05 July 2009

Albanum egregium fæcunda Britania profert—St Alban the Protomartyr of Britain

Today, 22 June on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of St Alban of Verulamium, the Protomartyr of Britain († 3rd c.). It seems the earliest reference to St Alban is in Constantius’s Life of St Germanus of Auxerre, where the bishop is said to have visited ‘the shrine of the blessed martyr Alban, giving thanks to God for him’, and where ‘the intercession of Alban the Martyr’ is said to have obtained for him ‘a calm voyage’ (Constantius of Lyon, ‘The Life of St Germanus of Auxerre’, trans. F.R. Hoare, Soldiers of Christ: Saints and Saints’ Lives from Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, ed. Thomas F.X. Head and Thomas Head [London: Continuum, 1995], pp. 88, 90-1). St Gildas the Wise, however, gives us a bit more information in his De Excidio Britanniæ. He writes:

10. God, therefore, who wishes all men to be saved, and who calls sinners no less than those who think themselves righteous, magnified his mercy towards us, and, as we know, during the above-named persecution, that Britain might not totally be enveloped in the dark shades of night, he, of his own free gift, kindled up among us bright luminaries of holy martyrs, whose places of burial and of martyrdom, had they not for our manifold crimes been interfered with and destroyed by the barbarians, would have still kindled in the minds of the beholders no small fire of divine charity. Such were St Alban of Verulam, Aaron and Julius, citizens of Carlisle, and the rest, of both sexes, who in different places stood their ground in the Christian contest.

11. The first of these martyrs, St Alban, for charity's sake saved another confessor who was pursued by his persecutors, and was on the point of being seized, by hiding him in his house, and then by changing clothes with him, imitating in this the example of Christ, who laid down his life for his sheep, and exposing himself in the other's clothes to be pursued in his stead. So pleasing to God was this conduct, that between his confession and martyrdom, he was honoured with the performance of wonderful miracles in presence of the impious blasphemers who were carrying the Roman standards, and like the Israelites of old, who trod dry-foot an unfrequented path whilst the ark of the covenant stood some time on the sands in the midst of Jordan; so also the martyr, with a thousand others, opened a path across the noble river Thames, whose waters stood abrupt like precipices on either side; and seeing this, the first of his executors was stricken with awe, and from a wolf became a lamb; so that he thirsted for martyrdom, and boldly underwent that for which he thirsted. . . .

But the Venerable Bede gives us the fullest account of St Alban’s martyrdom in his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum I.7 (one can read the relevant chapter in William Hurst’s translation here). St Bede begins his narrative of the martyrdom, ‘During this persecution [of Diocletian] St Alban suffered. Fortunatus in his Praise of the Virgins, in which he mentions the blessed martyrs, who came to the Lord from every quarter of the globe, calls him “Illustrious Alban, fruitful Britain’s child [Albanum egregium fæcunda Britania profert—from Carmina, VII, iii, 155]”’ (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, ed. Judith McClure and Roger Collins [Oxford: Oxford U, 1994], p. 16). While St Alban was still a pagan, he gave shelter to a Christian priest, traditionally known as St Amphibalus. According to St Bede:

When Alban saw this man occupied day and night in continual vigils and prayers, divine grace suddenly shone upon him and he learned to imitate his guest’s faith and devotion. Instructed little by little by his teaching about salvation, Alban forsook the darkness of idolatry and became a wholehearted Christian. (p. 16)

It was then that the authorities learned there was a Christian hiding out in the house. But when the soldiers came, St Alban ‘at once’ put the priest’s cloak on his own shoulders and offered himself in St Amphibalus’s place. He was led before the judge, who was making sacrifices to the pagan gods and was enraged to see a former pagan giving himself in place of the Christian cleric. St Bede’s account continues:

He ordered Alban to be dragged before the images of the devils in front of which he was standing and said, ‘You have chosen to conceal a profane rebel rather than surrender him to my soldiers, to prevent him from paying a well-deserved penalty for this blasphemy in despising the gods; so you will have to take the punishment he has incurred if you attempt to forsake our worship and religion.’ St Alban had of his own accord declared himself a Christian before the enemies of the faith, and was not at all afraid of the ruler’s threats; arming himself for spiritual warfare, he openly refused to obey these commands. The judge said to him, ‘What is your family and race?’ Alban answered, ‘What concern is it of yours to know my parentage? If you wish to hear the truth about my religion, know that I am now a Christian and am ready to do a Christian’s duty.’ The judge said, ‘I insist on knowing your name, so tell me at once.’ The saint said, ‘My parents call me Alban and I shall ever adore and worship the true and living God who created all things.’ The judge answered very angrily, ‘If you wish to enjoy the happiness of everlasting life, you must sacrifice at once to the mighty gods.’ Alban answered, ‘The sacrifices which you offer to devils cannot help their votaries nor fulfill the desires and petitions of their suppliants. On the contrary, he who has offered sacrifices to these images will receive eternal punishment in hell as his reward.’ (p. 17)

Thus, the judge resorted first to beatings and tortures, but finding that the Saint ‘bore them patiently and even joyfully for the Lord’s sake’, ordered him to be executed (p. 17). On the way to his place of execution, St Alban came to a stream, the bridge over which was filled with such a crowd that it could not be crossed. So the Saint, wanting to win his crown as soon as possible, offered up a prayer, whereupon the stream dried up where he was standing, allowing the party to cross. The executioner, seeing this miracle, threw down his sword once they reached the place for the martyrdom, and begged St Alban ‘that he might be judged worthy to be put to death either with the martyr whom he himself had been ordered to execute, or else in his place’ (p. 18). St Bede then continues:

So while he was turned from a persecutor into a companion in the true faith, and while there was a very proper hesitation among the other executioners in taking up the sword which lay on the ground, the most reverend confessor ascended the hill with the crowds. This hill lay about five hundred paces from the arena, and, as was fitting, it was fair, shining and beautiful, adorned, indeed clothed, on all sides with wild flowers of every kind; nowhere was it steep or precipitous or sheer but Nature had provided it with wide, long-sloping sides stretching smoothly down to the level of the plain. In fact its natural beauty had long fitted it as a place to be hallowed by the blood of a blessed martyr. When he reached the top of the hill, St Alban asked God to give him water and at once a perpetual spring bubbled up, confined within its channel and at his very feet, so that all could see that even the stream rendered service to the martyr. For it could not have happened that the martyr who had left no water remaining in the river would have desired it on the top of the hill, if he had not realized that this was fitting. The river, when it had fulfilled its duty and completed its pious service, returned to its natural course, but it left behind a witness of its ministry. And so in this spot the valiant martyr was beheaded and received the crown of life which God has promised to those who love him. But the one who laid his unholy hands on that holy neck was not permitted to rejoice over his death; for the head of the blessed martyr and the executioner’s eyes fell to the ground together. (p. 19)

The repentant executioner was deemed worthy to undergo martyrdom along with his would-be victim, so that, as St Bede notes, while he had not received the Baptism of water, he was nevertheless washed clean of sin by ‘his own blood and made worthy to enter the kingdom of heaven’ (p. 19). According to St Bede, this also served to bring the judge there to his senses and to mark the end of the persecutions on the local level (though he also points out that around that time Ss Aaron and Julius also suffered elsewhere in Britain). He concludes the account of St Alban saying, ‘The blessed Alban suffered death on 22 June near the city of Verulamium which the English now call either Uerlamacæstir or Uæclingacæstir (St Albans)’ (p. 19).

St Bede notes that a church was soon built over the place of St Alban’s martyrdom where ‘sick people are healed . . . and the working of frequent miracles continues to bring it renown’ (p. 19), and indeed, we have already seen that St Germanus made a pilgrimage there in the first half of the fifth century. An abbey church was founded there in 793, and this became a cathedral, later rebuilt by the Normans. A chapel and shrine in the Gothic style were added in the fourteenth century, but the shrine was smashed to pieces and the relics disappeared when Henry VIII gave all of England’s monasteries up to plunder. (Unfortunately, Shakespeare seems to lessen the seriousness of the shrine’s destruction when he tells the story of a phony miracle attributed to St Alban in Henry the Sixth Part II [Act II, Scene I].) According to David Nash Ford’s account, it was traditionally believed that the relics were smuggled to Cologne, and in 2002 a clavicle believed to belong to the Martyr was returned by that city to the church of St Alban’s (see the article from the Fellowship of St Alban & St Sergius newsletter here, where there is an excellent brief history of St Alban’s relics). The city of St Albans was the home of Charles Williams from the age of eight, and he was a student at St Albans School, founded in 948 by Abbot Wulsin. Also, my good friend Philip Navarro graduated from another St Albans School in Washington, D.C., which sits next to the National Cathedral on Mount St Alban.

There are more articles on St Alban 1) from Orthodox America here, and 2) from the St Nicholas parish website (ROCOR—Texas), here. One can find Migne’s text of St Bede’s account in Latin here, side by side with A.M. Sellar’s translation. Finally, there is a beautiful Akolouthia by Reader Isaac Lambertson here. I shall give the first sticheron from 'Lord, I have cried' at Vespers, and the Exapostilarion from Matins:

Arise, ye Christian peoples of Albion, leap for joy and join chorus, lifting your voices in sacred hymnody, and let us praise Alban the most laudable, who in accordance with his name was washed whiter than snow by the blood of his martyrdom; for, confessing Christ before the ungodly tyrant, he received a heavenly crown from his Master on high.

As the sky is bedight with myriads of brilliant luminaries, so is the firmament of the Church in Britain adorned with its countless saints as with innumerable stars, among whom Alban shineth with surpassing radiance. By his supplications may the Lord of all creation mercifully save our souls.

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