Some Christians are considered saints because of their good works and the holiness of their lives, some for the zeal of their defense of Orthodox theology, and others for the eloquence of their teaching or the strength of their leadership as hierarchs. We venerate St. Alban for none of these reasons, but rather for his brave sacrifice of his own life in order to save that of a priest.
During the Roman occupation of Britain, Christianity was probably brought to the native peoples by Roman soldiers, by members of the households of Roman officials, and by traders. By the time of the first imperial pronouncements against Christianity, the faith was strong enough in this land that many were affected by the persecutions, and Britain produced its first martyr.
Only the most basic facts are known about St. Alban. He was a citizen of the city of Verulamium and a pagan. Sometime before, or during, the year 209, when the Emperor Septimius Severus ordered a ban on Christianity, Alban decided to harbor a Christian priest in his home. Did he do it because he thought such intolerance was unfair? Or was he curious about this religion that was so dangerous to the Empire? Whatever his reasons, Alban provided hospitality and a safe haven for the priest and God opened Alban’s heart and mind to receive the priest’s teaching, and he was baptized.
The moment of decision came suddenly for Alban. There was a search of homes (had someone “tipped off” the authorities?) and soldiers came to Alban’s house demanding to know if the Christian priest was hiding there. With the firm conviction of his new-found faith, Alban traded cloaks with the priest (who has been called “Amphibalus”, or “cloak”, ever since). The priest escaped while Alban was being carried off to court by the soldiers.
The local judge was furious to discover that they had the wrong man, but was even more furious to hear Alban boldly declare his belief in the one true God of the Christians. The judge ordered that he be beheaded and so, after only a short while as a member of Christ’s body, the Church, Alban received the crown of martyrdom on June 22 in the year 209.
It is said that one of the soldiers refused the order to behead St. Alban and also suffered martyrdom, and that the priest whom St. Alban had protected was found and martyred by stoning a few days later. St. Bede the Venerable, in his History of the English Church and People, tells us: “When this storm of persecution came to an end, faithful Christians, who during the time of danger had taken refuge in woods, deserted places, and hidden caves, came into the open, and rebuilt the ruined churches. Shrines of the martyrs were founded and completed and openly displayed everywhere as tokens of victory. The festivals of the Church were observed, and its rites performed reverently and sincerely.” Thus, the first shrine to the martyred St. Alban was built within a few years of his death and was enlarged in later years. Many received healing at this shrine and these miracles, along with the memory of the saint’s bravery, helped to spread the Christian faith among the British people and those in other lands.
Early in the 5th century, St. Germanus, Bishop of Auxerre, visited the tomb of St. Alban, where he deposited relics of other saints and from which he took some soil to place in a church in Auxerre which he dedicated to the British saint.
Writing c. 600, Venantius Fortunatus, Bishop of Poitiers, hymn writer (“The Royal Banners Forward Go”, “Sing, My tongue, the Glorious Battle”), and poet, included St. Alban in a long poem in praise of Virgins and Martyrs with these lines:
“First of the noble host in
Britain’s land (Mother of Saints)
see the glorious Alban stand.”
In 793, King Offa, as part of his penance for the sin of murder, built an abbey dedicated to St. Alban and translated his relics to a new, more elaborate shrine in the Abbey church. This church was rebuilt by the Normans in 1077 and expanded through the centuries. The city of Verulamium was renamed St. Alban’s and the Abbey church eventually became a cathedral. Although the shrine was destroyed by the Protestants in the 16th century, devotion to Britain’s first martyr has continued in this place for almost 1800 years. What man, in his ignorance and arrogance, destroys, God will maintain.
May we follow St. Alban in declaring, without hesitation, our faith in Christ and in bravely making whatever sacrifices we are called upon to make. Blessed Alban, pray for us.
[Sources: A History of the English Church and People by Bede; Lives of Saints for Young People, Vol. V, by Archbishop Lazar Puhalo; Saints of the British Isles by Andrew Bond & Nicolas Mabin; St. Alban’s Cathedral and The Alban Guide (guidebooks from St. Alban’s Cathedral); The Prologue From Ochrid by Bishop Nikolai Velimiroviċ; The Saints of Anglo-Saxon England by Vladimir Moss.]