St Alban: Britain’s Protomartyr

In 429, Germanus, bishop of Auxerre, and Lupus, bishop of Troyes, travelled to Britain in order to combat the Pelagian heresy. Germanus’ biographer, Constantius of Lyon, writing round about the 470s, notes that:

When this damnable heresy had been thus stamped out, its authors refuted, and the minds of all reestablished in the true faith, the bishops visited the shrine of the blessed martyr Alban, to give thanks to God through him.…
… Their own merits and the intercession of Alban the Martyr secured for them a calm voyage; and a good ship brought them back in peace to their expectant people.
Constantius of Lyon Vita Sancti Germani §16 & §18

In the first half of the 6th century, the British cleric Gildas wrote:

… to the island stiff with frost and cold, and in a far distant corner of the earth, remote from the visible sun [i.e. Britain], He, the true sun, even Christ, first yields His rays, I mean His precepts.…
Though these precepts had a lukewarm reception from the inhabitants, nevertheless they continued unimpaired with some, with others less so, until the nine years’ persecution of the tyrant Diocletian. In this persecution churches were ruined throughout the whole world, all copies of the Holy Scriptures that could be found were burnt in the open streets, and the chosen priests of the Lord’s flock butchered with the innocent sheep, so that if it could be brought to pass, not even a trace of the Christian religion would be visible in some of the provinces.…
God, therefore, as willing that all men should be saved, magnified his mercy unto us, and called sinners no less than those who regard themselves righteous. He of His own free gift, in the above mentioned time of persecution, as we conclude, lest Britain should be completely enveloped in the thick darkness of black night, kindled for us bright lamps of holy martyrs. The graves where their bodies lie, and the places of their suffering, had they not, very many of them, been taken from us the citizens on account of our numerous crimes, through the disastrous division caused by the barbarians [Anglo-Saxons], would at the present time inspire the minds of those who gazed at them with a far from feeble glow of divine love. I speak of Saint Alban of Verulamium, Aaron and Julius, citizens of the City of the Legions, and the rest of both sexes in different places, who stood firm with lofty nobleness of mind in Christ’s battle.[*]
The former of these, through love, hid a confessor when pursued by his persecutors, and on the point of being seized, imitating in this Christ laying down his life for the sheep. He first concealed him in his house, and afterwards exchanging garments with him, willingly exposed himself to the danger of being pursued in the clothes of the brother mentioned. Being in this way well pleasing to God, during the time between his holy confession and cruel death, in the presence of the impious men, who carried the Roman standard with hateful haughtiness, he was wonderfully adorned with miraculous signs, so that by fervent prayer he opened an unknown way through the bed of the noble river Thames, similar to that dry little-trodden way of the Israelites, when the ark of the covenant stood long on the gravel in the middle of Jordan; accompanied by a thousand men, he walked through with dry foot, the rushing waters on either side hanging like abrupt precipices, and converted first his executioner, as he saw such wonders, from a wolf into a lamb, and caused him together with himself to thirst more deeply for the triumphant palm of martyrdom, and more bravely to seize it. Others, however, were so tortured with diverse torments, and mangled with unheard of tearing of limbs, that without delay they raised trophies of their glorious martyrdom, as if at the beautiful gates of Jerusalem. Those who survived hid themselves in woods, deserts, and secret caves, expecting from God, the righteous ruler of all, to their persecutors, sometime, stern judgment, to themselves protection of life.
Thus when ten years of the violence referred to had scarcely passed, and when the abominable edicts were disappearing through the death of their authors, all the soldiers of Christ, with gladsome eyes, as if after a wintry and long night, take in the calm and the serene light of the celestial region. They repair the churches, ruined to the ground; they found, construct, and complete basilicae in honour of the holy martyrs, and set them forth in many places as emblems of victory; they celebrate feast days; the sacred offices they perform with clean heart and lip; all exult as children cherished in the bosom of their mother, the church.
Gildas De Excidio Britanniae §§8–12

Gildas is the first to link Alban with Verulamium (at modern St Albans) – his naming of the Thames (which is not the river at Verulamium) suggests he knew only that the town was somewhere not too far from London – and he is also first to date Alban’s martyrdom to the persecution of Diocletian, but he does say that this was an inference on his part. Bede, though, in his Historia Ecclesiastica, completed in 731, is confident that Alban was executed during Diocletian’s persecution. In view of the insistence of Lactantius and Eusebius of Caesarea that Constantius Chlorus, the Caesar under whose jurisdiction Britain fell when Diocletian launched the ‘Great Persecution’ in 303, did not execute Christians,[*] modern historians tend not to share Bede’s confidence.

Bede had access to Gilds’ work, of course, but he provides a much more detailed account of Alban’s martyrdom than that given by Gildas. Bede’s narrative is taken from an anonymous Passio Albani – the text survives in a single, 9th or 10th century, manuscript at Paris. No person is named other than Alban himself in this telling of the martyrdom. There is, however, a variant text of the Passio, preserved in a single, late-8th century, manuscript at Turin, in which “the Emperor Severus” travels to Britain and, finding “a multitude of Christians there”, orders a persecution; Alban is tried by “the most impious Caesar Severus”; it becomes apparent, however, that the creation of martyrs is actually encouraging Christianity, so “the most impious Caesar … without the orders of the emperors” calls an end to the persecution.[*] Septimius Severus arrived in Britain during 208, and remained until his death on 4th February 211.[*] Whilst Severus and his elder son, Caracalla, both of whom were titled Augustus (i.e. they were equally ranked emperors), spent 209 campaigning in Caledonia, his younger son, the Caesar (i.e. junior emperor), Geta, was left governing Roman Britain. Could it be, then, that “the most impious Caesar” was actually Geta, and that Alban was martyred in 209? (Geta was made Augustus in the autumn of 209.)[*] On the other hand, the attribution of Alban’s martyrdom to Severus could simply be an invention of the Turin text’s writer. Orosius lists four emperors who, in the time between the reigns of Septimius Severus and Diocletian, ordered the persecution of Christians: Maximinus Thrax (235–238), though he apparently only targeted the clergy; Decius (249–251); Valerian (253–260); and Aurelian (270–275), but he was murdered before the policy had been fully implemented. It is, then, possible that Alban was martyred during the persecutions of Decius or Valerian. Be that as it may, Bede writes:

… Diocletian in the east, and Maximian Herculius in the west, commanded the churches to be destroyed, and the Christians to be persecuted and slain. This was the tenth persecution after Nero, and was more lasting and cruel than almost any before it; for it was carried on incessantly for the space of 10 years, with burning of churches, proscription of innocent persons, and the slaughter of martyrs.[*] Finally, Britain also attained to the great glory of bearing faithful witness to God.
At that time suffered St Alban, of whom the priest Fortunatus, in the Praise of Virgins, where he makes mention of the blessed martyrs that came to the Lord from all parts of the world, says: “And fruitful Britain noble Alban rears”.[*]
This Alban, being yet a pagan, at the time when at the bidding of unbelieving rulers [principum] all manner of cruelty was practised against the Christians, gave entertainment in his house to a certain cleric, flying from his persecutors. This man he observed to be engaged in continual prayer and watching day and night; when on a sudden the Divine grace shining on him, he began to imitate the example of faith and piety which was set before him, and being gradually instructed by his wholesome admonitions, he cast off the darkness of idolatry, and became a Christian in all sincerity of heart. The aforesaid cleric having been some days entertained by him, it came to the ears of the wicked prince, that a confessor of Christ, to whom a martyr’s place had not yet been assigned, was concealed at Alban’s house. Whereupon he sent some soldiers to make a strict search after him. When they came to the martyr’s hut, St Alban presently came forth to the soldiers, instead of his guest and master, in the habit or long coat which he wore, and was bound and led before the judge.
It happened that the judge, at the time when Alban was carried before him, was standing at the altar, and offering sacrifice to devils. When he saw Alban, being much enraged that he should thus, of his own accord, put himself into the hands of the soldiers, and incur such danger on behalf of the guest whom he had harboured, he commanded him to be dragged to the images of the devils, before which he stood, saying, “Because you have chosen to conceal a rebellious and sacrilegious man, rather than to deliver him up to the soldiers, that his contempt of the gods might meet with the penalty due to such blasphemy, you shall undergo all the punishment that was due to him, if you seek to abandon the worship of our religion.”  But St Alban, who had voluntarily declared himself a Christian to the persecutors of the faith, was not at all daunted by the prince’s threats, but putting on the armour of spiritual warfare, publicly declared that he would not obey his command. Then said the judge, “Of what family or race are you?”  “What does it concern you,” answered Alban, “of what stock I am? If you desire to hear the truth of my religion, be it known to you, that I am now a Christian, and free to fulfil Christian duties.”  “I ask your name,” said the judge; “tell me it immediately.”  “I am called Alban by my parents,” replied he; “and I worship ever and adore the true and living God, Who created all things.”  Then the judge, filled with anger, said, “If you would enjoy the happiness of eternal life, do not delay to offer sacrifice to the great gods.”  Alban rejoined, “These sacrifices, which by you are offered to devils, neither can avail the worshippers, nor fulfil the desires and petitions of the suppliants. Rather, whosoever shall offer sacrifice to these images, shall receive the everlasting pains of hell for his reward.”
The judge, hearing these words, and being much incensed, ordered this holy confessor of God to be scourged by the executioners, believing that he might by stripes shake that constancy of heart, on which he could not prevail by words. He, being most cruelly tortured, bore the same patiently, or rather joyfully, for our Lord’s sake. When the judge perceived that he was not to be overcome by tortures, or withdrawn from the exercise of the Christian religion, he ordered him to be put to death. Being led to execution, he came to a river, which, with a most rapid course, ran between the wall of the town and the arena where he was to be executed. He there saw a great multitude of persons of both sexes, and of divers ages and conditions, who were doubtless assembled by Divine inspiration, to attend the blessed confessor and martyr, and had so filled the bridge over the river, that he could scarce pass over that evening. In truth, almost all had gone out, so that the judge remained in the city without attendance. St Alban, therefore, urged by an ardent and devout wish to attain the sooner to martyrdom, drew near to the stream, and lifted up his eyes to heaven, whereupon the channel was immediately dried up, and he perceived that the water had given place and made way for him to pass. Among the rest, the executioner, who should have put him to death, observed this, and moved doubtless by Divine inspiration hastened to meet him at the appointed place of execution, and casting away the sword which he had carried ready drawn, fell at his feet, praying earnestly that he might rather be accounted worthy to suffer with the martyr, whom he was ordered to execute, or, if possible, instead of him.
Whilst he was thus changed from a persecutor into a companion in the faith and truth, and the other executioners rightly hesitated to take up the sword which was lying on the ground, the holy confessor, accompanied by the multitude, ascended a hill, about half a mile from the arena, beautiful, as was fitting, and of most pleasing appearance, adorned, or rather clothed, everywhere with flowers of many colours, nowhere steep or precipitous or of sheer descent, but with a long, smooth natural slope, like a plain, on its sides, a place altogether worthy from of old, by reason of its native beauty, to be consecrated by the blood of a blessed martyr. On the top of this hill, St Alban prayed that God would give him water, and immediately a living spring, confined in its channel, sprang up at his feet, so that all men acknowledged that even the stream had yielded its service to the martyr. For it was impossible that the martyr, who had left no water remaining in the river, should desire it on the top of the hill, unless he thought it fitting. The river then having done service and fulfilled the pious duty, returned to its natural course, leaving a testimony of its obedience. Here, therefore, the head of the undaunted martyr was struck off, and here he received the crown of life, which God has promised to them that love him. But he who laid impious hands on the holy man’s neck was not permitted to rejoice over his dead body; for his eyes dropped upon the ground at the same moment as the blessed martyr’s head fell.
St Albans Cathedral, begun in 1077, overlooks a section of Verulamium’s town walls. (The masonry wall superseded earlier earthwork defences about 270.) The bricks seen in the Cathedral tower are Roman, robbed from the ruins of Verulamium.
At the same time was also beheaded the soldier, who before, through the Divine admonition, refused to strike the holy confessor. Of whom it is apparent, that though he was not purified by the waters of baptism, yet he was cleansed by the washing of his own blood, and rendered worthy to enter the kingdom of heaven. Then the judge, astonished at the unwonted sight of so many heavenly miracles, ordered the persecution to cease immediately, and began to honour the death of the saints, by which he once thought that they might have been turned from their zeal for the Christian faith. ǁ  The blessed Alban suffered death on the tenth of the Kalends of July [22nd of June], near the city of Verulamium, which is now by the English nation called Verlamacæstir, or Væclingacæstir, where afterwards, when peaceable Christian times were restored, a church of wonderful workmanship, and altogether worthy to commemorate his martyrdom, was erected. In which place the cure of sick persons and the frequent working of wonders cease not to this day.
At that time suffered Aaron and Julius, citizens of the City of the Legions, and many more of both sexes in divers places; who, after that they had endured sundry torments, and their limbs had been mangled after an unheard-of manner, when their warfare was accomplished, yielded their souls up to the joys of the heavenly city.
Bede Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum I, 6–7
This damnable [Pelagian] heresy being thus suppressed, and the authors thereof confuted, and all the people settled in the purity of the faith, the bishops [Germanus and Lupus] went to the tomb of the martyr, the blessed Alban, to give thanks to God through him.[*] There Germanus, having with him relics of all the Apostles, and of divers martyrs, after offering up his prayers, commanded the tomb to be opened, that he might lay therein the precious gifts; judging it fitting, that the limbs of saints brought together from divers countries, as their equal merits had procured them admission into heaven, should find shelter in one tomb. These being honourably bestowed, and laid together, he took up a handful of dust from the place where the blessed martyr’s blood had been shed, to carry away with him. In this dust the blood had been preserved, showing that the slaughter of the martyrs was red, though the persecutor was pale in death. In consequence of these things, an innumerable multitude of people was that day converted to the Lord.
Bede Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum I, 18
The theologian Pelagius was born in Britain around the early-350s, but had moved to Rome by the early-380s. In 409 (just before Alaric’s Visigoths sacked the city in 410) he travelled to Palestine via Sicily and North Africa. His teachings, which challenged mainstream Christian precepts regarding ‘original sin’ and ‘grace’, were declared heretical in 418. Pelagius then disappears from history – conceivably he returned to Britain.
Passio (Passion): an account of saintly death.
The Paris (MS lat. 11748) and Turin (MS D.V.3) texts represent developments of an original Passio Albani text that may well have been commissioned by Bishop (later, Saint) Germanus himself. Indeed, Ian Wood* suggests that Alban’s story was invented by Germanus as part of his anti-Pelagian campaign: “the name is supremely important: it is Alban, that is simply the man from Albion: the native of Britain.”
There is a third variant of the Passio, that exists in several manuscripts (none earlier than the 9th century), which is a brief telling of the story that appears at length in the Paris and Turin texts. Recent scholarship** suggests that this short version (known as text E) is representative of the original Passio. It was probably in its original form that Gildas encountered Alban’s story. Both the Paris text and text E place Alban’s martyrdom, simply, “in the time of the persecution”, and have an unnamed judge call an end to the persecution “without the orders of the emperors” (the word translated here as ‘emperors’ is principum, a plural form of princeps, from which ‘prince’). On this latter point, Bede differs from the Passio texts, and has the unnamed judge halt the persecution, without mention of emperors’ orders, and be moved to respect the Christian martyrs.
* Ian Wood ‘Germanus, Alban and Auxerre’, BUCEMA No. 13 (2009), freely available online.
** Richard Sharpe ‘The Late Antique Passion of St Alban’, Alban and St Albans: Roman and Medieval Architecture, Art and Archaeology (2001).
See The Caledonian Campaigns of Septimius Severus.
See An Instructive Example of Godliness.
It is thought that Severus brought the II Parthica legion to Britain with him. II Parthica was based at the Castra Albana, near Rome, and Cassius Dio (Roman History LXXVIII, 34; LXXIX, 2 & 4) refers to the men of II Parthica as ‘the Albani’. Anthony R. Birley* suggests that Alban is not really the martyr’s name, but rather a description: “the martyr was a soldier in II Parthica”.
* The Roman Government of Britain (2005) p.201.
Paulus Orosius wrote his Historiarum Adversus Paganos Libri Septem (Seven Books of History Against the Pagans), at the request of St Augustine of Hippo, in about 417. In Book VII he enumerates ten emperors who instigated Christian persecutions:
Neroruled  54–68
Domitian 81–96
Trajan 98–117
Marcus Aurelius 161–180
Septimius Severus   193–211
Maximinus Thrax 235–238
Decius 249–251
Valerian 253–260
Aurelian 270–275
Diocletian 284–305
Orosius counts inclusively, so the persecution of Diocletian (and, his co-Augustus, Maximian Herculius) is “the tenth persecution after Nero”.
From this point until the ǁ mark, Bede tells Alban’s story in the manner of the Passio Albani text preserved in the Paris manuscript. It is worth noting that, though the Passio text does not name Verulamium (Bede subsequently does), the topographical details it gives do match the site – St Albans Cathedral, sited on the hill to the east of the Roman town, presumably being in the vicinity of Alban’s execution.
Venantius Fortunatus, who was bishop of Poitiers when he died in 600 or thereabouts.
The previous sentence is lifted from Constantius of Lyon’s Vita Sancti Germani (§16). From this point, Bede is again drawing on the Passio Albani text.
A coin hoard, hidden in a gate-tower after its completion, provides a terminus ante quem (limit before which) of c.273. The walls – a massive project – may, however, have been under construction for a considerable time. In The Decline & Fall of Roman Britain (Second Edition, 2004), Neil Faulkner hazards:
Heavy drafts of local peasant labour must have worked on the third-century walls for decades.
Chapter 4
He opines that the stone walls were “probably built in c.220–70”.
By “the City of the Legions”, it has long been the generally held view that Gildas is referring to Caerleon (on the outskirts of Newport). The 2nd Legion (II Augusta) was based at Caerleon until about 290, and, persuasively, there is evidence of a chapel dedicated to Aaron and Julius near there in a Book of Llandaff charter (pp.225–6, Evans & Rhys edition) which has been dated to c.864*. There is no certainty, however, and arguments have been made that “the City of the Legions” is Chester, base of the 20th (XX Valeria Victrix), or York, base of the 6th (VI Victrix). Actually, Andrew Breeze** has argued that it is only “the City of the Legions” by virtue of a textual error, and that the place in question is Leicester.
* Wendy Davies The Llandaff Charters (1979), p.121.
** Andrew Breeze ‘Legionum Urbs and the British Martyrs Aaron and Julius’, Voprosy onomastiki Vol. 13 Issue 1 (2016), freely available online.
The Book of Llandaff (Liber Landavensis), dating from the early-12th century, is noted for a collection of 159 charters that purport to record grants of property made to bishops of Llandaff from the fifth century to the eleventh century. In that respect, the charters are a fiction, designed to provide the diocese of Llandaff, southeast Wales, with an antiquity it did not in fact possess. It would seem, though, that they are generally based on genuine grants made to other churches – that it is possible to detect the later Llandaff accretions, and to infer rough dates for most. Having said that, the charters’ authenticity is the subject of continuing debate.
Up to this point, Bede is copying from Orosius (Historiarum Adversus Paganos Libri Septem VII, 25).