died c. 305 AD
A very early British saint, Alban is the first known Christian marytyr in Britain. Our most thorough account of Alban is provided by the Venerable Bede, who says that he was a pagan living in Verulamium (modern St Albans). He offered shelter to a Christian priest who was trying to escape from Roman persecution. The priest (named Amphibalus according to a later account by Geoffrey of Monmouth) converted Alban to Christianity, and baptised him. When Roman officials came to search the house, Alban dressed in the priest's cloak and allowed himself to be arrested in his place. He was brought before the governor and scourged, but he refused to give up his faith.
Then the miracles began; as soldiers were leading him to his place of execution, he stooped a river in its course so that he and the soldiers could cross without getting wet. A fountain sprang up upon the summit of the hill where he was due to be executed. His executioner was converted on the spot and refused to carry out the sentence. A second executioner beheaded Alban but was immediately struck blind and his eyes fell out out of their sockets.
According to Geofrrey of Monmouth, the priest Amphibalus survived only 4 days after Alban's death before he was stoned to death only a few miles away at Redbourn.
The date of Alban's death has been the subject of great debate. Traditionally it was placed at about 305 AD, in the reign of the Emperor Diocletian. This date is based on a comment by Bede that Alban died 'when the cruel emperors first published their edicts against the Christians'. Diocletian introduced edicts in 303 that prompted Christian persecution throughout the Empire. These edicts were countered in 313 by Emperor Constantine's Edict of Milan, suggesting that Alban was killed between these dates. However, some historians now think that the martyrdom must have taken place much earlier, perhaps as early as 209 AD, when persecutions took place under Emperor Septimus Severus.
The Roman town of Verulamium was later renamed in honour of St Alban. A monastery and cathedral grew up around his shrine, and proved a popular place of pilgrimage in the medieval period. A ornate shrine still stands within St Albans Cathedral, which has the longest nave on any in England.
In recent years some clergy have suggested that Alban replace George as the patron saint of England, pointing out that Alban was British, whereas George was not, and Alban's story is much better documented, whereas George's tale is riddled with hearsay and uncertainty. St Alban's feast day is 22 June.
Time period(s): Roman