St Michael's: A Brief History

Like most English medieval parish-churches, St.Michael's Church as we see it to-day is an accretion of structures from many centuries. In the church, the Rogers guide-book and the fine series of ground plans drawn by our Architect Felix Lander in 1948, provide detailed information for the student; only a broad outline is set out here. The NADFAS survey of St.Michael's completed a few years ago is another useful resource, with notably good entries on, for instance, stained-glass windows. It can be seen on application to the Parish Office.

St.Michael's Church pre-dates the Norman Conquest and, in common with the churches of St.Stephen, and St.Peter, was always said to have been founded by Ulsinus, Abbot of St Albans Abbey in 948AD. There is now some uncertainty about both the date and the Abbot, but there seems no need to doubt that the three churches were built at about that time to receive pilgrims, and to prepare them for their visit to the shrine of St.Alban within the Abbey. The three churches, which still exist, stand on the three main roads into St Albans; and St Michaels lies among the foundations of the old basilica (law-court) of Roman Verulamium, where Alban was condemned to die. Bearing in mind that, in sending the first missionaries to Britain, Pope Gregory had instructed them to build churches on important pagan sites, this can hardly be a coincidence.

The first St Michael's Church is likely to have been a simple timber structure, but it was replaced soon enough (Chris Saunders suggests around 1000AD) by a more permanent building in flint and brick taken from the ruins of Verulamium. The nave was a little shorter than at present, and the Chancel was much smaller. The outline of window openings in brick can be seen at a relatively low level inside the Nave and they can also be made out from the later North and South Aisles, for these walls are the original exterior walls of the 11th C church.

The addition of the side aisles with their lean-to roofs (early 12th C) blocked off the original

windows, and light had to be admitted to the interior of the church by new high-level clerestory windows.

Access to the aisles was through new round-headed arches simply cut through the original walls, and it will be seen that these arches are not spaced evenly opposite each other through the length of the Nave. In the mid-13th C, the need for yet more space within the church led to the building of the Lady Chapel to the south-east, and this in turn blocked off the clerestory windows in the SE corner of the church. The handsome timber roof dates from the 15th C.

In more-or-less this form, St Michael's Church survived into the late 19th C, when the indefatigable Lord Grimthorpe, owner of Batchwood Hall, not exhausted by his career as lawyer, parliamentarian, clockmaker and saviour of St Albans Cathedral (as the Abbey Church had become in 1877), turned his attention to St Michael's. At his own expense, he extended the nave westwards and built the tower on the north-west corner of the church. Not surprisingly, the clock is also Grimthorpe's work. Give or take the odd vestry, St.Michael's to-day is very much as he left it.

For the visitor, the two most noteworthy objects within St Michael's Church are both connected with our most famous parishioner, Sir Francis Bacon, 1561 to 1626, (see next page). Author, lawyer, statesman, philosopher and pioneer of the empirical method in science, he inherited Old Gorhambury and its estate from his father. The Bacon monument, possibly the work of Nicholas Stone, was erected to his memory by his devoted secretary in 1630. Second only to this is the beautiful Elizabethan oak pulpit with its tester and hour-glass. It is believed to have been removed from the Chapel at Old Gorhambury. Parts of the house had been built in a hurry to receive Queen Elizabeth, who made a number of visits, and it was allowed to decay into a ruin/eyecatcher when a new mansion was built nearby in the late 18th C.

The Nave from the Font

 

Statue of Sir Francis Bacon
in the Chancel

 

The Pulpit

 

The Lady Chapel