The Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Alban, approximately 20 miles north of the British capital, is a building teeming with firsts and lasts. It is the oldest site of continuous Christian worship in Britain, for example. Named after Britain’s first Christian martyr and saint, beheaded by Roman soldiers for his faith in the fourth century, the shrine of Saint Alban behind the high altar has been a site of pilgrimage for 1700 years. Dominating the skyline from all around, parts of the current structure date back almost 1000 years, to just 23 years after the Norman Conquest of 1066, and is therefore one of the first Norman cathedrals constructed in the United Kingdom. By the time it was consecrated in the presence of King Henry I, 13 abbots had already served the saint’s shrine since his death.
When constructed, Saint Albans Cathedral was also the largest building of any sort in the country, and today the 144 feet high ‘crossing tower’ (an architectural term meaning a tower at the center point of a cruciform structure) is the only eleventh century example still standing – and one which in part reused Roman-era bricks and flint from the old city of Verulamium.The cathedral also contains the longest nave (the central space of a church) in England, stretching a distance of almost 300 feet, and lined with a stark mixture of Norman-era and Gothic style arches that would originally have been plain in decoration. These arches were ornamented with murals depicting the life of Christ and other religious figures in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, making them some of the oldest and most extensive series of medieval wall paintings known. Hidden under whitewash for many years, they were rediscovered once more during the reign of Queen Victoria in the 1800s.