The First British Christian Martyr Saint Alban
HOLY MARTYRS OF THE ROMAN PERIOD
The martyrdom of St. Alban
The protomartyr of Britain, is variously dated to the reigns of Septimius Severus, Decius, Valerian and Diocletian. The balance of scholarly opinion ascribes it to sometime in the third century. Dr. John Morris of London dates the execution to June 22, 209. "The search for the source on which Gildas, about 540,and thence Bede, about 700, drew for their accounts of the martyrdom was rewarded by the discovery in 1901 of a copy in Turin of Constantius' life of St. Germaine, originally written in about 480 .... Constantius gives the day of St. Alban's execution as June 22nd, but not the year. He does, however, state that the Roman Emperor involved was Septimus Severus, and says 'Then the emperor Severus went to Britain...When it became clear that there were very many Christians there, with his customary fury he ordered them all to be put to the sword.' Gildas, copying from this, apparently read 'Severus' as an adjective, and, in a gloss, supposed the emperor was the notorious anti-Christian, Diocletian. Bede omitted the 'supposed' and incorporated the gloss in the text and so the Diocletian dating became established." In any case, Dr. Morris points out, it couldn't have been in that emperor's time, because he ruled only in the East. Maximian ruled the West of the empire and under him Constantius was responsible for Spain, Gaul and Britain. His wife, Helen, was a Christian. A contemporary account emphatically states that while this Caesar 'showed willing' by knocking down a few meeting places of the Christians, he killed none. Returning now to Severus: he was in England from the summer of 208 till his death in 211. He had his wife and two sons with him. In 209 he went north with the
elder son to deal with the Caledonians, leaving his youngest son Geta Caesar in charge of Britain for three or four months till his return. The Turin MS says that after St. Alban's death, 'Then the evil Caesar, aghast at such wonders, ordered the persecutions to end, without the orders of the emperors, setting down in his report that the religion actually prospered from the slaughter of the saints...To this baffling passage Morris offers the solution "that the evil Caesar was in fact the acting one Geta, and so confidently places the martyrdom on June 22, 209."
This same "Guide" also states that St. Alban "was almost certainly a high-born native of Verulamium who had probably held military rank, privileged with Roman citizenship in the same way as was the Jew, St. Paul of Tarsus..."
Writing in the sixth century, St. Gildas the Wise writes: “By God’s own free gift, in the time of persecution…, lest Britain be totally plunged into the thick gloom of black night, He kindled for us the brilliant lamps of the holy martyrs… I mean St. Alban of Verulamium [today’s St. Alban’s], together with Aaron and Julius, citizens of the City of the Legion [Caerleon in Wales].”
“This Alban,” writes the Venerable Bede in the eighth century, “who was as yet a pagan, received into his house a certain priest fleeing from persecution at the time when the commands of the heathen emperors were raging against the Christians. Seeing that this man applied himself night and day to constant prayer and vigils, and influenced by God's grace, he began to imitate his example of faith and piety. Gradually he was taught by the man's salutary encouragement, and relinquishing the dark¬ness of idolatry became a whole-hearted Christian. While the aforementioned priest was being entertained in his house for some days, news reached the ears of the impious prince that one of Christ's confessors, for whom the role of martyr had not yet been assigned, was lying low in the house of Alban. As a result he straight away ordered soldiers to make a careful search for him. When they came to the martyr's cottage, St Alban soon showed himself to the soldiers in place of his guest and mentor, dressed in the man's clothes, the hooded cloak that he wore, and was led off to the judge in bonds. It happened that at the time Alban was brought to him the judge was offering sacrifices to the pagan gods at the altars. When he saw Alban, he became enflamed with anger at the fact that Alban had ventured to offer himself of his own free will to the soldiers in place of the guest he had harboured, and thus to expose himself to danger . He ordered him to be dragged to the images of the gods before which he stood and said: `Since you preferred to conceal that profane rebel rather than surrender him to the soldiers so that he might pay the penalty he deserves for his blasphemy and contempt of the gods, you will suffer the penalty for which he was due if you attempt to reject the rites of our religion.' But St Alban, who had voluntarily given himself up to the persecutors as a Christian, was not ¬in the least afraid of the prince's threats. Rather, being girded with the armour of spiritual warfare, he openly declared he would not obey his commands. Then the judge said: `Of what house and stock are you?' Alban replied: `What business is it of yours of what lineage I am born? If on the other hand you desire to hear the truth of my religion, know that I am now a Christian and devote myself to Christian service.' The judge said: `I seek your name, so tell me it without delay.' The other replied: `The name given me by my parents is Alban, and I revere and ever worship the true living God, Who created all things.' Then, filled with anger, the judge said: you wish to enjoy the blessings of a long life, do not refuse to offer sacrifice to the great gods.' Alban replied: `These sacrifices which you offer to the pagan gods can neither help their recipients nor fulfil the wishes and desires of those praying. Rather, whoever offers sacrifice to these images shall receive as his reward the eternal punishment of Hell.' When the judge heard this, he was roused to great fury and ordered the holy confessor of God to be beaten by the torturers in the belief that since words had failed, he could weaken the constancy of his heart with the lash. Though afflicted in most cruel torture, AIban bore it with patience and even with joy for God's sake, and when the judge realised that he could not be overcome bv torture or enticed from the rites of the Christian religion, he ordered him to be beheaded.
“As he was being led to his death, Alban came to a river which separated the town from the place of his execution bv its verv swift course. There he saw a large crowd of people, both men and women of all ages and social class, who were clearly drawn by divine impulse to follow the blessed confessor and martvr. Thev filled the bridge over the river to such an extent that they could scarcely all get over before nightfall. Indeed since almost all had gone forth, the judge was left in the city without any attendants. So, St Alban, in whose mind was a burning desire to come quicklv to his martyrdom, approached the torrent, and raising his eyes to heaven, he saw the bed of the river instantly drv up and the water withdraw and make a path for his steps. When the executioner himself saw this along with others, he hastened to meet Alban when he came to the place appointed for his execution, doubtless urged on in this by divine impulse. Casting away the sword he held ready drawn, he threw himself at his feet and earnestly desired that he himself be thought worthy of being executed either with the martyr he was ordered to slay or in his place . . .
“So while he was turned from a persecutor into a companion in the true faith, and while there was a very proper hesitation among the other executioners in taking up the sword which lay on the ground, the most reverend confessor ascended the hill with the crowds. This hill lay about five hundred paces from the arena, and, as was fitting, it was fair, shining and beautiful, adorned, indeed clothed, on all sides with wild flowers of every kind; nowhere was it steep or precipitous or sheer but Nature had provided it with wide, long-sloping sides stretching smoothly down to the level of the plain. In fact its natural beauty had long fitted it as a place to be hallowed by the blood of a blessed martyr. When he reached the top of the hill, St. Alban asked God to give him water and at once a perpetual spring bubbled up, confined within its channel and at his very feet, so that all could see that even the stream rendered service to the martyr. For it could not have happened that the martyr who had left no water remaining the river would have desired it on the top of the hill, if he had not realized that this was fitting. The river, when it had fulfilled its duty and completed its pious service, returned to its natural course, but it left behind a witness of its ministry. And so in this spot the valiant martyr was beheaded and received the crown of life which God has promised to those who love Him. But the man who set his unholv hands upon that pious neck was not allowed to rejoice over the death: for his eves fell to the ground along with the head of the blessed martvr. Beheaded too at that time was the soldier who previouslv had been impelled by the will of Heaven to refuse to strike the holv confessor of God . . . Then the judge, daunted bv such great and unprecedented heav¬enly miracles, soon ordered a halt to the persecution. He was beginning, in fact, to pay honour to the slaughter of saints, through which he previouslv believed he could force them to give up their allegiance to the Christian faith. The blessed Alban suffered on the 22nd of June near the city of Verulamium… Here when peaceful Christian times returned, a church of wonderful workmanship was built, a worthy memorial of his martyrdom. To this day sick people are healed at this place and the working of frequent miracles to bring it renown.
“About this time there also suffered Aaron and Julius, citizens of Caerleon, and many others, both men and women, in various places. They were racked by many kinds of torture and their limbs were indescribably mangled but, when their sufferings were over, their souls were carried to the joys of the Heavenly City.”
In the fifth century, Saints Germanus of Auxerre and Lupus of Troyes prayed at the shrine of St. Alban, and through the influence of St. Germanus several French churches and villages were named after him. Nine ancient English churches were dedicated to him.
By tradition, the name of the priest whom St. Alban sheltered is known to have been Amphibalus. He also received the crown of martyrdom (although this is disputed), and it is claimed that his relics were recovered at Redbourn in 1177. Churches were dedicated to Saints Julius and Aaron in and near Caerleon.
As Robert Thornsberry writes, “the relics of holy Alban, Amphibalus, and perhaps the soldier as well, were preserved. A church, and later a cathedral, were built upon the site of the martyrdom and burial. During the invasions of the pagan Danes, they were removed for safekeeping. This later led to a shameful altercation between the monks of St. Albans and Ely that lasted for centuries. After the conquest [of 1066], the Normans, in order to impress the populace with their reverence for the island’s saints, repaired and rebuilt the cathedral. Early in the fourteenth century, a new chapel and an elaborate shrine were constructed to house the relics. In the sixteenth century, the impious hands of the minions of Henry VIII destroyed the shrine during the dissolution of the monasteries. I do not know what became of the relics. Many years later, the shrine was laboriously pieced back together from the approximately two thousand fragments into which it had been smashed, and now stands in its former glory in the Anglican cathedral of St. Alban’s.”
(Sources: Gildas, On the Destruction of Britain; Bede, History of the English Church and People, I, 7; Robert Edward Thornsberry, “Saint Alban, Protomartyr of Britain”, Living Orthodoxy, vol. V, no. 3, May-June, 1983, pp. 5-7; David Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Oxford: Clarendon, 1978, pp. 8-9, 16, 227-228; Fr. Panagiotis Carras)