The Roman city of Verulamium, the third largest town in Roman Britain after Londinium and Colchester, was built alongside the Celtic settlement in the valley of the River Ver nearer to the present city centre. The settlement was granted the rank of municipium around AD 50, meaning that its citizens had what were known as "Latin Rights", a lesser citizenship status than a colonia possessed. It grew to a significant town, and as such received the attentions of Boudica of the Iceni in 61, when Verulamium was sacked and burnt on her orders: a black ash layer has been recorded by archaeologists, thus confirming the Roman written record. It grew steadily; by the early 3rd century, it covered an area of about 125 acres (0.51 km2), behind a deep ditch and wall. It was encircled by gated walls in AD 275. Verulamium contained a forum, basilica and a theatre, much of which were damaged during two fires, one in 155 and the other in around 250. One of the few extant Roman inscriptions in Britain is found on the remnants of the forum (see Verulamium Forum inscription). The town was rebuilt in stone rather than timber at least twice over the next 150 years.
The city is named after St Alban, who is thought to have lived in the town and to have been martyred in either the third or fourth century AD. He was probably buried outside the city walls in a Roman cemetery near the present Cathedral and his hillside grave is said to have become a place of pilgrimage. The site of Alban's burial is unknown and remains a topic for investigation. The site of a Roman burial was uncovered near the Cathedral in the late 20th century, in the area of demolished medieval cloisters, probably extending beneath the present building, but there is no evidence of a connection with Alban.
In the eighth century, Bede referred to a Roman church dedicated to St Alban, built "when peaceable Christian times were restored" (possibly the fourth century) and still in use in Bede's time. In 429 Germanus of Auxerre visited the church and subsequently promoted the cult of St Alban.John Morris argued that the church was probably built in 396-8. It has been suggested that several unearthed remains might have been Roman churches but there is no certain archaeological evidence. An archaeological excavation in 1978, directed by Martin Biddle, failed to find Roman remains on the site of the medieval chapter house, but recent investigation has uncovered a basilica near the Cathedral, indicating that it is "the oldest continuous site of Christian worship in Great Britain".
In 1553, following the dissolution, the Abbey was sold to the town for £400 and became a parish church. The Lady Chapel became part of St Albans School and the Great Gatehouse was used as a prison until the 19th century, when the school took it over.
In response to a petition, King Edward VI granted the town a charter making it a borough with a mayor. The mayor, assisted by ten burgesses and serving for up to three years, had executive and judicial powers. The first mayor was John Lockey.
In 1555, during the reign of Queen Mary I, a Protestant baker from Yorkshire, George Tankerfield, was brought from London and burnt to death on Romeland for his refusal to accept the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation.
During the English Civil War (1642-45) the town sided with parliament but was largely unaffected by the conflict.
The bridge over the River Ver in St Michael's Street, adjacent to Kingsbury Watermill and not far from St Michael's Church, dates from 1765 and is believed to be the oldest extant bridge in Hertfordshire. It is Grade II listed. According to a contemporary account of the Second Battle of St Albans in 1461, another bridge existed on this site previously (recorded in 1505 as Pons de la Maltemyll - Malt Mill Bridge). It is thought that the Romans had built a bridge here by the 3rd century AD. The ford alongside the current bridge, which is known to have existed for 2,000 years, is traditionally believed to be Alban's crossing point on his way to his execution.
Before the 20th century, St Albans was a rural market town, a Christian pilgrimage site, and the first coaching stop of the route to and from London, accounting for its numerous old inns. Victorian St Albans was small and had little industry. It grew slowly, 8-9% per decade between 1801 and 1861, compared to the 31% per decade growth of London in the same period. The railway arrived relatively late. In 1869 the extension of the city boundaries was opposed by the Earl of Verulam and many of the townsfolk, but there was rapid expansion and much building at the end of the century, and between 1891 and 1901 the population grew by 37%.
Population of St Albans in the Nineteenth Century
Three main roads date from the medieval period - Holywell Hill, St Peter's Street, and Fishpool Street - each of which had a pilgrim church founded in the tenth century by Abbot Ulsinus at the entrance to the town: St Stephen's, St Peter's and St Michael's respectively. These remained the only major streets until the late 18th and 19th centuries when the modern road pattern was defined. London Road was constructed in 1754, Hatfield Road in 1824 and Verulam Road in 1833. Verulam Road was created (as part of Thomas Telford's large-scale improvement of sections of the London to Holyhead road) specifically to aid the movement of stage coaches, since St Albans was the first major stop on the coaching route north from London. Victoria Street was called Sweetbriar Lane until 1876.
There were three railway stations in the town, two of which are still active: St Albans Abbey and St Albans City. The first, St Albans Abbey, was opened by the London and North Western Railway on 5 May 1858 as the terminus of the Abbey Line, a branch line from Watford Junction. This was followed by the Midland Railway Company's station, now known as St Albans City, which opened on 1 October 1868 on the main line from Bedford to London. There was also a third railway station in the city centre, St Albans (London Road), which was opened on 16 October 1865 by the Great Northern Railway on its Hatfield and St Albans branch. This branch line closed to passengers in 1951.
In 1877, in response to a public petition, Queen Victoria issued the second royal charter, which granted city status to the borough and Cathedral status to the former Abbey Church. The new diocese was established in the main from parts of the large Diocese of Rochester. The Abbey Church of St Alban had fallen into disrepair, despite work done on it under Sir George Gilbert Scott in 1860-1877, and some thought it ought to be allowed to decline into romantic ruin, but in the latter year, under the chairmanship of the Earl of Verulam, a restoration committee was formed, of which Edmund Beckett (later Lord Grimthorpe) became the dominant member. Grimthorpe put up £130,000 of his own money and by sheer force of personality brought about a restoration of the church (1880-1883) in Neo-Gothic style, sparking the ire of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. Nicholas Pevsner said that the Abbey "is the only one of the major churches of England that has a West Front completely, or almost completely, Victorian." However, it seems reasonable to assume that, without Grimthorpe's money the Abbey Church would now be a ruin like many other former monastic churches.
The city's football club (St Albans City F.C.) was founded in 1880.
The aforementioned transport links attracted a seed merchant, Samuel Ryder, to locate his business in St Albans, which eventually moved to offices and a large purpose-built packing seed hall on Holywell Hill, which is now a Café Rouge restaurant. He served as Mayor of St Albans in 1905, and remained a councillor for several years after his term of office. In later life, Ryder began to suffer from poor health and was advised to take up golf as exercise. He joined the local Verulam Golf Club, making large donations to the club including the famous Ryder Cup and sponsorship of the tournament.
Ralph Chubb, the poet and printer, lived on College Street in St Albans from 1892 to 1913, and attended St Albans School. His work frequently references the Abbey of St Albans, and he ascribed mystical significance to the geography and history of the town.
Another St Albans writer, Charles Williams, lived as boy and young man in Victoria Street from 1894 to 1917. He also attended St Albans School.
The pioneering filmmaker Arthur Melbourne-Cooper was born in St Albans in 1874 at 99 London Road. He became a noted figure in the history of film when he began to explore the new art of moving photography in the mid-1900s. By 1908, he had set up a production base, the Alpha Production Works in Bedford Park Road, later moving to larger premises at Alma Road. Among the pioneering films he shot in St Albans was the animated fantasy, Dreams of Toyland (1908). He also established a film theatre on London Road to present his productions to the paying public, the Alpha Picture House, which opened on 27 July 1908, Hertfordshire's first permanent cinema. The cinema changed hands several times, variously known as the Poly, the Regent, the Capitol and the Odeon. It was replaced by a new Art Deco building in 1931, and the cinema continued in operation until 1995. In 2014 the building was restored and re-opened as the Odyssey Cinema.
During World War I in September 1916, following an attack on St Albans, the German Airship SL 11 became the first airship to be brought down over England. But when London Colney was attacked, the nation was so angered it became united in its battle.
In the inter-war years St Albans, in common with much of the surrounding area, became a centre for emerging high-technology industries, most notably aerospace. Nearby Radlett was the base for Handley Page Aircraft Company, while Hatfield became home to de Havilland. St Albans itself became a centre for the Marconi plc company, specifically, Marconi Instruments. Marconi (later part of the General Electric Company) remained the city's largest employer (with two main plants) until the 1990s. A third plant - working on top secret defence work - also existed. Even Marconi staff only found out about this when it closed down. All of these industries are now gone from the area.
In 1936 St Albans was the last but one stop for the Jarrow Crusade.
The City expanded rapidly after World War II, as government policy promoted the creation of New Towns and the expansion of existing towns around London. The local authority built large housing estates at Cottonmill (to the south), Mile House (to the south-east) and New Greens (to the north). The Marshalswick area to the north-east was also expanded, completing a programme of mainly private house building begun before the war.
In 1974 St Albans City Council, St Albans Rural District Council and Harpenden Town Council were merged, as part of a major national re-organisation of local government in the UK, to form St Albans District Council.