As we explored St. Albans, the haunted Cathedral was very much on our visit list and we were not disappointed! Formerly a Norman abbey, it was a victim of Henry VIII and his dissolution decree, but obtained cathedral status in the late 1800s. It’s origins go back much further however, to a tale of persecution, execution and sainthood, leading to many sightings and reports of haunting right up to the present day.
It is a mix of original 8th century Norman foundations, with the addition of Romanesque and Gothic architecture, with an intense atmosphere we have not encountered in any other places of worship we have visited.
So Who Was Saint Alban?
Centuries before the construction of the abbey, a young man called Alban lived in the Roman town of Verulamium that St. Albans grew from. He befriended a priest who was fleeing a mob and gave sanctuary to the Christian teacher.
Word reached the Roman officials who sent soldiers to arrest the priest. Alban put on the priest’s clothing and passed himself off as the fugitive. He was presented to the judge while the lawman was practicing pagan rites at the altar of his gods. Interestingly, in the writings of Saint Bede, these are described as worshipping the “devils.”
The furious judge screamed that Alban was to be punished for not respecting the gods and in response the brave Christian replied “I worship the one true God who created all things.” These words are still repeated in the Catherdral today.
Incensed, the judge ordered Alban to be tortured and when that failed, he ordered the man to be beheaded. The execution procession reached the river and they could not cross. The townsfolk blocked the bridge so Alban prayed and the river dried up. His would be executioner fell to his knees and refused to condemn the Holy man, at the cost of his own life.
Once they reached a meadow of beauty, in contrast the two men were beheaded and the eyes of the executioner fell from their sockets so he could not gloat over his heinous act. The eyes rolled with the head of the would be Saint and where it rested, water sprang from the ground. Saint Albans’s Cathedral is said to be the site of the execution and the spring is now Holywell Hill.
The Ghosts of the Cathedral
During the war, places of note like St. Albans Cathedral would have a firewatch, a rota of locals would take turns to ensure that those seeking refuge within and the important historical artefacts were not fire damaged.
One poor young fellow was alone making his rounds when he glanced into the Mezzanine, only to see two robed figures staring back at him, right at the feet of the statue of St. Alban. Despite his nerves, he followed his duty to the letter and climbed the stairs to the organ loft to investigate. Of course when he got up there, no one was around!
Shaken, he descended the stairs, only to be drawn back to the sound of the organ playing. When the poor chap arrived back up, there was a lighted candle upon the organ and sheet music open as the keys of the organ were being pressed by an invisible force!
Already terrorised, the poor youth was astounded to glance into the Nave and see a procession of chanting monks walking in the aisle before disappearing into nothing.
There have been many instances of ghostly organ play reported, as well as monk sightings and apparitions disappearing through walls.
A Canon returned from a late night meeting and heard the organ being played, however the score was unfamiliar to him. He quizzed the organist the following day, who said he hadn’t been anywhere near the Cathedral. A few weeks later, some music sheets from the 1400s were uncovered that had belonged to the Master of the King’s Music. When the organist played it, the hairs on the back of the Canon’s neck stood up – it was the same music he heard played by the phantom organist!
Ghostly Roman soldiers has been sighted on more than one occasion marching on the grounds and the spirit of St. Alban himself dressed in white has been seen serenely inspecting his domain.
Blessed and Cursed – The Ancient Cedar Tree
St. Albans Cathedral has grounds that are both lawned and containing graves. One of the trees within was planted by an ancestor of Princess Diana and it has a legend attached. The cedar tree is over 200 years old and carries a legend, that if you walk around it 12 times clockwise, you will encounter true love.
If you make the mistake and go around anticlockwise however, you will come face to face with the devil.
A fascinating location, we were glad to have the opportunity to visit and explore. Definitely something ethereal there that requires more investigation!