The founding of the Abbey and medieval conflict
In 793, King Offa of Mercia further endowed an existing Benedictine monastic abbey. The current church was begun in 1077 by Paul de Caen, the 1st Norman Abbot and was consecrated in 1115. It was 350 feet (110 m) long with a tower and seven apses.
The head of the abbey was created as the premier abbot in England in 1154. In the same year, Nicholas Breakspear, who was born near St Albans and trained in France, became the first and currently only English Pope, elected as Pope Adrian IV. The abbey was extended in the 1190’s and again between 1257 and 1320. The first draft of the Magna Carta was possibly drawn up in the Abbey in August 1213.
In 1290, the funeral cortege of Eleanor of Castile stopped overnight in the town, with an Eleanor cross erected in Market Place. As with other resting places of the procession, it was demolished in 1701. It had fallen into disrepair and was replaced by the town pump. A fountain was later erected in its place, which was moved to Victoria Square, now the site of the registry office. A plaque now adorns the Clock Tower, built between 1403 and 1412, near where the cross once stood. The Clock Tower is one of only two remaining medieval belfries in England and was used as a symbol of defiance against the Abbey, as it allowed the townspeople to know the time of day without relying on the Abbey’s bells. The bells were also rung in the morning and at curfew, as well as warning against fires, and the beginning and ending of market selling.
During the 14th century, the Abbey came into increasing conflict with the townsfolk of St Albans, who demanded rights of their own. This led to the construction of a large wall and the Abbey Gateway in around 1365, now part of St Albans School. The gateway is the only surviving monastic building other than the Abbey itself. The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 hit St Albans when local townspeople stormed the Abbey and demanded a charter for the freedom of St Albans from the Abbot. However, once the 14-year-old king, Richard II, had regained control of the capital and then the whole country, one of the men, William Grindcobbe was tried in the Moot Hall (possibly the site of the present-day W H Smith stationery shop, where a plaque commemorates the event) and was convicted with more than a dozen others.
The opening conflict of the Wars of the Roses happened in St Albans. On 22nd May 1455, the First Battle of St Albans resulted in a Lancastrian defeat after King Henry VI occupied the town but was ousted by Yorkist forces led by the Earl of Warwick after a skirmish in the town centre. The Second Battle of St Albans occurred on 17th February 1461 and this time resulted in a victory for the Lancastrians who were led by Queen Margaret and which took place on Bernards Heath, just north of the town centre.