Apart from areas of the old City of London it`s hard to imagine any spot in the country with more history per square metre contained within it than French Row and Market Place in St Albans. The small area enclosing The Boot public house, the Clock Tower, and the old Fleur de Lys pub must be no bigger than a tennis court, yet it boasts a history going back to the Middle Ages and beyond.
The ground at the top of what is now Holywell Hill would have been walked on by local tribes people over 2,000 years ago, since an Iron Age settlement known as Verlamion existed where St Michael’s village now stands. The Romans too would have been familiar with the landscape, before they evacuated Britain in the early 5th century.
After the founding of St Albans Abbey at the end of the 8th century, Roman Watling Street was diverted around the sides of the abbey precincts and ran up Holywell Hill, before turning left along what are now George Street and Fishpool Street. This area effectively became the centre of the growing town of St Albans, where local traders used the space to sell produce from temporary market stalls.
The first construction of note to be recorded was the Eleanor Cross, located where the public seating next to the High Street crossing now lies. The Eleanor Cross was one of 12 erected by King Edward I between 1291 and 1294, to mark the resting places of the body of his wife on its journey from Lincoln to Charing Cross, before burial in Westminster Abbey. The St Albans cross cost £100 to build, but was demolished around 1700 as it had fallen into disrepair. In 1703 a water pump for use by the townspeople was erected in its place, which continued to be used well into the 19th century.
During the early Middle Ages rivalry grew between the powerful abbot of the nearby Abbey and the wealthy merchants of St Albans. As a statement of their independence they funded the building of the Clock Tower around 1405, containing an expensive mechanical clock and a curfew bell. This same curfew bell has hung in the tower for over 700 years and was rung at 8pm and at 4am until the early 1860s, when locals petitioned that this should cease. The St Albans Clock Tower is the only remaining example of a free-standing medieval belfry in England.
Situated across the High Street from the Clock Tower is Waxhouse Gate, constructed originally to provide pedestrian access to the Abbey. The gate was rebuilt between 1420-40 by Abbot Wheathampstead, and although altered in the 18th century with the addition of brickwork and new windows much of the earlier building survives.
Back in the Market Place, The Snug Bar occupies the building in French Row which for several centuries was known as the Fleur de Lys public house. An inn occupied the site from the early 15th century, although this was greatly altered over the next 200 years. A plaque on the wall of the pub claims that King John of France was detained at the site following his capture at the Battle of Poitiers in 1356. However, the Abbey’s Chronicles for this period make no mention of King John, and historians believe it is unlikely that this incident actually took place. A later occupant was Thomas Dimsdale, a surgeon from Hertford who bought the inn around 1745. Dimsdale was an early promoter of inoculation against smallpox, and his expertise was such that in 1768 he was invited to Russia to inoculate Empress Catherine the Great, for which he was paid £10,000 and made a baron of the Russian Empire.
The most important contribution of this part of St Albans to British history concerns its role in the Wars of the Roses in the mid-15th century. Fought between the rivals for the English crown, the House of Lancaster and the House of York, the feud lasted for 30 years and culminated in 1485 in the victory of the future King Henry VII over Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field. The first in these Wars of the Roses (the red rose being the emblem for the Lancastrians and the white rose for the Yorkists) became known as the First Battle of St Albans, and took place on May 22nd, 1455.
The two sides and their armies had met almost by chance close to St Albans. Henry and his men occupied the Market Square in the town as attempts were made to persuade the Duke of York to back down, but York could not be satisfied and decided to attack. Yorkist forces fought their way through lightly guarded gardens and houses to break into the town, catching King Henry and his men unawares in their positions surrounding the Clock Tower, with many not even wearing their armour. Henry was wounded and captured in the ensuing fight, and many of his followers were killed or taken prisoner.
With all this history to digest, the only sensible thing to do is to retire to The Boot public house, the 15th century inn on the other side of Market Square. There you can relax with a refreshing beer or glass of wine, contemplating what life might have been like for the townsfolk of St Albans all those years ago.