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Stephen was the first Christian martyr in the world, as Alban was the first Christian martyr in Britain:
The Abbey is said to have been built with the old tiles and stones of the ruined city at the bottom of the hill; more probably of the old Roman wall. In 1151, the building, as originally planned, was finished, and it was solemnly consecrated in presence of Henry II., his queen, and nobles. But from time to time it has been altered and added to; only, strangely enough, the parts added are not in the same style of architecture, but are Gothic. Very fine, indeed, are these Gothic portions; the nave, which is the longest, it is thought, in any church in the world, is a splendid succession of Gothic arches and windows for at least the whole of one side and part of another.
Of course it fell into decay, as all such buildings did after the Reformation, when abbeys and monasteries were put an end to. St . Alban's Abbey was, however, used as the parish church, or at least a part of it was, and the rest went to ruin. It is said that these large and splendid buildings, which had cost thousands, were bought by the city for four hundred pounds. But though in part a ruin, it was thought a great deal of by architects and other students of old art, and from time to time it has been visited and studied by great numbers of them.
In the earlier part of this century there was an English boy who, having heard and read of St Alban's Abbey and its wonderful architecture, thought a great deal about it, and it became, he tells us, "the dream of his boyhood" to be permitted to go and see it . At last he went, and he said that his heart beat quickly as he drew near to it, and as he wandered over it. The enthusiasm of his boyhood for it went into his youth and manhood, and then what happened? In course of time there was a talk about restoring it, and making it a cathedral for a Bishop. Then the enthusiastic boy, who had become a renowned architect, was appointed architect to the Abbey, to superintend its restoration. That boy was Sir Gilbert Scott. He did not live to see the work he gave his heart to completed; it is still going on, and it will be many a long year before it is completed.
It is something to go and see—this grand old Abbey— especially now that it is being so beautifully restored. The whitewash, that had covered the painting and decoration of the Norman part, has been largely cleaned off, and the fine rich colouring has come out fresh as though it had just been put on. Some of the figures high up on the walls are very strange and quaint, according to the taste of the times in which they were drawn. Some of them have been covered up again as being hardly fit for a church, according to the improved taste of these days. Texts of Scripture, in old English letter, seem to have been written over the walls; some of these have been brought to light; but it is such exceedingly costly work to get off the thick coating of whitewash that the work proceeds but slowly. It costs half-a-crown the square inch. Some gentlemen of ability and care are giving themselves to the work of cleaning off the whitewash as a " labour of love." The west end of the Abbey, which is Gothic, is being proceeded with, and it is coming out splendidly, and the interior is nearly completed, at least on one side, and it is most gorgeous. The Lady Chapel, at the east end, is most broken down, having been used, till within the last few years, as a Grammar School; and the " naughty boys" have worked away at the walls till they are in part crumbled. Through it then ran a public thoroughfare till within the last few years, and it was held to be a " right of way," which could not be closed. Happily, however, it has been closed, and the shrine of Amphibalus, who was caught after all, and put to death at a village near St. Alban's, has been erected in the Lady Chapel. The shrine of St. Alban's is just the other side of a screen, and nearer the altar. This fine structure, like that of Amphibalus, was found shattered to pieces among the debris below, and it is remarkable how beautifully they have both been built up out of their ruins.
The chapel in which stands the shrine of St. Alban has richly carved walls, and on one side of it there is a strangely constructed loft of dark oak, from which the monks watched the shrine of the saint below.
At this end of the building the work is the finest . Not to speak of the elegant altar screen, which was erected only about some 400 years ago, and which is a lace-work in stone, there are the most exquisite carvings, not only about the windows, and in the shrines, but in the most out-of-theway places, such as are now used as cellars, but which were no doubt formerly important retreats. Why were they so careful to make the minutest parts in the most out-of-theway places so beautiful? The answer is, because the work was done for the glory of God—at least so we may hope. There is a story told of certain workmen on a similar building, who were asked why they were taking so much pains with those parts of the building where men could never see them?" The Gods see" was their reply. The poet Longfellow, so recently dead, has put this story, or the idea of it, into one of his poems, called 'The Builders.'
"In the elder days of Art,
Builders wrought with greatest care
It would be well for us always to bear in mind that our God sees, whatever be the work we are doing, and that He knows whether wo are doing it well or ill. The Bible teaches us that we should do everything, even common duties and lowly tasks, "as unto the Lord," that is, because to do them is the work in life which He has given us to do. So should we make every work a religious work, as much so as did the monks their stone carvings. Children at their tasks, servants at their house work, workmen at their "jobs," let all remember that nothing is too menial to be done well, for though men may not notice it—though probably they will—God Sees!
Is it not wonderful all that has come of the martyrdom of St. Alban?
But it is to be hoped that more than even this magnificent building has come of it. For great as this is, there is something greater. One soul is of more worth than all these splendidly carved stones, and this curiously wrought roof, and these rich and curious decorations. And it is to be hoped that all through the ages, as people have looked at the Abbey and thought of the story of St. Alban's faith and sacrifice, they have been moved to think of Him in whom he believed and for whom he suffered. And among these it may be hoped that some have thought deeply, and felt deeply about Jesus Christ and their own life, and that the end has been that they also gave themselves to Him for eternal salvation. These saved souls St. Alban in heaven would think of more highly than of the costly and superb Abbey that was erected to bear his name.
Perhaps some of the boys and girls that read this account of St . Alban may go to see the place that is called after him. Whether they do or not, I hope they will think much of this early Christian's faith, and of his loyalty to the Lord Jesus Christ, and that they will be moved by an ambition to be like him, and that they will resolve to "follow him as he followed Christ." Perhaps one reason why these first believers were permitted to suffer and die for Christ was that they might be examples to others, even to the end of the world, to follow Christ fully. They are thought more of than most people are, their deeds are kept before the world, and "being dead" they speak, and what they say in the great silent speech of example is, " Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved !," If you do go to see the great Abbey I hope you will remember St. Alban's noble example of fidelity to Jesus Christ, and how he chose death rather than give up trusting in Him. And as you stand by his shrine may you hear him "speak" amidst the impressive silence, and may you take the words into your hearts, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved!"
There are some quaint Christian inscriptions on old tombs and tablets in this ancient Abbey, showing that there are other good men besides St. Alban sleeping here, and whose life was moved by religious faith of the same kind as that of the martyr. The writer pencilled down one of these on a late visit, and as it is good as it is quaint, he will transcribe it here, with the earnest wish that should any of his young readers live to be as old as "John Maynard, Esq.," to whose memory it was inscribed as long ago as 1613, it may be, at least in some respects, if not all, as true of them as of him.
"The man that's buried in this toombe
J. B. FRENCH.