Story of St Alban

An image of St Alban in the stained glass window at the West End of the Cathedral

St Alban’s story and this place built in his honour takes us back to the beginning of the Christian faith in Britain.

Alban is believed to have been a Romano-British citizen of the third century in the Roman city of Verulamium, in the valley below the present Cathedral.  The earliest versions of his history say that he gave shelter to a stranger fleeing from persecution. This was a Christian priest, originally un-named but later called Amphibalus in the re-telling of the story.  Alban was so moved by the priest’s faith and courage that he asked to be taught more about Christianity, then still a forbidden religion.

Before long the authorities came to arrest the fugitive priest.  But Alban, inspired by his new-found faith, exchanged clothes with Amphibalus, allowing him to escape. Instead Alban was arrested and brought before the city magistrate.   Alban refused to sacrifice to the emperor and the Roman gods. When asked to identify himself he declared: ‘I am called Alban and I worship and adore the true and living God, who created all things’.

The magistrate ordered that Alban should receive the punishment due to the priest.  He was brought out of the town and up the hillside to the site of execution where he was beheaded. Despite escaping, Amphibalus too was later arrested and martyred at Redbourn, a few miles away.

Alban was probably buried in the Roman cemetery now located by modern archaeological digs to the south of the present Cathedral. Alban is honoured as the first British martyr, and his grave on this hillside quickly became a place of pilgrimage.

The first churches here were probably simple structures over Alban’s grave, making this the oldest continuous site of Christian worship in Great Britain.  Recent finds suggest an early basilica over the spot and in 429 St Germanus recorded his visit to this church.  In the early eighth century the historian Bede told the story of St Alban and described ‘a beautiful church, worthy of his martyrdom’.  

Matthew Paris, the celebrated medieval historian and most famous of the Abbey’s monks, produced a beautifully illustrated Life of St Alban in the 13th century. This is now at Trinity College in Dublin.

The shrine of St Alban can be seen here today. Its Purbeck marble base of 1308 supports a modern red and gold canopy under which rests a shoulder-blade said to come from the original relics of the saint’s body. The canopy is embroidered with English wildflowers, commemorating Bede’s description of Alban as ascending a hill "adorned with wild flowers of every kind." The red rose, in particular has come to be a special symbol of the saint reflecting the words of an ancient prayer: ‘Among the roses of the martyrs, brightly shines Saint Alban.’

Alban is a saint of the undivided church, a saint for all Christians.  His welcome to a persecuted stranger was a powerful example of courage, compassion and hospitality.  St Alban is still with us in the Communion of Saints, and in this sacred place we worship God with him and ask his prayers.

For over 1700 years, pilgrims have prayed on this hillside, many on or near St Alban’s Day, 22 June, when his story is celebrated and re-enacted.

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