Sopwell Lane’s Mediaeval Past. 12 Apr 2021
I live on Sopwell Lane and when I look down it, with its mixture of old and new architecture – 16th century buildings like the Goat Inn to modern apartments at Malthouse Court – I still marvel, considering how narrow the roadway is, that in the Mediaeval period it became the main route into St Albans from London. The reason for this was that rather than using the old Roman Watling Street and then going down and up the steep St Stephens Hill and Holywell Hill, it was easier for horse-drawn transport to skirt round the back roads with lower gradients, going along what is now Cottonmill Lane and emerging from Sopwell Lane on to Holywell Hill in order to reach the Abbey.
This traffic encouraged the siting of inns and hostels for the weary travellers – Sopwell Lane and its surrounds is still cited as one of the best pub crawls in England, so some things never change.!
More romantically, I like to think of the nuns of Sopwell Nunnery, offering crusts of bread dipped (‘sopped’) in the holy well to the pilgrims on their way to the shrine of St Albans. There is a legend that when St Alban was martyred his head rolled downhill and where it came to rest a well sprang up; so the savvy nuns saw a commercial opportunity in selling bites dipped in the miraculous water. Probably the nuns had a stall somewhere amongst the inns on the lane – hence the name Sopwell – but I suspect not under a jetted building (where the upper floor projects beyond the floor below) as they would have been in danger of the slops being tossed down on them! I wonder how much the nuns charged for these soggy crusts?
In May 1455 Sopwell Lane was back in the news. On the 22nd the First Battle of St Albans was fought. The Lancastrians along with King Henry VI arrived in St Albans to check the advance on London of the much stronger Yorkist army led by Duke Richard. The Lancastrians set up barricades at the end of Sopwell Lane and what is now Victoria Street but in the end, they were, as the saying goes, “to be of no avail”. Although an initial attack by St Peter’s Church was thwarted, the Yorkists, who had gathered along what was known as Tonman Ditch (running from Upper Marlborough Road to Keyfield Terrace), forced a way through back lanes into what is now Chequer Street. The Lancastrians were taken by surprise and took a drubbing, ending with the death of the King’s favourite the Duke of Somerset, who was hacked down outside the Castle Inn, which stood on the corner of St Peter’s Street and Victoria Street. King Henry was then captured and the Yorkists triumphant but this was just the beginning of the War of the Roses (red for the House of Lancaster, white for the House of York), which was to last for another 32 years.
The rest is history.
Tim Boatswain, Professor of Anthropology and History