The Story of St Alban
Today 22nd June is the feast day of Saint Alban the first Christian martyr of Britain. Alban, along with fellow saints Julius and Aaron, is one of three martyrs remembered from Roman Britain as recorded by Gildas in his mid-6th century work The Ruin and Conquest of Britain (c.540 AD). Alban was martyred by beheading in the Roman city of Verulamium, the site of the modern St. Alban's Cathedral, Hertfordshire, sometime during the 3rd or 4th century, and his cult has been celebrated there ever since. Martyrs were the saints 'par excellence' 2 and to this day Alban, proto-martyr, is held in high reverence by the church.
The main account of the Romano-British citizen Alban's life and Martyrdom is found in Bede's Ecclesiastical History (731 AD), who substantially developed the story from Gildas brief entry. Alban was a pagan who converted to Christianity, and was executed on a hill above the Romano-British settlement. St Alban's Abbey was later founded at the reputed place of his beheading, the site where St Alban's Cathedral stands today.
|St Albans Cathedral (Wikimedia commons)|
Standing trial and asked to prove his loyalty by making offerings to the pagan Roman gods, Alban stubbornly refused to denounce his faith and was condemned to death. On his day of execution he was led out of the city, across the river and up a hillside where he was to be beheaded.
In Bede's story the bridge over the river was crowded with onlookers so the waters miraculously divided to let Alban across. As Alban reached the summit of the hill he asked God to give him water, and at once a continuous spring bubbled up at his feet to provide drink. On witnessing this one of the soldiers was so moved by divine intuition he refused to execute Alban. As the other soldier delivered the fatal blow, his eyes dropped out and hit the ground the same moment as Alban's head. According to legend, Alban's head rolled down the hill and a well sprang up at the point where it stopped. The road up to the modern cathedral is called Holywell Hill where a well does indeed exist.
Bede tells us that when the peace of Christian times was restored, a beautiful church worthy of Alban’s martyrdom was built, where sick folk are healed and frequent miracles take place in his day. In Bede's days there was a church and shrine near the spot which pilgrims travelled to visit which became an established place of healing.
Alban was probably buried in the Roman cemetery to the south of the present Abbey Church. Recent finds suggest an early basilica over the spot and later a Saxon Benedictine monastery was founded, probably by King Offa around 793 AD. This was replaced in 1077 AD by the large Norman church and monastery, the remains of which are still partly visible in the tower and central part of the present cathedral.
The Alban Pilgrimage
Saint Alban's martyrdom is re-enacted each year on and around 22nd June each year with a major festival pilgrimage and Passio taking place in the Hertfordhsire town of St Albans. The event typically attracts over a thousand visitors to St Albans Cathedral including clergy from across the diocese joining with the Bishop and other dignitaries for this memorable and moving event.
The procession begins at Roman Verulamium, travels through St Albans City Centre and continues alongside the River Ver to arrive at the Cathedral. The Bishop of St Albans leads the pilgrims to the site of Alban's execution then leads the procession into the Cathedral for the Eucharist to celebrate Alban's life and his act of faith and then finally delivers a prayer at the shrine of the martyr.
Traditionally, following Gildas' account, Alban's martyrdom is said to have occurred during the reign of Emperor Diocletian, 284 to 305 AD, during the Empire's last, largest, and bloodiest official religious persecution of Christians.
Bede, no doubt following Gildas as ever, opts for the Roman Emperor Diocletian who initiated "The Great Persecution” in 303 AD. The Diocletianic persecution came in the form of anti-Christian edicts, or laws, designed to undermine faith, destroy churches, and kill resisters, Diocletian was determined to eradicate Christianity from the Empire.
The first edict was issued in February 303 AD which ordered that all churches were to be dismantled, all liturgical books and scriptures be surrendered, sacred vessels confiscated and all meetings of worship forbidden. A second edict followed shortly after in the summer 303 AD, which ordered the arrest of all Christian clergy, hence the search for Amphibalus in the story of St Alban.
However, Diocletian reigned only in the Eastern Empire and it is doubtful his edicts were carried out in Britain in the far west. Others argue for Alban's martyrdom during the time when Severus was Emperor in Britain from 208 to 211 AD, while others have suggested he suffered during the Christian persecutions of Decius or Valerian during the period of 251–59 AD.
Despite the destruction of the churches during Diocletian's reign as witnessed by the Roman Historian Eusebius of Caesarea's Church History, in which he wrote an account of the development of early Christianity, from the 1st to the 4th century, the site of Alban’s martyrdom had been a cult centre throughout the Roman period. Bede seems to suggest the cult survived into his own times. Archaeology supports continued occupation of the Roman town in some sort of British enclave with little evidence of early Saxon advancement in the area.
There was certainly a pre-Roman settlement known as Verlamio, that developed into an early Roman town and given the status of municipium that was razed to the ground during the Boudiccan revolt of 60/61 AD. This was rebuilt as the Roman town of Verulamium, just to the southwest of the modern city of St Albans.
At least until the later 3rd century Verulamium was dominated by an extensive religious complex that developed outside the town across the river. This complex was centred on Oysterfields, just off the modern Folly Lane. Oysterfields occupies a low hill directly overlooking the centre of the Roman town, immediately visible from the Forum/Basilica area as opposed to Holywell Hill that is the more prominent of the two and became the site of the medieval abbey.
A large Romano-Celtic temple, linked to the town by a processional way, occupied the crest of Oysterflieds Hill until the end of the 3rd century. This temple commemorated the burial place of the local chieftain who was cremated on the crest of the hill in the mid-1st century, the ashes buried just east of the temple, together with a remarkable collection of funerary offerings, making the burial one of the richest of its period in Britain. It seems an ancestor cult developed around this site with the lower slopes containing over 40 deep pits, one contained the skull of a young man who had been killed by a blow to the head. The skull had been scalped and defleshed and then carefully placed on the bottom of the pit. Six other pits were found to contain face-pots with the face deliberately cut out. In three pits animal skulls had been carefully placed on the bottom.3
Numerous deep pits around the temple site would have undoubtedly penetrated the water table in the Roman period, which, when considered in context of the deposits found in the marshland surrounding the Roman town, may be considered as evidence of votive offering deliberately placed into the depths of the waters. An Iron Age trackway across the marsh will have provided access. In the late 3rd or 4th century religious activity on the part of the complex north of the river dwindled and finally came to a cease in the first quarter of the 4th century. Pits were no longer dug and rubbish was allowed to accumulate over the site. Could the abandonment of the site be linked to the rise in Christianity and the veneration of St Alban on the adjacent Holywell Hill ?4
Bede is the first person to document the execution and burial of Alban as happening in Verulamium, neither Gildas or Constantius of Lyon specifically state that Alban was martyred at the Roman city.
It has been suggested that the cult of Alban was already known to Victricius of Rouen, who visited Britain shortly before the year 400 AD. In his De Laude Sanctorum, Rouen refers to the story of a British martyr who walked through a river, a possible reference to a well-known episode in the martyrdom of Alban; the crowds of people were such that he could not cross the bridge leading to the site of his execution, so he walked into the river, which parted to allow him through. Although there are clear similarities between the story in the Passio of Albani and that related by Victricius, it is important to note that Victricius never names the martyr, nor does he say which river he crossed.5
Our earliest information on the cult of the martyr Alban is to be found in the Vita Germani (Life of St Germanus of Auxerre), written about 480 by Constantius of Lyon. According to the hagiographer, Germanus, together with his companion Lupus of Troyes, visited the site of the saint’s resting place in the course of his first visit to Britain in order to combat the Pelagians, generally dated to 429 AD. Constantius provides little detail of the visit, but this is supplied by early versions of the Passio Albani, of which the fullest account survives in the Turin manuscript.6
|St Alban's Shrine|
Richard Sharpe has demonstrated that the shortest of the early recension's of the Passio Albani, the so-called 'E' text, is earlier than the 'T' (or Turin) recension, dating it to the mid-5th century. The 'E' text may be the first written account, taken down shortly after the vision experienced by Germanus at Alban's shrine.7
It appears that the earliest written version of the Alban story was commissioned by Germanus almost immediately after his visit to the shrine of Alban in Britain. The text would seem to have been intended for the walls of a church in Auxerre. Historian Ian Wood suggests that the earliest Passio of Alban needs to be considered in the context of Germanus’ work in Britain and in Auxerre: the story of the saint’s martyrdom seems to have been revealed to, or invented by, Germanus in the context of his anti-Pelagian mission to Britain.8
Copyright © 2014 Edward Watson
Notes & References
1. Hugh Williams, Gildas: The Ruin Of Britain, edited For The Hon. Society Of Cymmrodorion, 1899.
2. David Rollason, Saints and Relics in Anglo-Saxon England, Wiley-Blackwell, 1989.
3. Rosalind Niblett, Why Verulamium? in M. Henigand And P. Lindley (ed.), Alban and St Albans, Maney Publishing, 2001, pp.1-12.
5. Ian Wood, Germanus, Alban and Auxerre, Bulletin du centre d’études médiévales d’Auxerre (BUCEMA, 13 ), 2009, pp.123-129.
7. Richard Sharpe, The Late Antique Passion of St Alban, in M. Henigand And P. Lindley (ed.), Alban and St Albans, Maney Publishing, 2001, pp.30-37.
8. Wood, op.cit.
David Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Fifth Edition Revised, 2011.
John Crook, English Medieval Shrines, Boydell, 2012.
St Alban's Cathedral website
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