. St Albans was linked to London by train from 1868. That meant the end of the stagecoaches but it led to a rapid rise in the population of the city. From the late 19th century, middle-class people lived in the city and commuted to London by train. The boundaries of St Albans were extended in 1835 and 1879.

St Albans in the 20th century

Conditions in St Albans continued to improve in the 20th century. The first cinema in St Albans was built in 1908. The first buses began running in 1909. In the early 1920s, the first council houses were built in St Albans. Many more were built after 1945.

In the early 20th century the straw plaiting industry in St Albans ended. Silk manufacture ended in the 1930s. However, between the two world wars, new industries boomed such as aircraft manufacture and making electrical goods. In the 1930s St Albans escaped the worst of the depression. Unemployment was lower than in much of the country.

After the Second World War, the council tried to attract new industries to the city. Valley Road Industrial Estate was built in the mid-1950s. However, St Albans remained largely a commuter town in the 20th century. A new civic centre was opened in 1961. The Abbey Theatre opened in 1968. The Maltings shopping centre opened in 1988. A new Crown Court was built in St Albans in 1993.

A view of St Albans
St Albans

St Albans in the 21st century

In the 21st century, St Albans remains a thriving town. In 2023 the population of St Albans was 64,000.