St Albans and the Wars of the Roses
St Albans was the site of two battles in the Wars of the Roses. As the anniversary of the second battle is almost upon us, I wanted to take a moment to commemorate it. So much has already been written about the battle, so this post will focus mainly on the nearby abbey (now a cathedral).
On 17 February 1461, Lancastrian forces overwhelmed and defeated the Yorkist forces at the Second Battle of St Albans. After the battle, Henry VI was found under a tree with his two guards still with him.
Tradition holds that both guards, William, 1st Baron Bonville, and Sir Thomas Kyriell, were later beheaded on orders of the young Prince Edward. Bonville was nearly 70 years old when he and Kyriell were executed.
Henry VI was then taken to St Albans Abbey (now cathedral) where the abbot, John Whethamstede, begged him to forbid the soldiers from plundering. While Henry VI did so, the soldiers plundered the town anyway, arguing that Queen Margaret had given them permission to do so. This looting by the soldiers would eventually hurt the Lancastrian cause as London would be hesitant to admit them.
The cathedral at St Albans
Today’s cathedral looks much different than the abbey. The Dissolution, coupled with later renovations, have dramatically changed much of the building. As the monastic buildings of the church are gone, it is impossible to see the lodgings where Henry VI stayed. This lodging, along with the chapter house, the cloisters and other buildings that were part of the monastery were on the south side of the church. Luckily, the abbey church was saved from total destruction.
After flakes of plaster chipped off the wall, magnificent medieval paintings were uncovered. A set of crucifixions still remain today, lining the columns of the church and giving an idea of how the medieval church would have appeared to the pilgrims who visited the church. In the medieval era, hundreds of pilgrims flocked to the shrine of St Alban. After entering the church, they would purchase a beeswax candle and make their way towards the shrine. On feast days, they would tread on chamomile which had been placed underfoot to elicit a clean fragrance. After the Dissolution, the shrine was destroyed and was almost lost to history.
The good news is that the shrine was rediscovered. Unfortunately, it was found in more than two thousand fragments and had to be reconstructed using paintings and drawings of other shrines. Today it is an amazing testament to both the hard work of those who reconstructed it and of the original designers. A bright red canopy tops the intricately decorated Purbeck stone of the shrine, which rests today next to the tomb of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester.
There are several other sites in the church related to the Wars of the Roses. One of those is a floor brass commemorating Sir Antony Grey, the son of Edmund, Lord Grey of Ruthin, whose switching of sides led to a Yorkist victory at Northampton. Interestingly, William Bonville had ties with this family, having married the daughter of Reynold Grey.
When visiting St Albans while researching for The World of Richard III, I found a number of sites to visit related to the Wars of the Roses. It is a place well worth a visit. This description of the Cathedral of St Albans only scratches the surface of this magnificent church.