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.
Francis Bacon, 1561 to 1626, was our most famous parishioner, and his monument in St Michael’s Church is perhaps the most notable object in it. He was Lord Chancellor of England in the time of King James I, author, lawyer, statesman, philosopher and an early exponent of the empirical method in science. To-day, he is as well-known in the United States as at home, for under a number of the above headings he forms an important part of various degree courses there.
As owner of the nearby Gorhambury estate he was buried at St Michael’s and the monument, possibly by Nicholas Stone, was erected by his devoted secretary in 1630. There is a copy of it in the Ante-Chapel of his old Cambridge College, Trinity, and another version, standing this time, in the front quadrangle of Grey’s Inn, London, of which he was Treasurer. Many academic institutions are decorated with a statue or portrait bust of Bacon, among them Burlington House (now home of the Royal Academy) and the old art-school in Victoria Street, St Albans.
Francis Bacon was born in London, the second son of Sir Nicholas Bacon, Queen Elizabeth’s Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, and of his second wife the brilliant Anne Cooke. From the outset, therefore, Francis was familiar with the social, political and intellectual life of the nation at the highest level. Together with a number of other high-born boys, he was educated privately at Gorhambury by tutors who followed the precepts of Roger Ascham, former tutor to the Queen. Francis Bacon was a child prodigy. He went up to Cambridge in 1573 (at the age of 12!) and on the death of his father in 1578, in the words of the 5th Earl of Verulam (“The Bacon Family”, 1987) “succeeded to the family honours and in due course to the property. His career is part of the history of England.”
Successively Attorney-General, Lord Keeper (like his father) and Lord Chancellor, he was forced to resign his offices in 1621 on charges of venality. None of this interrupted his efforts to break the hold of Aristotelian logic and establish an inductive empiricism. In his “Advancement of Learning” (1605) and “Novum Organum” (1620) he proposed the idea of cataloguing all useful knowledge. In “The New Atlantis” (1627), Bacon discusses his philosophy as practised in an imaginary nation. Famously, he died at Highgate from a chill caught while investigating whether new-fallen snow would preserve a dead chicken.
The ‘Doom’ is a painting of the Last Judgement from the fifteenth century. It was painted on the wall above St Michael’s chancel arch.
All that remains of the original Doom is the wooden semi-circular ‘tympanum’. This would have fitted into the top of the chancel arch. The tympanum is now preserved on the south wall of St Michael’s nave. A condition survey of the tympanum was made by Tobit Curteis Associates in 1996 and is available from the parish archives on request.
On the tympanum, the vertical strip of unpainted wood was occupied by the ‘rood’ (crucifix). The rood stood on a beam or loft which would have been accessed via a narrow spiral staircase. The blocked-up door at the bottom of this staircase is visible in St Michael’s Lady Chapel
The Doom was boarded over and probably lime-washed during the Reformation. It was uncovered again during building work in 1808 and a drawing made of the complete scene. Sadly, all but tympanum perished in the nineteenth century.