But who was St Alban, Britain's earliest saint?
Today is the feast of Saint Alban, proto-martyr of Britain. We have his story thanks to Saint Bede the Venerable. This is what is to be found in the Office of Readings for today:
Saint Alban, ‘born in fertile Britain’s land’, suffered during the reign of Diocletian and Herculian. Whilst still a pagan, he gave shelter to a Christian priest who was fleeing from his persecutors. When Alban saw the holy man spending all his time in prayer and vigils, he was suddenly touched by the grace of God. He was moved to follow the priest’s example, and began to emulate his faith and devotion. In the course of time he thoroughly imbibed the priest’s salutary teaching, renounced the darkness of idolatry and wholeheartedly professed the Christian faith. Soon, however, word got out that Alban was sheltering a Christian, and when the soldiers arrived to search the house, Alban dressed himself in the priest’s clothes and gave himself up in the place of his guest and teacher.
The judge was incensed that Alban should have surrendered himself in place of his guest; and when he refused to offer sacrifice to idols, ordered him to be scourged, in the hope that he could shake his constancy by torture. But Alban bore all his severe torments with joyful patience for Christ’s sake. When the judge saw that no torture could break him or induce him to repudiate his faith in Christ, he ordered him to be beheaded.
Saint Alban suffered on the twenty-second day of June near the city of Verulamium. When the peace of Christian times was restored, a beautiful church worthy of his martyrdom was built.
This passage is adapted from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, chapter seven. The original version contains all sorts of miraculous events that Bede must have found in various accounts of the martyr’s passion, and which have been excised by the compilers of the Breviary, I presume, on the grounds of historicity. Bede, regarded as the “Father of English History”, was not in the habit of making things up, but based what he wrote on research. The story of Alban, as reproduced above, would be, then, historically sound, though there is some doubt about the date of Albans’s martyrdom. Someone like Geoffrey of Monmouth, unlike Bede, was in the habit of making things up, or embroidering stories that he got from goodness knows where. That is one reason why, frankly, reading Bede is rather heavy going, but reading Geoffrey of Monmouth is great fun.
Bede died in 375, and is a saint and a doctor of the Church. Geoffrey of Monmouth died in 1155 and was a bishop but more importantly our first really entertaining historical novelist. It is from him that Shakespeare lifted the tales of King Lear and Cymbeline, transforming them both in the process, and Geoffrey is also credited with producing the first extended telling of the legend of King Arthur. By contrast, as far as I can tell, there is no evidence that Shakespeare ever knew the work of Bede.
Given that Bede the Venerable is a serious historian, it is frustrating that we do not know that much about Alban. Who was the priest he was sheltering? And who was Alban? Was he British or was he a Roman? These details are sadly lost in the mists of time. But what stands out is the simple fact of his martyrdom, and, a sobering thought this, how he was won over to Christianity by the example of a pious and devoted priest.
History has a way of repeating itself, and there were many martyrs in the sixteenth century in England who died in similar circumstances – put to death for sheltering priests who were on the run from a persecuting government. Perhaps, as they went to their painful deaths, they were inspired by the proto-martyr in whose steps they walked, and whose serenity they shared.