The St Albans area has a long history of settlement. The Celtic Catuvellauni tribe had a settlement at Prae Hill a mile or so to the west. The Roman city of Verulamium, second-largest town in Roman Britain after Londinium, was built alongside this in the valley of the River Ver a little nearer to the present city centre.
After the Roman withdrawal, and prior to becoming known as St Albans, the town was called Verlamchester or Wæclingacaester by the Mercian Angles.
The mediaeval town grew up on the hill to the east of this around the Benedictine foundation of St Albans Abbey. This is the spot where tradition has it that St Alban, the first British Christian martyr, was beheaded sometime before AD 324. It was, at one time, the principal abbey in England and the first draft of Magna Carta was drawn up there, reflecting its political importance. The Abbey Church, now St Albans Cathedral (formally the Cathedral & Abbey Church of St Alban but still known locally as The Abbey) became the parish church when it was bought by the local people in 1553, soon after the priory was dissolved in 1539. It was made a cathedral in 1877 when the City Charter was granted. There is evidence that the original site was somewhat higher up the hill than the present building and there had certainly been successive abbeys before the current building was started in 1077.
St Albans School, a public school which occupies a site to the west of the Abbey and which includes the 14th century Abbey Gateway, was founded in AD 948 and is the only school in the English-speaking world to have educated a Pope (Adrian IV). It numbered amongst its buildings until comparatively recently a converted former hat factory, a link with the city's industrial past. Nearby Luton was also a notable centre for the hat making industry.
The road between the Abbey and the school, running down to the River Ver and Verulamium Park (on part of the site of Roman Verulamium), is called Abbey Mill Lane. On this road are the palaces of the Bishops of St Albans and Hertford. The Fighting Cocks, one of the oldest public houses in England, is at the Verulamium Park end of this road. Also on the River Ver, at the St Michael's Village end of the park, is Kingsbury Watermill, which is now maintained as a museum with a waffle house attached.
Two battles of the Wars of the Roses took place in or near the town. The First Battle of St Albans was fought on 22 May 1455 within the town of St Albans itself, and the Second Battle of St Albans was fought on 17 February 1461, just to the north.
The growth of St Albans was generally slow before the 20th century, reflecting its status as a rural market town, a Christian pilgrimage site, and the first coaching stop of the route to and from London - a fact which also accounts for its numerous inns, many dating from Tudor times. In the inter-war years it became a popular centre for the electronics industry. In the post-World War II years it was expanded significantly as part of the post-War redistribution of population out of Greater London that also saw the creation of new towns.
The city today shows evidence of building and excavation from all periods of its history and is a tourist destination. Notable buildings include the Abbey and the early 15th century Clock Tower (pictured). The clock tower is one of only two similar towers in England; it is also the site of an Eleanor cross, which was pulled down in 1703, it had suffered years of neglect, and had been struck and badly damaged by a carriage, it was replaced by the town pump. A fountain was erected in its place in 1874, now relocated to Victoria Place.
Running into St Albans from the south is Holywell Hill (generally pronounced "holly-well hill"), its name taken from the story of St Alban: legend has it that the Romans were looking for a traitor that had been injured and Alban found the traitor and helped him to recover, but soon after he had recovered and left the Romans found out that he had helped the traitor to escape and beheaded him, his severed head rolled down the hill from the execution site and into a well at the bottom of Holywell Hill.
The mixed character of St Albans and proximity to London has made it a popular filming location. The Abbey and Fishpool Street areas were used for the pilot episode of the 1960s' ecclesiastical TV comedy All Gas and Gaiters. The area of Romeland, directly north of the Abbey Gateway and the walls of the Abbey and school grounds, can be seen masquerading as part of an Oxford college in some episodes of Inspector Morse (and several local pubs also appear). Fishpool Street, running from Romeland to St Michael's village, stood in for Hastings in some episodes of Foyle's War. Life Begins was filmed largely in and around St Albans. The Lady Chapel in the Abbey itself was used as a location for at least one scene in Sean Connery's 1995 film First Knight, whilst the nave of the Abbey was used during a coronation scene as a substitute for Westminster Abbey in Johnny English starring Rowan Atkinson. The 19th century gatehouse of the former prison near the mainline station appeared in the title sequence of the TV series Porridge, starring Ronnie Barker. The 2001 film Birthday Girl starring Ben Chaplin and Nicole Kidman was also partly filmed in St Albans.
More recently, several scenes from the film Incendiary, starring Michelle Williams, Ewan McGregor and Matthew Macfadyen, were filmed in St Albans, focusing in particular on the Abbey and the Abbey Gateway. It is also home to popular stage school: Top Hat Stage & Screen School.
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