Expanding on her series on national patron saints of the UK, US contributor Pearl of Tyburn gives us the story of Saint Alban, the first British Christian martyr.
In 303 A.D., arsons destroyed the palace of the Roman Emperor Diocletian at Nicomedia in present-day Turkey. The blame was conveniently placed on the despised Christian population, just as the burning of Rome had been attributed to them by Nero more than 200 years earlier. Galerius, the Governor of the Eastern Roman Provinces, encouraged Diocletian to make an example of the charismatic followers of the crucified carpenter. Hence, the emperor launched the tenth and final major wave of persecution against Christians in the Roman Empire, known to history as the Diocletianic Persecution.
It proved to be the most ferocious of all. Nevertheless, Christianity continued to spread throughout the Empire and into the west. It was during this time that Britain would gain the first Christian martyr of her own.
According to Venerable Bede’s History of the English Church and People and other historical/legendary sources, Alban was born to Celtic parents and raised in the ancient Pagan religion. However, in later years, he drifted away from the barbarities of the old practices of his ancestors. Alban gained prominence in the new Romanized society and possibly served in the Roman Army. He became popular among his ruling elite and was beloved by the locals as a generous and amiable neighbour.
The persecution and death of British Christians at the hands of the Imperial government disturbed Alban, and he became known for his outspokenness on the issue of religious freedom. Nevertheless, for a time, Alban managed to walk the fine line of neutrality and keep himself safe from the iron fist of Rome.
But then one day, one of Alban’s friends begged him to give shelter to a Christian priest who was being hunted by the authorities. Although Alban was not a Christian and wanted nothing more than to avoid trouble, he reluctantly agreed to hide the priest in his home for the sake of his friend. The plan worked perfectly, and the governor’s soldiers searching the city for the “traitor” never thought to look in Alban’s house because he was on such good terms with the authorities.
Meanwhile, the priest, whose name was Amphibalus, won Alban over with his spiritual depth and gentleness of character. Eventually, Alban asked him to explain the Christian faith. Intrigued and enlightened by the things he was told, Alban soon embraced Christianity and was subsequently baptized in the nearby River Ver.
Meanwhile, the governor grew exasperated and ordered his soldiers to search every home in the vicinity. Just before the Roman soldiers raided Alban’s home, the new convert switched robes with Amphibalus and let him escape. The soldiers broke in, mistook Alban for the priest, and had him arrested instead. Quickly realizing their mistake, the soldiers took him before the magistrate, who was in the act offering incense to one of the Roman gods.
Pausing in the middle of the ritual, the magistrate listened as the soldiers relayed the story of how Alban had dressed himself in a priestly cloak and allowed his guest to escape. Then he turned to the prisoner and inquired, “What is your family and race?”
“How does my family concern you?” Alban retorted. “If you wish to know the truth about my religion, know that I am a Christian, and carry out Christian rites.”
“I demand to know your name; tell me at once!”
“My parents named me Alban, and I worship and adore the True and Living God who created all things,” he declared.
The magistrate was furious and ordered Alban to burn incense to the pagan idol. “If you want to enjoy eternal life, sacrifice at once to the great gods.”
Alban boldly refused. “You are offering these sacrifices to devils, who cannot help their suppliants nor answer their prayers and vows. On the contrary, whosoever offers sacrifices to idols is doomed to the pains of Hell.”
This was the final straw, and the magistrate ordered that Alban receive the same sentence that the priest would have received. Alban was flogged mercilessly, leaving his back an open, gaping wound. The magistrate, however, was beyond the point of pity and ordered that he should be executed immediately.
Weak and covered in blood, Alban was dragged through the streets of Verulamium in modern-day Hertfordshire. The people of the town who had come to admire and respect his as a leading citizen poured in to the streets and blocked the bridge that Alban and the guards were to cross in order to reach the place of execution. Seeing that the crowd was quickly turning into a mob, the guards considered postponing the execution. But Alban would have none of it. Not wanting to be hindered from receiving his martyr’s crown, he asked God to perform a miracle.
Suddenly, a tremendous rushing sound was heard. The waters of the River Ver parted like the Red Sea had done for the Children of Israel, and Alban and his guards were able to walk across on dry ground. The executioner was so amazed by the miracle that he refused to harm Alban, who he called “this man of God”, and converted to Christianity on the spot. Then he too was sentenced to death. The Romans quickly found another axeman and had him behead both Alban and the former executioner. As soon as the deed was done, a spring gushed forth on the spot and the axeman’s eyeballs fell from their sockets, leaving him helplessly blind for the rest of his days. The year was 305 A.D.
The magistrate, greatly affected by the strange and miraculous events he had witnessed, ended the persecution of the Christians in his area and began to honour the martyrs as saints. In other parts of the country, however, Christians of both sexes continued to be tortured and killed. Two such martyrs, Aaron and Julius, were said to be put to death in the City of Legions, which may be present-day Caerleon-on-Usk in Wales.
When the persecutions finally subsided, a church is said to have built on the site of St. Alban’s execution, where sick people were cured and prayers answered through the intercession of the first Christian martyr of Britain. Also, the town of Verulamium was eventually renamed “St. Albans”, a sign of his ultimate triumph. St. Alban has been commonly depicted in art wearing a priest’s cloak and holding a martyr’s lily. He is the patron of those who under go torture and was often prayed to by Catholic Recusants during times of persecution to give them strength and fortitude. His feast is June 22.
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