Magpies & Harlequins

St Albans

The Abbey and Cathedral Church of St Albans from the south (still bearing the scars of its destroyed cloisters) (© Samuel Mather Photography)

Were The Knave to open by playing Devil’s advocate, he might well ask:

Why the stubborn persistence to restore our nation’s cathedrals at such enormous cost?

Before we even consider what costs are involved in large-scale restoration or rebuilding work, are you aware how much money is involved in simply running a cathedral?

The Dean & Chapter at Canterbury spent £2.1 million on the building in 2013, including £189k for stained glass and £512k on a new roof for the archive. Manchester estimates the cost of its operations (buildings and music) at £120 per hour, a per annum cost of £1,048,320. These are not small numbers when we consider that cathedrals receive no direct government funding – although George Osborne did make them a one-off £20m gift at the last budget (which will go some way to covering the estimated £87m shortfall for repairs).

Why don’t we just let these buildings fall into dilapidation and ruin?

Wouldn’t all the money spent on caring for them be put to better use erecting even higher-spec versions of the capacious cattle shed-like warehouses in which England’s Evangelical Christians ebulliently congregate every week? (There’s one such example just down the road from me on the local industrial estate.) I bet you could also get a fair few wall-mounted flat screens and powerful PA systems for that kind of money. Maybe even fibre optic broadband and iPad hymnbooks for all congregants, too. Money could be thrown at music as so much would be saved on fabric costs and, even if the building did collapse after 30 years, it could be reassembled or rebuilt in a matter of months – such is the pragmatism of the 21st century construction industry. Norman would be rolling in his grave.

In light of how much money the Church of England spends on its old buildings and despite its Knavish treatment in the above paragraph, in essence the issue of modern versus ancient fabric is one for more serious debate. The Knave wonders how the annual running costs at Liverpool’s (modern) Catholic cathedral – innovatively designed and built in the round between 1962 and 1967 – would compare with those of its (older) ‘cruciformally’  conceived Anglican brother, built between 1900 and 1978 (yes, that’s right) and now proudly proclaiming itself the largest cathedral in the land. Liverpool, Ely, Norwich, York, Canterbury… To what extent could these national treasures also be considered proverbial millstones around the church’s neck? For me it is a question that merits deeper consideration than I am able to give it here, which is why I will opt to discuss it with Rowan Williams when I interview him later this month.


Old Man

The tower of St Albans Cathedral as viewed by the Father and the Son from Verulamium Park, site of the old Roman town, to the south of modern day St Albans. (© Samuel Mather Photography)

The Knave took in the Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Albans a couple of weekends ago, with his Dad. Father and Son. Would the two of us run into the Holy Spirit on our visit? I kept my eyes peeled as we walked up Holywell Hill.

Had we been walking up the same hill 1700 years previously, we might have seen a head rolling down past us. Had we turned around to watch the head come to rest, we might have seen, springing up in its place, a well. A holy well!

This head had formerly belonged to he who would subsequently become England’s first Christian martyr.


Alban is impressed by Amphibalus’s faith

Alban was an impressionable lad. Hanging around the streets of the Roman town of Verulamium (the ruins of which can still be seen in the eponymously-named park beneath the modern day hilltop town named after our hero), he met one day the peripatetic Christian priest, Amphibalus. Amphibalus was a loquacious chap and started talking about water, wine, loaves, fishes, lameness cured and water walked on. Alban was intrigued by the stories and the two became good friends. In fact they developed a mutually beneficial relationship: Amphibalus educated Alban about the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit[1] whilst Alban taught Amphibalus (so cruelly named) to swim[2]. (No, not simultaneously.)

So, how on earth did Alban come to lose his head?

Legend has it that our friends enjoyed some good clean hijinks. One day, in this vein, Amphibalus and Al decided to swap clothes and play each other; see if they could fool any of their mutual acquaintances. What an inopportune day they chose! Just as the newly ordained Alban was rehearsing his role – “I believe in the true and living God who created all things!”, he declaimed fervently, to his audience of one – in walked a group of Roman soldiers charged with the task of crushing Christianity in England. The rest is history. St Alban lost his head whilst Amphibalus escaped to France. Some say that he made the first successful solo swim of the English Channel to get there (although no data exists to substantiate this).[3]


St Albans

The great ship St Albans awaits its cargo of human souls. (© Samuel Mather Photography)

Returning to the modern day, Father and Son have just summited Holywell Hill to find the Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Albans. We are struck by its gravitas. It sits stridently atop its hill, as if it were a ship confidently cresting a wave. Its appearance brings to mind some words from W. H. Auden:

Luxury liners laden with souls,
Holding up to the East their hulls of stone.

Ah, but alas, Auden mentions precisely the resource that Norman and his builders lacked when building St Albans: stone!


‘Unpropitious material’, indeed! Flint and pilfered Roman brick constitutes the large majority of St Albans Cathedral. (© Samuel Mather Photography)

Hertfordshire could offer only flint, flint and red bricks pilfered from the long since deserted Roman town at the bottom of the hill. And so it was, with this motley mix of ‘unpropitious material’[4], that building began in 1077 on what is now the oldest example of a Norman cathedral in England – the oldest and, arguably, one of the least attractive.

To judge on outward appearances alone, this is a veritable magpie’s nest of a church!

Contextualising the ‘bold and crude’[5] external appearance of St Albans, we find Clifton-Taylor in unusually sympathetic mood. He reminds us that:

What was asked of the builders was to enclose a space in such a way that the requirements of the Christian ritual could be met.

This is indeed a fair point. It was for precisely this reason that construction of all cathedrals began at the east, in order that the business end of proceedings – the presbytery and the choir – was built first. Building began on St Albans in 1077, with services held ‘inside’ from 1088. The church was not consecrated until 1115.

A magpie’s nest of an exterior, the inside of St Albans is positively poly-architectural. Harlequinesque!

The parti-coloured diamonds of that knave’s (huzzah!) costume representing each of the distinctly demarcated styles on show in this striking interior: ‘short and bulgy’ Anglo-Saxon baluster shafts, contrast with beautifully painted Romanesque arches (the finest examples I’ve yet seen on any of my visits); Norman piers juxtapose starkly with Gothic ones, mid-nave, due to a 12th century extension (with no attempt to effect a smooth transition); and all the aforementioned are curious stylistic allies of the rather hideous Victorian windows at each end of the transepts. This is to the eyes what a Coltrane sax solo is to the ears – hard work, initially – but something that might deepen upon further acquaintance.

John Coltrane

By John Coltrane: the nave as seen from the west (L) and the south aisle (R), from which the 12th century gothic extension is plainly obvious, to the left of the Norman semi-circular arches. (© Samuel Mather Photography)


As remarkable as the composition of this building is the fact that it still exists today – a miracle every bit as incredible as St Alban’s head transmogrifying into a water feature.

The Abbey of St Albans stood firm against architectural calamity for over 200 years[6], until 1323 when two piers at the south aisle of the nave collapsed, damaging five bays and bringing down much of the roof. Naturally, stubbornly, against the wishes of Gravity and, as ever, in praise of God, it was erected again, and stood firm until dissolved by Henry VIII in 1539. It was dissolution that spelled this ship’s near sinking. Although sold back to the town 14 years later, the Abbey now had no income and was a large building for a small town to maintain. Over the next 200 years it fell into a steady decline. Variously successful schemes to scrabble together funds over the same period seemed to go almost entirely on roof repairs (that most abiding of church fundraising clichés) until in 1770, a plan to demolish the old abbey in order to build a new (aha!), more practical (say it ain’t so!), smaller (ooh!) church was nearly successful. The plan failed.

The Abbey found its champions during the Victorian era since which time Fate (or God, as is your want!) has smiled upon it more kindly – sort of… Another south nave collapse in 1832 and a general survey of required work longer than a clergyman’s stole only steeled the mettle of Rector Henry Nicholson. Funds continued to be hard to come by but he persevered (clearly a sucker for punishment). He prioritised essential repairs and in 1860 appointed architect and church restorer, George Gilbert Scott, to revive its gothic elements (now become fashionable again, the style having fallen from favour during the eighteenth century – ah! the whimsies of History!). During his tenure, Scott re-repaired the south nave wall (using state-of-the-art railway technology to do so); restored the medieval floor; saved the tower from collapse (one of its corners had been propped up by timber alone for over a century! HEALTH AND SAFETY NIGHTMARE); then, in 1878, whilst working on the roof (obviously), Sir George died, some say of overwork, for St Albans was just one of the 800 buildings he designed or restored in his lifetime.

In 1877, as a reward for not having fallen down for five years, St Albans was made a cathedral. Scott was celebrated as its saviour.

West front

Great Scott! That’s Grim(thorpe): the west front. (© Samuel Mather Photography)

From saviour to nemesis: after Scott’s death, the cathedral (still pretty much penniless) was approached by ex-lawyer and self-styled architect, Edmund Beckett, AKA Lord Grimthorpe. He offered to cover all of the costs of the (considerable) outstanding restoration work. Whilst Nicholson had worked tirelessly to pull together a few thousand a year, money was of little consequence to Grimmers, a made man, who contributed upwards of £8m in modern day money over the course of the 20 years or so that the cathedral was his play thing. His is the crudely conceived and unmissable west front, both of the transept windows (the one at the south being particularly egregious) and the stained glass in the Lady Chapel, installed to celebrate his 50th wedding anniversary! Pevsner thought him a “pompous, righteous bully”. The Grim Reaper claimed Grimthorpe in 1905.

Who, or what, put St Albans upon steadier physical and financial footing over the last hundred years or so? I am unsure. Will this wonderful Magpie-Harlequin of a cathedral meet with future physical and financial challenges? Absolutely. Will today’s custodians fly in the face of the last 900-odd years of English cathedral history and lay down their tools and their resistance in the face of these challenges. What do you think?

The crossing tower and transepts

The ‘Grimthorped’ windows of the north (left) and south (right) transepts, serve to make the the original delicately painted Norman arches appear even more beautiful; these in turn contrast with the vivid-coloured patterns of the 11th-century crossing tower’s modern ceiling (based upon the 15th century original that it conceals). See also the ‘short, bulgy’ Anglo-Saxon columns in the second-tier of the south transept (right). What a heady mix of styles! (Ah, and looking left again, note the scaffolding – cathedral restoration is an interminable process!) (© Samuel Mather Photography)


So, at the end is my beginning: cathedrals, particularly ones as ancient as St Albans, are needy. Why not just knock ‘em down? You’ve known the answer all along, of course. It’s elementary. We don’t knock them down because they are part of us. Despite their demands and imperfections, the national heritage of England (and Wales!) bears for them an unconditional love. The C of E also knows that income from visitors fees can offset the high costs of a number of their buildings (even if they might collapse upon the visitors at any moment).

Writing for the Architects Journal, in an article dated 18 April, Simon Thurley, chief executive of English Heritage, opened

England’s cathedrals are booming.

But does the Church share the love? Sure, Canterbury, York, St Paul’s, Salisbury will always pull in a lot of tourist dollar – “Jeez, this building is older than my country!” – but what of their poorer brothers and sisters? Is that a question for The Knave?

I suspect that they are both questions for another day.

Hello Goodbye

Hello Goodbye: Father Knave pays his respects at the shrine of St Alban. (© Samuel Mather Photography)


[1] This is likely to be true.

[2] There is as much truth in this as there was in the many stories fed to pilgrims about the sainted Alban.

[3] This paragraph is historically accurate in only the loosest sense. If you are interested in reading a more official narrative, have a look at the St Albans Cathedral website here:

[4] Alec Clifton-Taylor, The Cathedrals of England, p. 18.


[6] Not a bad record by today’s standards: my local hospital lasted less than 50 before it had to be torn down and rebuilt in the mid-90s!

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