For more than 1,000 years St. Stephen’s church has served the Christian community.

According to the thirteenth century monk and chronicler Matthew Paris, the parishes of St. Michael, St. Peter and St. Stephen were created at the behest of Ulsinus, the sixth abbot of St. Albans Abbey in AD948. The abbot also directed that a church be built in each parish. The precise date for Ulsinus’s rule is not known, though a mid-tenth century date is widely accepted. However, sufficient physical evidence remains ‘locked-into’ the structure of the church to confirm a late Anglo-Saxon date in the tenth century.

Tenth Century

The Anglo-Saxon building was approximately 34 feet wide by 38 feet long and was probably divided into two interconnected rooms. The larger of the two rooms acted as the nave and the other the chancel. Consistent with other Anglo-Saxon churches, it is unlikely there would have been a tower. It is from this simple building that the present day structure has developed over ten centuries of adaptation and alteration.

Twelfth Century

About 50 years after the Norman conquest of 1066, the church was enlarged during the abbacy of Richard de Albini. The new building was consecrated by Gilbert, Bishop of Limerick. From documentary evidence it would appear that a north aisle was added about 1170 whilst Robert de Gorham was abbot. The new structure was dedicated by Ralph, Bishop of Durham. However excavations carried out in the 1960s failed to find any physical evidence of its existence.

Thirteenth Century

The Lady Chapel was constructed in 1220 during the rule of abbot William of Trumpington. Shortly afterwards a south aisle was added.

Fourteenth Century

In 1320 the two eastern bays of the south aisle were remodelled in the ‘decorated’ style.

Fifteenth Century

During the middle of the fifteenth century many works took place. A belfry was formed over the western bay of the south arcade. The height of the walls of the nave were increased and windows inserted at high level to allow more light to penetrate the interior of the church. This window feature is known as a “clerestory”. The chancel was enlarged and the wooden framework of the chancel arch dates from this time.

Nineteenth Century

By 1840 the church was in an advanced state of disrepair and a parish vestry meeting (a group of people responsible for the governance of parish matters) voted that St. Stephen’s be demolished. It was resolved that a new church be built “in a more populous part of the parish” using the materials of the old church. The following month the decision to demolish St. Stephen’s was reversed and agreement was reached to build a ‘chapel of ease’ at Park Street. This was completed in 1842 using new materials, financed primarily by public subscription. In 1859 the parish boundaries were redrawn and the chapel of ease was rededicated as the Holy Trinity Church of Frogmore.

Twentieth Century

At the beginning of the 1960s the wall between chancel and Lady Chapel was removed and replaced by a square-headed arch. In the course of this work a mediaeval squint was destroyed along with some of the decorative work undertaken in 1860.

In 1989 work began on building the parish centre to the north of the church. Access to the centre was made by inserting a door in the ‘blocked’ Norman arch and opening to an enclosed link corridor connecting the two buildings. The centre was dedicated on September 2 , 1991 by the Bishop of St. Albans, The Right Reverend John Taylor MA. In 1992 the centre received a St. Albans Civic Society Award for its sympathetic design.

St. Stephen’s bells

The first written mention of St. Stephen’s bells was in 1300 when, as the Abbey chronicler Thomas Walsingham relates, Robert of Winchelsea, the Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote to the Abbot saying that he wanted to visit St Albans and stay in the Abbey. The Archbishop expected that St. Stephen’s bells would be rung to mark his arrival on the outskirts of St. Albans. As they were not, he placed St. Stephen’s under an interdict. The Abbot said that St. Stephen’s was under his jurisdiction and the Archbishop had no authority over it so the interdict was ignored and people at St. Stephen’s carried on ‘ringing, celebrating and doing everything that they should’.

Up to the beginning of the nineteenth century, the church had just four bells
In 1803, the bells were recast into a ring of six by Thomas Mears of Whitechapel at a cost of £145-12-5 plus £3-2-6 for taking the old bells to London and the same amount for bringing the new bells back. This was paid for out of the rates. In 1892, they were made into a heavier ring, by adding a new tenor bell and recasting the old fourth. This was funded by a bequest and followed advice from Lord Grimthorpe that the tower could accommodate a heavier ring. By 1915, it was apparent that this was not the case. Modifications were made to the frame but they did not solve the problems. When ringing re-started after the second world war, the tower moved considerably and the weathercock on top of the spire went round in circles whenever the bells were rung.  As a result, it was decided to recast the bells into the current lighter ring in 1957.

Ringing at St. Stephen’s

Up until the end of the nineteenth century, bells were not rung for services, but local ringers were paid to ring on special occasions. Payment could take the form of cash or beer and was an important supplement to low wages. In the eighteenth century, St. Stephen’s churchwardens’ minute books for 1742 onwards mention payments to the ringers for about five ‘ringing days’ each year at a rate of six shillings and eightpence a day. Later, after the fee had risen, the ringers were paid 10 shillings to ring on August 12 1817 for the Prince Regent’s birthday, a further 10 shillings for November 5 and the same sum on February 2 1818 for the Queen’s birthday.

The practice of ringing for Sunday services did not become firmly established at St. Stephen’s until well into the twentieth century, as it was impeded by concerns about the safety of the tower. After the bells were recast in 1957, a new band was started, and regular ringing restarted. Unfortunately, in 2017 it had to stop – there were just not enough people available to ring – so for the time being the bells are only rung on special occasions.

An invitation to ring with us at St. Stephen’s

Unfortunately ringing at St Stephen’s petered out as members of the band moved away or gave up because of ill health, but a new band has now been formed. St Stephen’s’ new ringers are making good progress in learning, with help from ringers at other towers in the St Albans District, so that St Stephen’s’ bells can be heard regularly again. Anyone else who would like to learn or who has rung before is invited to contact the Tower Secretary, Alison Macfarlane, 01727 852111 or email [email protected]

Further information about the history of bells and ringing at St. Stephen’s

A booklet ‘The bells of St. Stephen’s’ is being revised and updated. For further information about the history of the bells and ringing, please contact Alison Macfarlane (details in the previous paragraph).