ALBAN of Verulamium

ALBAN of Verulamium d. 303. The first testimony of Christianity in Britain, with high probability, may be the tradition surrounding the martyrdom of Alban at Verulamium. Alban, protomartyr Angliae according to Bede’s account Hist. eccl. gent. angl. I, 7 which certainly draws on earlier writers, in particular Constantius of Lyons and Gildas, is thought to have been born at Verulamium modern St. Albans in Hertfordshire of a well-to-do pagan Roman family. With the outbreak of the persecution of Diocletian and Maximian, he is said to have given refuge to a Christian priest in his house; impressed by his doctrine and piety, Alban was baptized by him. The Roman governor, meanwhile, informed of the presence and preaching of a Christian priest at Verulamium from the 12th c. considered to have been the cleric Amphibalus, had him sought out. Discovering that he was at Alban’s house, he sent soldiers to arrest him; fooled by a disguise, they brought Alban instead. His true identity then discovered, and refusing to offer sacrifice to the pagan gods, he was beaten, imprisoned and decapitated. Miraculous episodes before the martyrdom showed Alban’s holiness: needing to cross a bridge packed with people who had come to view the supreme sacrifice to reach the place of execution, and so as not to unduly delay his ascent to heaven, he prayed for the waters of the river to part, leaving a dry passage for him and the crowd. The executioner was converted by this miracle and was himself martyred along with Alban. Arriving at the hill designated as the place of martyrdom, recorded in the account as Holmhurst Hill perhaps identifiable with the modern town of Holywell Hill, and extremely thirsty, he prayed to the Lord for a gush of water to quench his thirst, which happened immediately. Finally, as Alban’s severed head lay on the ground, the new executioner’s eyes fell out, according to a topos common to many other passiones. Bede’s date of 303 for the martyrdom is unlikely, since Diocletian’s persecution did not extend to Britain, and thus some modern scholars have considered the account to be the fruit of the imagination of ancient hagiographers, even to the point of denying the saint’s existence; many others have tried to place the martyrdom in the 3rd c. In any event, Alban can be considered to have fallen victim to an unknown local persecution of the same time, given that his cult must have existed very early; indeed, there are various attestations long before Bede. In 429, e.g., according to the Chronicon Integrum of Prosper of Aquitaine PL 51, 595, in a climate of frequent contact between the island and the continental Gallic world, St. Germanus bishop of Auxerre and St. Lupus bishop of Troyes were called to Britain by their brothers to combat the Pelagian heresy widespread on the island. After successfully opposing the heretics and before returning to their country, they visited Alban’s tomb to give thanks; the visit to the holy place, already the destination of many pilgrimages, was certainly propitious for the two Gallic bishops, who, thanks to the martyr, faced the return trip to Gaul with absolute tranquility. A few years later Gildas recounts the martyrdom De excidio et conquestu Britanniae 10-11; Venantius Fortunatus, bishop of Poitiers, in describing the celestial court mentions Alban as a glorious representative of Britain Carmina, VIII, 3, v. 155; and a passio in his honor had already been composed in Gaul in the first half of the 6th c. Well into the Middle Ages, thanks in particular to the writings of Matthew of Paris, monachus ecclesiae Sancti Albani as he called himself, the story of Alban spread widely and his cult reached beyond the British Isles. A further confirmation of the antiquity of the cult, and a testament to the truth of the martyr’s existence, is the fact that Germanus’s biography tells us absolutely nothing about him, leaving us to understand that he must have been well known to his readers and required no clarifying information. According to a late medieval tradition considered doubtful by many modern critics, Offa, king of Mercia d. 796, after the discovery of Alban’s relics forgotten following a supposed destruction of the site by Saxon invaders, founded beside the martyr’s church which already existed at the time of Bede’s account, and according to whom was the place of many conversions and miracles of every kind an excellent Benedictine monastery that later developed into the great abbey of St. Albans. Below the present-day cathedral of St. Albans, therefore, are presumed to be the Roman structures of the old martyrial memoria of Alban, i.e., the church visited by Germanus in 429 and later recorded by Bede. Archaeological excavations, while not yet having directly documented the existence of the primitive church probably completely obliterated by the construction of the Norman cathedral have in fact unearthed a vast late-Roman necropolis which could testify to the presence of the old martyrial memoria outside the walls of Verulamium, dedicated to Alban and quickly transformed, at first into a cemetery, according to a well-known custom in the ancient world of the desire of the faithful to be near the venerated saint, and later into a genetic center, from which the medieval city got its origins. It should also be noted that the saint, depicted iconographically as a Roman soldier armed with sword and cross, or more often as one carrying his own head, is often confused with Albin, a Roman martyr venerated in Germany; also, the title conferred on him of protomartyr Anglorum must be simply accepted as an anachronism, since, as is known, the Angles invaded the territory of ancient Britain only much later.
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ALBAN of Verulamium

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ALBAN of Verulamium

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ALBAN of Verulamium

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