Within the Romanesque abbey church at St Albans (Hertfordshire), the vestiges of an earlier structure have been identified for the first time. A hitherto unrecorded feature in the transept, noted by the author in 2017, indicates that, at some stage, the nave lacked its existing arcade piers and instead had solid walls. The implications of this are considerable, calling for a thorough reassessment of the building’s history. For now, it is important to record the primary evidence, so as to make it available for further research. This article aims to provide a concise account of the evidence and a summary of what it might mean.
According to the thirteenth-century chronicler, Matthew Paris, the existing church was begun in 1077 and completed in 1088. New evidence indicates, however, that the Romanesque building, with its aisled nave and presbytery, was preceded by a cruciform structure without aisles. The inference is that the existing building contains the fabric of this unaisled predecessor. The obvious conclusion – that it therefore represents the lost Anglo-Saxon abbey church – does not follow without question; as yet, excavation has yielded no conclusive evidence of an earlier church on the site.
The critical diagnostic feature presented here for the first time adds substance to the view that the remodelling of unaisled buildings was not uncommon in the post-Conquest period, including large as well as minor churches, as identified long ago at York Minster and, more recently, at Worksop Priory.