On Friday the seminary went on pilgrimage to St Albans to visit the shrine of the great saint, England’s first martyr. Just getting out of London was a revelation for some of the seminarians; and many of them couldn’t quite believe that we were still in Westminster Diocese (which takes in the whole of Hertfordshire as well as its London elements). I was born in London but grew up in Harpenden, and went to senior school in St Albans; so I felt very proud to show them that there is life beyond the M25, and that the Diocese extends beyond Enfield.
We started in the Roman museum in the beautiful park below, and then walked up to the Abbey Cathedral for a tour and the celebration of Mass in the medieval Lady Chapel. Our Anglican hosts were very gracious to us in their welcome and in allowing us to celebrate Mass.
The shrine itself was completely destroyed during the Reformation. In recent years it has been gloriously restored, and they have an authentic relic of St Alban that was given to the Abbey by a church in Cologne. What an incredible grace, that after the tragedy of the destruction of the shrine, St Alban is now honoured ecumenically nearly five hundred years later. There is a thriving annual pilgrimage around the time of his feast day in late June each year.
I always think we should make more of him as Catholics, especially in Westminster Diocese. We have the shrine of England’s first martyr in the geographical centre of the diocese, but many people know hardly anything about him.
Here is the short biography from the Cathedral website:
A man called Alban, believed to have been a Romano-British citizen of the Roman town of Verulamium around the end of the 3rd century, gave shelter to an itinerant Christian priest, later called Amphibalus.
Impressed by what he heard Alban was converted to Christianity by him.
When a period of persecution, ordered by the Emperor, brought soldiers in search of the priest, Alban exchanged clothes with him allowing him to escape and it was Alban who was arrested in his place.
Standing trial and asked to prove his loyalty by making offerings to the Roman gods, Alban bravely declared his faith in “the true and living God who created all things”. This statement condemned Alban to death. He was led out of the city, across the river and up a hillside where he was beheaded.
As with all good stories the legend grew with time. Bede, writing in the 8th century elaborates the story, adding that the river miraculously divided to let him pass and a spring of water appeared to provide a drink for the saint. He also adds that the executioner’s eyes dropped out as he beheaded the saint, a detail that has often been depicted with relish since. At the time of Bede there was a church and shrine near the spot, pilgrims travelled to visit, and it became an established place of healing. He describes the hill as “adorned with wild flowers of every kind” and as a spot “whose natural beauty had long fitted it as a place to be hallowed by the blood of a blessed martyr”.
There is an even earlier record of St.Germanus visiting the shrine around 429.
Alban was probably buried in the Roman cemetery to the south of the present Abbey Church. Recent finds suggest an early basilica over the spot and later a Saxon Benedictine monastery was founded, probably by King Offa around 793. This was replaced in 1077 by the large Norman church and monastery, the remains of which are still partly visible in the tower and central part of the present cathedral.
St Alban’s martyrdom is particularly remembered on and around 22nd June each year with a major festival pilgrimage and Passio; an exploration of the martyrdom through carnival.
And you can read the wonderful account by St Bede at this site, which includes these passages:
This Alban, being yet a pagan, at the time when at the bidding of unbelieving rulers all manner of cruelty was practised against the Christians, gave entertainment in his house to a certain clerk, 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 clerk having been some days entertained by him, it came to the ears of the impious 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, dare to 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.