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Easter pilgrimage to St Albans

PUBLISHED: 09:40 11 April 2017 | UPDATED: 09:08 24 April 2017

The cathedral's High Altar screen(Ryan Fisher)

The cathedral's High Altar screen(Ryan Fisher)

Ryan Fisher

Easter brings thousands to the cathedral in St Albans, in the footsteps of 1,700 years of Christian pilgrims. Jess Unwin explores the site’s remarkable history and this year’s events

St Albans Cathedral from Verulamium Park. The remains of walls from the Roman town can be seen in the foreground (photo: Shutterstock)St Albans Cathedral from Verulamium Park. The remains of walls from the Roman town can be seen in the foreground (photo: Shutterstock)

Whether it’s the strong ties with the 4th-century dawn of Christian worship in Britain or its 21st-century ability to attract the curiosity of Mary Berry, there’s something very special about St Albans Cathedral at Easter.

As has been the case for a millennium and more, the cathedral, founded on the site where Roman soldiers martyred Alban – Britain’s first saint – will be the focus of thousands this month as it marks the central event in the Christian calendar.

The oldest site of continuous Christian worship in the country, the cathedral has been celebrating the Queen of Feasts, as Easter is sometimes called, for a long, long time. So long in fact, that it’s said the hot cross bun was invented here - the reason for the attentions of Queen of Cakes, Mary Berry last year.

‘The cathedral has a uniquely long history,’ says the Dean of St Albans Cathedral, the Very Reverend Jeffrey John. ‘It’s been the Christian centre of the area for 17 centuries and more, and Easter has always been the chief feast of the Christian year.

‘There’s been a church here of some sort since AD303 when Alban was martyred – 300 years before Canterbury. In 429, we know the Pope sent a legate and found a fine church here, and the first abbey was built here by King Offa in 793. The Normans knocked that down and finished building a bigger one in 1115, which is basically what we see now.’

Holy Week is an especially busy time at the former abbey, the Dean says. ‘We probably observe more of the traditional services all through Holy Week than some other cathedrals do. It is a poignant and dramatic week as we celebrate the death and resurrection of Christ. It’s a time when we look forward to welcoming all who wish to share this time with us. Easter is a very important part of both the cathedral and the city’s year – and the events around it are hugely popular.’

The Dean of St Albans Abbey The Very Reverend Dr Jeffrey John (Danny Loo)The Dean of St Albans Abbey The Very Reverend Dr Jeffrey John (Danny Loo)

Pilgrims and the English Pope

The centre of worship in St Albans has been a destination for pilgrims throughout its history. This tradition continues on Easter Monday when people walk to the cathedral from across the parishes of the diocese to celebrate together.

‘It may not be quite unique to St Albans, but the Easter Monday pilgrimage here is certainly special,’ Jeffrey John explains. ‘Quite a few people walk here – some spending the night in church halls and so on – in order to arrive for Eucharist in the afternoon.

‘It’s perhaps partly because St Albans has always been a place of pilgrimage all year round – but especially at Easter and the other festivals. In times gone by, the cathedral was right up there with Canterbury as a pilgrimage destination, particularly after Nicholas Breakspear, who went to the Abbey School, became Pope Adrian IV.

‘He granted privileges to the abbey so that people believed a pilgrimage to St Albans would give them an indulgence – reduced time spent in purgatory for their sins before they would go to heaven. For quite a large part of Middle Ages St Albans was the premier monastery and place of pilgrimage in England.’

The Alban Bun, first made in 1361, still made with a secret recipeThe Alban Bun, first made in 1361, still made with a secret recipe

The monk and the Hot Cross Bun

Mary Berry’s culinary interest in St Albans was piqued by the fact that the hot cross bun is said to originate here. Brother Thomas Rocliffe, a 14th-century monk at the abbey, developed a spiced recipe to make the bun with its distinctive cross, and distributed them to the local poor on Good Friday, starting in 1361. Since then the Alban Bun has been a part of the Easter tradition at St Albans Cathedral. It has of course spread far beyond the city, with the hot cross bun a favourite across the world.

The Alban Bun is hand-formed, so they are a less regular shape than hot cross buns and the cross on the top is formed with two slices of a knife – not piped on. It has a distinctive, spicy taste. The recipe is a closely guarded secret but ingredients include flour, eggs, fresh yeast, currants and grains of paradise or cardamom. Today, the cathedral baker stays faithful to the recipe, with only a slight addition of extra fruit.

An article in the Herts Advertiser of 1862 reported from Ye Booke of Saint Albans that Rocliffe ‘caused a quantity of small sweet spiced cakes, marked with a cross, to be made; then he directed them to be given away to persons who applied at the door of the refectory on Good Friday in addition to the customary basin of sack (wine)’. It continued, ‘These cakes so pleased the palates of the people who were the recipients that they became talked about, and various were the attempts to imitate the cakes of Father Rocliffe all over the country, but the recipe of which was kept within the walls of the Abbey.’

Mary Berry’s reaction to the recipe? ‘It’s strongly spiced and just with currants… It’s a new dimension for me.’

Saint Alban's 14th century shrine in the cathedral (Alan Davies)Saint Alban's 14th century shrine in the cathedral (Alan Davies)

Holy Week and Easter events

Easter in St Albans includes a Palm Sunday procession, which will begin at the nearby 15th-century Clock Tower. It’s been the tradition in the past that a donkey will head the procession, a tradition expected to continue this year. Those taking part often wave palm branches, commemorating Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem on a donkey at Passover when the crowd raised palm branches in a sign of victory usually reserved for a king.

On Maundy Thursday, commemorating the Last Supper of Jesus with his disciples, a special service includes the washing of the feet of 12 of the congregation, followed by the stripping of all decoration from altars. A vigil of prayer is kept until midnight.

Services across Good Friday, Easter Saturday and Easter Sunday focus on the 
story of Christ’s death by crucifixion and rising, and contain some of the most dramatic and moving Christian texts. Easter Eve (Saturday) is a service that begins quietly in darkness, but ends in light and noise. It includes baptisms and confirmations from across the diocese.

Easter Monday service at the cathedral (picture: St Albans Cathedral)Easter Monday service at the cathedral (picture: St Albans Cathedral)

A full list of Holy Week and Easter services is available on the cathedral website, stalbanscathedral.org

Alban buns are on sale in the Abbot’s Kitchen and Cathedral Gift Shop.

Mary Berry’s hot cross bun recipe is at bbc.co.uk/food/recipes/mary_berrys_hot_cross_65003

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