Saint Alban

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Saint Alban
Saint Alban
Born unknown
Died disputed: 22 June 209, c.251 or 304
Holywell Hill (formerly Holmhurst Hill), St Albans
Honored in Roman Catholic Church; Anglican Communion; Eastern Orthodox Church
Major shrine Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Alban
Feast 22 June
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 English Christian martyr.[1] Along with his fellow saints Amphibalus, Julius and Aaron, Alban is one of four named martyrs remembered from Roman Britain. He was martyred by beheading 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 main account of Alban's life and Martyrdom is found in Bede's Ecclesiastical History, though Alban is mentioned in many different sources. Alban was a Romano-British pagan living in the city of Verulamium sometime during the 3rd or 4th century. Traditionally, he was believed to be living there during the reign of Emperor Diocletian, c. 305 AD. During a religious persecution of Christians, Alban sheltered a Christian priest traditionally called Amphibalus in his home, hiding him from the Roman soldiers. During this time, Alban was so impressed with the piety of the priest that he cast off his pagan beliefs and became a Christian convert. Eventually the Romans learned of Amphibalus' location, and came to seize him. Alban presented himself to the soldiers instead of his guest, wearing the cloak that Amphibalus usually wore.[2]

Alban was bound and brought to the pagan temple at Verulamium, where he was presented to the judge. It happened that the judge was just then offering sacrifices to the pagan gods, and when he heard that Alban had offered himself up in place of Amphibalus, he was enraged, and demanded that Alban renounce Christianity and offer sacrifices to the gods. Alban declared, "I worship and adore the true and living God who created all things." (These words are still used in prayer at St Albans Abbey). The enraged judge ordered him to be scourged, thinking that Alban would recant after torture. When Alban remained steadfast, the judge ordered him to be put to death.[2]

Stained glass in St Albans Cathedral showing death of Saint Alban

Alban was led to execution, and they presently came to the River Ver. The bridge over the river was so clogged with a mob of townspeople who wished to watch the execution that Alban and the soldiers could not cross the river. Alban, wishing to receive a quick death, raised his eyes to heaven, and the river dried up, allowing Alban and his captors to cross over on dry land. When the executioner observed this, he was so moved he cast down his sword and fell at Alban's feet, praying that he might rather suffer with Alban, or be executed in his stead.[3] They ascended a hill, where Alban suddenly began to thirst. A spring immediately sprang up to give him water. A second executioner was called, and Alban's head was struck off, as was the head of the first Roman soldier who refused to execute Alban. However, after delivering the stroke, the eyes of the second executioner dropped to the ground with Alban's head, so that the second executioner might not be able to rejoice over Alban's death.[2]

The martyrdom of St Alban, from a 13th-century manuscript, now in the Trinity College Library, Dublin. Note the executioner's eyes falling out of his head.

The judge who ordered Alban's execution was so astonished by these heavenly miracles that he immediately ordered the persecutions to cease, and began to honor the death of the saints.[2] The reputed place of his beheading is where St Albans Cathedral now stands. However, Gildas places the crossing of the River as at the "great River Thames" and places the martyrdom at London. Bede is the first person to document the execution and burial of Alban as happening in Verulamium.[4]

According to legend, Alban's head rolled down the hill on which he was executed, and a well sprang up at the point where it stopped. A well does indeed exist today, and the road up to the modern cathedral is called Holywell Hill.[5]

Dating controversy[edit]

The date of Alban's execution has never been firmly established. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles lists the year 283,[6] but the Venerable 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 St Alban's martyrdom took place during the persecutions of Emperor Septimius Severus in 209. Morris bases his claims on earlier manuscript sources, unknown to Bede, in particular a 3rd-century manuscript found in Turin 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.[7]

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.

Historical sources[edit]

St Alban is mentioned in "Acta Martyrum", and also by Constantius of Lyon in his Life of St Germanus of Auxerre, written about 480. He also appears in Gildas' 6th century polemic De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae and Bede's Historia Ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum.[8]

Cult of Saint Alban[edit]

The site of Alban’s martyrdom soon became a cult center. A memoria over the execution point and holding the remains of St. Alban existed at the site from c. 300, and possibly earlier. In 429, Bishop Germanus of Auxerre visited and is said to have taken away relics of the still bloody earth at the site. Gildas (c. 570) mentions a shrine, and Bede (c. 720) mentions a church. Bede quotes a line from one of the Carmina; of Venantius Fortunatus, Albanum egregium fæcunda Britannia profert ("Fruitful Britain holy Alban yields").[1]

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.[3] 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 [1]. 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.

Shrine of Saint Alban in St Albans Cathedral

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, Catholic and Orthodox Communions. In 2006 some Church of England clergy suggested that Alban should replace St George as the patron saint of England.[9] 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.[10] 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 and another in Macclesfield, Cheshire, Saint Alban's West Leigh near Havant, and the Parish Church of Highgate, Birmingham. Also St Albans at Earsdon Village, Northumberland: nearest to Bede's Holy Island.

Veneration outside Britain[edit]

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.[11]

The Anglican St. Alban's Church in Copenhagen, Denmark

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.[12] 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[edit]

St. Alban's beheading is mentioned in the Enter Shikari song "All Eyes On The Saint", acknowledging their hometown St. Albans. In 2013 the band 3 Penny Acre released the album Rag and Bone which contains the song St. Alban's Day.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Thurston, Herbert. "St. Alban." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. 19 Feb. 2013
  2. ^ a b c d Bede. "Ecclesiastical History of the English People". Internet History Sourcebook. Fordham University. Retrieved 3 November 2013. 
  3. ^ a b "Who was Saint Alban ?", Saint Alban's Episcopal Church, Wilmington, DE
  4. ^ Niblett 2001, p. 139.
  5. ^ "Medieval St. Albans". Retrieved 3 November 2013. 
  6. ^ Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, Project Gutenburg 
  7. ^ "St. Alban the Martyr", Orthodoxy’s Western Heritage .
  8. ^ Bede, The Latin Library .
  9. ^ Doughty, Steve (2 July 2006), Will George be slayed as England's patron saint?, Daily Mail 
  10. ^ "St Albans cathedral website". 
  11. ^ "Online Sightseeing - Copenhagen". Copenhagen Portal. Retrieved 2010-02-22. 
  12. ^ Abrams, Lesley (1996), "The Anglo-Saxons and the Christianization of Scandinavia", in Lapidge, Michael; Godden, Malcolm; Keynes, Simon, Anglo-Saxon England 24, Cambridge University Press, pp. 240–241, ISBN 978-0-521-55845-7, retrieved 2 March 2010 


  • Niblett, Rosalind (2001), Verulamium: The Roman City of St Albans, Tempus Publishing Ltd, ISBN 0-7524-1915-3 

External links[edit]