Protomartyr of Britain
(†c.251 or 304)
THE CHRISTIAN faith had penetrated into England in the times of the apostles, and had received an increase by the conversion of King Lucius, in the year 180. But the first persecutions seem not to have reached this island, where, perhaps, the Christians, in times of danger, retired to places distant from the Roman colonies; or the mildness of their governors, in a province so remote as to seem another world, might sometimes shelter them. But the rage of Dioclesian penetrated into these recesses, and many of both sexes here received, by unheard of torments, the crown of martyrdom, as Gildas and Bede testify. The first and most renowned of these Christian heroes was St. Alban, whose death was rendered more illustrious by many miracles and other extraordinary circumstances, and whose blood was an agreeable sacrifice to God, a glorious testimony to the honour of his name, and to his holy faith, and a fruitful seed of divine blessings on his country. So great was the glory of his triumph, that his name was most famous over the whole Church, as Fortunatus assures us. A copy of the ancient Acts of his Martyrdom was published by Bishop Usher, and the principal circumstances are mentioned by St. Gildas, and recorded by venerable Bede.
Alban seems to have been a Roman name, and this saint seems to have been a person of note, as some ancient monuments quoted by Leland, Usher, Alford, and Cressy affirm. He was a native of Verulam, 4 which was for many ages one of the strongest and most populous cities in Britain, till having suffered much by sieges under the Saxon conquest it fell to decay, and the present town of St. Alban’s rose up close by its ruins, of which no vestiges are now to be seen, except some broken foundations of walls and chequered pavements; and Roman coins have been often dug up there. 5 The river Werlame ran on the east, and the great Roman highway, called Watlingstreet, lay on the west side of the town. Alban travelled to Rome in his youth to improve himself in learning and in all the polite arts, as appears by authorities which the judicious Leland produces. Being returned home he settled at Verulam, and lived there with some dignity; for he seems to have been one of the principal citizens of the place. Though a stranger to the Christian faith he was hospitable and compassionate, and in recompense of his charitable disposition God was pleased to conduct him to the light of the gospel, and to discover to him the inestimable jewel of immortal life. He was yet a Pagan when the edicts of the emperors against the Christians began to be put rigorously in execution in Britain. A certain clergyman, called by some writers Amphibalus, sought by flight to escape the fury of the persecutors, and Alban afforded him a shelter, and kindly entertained him in his house. Our saint was much edified by the holy deportment of this stranger, and admired his faith and piety, and in particular his assiduity in prayer, in which the faithful servant of God watched night and day. Alban was soon engaged to listen to his wholesome admonitions and instructions, and in a short time became a Christian. And with such ardour did he open his heart to the divine grace, that he was at once filled with the perfect spirit of this holy religion, and rejoicing that he had found so precious a treasure he no longer regarded anything else, despising for it the whole world and life itself. He had harboured this apostolic man some days when an information was given in to the governor, that the preacher of the Christian religion, after whom the strictest inquiry was making, lay hid at Alban’s house. Soldiers were despatched thither to make diligent search after the man of God; but he was then secretly fled. Christ promises that he who receives a prophet, in the name of a prophet, shall meet with the recompense of a prophet. This was fulfilled in Alban, who, by entertaining a confessor of Christ, received the grace of faith, and the crown of martyrdom. He exchanged clothes with his guest, that the preacher might more easily escape in that disguise to carry the news of salvation to others; and himself put on the stranger’s long robe, called Caracalla. 6 Alban earnestly desiring to shed his blood for Christ, whom he had but just learned to know, presented himself boldly in this habit to the soldiers, and was by them bound and led to the judge, who happened at that very time to be standing at the altar, and offering sacrifice to his idols. When he saw Alban he was highly provoked at the cheat which the saint had put upon him by substituting himself for his guest, and ordering him to be dragged before the images of his gods, he said: “As you have chosen to conceal a sacrilegious person and a blasphemer, the punishment which he should have suffered shall fall upon you, in case you refuse to comply with the worship of our religion.” The saint answered with a noble courage, that he would never obey such an order. The magistrate then asked him of what family he was? Alban replied: “To what purpose do you inquire of my family? If you would know my religion, I am a Christian.” The judge asked his name? To which he answered: “My name is Alban, and I worship the only true and living God, who created all things.” The magistrate said: “If you would enjoy the happiness of life, sacrifice instantly to the great gods.” Alban replied: “The sacrifices you offer are made to devils, who neither help their votaries nor grant their petitions. Whoever shall sacrifice to these idols, shall receive for his reward the everlasting pains of hell.” The judge, enraged beyond measure at these words, commanded the holy confessor to be scourged; and seeing him bear with an unshaken constancy, and even with joy, the most cruel tortures, he at last condemned him to be beheaded. An exceeding great multitude of people went out to behold his execution, and the judge remained almost alone in the city without attendance. In the road was a river, and the stream in that part, which was pent up by a wall and sand, was exceedingly rapid. So numerous was the crowd that was gone out before, that the martyr could scarcely have passed the bridge that evening had he waited for them to go before him. Therefore, being impatient to arrive at his crown, he went to the bank, and lifting up his eyes to heaven made a short prayer. Upon this the stream was miraculously divided, and the river dried up in that part, so as to afford a passage to the martyr and a thousand persons.
This river must have been the Coln, which runs between Old Verulam and new St. Alban’s. The executioner was converted at the sight of this miracle, and of the saintly behaviour of the martyr, and throwing away his naked sword, he fell at the feet of the saint, begging to die with him, or rather in his place. The sudden conversion of the headsman occasioned a delay in the execution. In the mean time the holy confessor, with the crowd, went up the hill, which was a most pleasant spot, covered with several sorts of flowers, about five hundred paces from the river. There Alban falling on his knees, at his prayer a fountain sprung up, with the water whereof he refreshed his thirst. A new executioner being found, he struck off the head of the martyr, but miraculously lost his eyes, which fell to the ground at the same time. Together with St. Alban, the soldier, who had refused to imbrue his hands in his blood, and had declared himself a Christian, was also beheaded, being baptized in his own blood. This soldier is mentioned in the Roman Martyrology. Capgrave calls him Heraclius; some others Araclius. Many of the spectators were converted to the faith, and following the holy priest, who had converted St. Alban, into Wales, to the number of one thousand, received the sacrament of baptism at his hands, as Harpsfield’s memoirs relate; but these converts were all cut to pieces by the idolaters for their faith. The priest was brought back and stoned to death at Radburn, three miles from St. Alban’s, as Thomas Radburn, who was born in that place, Matthew Paris, and others affirm, from ancient records kept in St. Alban’s abbey. This priest is called by Geoffrey of Monmouth, and others, St. Amphibalus, though Bishop Usher conjectures that Greek name to have been borrowed from his garment, the Caracalla. Bede testifies, that St. Alban suffered martyrdom on the 22nd of June, some say in the year 286, but most in 303, when Dioclesian began his great persecution; to which Constantius put a stop in Britain the year following. Some moderns are offended at the above-mentioned miracles; but the ingenious Mr. Collier writes thus concerning them: “As for St. Alban’s miracles, being attested by authors of such credit, I do not see why they should be questioned. That miracles were wrought in the church at that time of day, is clear from the writings of the ancients. To imagine that God should exert his omnipotence, and appear supernaturally for his servants, in no age since the apostles, is an unreasonable fancy; for since the world was not all converted by the apostles, why should we not believe that God should honour his servants with the most undisputed credentials? Why then should St. Alban’s miracles be disbelieved, the occasion being great enough for so extraordinary an interposition?” &c. These miracles of stopping the river, and of the spring rising in the place where St. Alban was beheaded, are expressly mentioned by Gildas, Bede, and others. The place was called in the Anglo-Saxon language, Holm-hurst, Hurst signifying a wood; and this place was once overgrown with trees, as Bishop Usher proves. In aftertimes it obtained the name of Derswoldwood, and was the spot on which the present town of St. Alban’s is built. In the time of Constantine the Great, a magnificent church of admirable workmanship was erected on the place where the martyr suffered, and was rendered illustrious by frequent great miracles, as Bede testifies. The pagan Saxons destroyed this edifice; but Offa, king of the Mercians, raised another in 793, with a great monastery, on which, he bestowed most ample possessions. Several popes honoured it with the most singular privileges and exemptions, and all the lands possessed by it were freed from the payment of the Romescot or Peterpence. The church is still standing, having been redeemed from destruction when the abbey was suppressed under Henry VIII. It was purchased by the townsmen to be their parochial church, for the sum of four hundred pounds, which, according to the present value of money, would be above seven times as much. Our island for many ages had recourse to St. Alban as its glorious protomartyr and powerful patron with God, and acknowledged many great favours received from God, through his intercession. By it St. Germanus procured a triumph without Christian blood, and gained a complete victory both over the spiritual and corporal enemies of this country. Of the rich shrine of St. Alban, most munificently adorned by Offa, by his son Egfrig, and many succeeding kings and others, nothing is now remaining, as Weever writes, but a marble stone to cover the place where the dust of the sacred remains lies. Over against which, on a wall, some verses are lately painted, says the same author, to tell us there was formerly a shrine in that place. A village in Forez in France, a league and a half from Rouanne, bears the name of St. Alban, famous for mineral waters, abounding with nitrous salt, described by Mr. Spon and Piganiol, t. 2. p. 9. ed. 3. ann. 1754.