The Restoration of the Medieval Shrine of St Amphibalus, St Albans Cathedral






St Albans Cathedral’s Heritage Lottery Funded project ‘Alban, Britain’s First Saint’, included the fascinating challenge of reconstructing of the medieval shrine base of St Amphibalus.

Both the shrine of St Alban and St Amphibalus were   broken up at the Reformation and the masonry fragments of the shrine bases were hidden as rubblecore fill until 1872. Both shrine bases were reconstructed by Scott, St Alban’s with rather more success that that of St Amphibalus, since far less remained of the latter. This was initially placed in its medieval location, between Alban’s shrine chapel and the Lady chapel, but it was soon moved to the presbytery north aisle, probably due to its poor and unsightly condition, where it stayed until this project began.

Amphibalus is inseparable from the story of Alban, and the Dean and Chapter of St Albans wished for the two shrines to again share the focus of devotion in the Cathedral. They envisaged a restoration of the shrine base to its pre-Dissolution state, as far as possible. Pilgrimages to the Alban shrine greatly increased since its restoration in 1991−93, especially since the reinstatement of the relic in 2002 and the introduction in 2005 of the new form of the Annual Pilgrimage at Albantide. The shrine chapel is felt to be the spiritual centre and raison d’être of the Cathedral, and is the warm centre of the building used for prayer and devotion through the day. Most of the 60,000 prayer candles burned annually in the Cathedral are lit at the Alban shrine.

To bring the Amphibalus shrine base back into the daily liturgical life of the Cathedral, it was dismantled, conserved and reconstructed in the Chapel of the Four Tapers, re-presented as a devotional object and work of art, and crucially, its fundamental relationship with the shrine of St Alban was reestablished.

In its new location the shrine was aligned East-West, centred on the east window of the chapel and its entrance gate. It is free-standing, without an altar, and it is now possible to walk all sides to appreciate the exception quality of both the original carving and new careful repairs. The shrine is flanked by four standing candles (recalling the Four Tapers) by Luke Hughes, and topped with a canopy of blue silk made by the Royal School of Needlework. There is no first-order relic of Amphibalus to be placed under the canopy, but a relic of the legendary cloak which Alban gave to Amphibalus, allowing him to escape the persecution of the Romans, is displayed on the east panel of the canopy above the shrine base.

For Cathedral Architect, Kelley Christ, Director of A&RMÉ architects and consultant Archaeologist Dr Jackie Hall (now the Cathedral Archaeologist) it was an extraordinarily wonderful opportunity to forensically examine one of the last of the late medieval shrines in England, which followed on from previous invaluable studies by Professor Martin Biddle, Dr Richard Morris and Dr Linda Monkton. Despite the violence it suffered at the hands of iconoclasts, a surprising amount of original carved detail and even polychrome decoration survived, particularly at the east end of the shrine base. This provided invaluable information to guide the careful reconstruction, initially on paper (CAD) then for real.

The conservation principles devised for the restoration project were:

• To conserve all the original 14th century stone and complete the shrine with new material;

• New parts to be legible as such, and serve to help preserve and enhance both the stone fragments and the authentic devotional experience of the shrine;

• The restoration to be founded in existing evidence on the surviving fragments of the shrine base itself, and where this is missing, reference made to St Alban’s shrine reconstruction and comparative evidence in other medieval shrine bases and other contemporary carved work.

There were many instances where careful judgement was required to inform different aspects of the reconstruction project, including:

• Design of missing elements for which no evidence survived, including the plinth, step and column bases and the east chest panel design

• Conservation of existing stones and the extent of restoration of lost details;

• Choice of materials for reconstruction;

• Representation in the Chapel of the Four Tapers as a place of devotion.

To communicate the design intent and technical requirements for this 3-dimensional jigsaw, it was essential to develop a clear set of detailed drawings. The Downland Partnership prepared orthophotographs which were  essential for the preparation of CAD working drawings for the reconstruction. As can be seen from the images below, they allowed the first accurate images of how the surviving medieval masonry fragments may be imagined as part of the complete shrine base, restoring a sense of the original 14th century design.

Following competitive tender, Dr David Carrington and his team of expert conservators at Skillington Workshop were appointed as specialist contractors for both the deconstruction of the Victorian assemblage of stone fragments in the North Ambulatory and the reconstruction of the shrine in the Chapel of the Four Tapers. After conservation of the surviving medieval polychrome decoration by Perry Lithgow Partnership, the medieval masonry was meticulously cleaned and conserved in Skillington’s Workshop in Grantham. Disfiguring shellac was removed and archaeological evidence of the original methods of construction of the shrine were investigated and recorded.

Most lost elements were replaced with new Tottenhoe (clunch) masterfully carved by Alan Micklethwaite and Martin Coward, or with lime mortar repairs skillfully executed by conservators Simon Ebbs and Albert Traby. The shafts, all new, are of Purbeck marble, based on Alban’s shrine base and the new surrounding steps are also Purbeck.

The extraordinary challenges for the conservators and carvers included pandemic lock-downs, extremely accurate setting out to graft the new materials onto the irregular three-dimensional forms of the medieval stone fragments, and physically moving the monument itself. The original richly carved decorative scheme and ornamentation demanded very tight tolerances, and considerable care.

The masons scheduled and templated all missing sections of the shrine base using the architectural drawings, but the details of interface between new and existing stones, and details of specific micro-architectural elements required the carver’s inspiration. Careful judgements were made together with the conservators and the Cathedral’s Fabric Advisory Committee to determine the right level of reconstruction in the restoration and conservation of this shrine base. All medieval stone surfaces were, of course, cleaned and conserved and the beautiful interlace patterns were built up in colour-matched mortar repairs, as were the micro-vaults to the niches above the back panels.

The shrine of Amphibalus is now the starting point for the Cathedral’s new interpretation scheme - logically, since the story of Alban’s conversion starts with him. Amplifying Amphibalus’ story has added new dimensions of spiritual significance - especially centring on Amphibalus’ role as priest, teacher and evangelist. At a time when Christianity is less and less understood, the Church is emphasising the importance of every Christian being prepared to share their faith with others. The Dean and Chapter hope that the reconstructed shrine of St Amphibalus encourages individuals to ‘invite others in’.

Full project Team
Cathedral Architect: Kelley Christ, with Ruben Davila

Garragala, Project Architect

Consultant Archaeologist: Dr Jackie Hall

Structural Engineer: Ed Morton, The Morton Partnership

Quantity Surveyor: Stephen Scammel, Sawyer & Fisher

Lighting Designer: Bruce Kirk, Light Perceptions

Main Contractor / Conservator: Dr David Carrington, Skillington Workshop with Simon Ebbs and Albert Traby

Polychrome Conservators: Perry Lithgow Partnership

Environmental Diagnostics: Tobit Curteis Associates

Bespoke Furniture: Luke Hughes

Orthophotography: The Downland Partnership

Canopy to the Shrine: Royal School of Needlework

With special thanks to Julia Low, Secretary to the Cathedral’s Fabric Advisory Committee

To purchase the publication about the restoration:
St Amphibalus and his Shrine - Royal School of Needlework please see:

Cathedral’s website


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