St Albans Cathedral II

By William Morris

Though the Committee for the restoration of St Albans Cathedral have determined to alter that church by putting a high-pitched roof on the nave in the place of the present flat one, the Committee of our Society cannot give up all hope that the public in general may yet interest itself in the matter, and refuse to support a scheme regarded by so many archaeologists as rash and destructive: in this hope we beg the favour of space in your columns to enable us to protest once more against what at the least we must call a dangerous alteration of an ancient and famous building.

Into the artistic matter of the relative advantage of ahigh or a low roof in the abstract, and the respective merits of the earlier or later styles represented at St Albans, we do not wish to enter, conceiving that both this as well as the archaeological point of dispute as to whether the church once had a high-pitched roof is beside the question: the point that we wish to lay before the public is that the church is already covered with a roof which can be repaired so as to be thoroughly substantial without risking the stability of the walls, and without altering the architectural character of the building, or making it other than it has grown to be through a long period of interesting history: of that history the present roof is a genuine part; it conceals or injures nothing more artistic or splendid than itself; the long unbroken line of parapet of mixed materials fitted to this roof must be allowed by everyone to hold its place amongst strong and remarkable architectural effects, the loss of any one of which would be a loss to the variety and interest of art. To replace this roof with a high-pitched one is an undertaking involving so much expense that the Restoration Committee shrink from the task of raising money to carry out the work with proper materials, and propose to use deal and slate instead of the present oak and lead. If this is done it will lay on the future guardians of St Albans a heavy burden of expenses for the repair of such perishable substitutes: but whatever material is used, the proposed new roof will involve possible danger to the fabric of the walls, and certain change in some of their architectural features, such as the parapets for instance: nor can we hide from ourselves that under cover of these necessary (and in any case regrettable) changes, the mistaken zeal of the restorers will probably lead to quite unnecessary changes most destructive to the artistic and historical interest of the building. We fear, in short, that it will end in the entire modernizationof this great monument; a result which we are sure the public in general, even that portion of it which is not specially interested in archaeology, will heartily regret.

With this fear in our minds we wish to appeal to the public to notice that the opinion of archaeologists and artists is at least divided on the matter; we wish to point out to it that the risk of loss to the nation through possibly mistaken alteration is greater out of all proportion to its advantages than the risk incurred by possibly mistaken inaction. If the fabric of St Albans Abbey is watchfully, constantly and reverently repaired, it will not be too late, when the views of our Society are proved to be wrong beyond all question, to put a high-pitched roof on the nave; or indeed to pull down the whole church and rebuild it: but if the proposed alteration take place, and it be found some few years hence that our views are reasonable, as we confidently think it will be, then indeed it will be all too late for reparation, and no regrets will wish back the inimitable work of our forefathers, which our rashness and egotism will have destroyed forever.

Unpublished letter to the Times, 26 August 1878.

The reference to this piece of work in the Chronology