Saint Alban is venerated as the first-recorded British Christian martyr, for which reason he is considered to be the British protomartyr. Along with fellow Saints Julius and Aaron, Alban is one of three named martyrs recorded at an early date from Roman Britain. He is traditionally believed to have been beheaded in the Roman city of Verulamium (modern St Albans) sometime during the 3rd or 4th century and his cult has been celebrated there since ancient times.
According to the most elaborate version of the tale found in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Alban lived in Verulamium, sometime during the 3rd or 4th century, but some authors, on the basis that Gildas says he crosses the Thames before his martyrdom, place his residence and martyrdom in London. He lived in Roman Britain, but little is known about his religious affiliations, socio-economic status or citizenship. Sometime in the 3rd or 4th century, Christians began to suffer “cruel persecution.” Alban met a Christian priest fleeing from “persecutors” and sheltered him in his house for a number of days. The priest (who later came to be called Amphibalus, meaning “cloak” in Latin) prayed and “kept watch” day and night, and Alban was so impressed with the priest’s faith and piety that he found himself emulating the priest and soon converted to Christianity. Eventually it came to the ears of an unnamed “impious prince” that Alban was sheltering the priest. The prince gave orders for Roman soldiers to make a strict search of Alban’s house. As they came to seize the priest, Alban put on the priest’s cloak and clothing and presented himself to the soldiers in place of his guest.
Alban was brought before the judge, who just then happened to be standing at the altar, offering sacrifices to “devils” (Bede’s reference to pagan gods). When the judge heard that Alban had offered himself up in place of the priest, he became enraged that Alban would shelter a person who “despised and blasphemed the gods,” and as Alban had given himself up in the Christian’s place, Alban was sentenced to endure all the punishments that were to be inflicted upon the priest unless he would comply with the pagan rites of their religion. Alban refused, and declared, “I worship and adore the true and living God who created all things.” (The words are still used in prayer at St Alban’s Abbey).
The enraged judge ordered Alban scourged, thinking that a whipping would shake the constancy of his heart, but Alban bore these torments patiently and joyfully. When the judge realized that the tortures would not shake his faith, he ordered for Alban to be beheaded.
Alban was led to execution, and he presently came to a fast-flowing river that could not be crossed (believed to be the River Ver). There was a bridge, but a mob of curious townspeople who wished to watch the execution had so clogged the bridge that the execution party could not cross. Filled with an ardent desire to arrive quickly at martyrdom, Alban raised his eyes to heaven, and the river dried up, allowing Alban and his captors to cross over on dry land. The astonished executioner cast down his sword and fell at Alban’s feet, moved by divine inspiration and praying that he might either suffer with Alban or be executed for him.
The other executioners hesitated to pick up his sword, and meanwhile, Alban and they went about 500 paces to a gently sloping hill, completely covered with all kinds of wild flowers, and overlooking a beautiful plain (Bede observes that it was a fittingly beautiful place to be enriched and sanctified by a martyr’s blood).
When Alban reached the summit of the hill, he began to thirst and prayed God would give him water. A spring immediately sprang up at his feet. It was there that his head was struck off, as well as that of the first Roman soldier who was miraculously converted and refused to execute him. However, immediately after delivering the fatal stroke, the eyes of the second executioner popped out of his head and dropped to the ground along with Alban’s head so that this second executioner could not rejoice over Alban’s death.
In later legends, Alban’s head rolled downhill after his execution, and a well sprang up where it stopped. Upon hearing of the miracles, the astonished judge ordered further persecutions to cease, and he began to honour the saint’s death.
St Albans Cathedral now stands near the believed site of his execution, and a well is at the bottom of the hill, Holywell Hill.
- Born: unknown, Verulamium
- Died: 22 June 305, St Albans