|Died||disputed: 22 June 209, c.251 or 304
Holywell Hill (formerly Holmhurst Hill), St Albans
|Venerated in||Roman Catholic Church; Anglican Communion; Eastern Orthodox Church|
|Major shrine||Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Alban|
|Attributes||Soldier with a very large cross and a sword; decapitated, with his head in a holly bush and the eyes of his executioner dropping out|
|Patronage||converts, refugees, torture victims|
Saint Alban (/, /) is venerated as the first recorded British Christian martyr, and is considered to be the British protomartyr. Along with his fellow saints "Amphibalus," Julius, and Aaron, Alban is one of four named martyrs recorded from Roman Britain. He is traditionally believed to have been beheaded in the Roman city of Verulamium (modern St. Alban's Cathedral) sometime during the 3rd or 4th century, and his cult has been celebrated there since ancient times.
The Historical Alban
Little can actually be known about the real St. Alban (estimated to have died c. 209 - 305 A.D. depending on interpretations), as there are no contemporaneous accounts of his martyrdom. The major sources on his life were written hundreds of years after his death, and many of the later texts contain traditional additions and wondrous embellishments that may or may not have occurred. In the view of Robin Lane Fox, "the date and historicity of the first British "martyr", St Alban, are highly disputable".
Contemporary research by historians suggests that the origin of the Saint Alban cult as we know it was an invention of Germanus and other Late Antique leaders, who promoted his cult as a way of combating the Pelagian Heresy. Before Germanus' visit to Britain c. 429 AD, "Alban" was an unnamed saint about whom little was known. When Germanus visited his tomb as part of tour of Britain to combat Pelagianism, the Christians there knew nothing about the martyr, not even his name. While at the tomb, Germanus claimed that Saint Alban came to him in a dream, revealing his name and the story of his martyrdom. Germanus had this vision set down in tituli (possibly engraved in the walls of a church with illustrations), which went on to become the first version of the Passio Albani, or original account of Saint Alban's life and martyrdom. This first version of the Passio, written in the 5th century, was very simple and short, and as time went on, more and more details and wondrous events were added to the account until it came to its most detailed version in the 8th century, in Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People.
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 (see dating controversy below), though some sources place his residence and martyrdom in London. He lived during the Roman period in Britain, but little is known about Alban's religious affiliations, socioeconomic 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, and this 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 this 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." (These 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 these tortures would not shake his faith, he ordered that Alban be beheaded.
Alban was led to execution, and he presently came to a fast flowing river which 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 if possible be executed for him. The other executioners hesitated to pick up his sword, and in the meanwhile, Alban and the multitude 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, whereupon a spring immediately sprang up at his feet. It was at this place 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 these miracles, the astonished judge ordered further persecutions to cease, and began to honour the saint's death. St Albans Cathedral now stands near to the believed site of his execution, and a well does exist at the bottom of the hill, Holywell Hill.
The earliest mention of Alban's martyrdom is believed to be in Victricius' De Laude Sanctorum (The Praise of Saints), c. 396. Victricius had just returned from settling an unnamed dispute among the bishops of Britain. He does not mention Alban by name, but includes an unnamed martyr who, "in the hands of the executioners told rivers to draw back, lest he should be delayed in his haste." This account closely resembles Alban's martyrdom, and many historians have reasonably concluded that this may be a reference to Alban, making it the earliest surviving reference to a British Saint.
The foundational text concerning Alban is the Passio Albani, or the Passion of Alban, which relates the tale of Alban's martyrdom, and Germanus of Auxerre's subsequent visit to the site of Alban's execution. This Passio survives in six manuscripts, with three different recensions, referred to as T, P, and E. The T manuscript is located in Turin, the P manuscript is found in Paris, and the E manuscripts (of which there are 4) are located at The British Library, Gray's Inn London, Autun, and Einsiedeln. This Passio is very likely the source text of the more well known accounts found in Gildas and Bede.
Another early text to mention Alban is the Vita Germani, or Life of St Germanus of Auxerre, written about 480 by Constantius of Lyon. This text only very briefly mentions Alban, but is an important text concerning his nascent cult. According to the Vita, Germanus visited Alban's grave shortly after defeating the Pelagian heresy in Britain, and petitioned Saint Alban to give thanks to God on his (Germanus') behalf. They once again call on him during their voyage home, and Alban is credited with providing smooth sailing for their voyage back to the continent.
Gildas gives a short account of Alban's martyrdom in his De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (c. 570), and Bede's gives a much fuller account in the Ecclesiastical History of the English People (c. 730). The Gildas account sets Alban's martyrdom in London during the reign of Diocletian. Bede's account is much more detailed, but sets the events during the reign of Septimus Severus and in the town of Verulamium, where a shrine devoted to Alban had been established by at least 429 A.D., when Germanus of Auxerre is said to have visited the cult center during his tour of Britain. Alban is also briefly mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (c. 900), and by Geoffrey of Monmouth in Historia Regum Britanniae (c. 1136). It is also possible that his martyrdom is referenced in the Acta Martyrum.
The date of Alban's execution has never been firmly established. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle lists the year 283, but Bede places it in 305, "when the cruel Emperors first published their edicts against the Christians." In other words, sometime after the publication of the edicts by Eastern Roman Emperor Diocletian in 303, and before the proclamation of toleration in the Edict of Milan by co-ruling Roman Emperors Constantine I and Licinius, in 313.
English historian John Morris suggests that Alban's martyrdom took place during the persecutions of Emperor Septimius Severus in 209. Morris bases his claims on the Turin version of the Passio Albani, unknown to Bede, which states, "Alban received a fugitive cleric and put on his garment and his cloak (habitu et caracalla) that he was wearing and delivered himself up to be killed instead of the priest… and was delivered immediately to the evil Caesar Severus." St Gildas knew this source, but mistranslated the name "Severus" as an adjective, wrongly identifying the emperor as Diocletian. Bede accepted this identification as fact, and dates St Alban's martyrdom to this later period. As Morris points out, Diocletian reigned only in the East, and would not have been involved in British affairs in 304; Emperor Severus, however, was in Britain from 208 to 211. Morris thus dates Alban's death to 209. Subsequent scholars (W. H. C. Frend and Charles Thomas for example) have argued that such a single, localised British martyrdom in 209 would have been unusual, and have suggested the period of 251–59 (under the persecutors Decius or Valerian) are more likely.
While it is certain that the cult devoted to Saint Alban was established in Verulamium and his martyrdom was also alleged to have taken place there, the sources are unclear about where he was actually executed. Neither Victricius' De Laude Sanctorum nor the Passio Albani mention where he was martyred, other than that it was in Britain. In the Vita Germani, Germanus visits Alban's tomb and touches droplets of his blood still on the ground, but the text does not name the location of the tomb. It isn't until Gildas that Alban is connected with Verulamium.
Cult of Saint Alban
The hilltop located in Verulamium eventually became a cult center devoted to Alban. A memoria over the execution point and holding the remains of St. Alban existed at the site from c. 300, and possibly earlier. However, when and how the cult of Saint Alban originated is the subject of some debate: There is little textual or archeological evidence that a cult of Saint Alban existed before Germanus of Auxerre visited the site in 429. In fact, one version of the Passio Albani says that Germanus didn't know the name or story of Saint Alban before visiting the site, and that Alban appeared to him in a dream to reveal his identity and martyrdom story. This implies that the cult of Saint Alban did not exist before the arrival of Germanus. Germanus is said to have taken away dust from the site, which was still marked with Alban's blood. The cult and veneration of saints was still in its infancy at this time, and it has been suggested that Germanus had a hand in creating and promoting the cult of Saint Alban.
Gildas (c. 570) mentions a shrine, and Bede (c. 720) mentions a church. Offa of Mercia established a Benedictine Abbey and monastery at the site c. 793, but the abbey was probably sacked and destroyed by the Danes c. 890. It was rebuilt by the Normans, with construction beginning in 1077. By the high Middle Ages St. Albans ranked as the premier Abbey in England. It now serves as the cathedral of the diocese of St. Albans, established in 1877.
In a chapel east of the choir and high altar, there are remains of the fourteenth century marble shrine of St. Alban. In June 2002 a scapula (shoulder blade), believed to be a relic of St Alban, was presented to St Albans Cathedral and placed inside the saint’s restored 13th-century shrine. The bone was given by the Church of St. Pantaleon in Cologne, Germany . St Pantaleon's, like St Albans Cathedral a former Benedictine abbey church that had a shrine dedicated to St Alban, has possessed remains believed to be those of St Alban since the 10th century. It is entirely possible that further relics were acquired by the church in the 16th century at the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries in England, when many such relics were smuggled abroad to prevent their destruction. St Albans Abbey was dissolved in 1539.
The largest relic of St Alban in England is the thigh of the protomartyr preserved at St Michael's Benedictine Abbey, Farnborough, Hampshire, which was removed from the St Pantaleon's reliquary in the 1950s.
Alban is listed in the Church of England calendar for 22 June and he continues to be venerated in the Anglican, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox Communions. In 2006 some Church of England clergy suggested that Alban should replace St George as the patron saint of England. The Fellowship of Saint Alban and Saint Sergius is also named in part after Alban.
Every year on the weekend closest to his feast day St Albans Cathedral holds the "Alban Pilgrimage" with huge puppets re-enacting the events of Alban's martyrdom. In addition, the "Albanifest", the largest annual festival to be held in a historic town in Switzerland, is named after him. This takes place in Winterthur, where Alban is one of the three city-saints.
Besides his abbey, churches in England dedicated to Saint Alban include St Alban, Wood Street in the City of London, one in Westcliff-on-Sea (Essex), another in Withernwick in the East Riding of Yorkshire, and one in Southampton, one in Northampton, one in Bristol and another in Macclesfield, Cheshire, Saint Alban's West Leigh near Havant, and the St Alban the Martyr Parish Church of Highgate, Birmingham (including St Alban's Academy). Also St Albans at Earsdon Village, Northumberland: nearest to Bede's Holy Island.
Veneration outside Britain
Churches dedicated to Saint Alban outside England include St. Alban's Church in Copenhagen, Denmark, which is the city's only Anglican church. It was built to the design of Sir Arthur Blomfield and consecrated in 1887.
The Washington National Cathedral, an Episcopal Church in Washington DC, USA, is located on Mount St. Alban. The St. Albans School for Boys, which is affiliated with the Cathedral, is also named for him.
The connection with Denmark goes back to the Middle Ages where a church dedicated to Saint Alban was built in Odense. Supposedly, the relics of the saint had been brought here, maybe as early as the ninth century. It was in this church that King Canute IV of Denmark (Saint Canute) was murdered in 1086. The original church no longer exists, but in 1908 the Roman Catholic parish church of Odense, St. Alban's Church, was consecrated.
The Cathedral of the Diocese of Pretoria in South Africa is dedicated to Saint Alban. The Diocese also has a St. Alban's College, which was founded in 1963.
The only English language-based church in the Tokyo Diocese of the Nippon Sei Ko Kai (the Anglican Church in Japan) is dedicated to St. Alban. It is fully called "St. Alban's-by-St. Andrew's" as it is located on the grounds of the Cathedral, St. Andrew's. The church was consecrated in 1954, although English language services in the Anglican tradition have been conducted where the St. Alban's building now stands since 1879.
Alban is represented in art as carrying his head between his hands, having been beheaded.
In popular culture
St. Alban's beheading is mentioned by Enter Shikari in the lyrics to the song "All Eyes On The Saint", acknowledging the group's hometown of St. Albans. In 2013 the band 3 Penny Acre released the album 'Rag and Bone' which contains the song 'St. Alban's Day.'
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- Bede, Ecclesiastical History Book i.vii: the story of Saint Alban
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- The Latin Text of Bede's chapter on Alban at www.earlychurchtexts.com - also links to online dictionaries
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