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THE ABBEY OF ST. ALBANS.
Annos felices lætitiæque dies!
Artibus, et nostræ laudis origo fuit.
Felix eximio martyre, gente, situ,
Indulget sancto religiosa cohors."
THE profound interest connected with the Abbey of St. Albans, has been
much increased of late years by the prospect still held out of seeing its magnificent church converted into a cathedral. That this may be speedily and permanently effected, is a hope which every admirer of ecclesiastical architecture, every lover of that soil which has been hallowed by the blood of martyrs, will rejoice to see realised.
In the short historical introduction to this subject, we shall adopt the testimony of the old chroniclers, whose names, with other authorities, will be found, chronologically arranged at the end of the chapter, so that the reader may know where to apply for such copious details as cannot be comprised within the limits of the present work. This plan will be carefully adhered to in the successive portions of the work, so that the inconvenience arising from a multiplicity of notes, and the frequent repetition of names and authorities, in the same chapter, may be effectually obviated.
That the first bishops in England were of Roman origin is obvious from their very names : and that wherever St. Augustin appointed a bishop he
founded a monastery, is a fact established by the history of every cathedral. But in cases where the metropolitan did not found a monastery and appoint a bishop at the same time, it appears that a monastic establishment was formed shortly after by the newly appointed bishop. By the time of Offa, king of the Mercians, about twenty great monasteries had been established in England, with nearly the same number of episcopal sees. Of the latter, several were not conjoined with the former; the general design of both being to civilise and instruct mankind by inculcating the doctrines of divine truth and revelation; but in ways that differed much in after ages, not only between the several bodies, but also between the superiors to whom they respectively adhered. Offa's zeal prompted him to do, what many of his crowned predecessors had done before him; and feeling perhaps the acute pangs of a guilty conscience, in reference to the death of Ethelbert, he sought peace of mind and reconciliation with Heaven, by erecting some splendid monument of his penitence and remorse. It were needless to remind the reader how many of the great ecclesiastical establishments of Christendom have originated from similar causes : how many propitiatory Altars have been raised, only to attest those “compunctious visitings” by which their noble or royal founders were driven from the glittering pageants of state, to seek hope and refuge in the sanctuaries of religion-in the lowly cell of the anchorite. What made monastic endowments part of a dying man's charity, was the special provision it secured for his safety and welfare in another world. Here was an institution in which the “rich profligate” was deeply interested ; in which, after he himself had long passed away, he might still benefit by the prayers and devotion of those who ministered within its walls, and blessed the munificence of the founder. Such were the hopes, such was the resolution, of King Offa, when intending to finish a life of great earthly glory, sullied with many crimes, he bethonght him of building “a house where God might dwell.”
With regard to the precise site of the Abbey in contemplation, and the naine of the saint under whose tutelar guardianship it was to be placed, Offa seems to have been undecided; till a miraculous intelligence, says the legend,
LEGEND OF ST. ALBAN THE MARTYR.
removed his perplexities and settled the question, to the entire satisfaction of himself and his prelates. “Being then at Winslow, the king prayed earnestly to God that, as he had often delivered him from the dangers and assaults of his enemies, and from the snares and subtilty of his wife, so he would vouchsafe him further light and information to enable him to complete his vow of founding a Holy Monastery, in token of his devotion. He entreated his friends, at the same time, that they would unanimously and devoutly beseech God to enable him to carry his intentions into effect. Hereupon all retired into the adjoining chapel to pray; and having prayed longer than ordinary, and offered up the same petition as the king had dictated, a sudden light from heaven filled the place with more than meridian splendour. This was viewed as the acceptable token of God's favour, and the king determined to grant the royal manor of Winslow for the new foundation. But by another vision this pious intention was defeated. At the dead of night, while the king lay at Bath, shortly after, he was graciously accosted by an angel, as he thought, who admonished him to raise out of the earth the first British martyr, Albanus, and place his remains in a shrine with more becoming ornament. Hereupon, attended by the prelates of his court and a multitude of followers, King Offa set out in quest of those sacred relics, which had now been entombed upwards of five hundred years. Journeying onward, divine assistance was once more interposed in favour of the king: a light, resembling a mighty torch, was seen blazing over the very city of the saint-yet the difficulty was where to find his grave. But they were not kept in long or painful suspense: a ray of fire stood over the place, like the star that conducted the Magi to the Holy Child Jesus at Bethlehem. The ground was opened; and, in the presence of Offa, the body of the English martyr was found, together with some relics, in a wooden coffin, at the very spot where he had suffered five hundred and seven years before. Great was the joy of the king and his faithful subjects at this auspicious event. A circlet of gold was placed round the martyr's skull, with an inscription to signify his name and title: a shrine was prepared for its reception, richly adorned with gold and silver, till a more noble and befitting repository could be designed and finished.” This is said to have happened in the year seven hundred and ninety-one.
Assembling the prelates and officers of state in full council, Offa laid before them his plan for the foundation and endowment of a new temple for the service of God. His zeal and devotion were highly applauded by the court; and, with their consent and approbation, Offa prepared to set out on a pilgrimage to Rome, there to obtain advice and sanction from the great head of the church. This pilgrimage to the ho y city forms no unimportant event
in English history, for, in return for the immunities and privileges granted by the sacred conclave to the new abbey, Offa engaged to levy an annual tax upon his subjects, amounting to one penny in every thirty, as a tribute to the set of Rome-a tribute which was long rigorously exacted and faithfully paid by Offa and his successors under the name of Peter's-pence. On his return from Rome, Offa took measures for carrying the grand object of his life into execution. He made ample provision for its maintenance; special revenues were set apart for the exercise of hospitality; so that the devout pilgrim, the wayfaring stranger, the poor and the sick, might be indiscriminately entertained at its gate, and the new abbey become the fostermother of active charity and Christian benevolence.
It is not our intention to enter into the question which has been started by very learned antiquarians, as to the verity of the above; nor would we remove one stone from the temple which tradition and history have alike ascribed to Offa—
“ Offa, who deem'd that abbey which he built
Might well atone the Mercian monarch's guilt,
The building, now finished under his immediate inspection, was opened for the reception of a hundred monks of the Benedictine order-men who had been selected with great care from the celebrated monasteries of the day. The royal founder, however, was not destined to find a tomb where he had found so much pious and soothing occupation. He was buried in a chapel near the river Ouse, of which not a vestige is left—the water, it is said, having overflowed its banks, and completely destroyed the chapel and its saintly deposit. The abbot, we are informed, was anxious to have secured the dust of the founder as a precious treasure for the monastery; but Offa's son and successor having refused compliance, the worthy abbot took it so much to heart that he did not long survive the royal benefactor,
Viewed externally, this Abbey is a grand and imposing feature in the landscape, and never fails to inspire the stranger with feelings of awe and admiration. Its lofty square tower meets the eye of the traveller in every approach to the ancient Verulam, and conjures up a host of names and events that have made a figure in history during the long lapse of centuries
“Since first along the Ver's embattled banks
The Roman leader stretch'd his martial ranks,
But without occupying further space in the dry routine of description, we enter at once into the sanctuary, and notice such of the noble and majestic
THE NAVE OF THE ABBEY.
features as may best convey to the reader some adequate idea of its internal magnificence. Although familiarly acquainted with the finest specimens of monastic buildings on the Continent, yet so much were we struck on our last visit to this noble pile in January, that it seemed to take precedence of all that we could remember; and, as we passed before its shrines, through its
pillared avenues, paused in its choir, and stood in awe in front of its great altar, compelled us to ejaculate—“ We have seen nothing finer than this.”
“ Bold is the Abbey's front, and plain ;
The walls no shrined saint sustain,
But broadly sweeps the Norman arch
King Offa, on his pilgrim-march,