Wednesday, 10 December 2014

St Albans in the Time of the Wars of the Roses

Last Saturday I had the great pleasure of meeting up with old friends who I hadn't seen for 18 years. What made the day even more special was that we discovered a mutual love of history that had grown over the years. As a result, we spent the first part of our reunion on a tour of the battlefields of St Albans.

What's that, I hear you say?

You didn't know there were battles at St Albans (psst, Don’t tell anyone but neither did I). The battles in question were the first and second battles of St Albans during the Wars of the Roses. Now the history of the conflict was fascinating and a steep learning curve as far as I was concerned. But what I found most intriguing was the snippets of information our guide, Peter, let slip about life in medieval St Albans.

The Six Bells public house -
and the site of the first hotel in England.
 We set out from the Verulamium Museum and made our way along St Michael's Street, to stop outside the Six Bells pub. There has been a hostelry on this site since the 15th century, and apparently what is now the car park has the reputation of being the site of the first hotel in England.  [In truth, I'm not convinced. A quick Google search came up with the Old Bell, Marmesbury - but heck, it's a nice story and they've both got "Bell" in the name.] 

A short walk away we enter Fishpool Street (see picture below)
Notice the deep brick wall separating the road from the pavement. Apparently,in medieval times there was once a fish pond where the road is now, maintained by St Albans Abbey. When the pond was drained, the difference in height between the ground and the pavement made it easier for ladies and gentlemen to alight from horse-drawn carriages. 

We didn't walk far at all before we came to another pub, this time The Red Lion.
Here Peter revealed some interesting titbits of information. Apparently the landlord of an Inn (as opposed to a tavern) was liable to cover the cost of any thefts that occurred on his premises - be it clothing, a purse, or even a horse. He was also obliged to find a bed for the night for any visiting nobleman, regardless of whether the accommodation was already full or not. The idea, it appears, was to raise the standard of clients at an Inn by providing a superior service. However, tavern keepers were under no such obligation and tended to attract an altogether more rowdy class of customer. 

The Abbey Gatehouse
Another short walk and on our right is the famous abbey of St Albans, with the gatehouse visible between the trees. It was from the roof of this same gatehouse that the then Abbot watched the first battle of St Albans unfold. 

The base of the Clock Tower
Entering St Albans itself, the battle started at the foot of the Clock Tower and the bell, Gabriel, tolled to mark the start of the Wars of the Roses. Incidentally, the black lampost slightly to the left of centre, marks the spot of the St Albans "Eleanor Cross". The original monument to the grief of a grieving king over his late wife was survived until the 1650s when it was accidentally demolished when a cart ran into it. 
The lampost marking the site of the original Eleanor Cross,
with the Clock Tower in the background
Turning through 180 degrees with my back to the Clock Tower, you find yourself facing the Wax House Gate. This was were enterprising merchants sold candles to pilgrims as the last medieval "retail outlet" before the Abbey itself. 

The Wax House Gate
The last opportunity for pilgrims to buy candles
And the final nuggets of medieval history are to do with the churches of St Albans. Apparently, the church of St Peter (the tower of which is the highest point in St Albans) was built within line of sight of the Abbey, at what was considered the further distance permissible for a pilgrim to crawl in penance. 
In the photos below I'm standing in the market on the same spot, facing first towards the Abbey, then turning through 180 degrees to face the tower of St Peters church. I don't much fancy crawling that distance on my knees! 
Facing towards the Abbey (the church tower to the right of centre) 

Turning on the spot to face St Peter's church. 


  1. Really interesting, Grace! I must visit St Albans some day. There's all the Roman history as well.

    1. Hi Ann,
      Yes, there's lots and lots of Roman history, so much you tend to ignore it. The Verulamium Center is beautful - we just stood in the foyer to keep out of the cold but we have every intention of going back to investigate and do it justice.
      Thank you for visiting.
      G x

  2. Really enjoyed visiting my old stomping ground, I was brought up not far away. Thank you Grace for a very interesting post.

    1. It was a beautiful crisp day with St Alban's looking its best. Whereabouts were your brought up, Judith?
      G x

  3. Used to live in St. Albans - loved it there

    1. St Alban's is relatively unusual for a town in that it still has some character. There are plenty of chain stores, but with the market and the boutiques, it manages to hang onto some personality.
      Thanks for visiting and commenting, Vesper.
      G x


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