I was at the Bright Lights festival a few days ago, which ended with a pilgrimage to the shrine of St Alban in St Alban’s Abbey. I’ve always known that he is Britain’s first martyr, but another obvious thought struck me very forcefully for the first time: that he is our first ever saint. Of course there could have been many other holy men and women before him, but Alban is the first we know about, the first to be honoured as a saint, the first whose shrine still stands.
Here, in this town where I happened to go to school, is where things began. This is where our pagan culture first encountered the beauty and mystery of Christianity. This is where Christianity began to transform that culture from within, not as a threat or a danger, but as a seed of hope, a vision of what the human heart longs for but hardly dares to believe.
If you don’t know Alban’s story, here is a short biography:
St Alban was the first martyr in the British Isles; he was put to death at Verulamium (now called Saint Albans after him), perhaps during the persecution under the emperor Diocletian. According to the story told by St Bede, Alban sheltered in his house a priest who was fleeing from his enemies. He was so impressed by the goodness of his guest that he eagerly received his teaching and became a Christian. In a few days it was known that the priest lay concealed in Alban’s house, and soldiers were sent to seize him. Thereupon Alban put on the priest’s clothes and gave himself up in his stead to be tried.
The judge asked Alban, “Of what family are you?” The saint answered, “That is a matter of no concern to you. I would have you know that I am a Christian.” The judge persisted, and the saint said, “I was called Alban by my parents, and I worship the living and true God the creator of all things.”
Then the judge said, “If you wish to enjoy eternal life, sacrifice to the great gods at once!” The judge was angered at the priest’s escape and threatened Alban with death if he persisted in forsaking the gods of Rome. He replied firmly that he was a Christian, and would not burn incense to the gods. He was condemned to be beaten and then beheaded.
As he was led to the place of execution (traditionally the hill on which Saint Albans abbey church now stands) a miracle wrought by the saint so touched the heart of the executioner that he flung down his sword, threw himself at Alban’s feet, avowing himself a Christian, and begged to suffer either for him or with him. Another soldier picked up the sword, and in the words of Bede, “the valiant martyr’s head was stricken off, and he received the crown of life which God has promised to those who love Him.”
The feast of St Alban is kept on the twenty-second day of June each year.