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How a pagan soldier was moved by the faith of a Christian priest

But who was St Alban, Britain’s earliest saint?

By on Wednesday, 20 June 2012

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.

  • paulpriest

     Minor typo but St Bede died in AD 735

  • Parasum

    Aren’t there historical problems with the story of St. Alban ? I thought Amphibalus – the priest whom he sheltered – was supposed to be a cloak.

    As for the involvement of Diocletian – Constantius Chlorus (father of Constantine) had jurisdiction over the province of Britannia, and did next to nothing to persecute Christians; the bad stuff was mainly in the Eastern provinces of the Empire.  At least this notice is not as creative with history as the alleged life of St.Philomena of Mugnano – that account is almost as much fun as the “History of the Kings of Britain”.

    “That is one reason why, frankly, reading Bede is rather heavy going, but reading Geoffrey of Monmouth is great fun.”

    ## Especially the early section down to boringly historical people like Julius Caesar. The first thousand years of the “History” has giants, prophecies, magic, family rivalries, plots, treason, murder, military operations by the bucket-load. The goddess Diana prophecies to Brutus, great-grandson of Aeneas (see Virgil for info about *him*), that the descendants of Brutus will rule a great empire. This prophecy has been fulfilled to the letter, by Britain & by “our American cousins”. For a non-existent goddess, that’s not bad going. On his voyage to Britain Brutus conquers Pandrasus, king of Greece, and beats up the French as well. Geoffrey also mentions “Lucius, King of Britain”, and his request to St.Eleutherius of Rome for missionaries to come to Britain.  Being a careful author, he provodes synchronisms between the doings of Brutus, Lear, Cymbeline, Lucius, Arthur & Co., and events elsewhere.

    “Our Island Story” includes Brutus (carefully noting that some say the account of his doings is “only a story”), but only after a chapter saying that Britain is under the protection of Neptune & his wife Amphitrite. Which is good to know. 

  • Nat_ons

    There are ‘historical problems’ with the stories of Adam, Abraham, Homer, Alexander The Greek, Julius Caesar, Galienus .. that does not detract from their stories nor there personal characters even if only oral guestimates not verifiable documentary evidence. After all, if one trips upon the undoubted documented inconsistencies in the records of Saint Paul’s life or the apparent problems associated to Jesus Christ in history one one could ridicule them – mercilessly and merrily. Bede’s reading of Albanus’ time and troubles, for example, is cursory and thus misleading, no doubt for want of accurate or at least reliable sources .. nonetheless, the sanctity of the man recalled is patent.

    Adam, Abraham and Homer – and those mentioned in their stories – may be fiction or myth, perhaps legendary, there were no reliable historical resources available to check .. one must take them as they are recorded. Alexander, Caesar and Galienus are historically documented souls, of itself that does not mean every word recorded of them is trustworthy or drawn from a reliable written source – no one would expect this. A kind of in-joke-form of glib dismissal still seems to be the acceptable manner of rejecting Christian witness – not least by Christians seeking to be relevant to the spirit of the times; Saint Alban and his recorded witness is a challenge to this spirit and its glibness.

    Next to nothing of what we know about Abraham or the emperor Galienus, like the life of Saint Alban, can rest on reliable contemporary documents (neither now or at the time of their lives). Yet it is foolish either to dismiss what little might be verified (if anything), or rather guessed at, just as it is foolish to make these sources into something of greater historical worth than they seek to be. Ancient recollection of the vague stories of Alban et al – including the durable cloak or chasuble worn by a priest when travelling: e.g. ‘Amphibalus’ or Canon Chasuble – are not dull, dusty, or dessicated official records but often living, colourful and dramatic popular representations (sadly taken by many to be humourless accounts of ‘fact’ made known from testable data).

    The rumbustious accounts of the saints – set beside those of most Hebrew patriarchs and even many Roman leaders – are not signs of ignorance of fact or reliance on mere fantasy let alone any darkness of intellect .. they are simply not empirically verifiable history and cannot be taken as such, their germs of truth are no more and no less valuable to understanding history than those of popular historical novels on the Peninsula War, the Crimea or the Great War (entertaining, even informative, but not ‘official’ records sic).

  • Honeybadger

    Saint Philomena was a Greek princess, not Italian.

    The account of her short yet incredible life was accounted for by two visionaries in different parts of the world and the two accounts scanned.

    Her relics were transfered to Mugnano, Italy, in 1802. They have been verified and authenticated by several experts.

    Amongst her devotees was the Cure of Ars, St John Vianney.

  • Parasum

    The vision alleged she was Greek, yes. She is however venerated at Mugnano in particular; & there is another Philomena, called, unhelpfully, “of Rome”, who is much less well-known than the one whom Cure d’Ars helped to popularise.

    Since both Philomenas (Philomenae ?) are connected with Rome, & since the one “whom everyone knows”, is closely associated with Mugnano, & since the vision is a very dodgy source, I called her “of Mugnano”. What’s this second vision ? It sounds well worth looking into.

    The remains may be those of a genuine martyr – but how does that verify her biographical details ? And how recent is the archaeology ? What people said in 1802 means little, if the results of earlier experts have been overthrown by those of a later or better-equipped time. As has happened (to some extent) with the Shroud of Turin, or the excavations in the tomb thought to be St. Peter’s. Sometimes, the more recent is the better. Though some Catholics disagree strongly with that idea.

  • Parasum

    I thought this would happen LOL. By “historical problems”, which I thought of explaining it, but decided not to, I meant problems that raise difficulties for the historicity of them. Juan Diego is problematic in exactly that sense. Julius Caesar, AFAIK, is not, since (AFAIK) there is no serious or seriously intended objection to the supposition that he was an historical person. I’m leaving out of consideration this kind of thing:


    See also:


    - for even if the author is correct, “what everyone knows” is that Julius Caesar (a)
     does not refer to the cricketer Sir Julius Caesar , or to his namesake the judge, but to the man who was killed on the Ides of March in 44 BC. Julius Caesar, though there may be all sorts of problems arising from questions about the minutiae of his career, or from the sources, is not a problem in the same sense as Amphibalus, since the very existence of Amphibalus is (apparently) rather doubtful, and may be based on nothing more than confusion of words. Such confusions are not uncommon in hagiography, so the possibility is hardly an outlandish one. 

    I agree with most of what you say – it’s surprising to see (some of) it said. It’s one thing to say that facts can’t always be verified – but something else, to give free rein to imagination. Abraham may be a fable, or a composite character, or a number of things – but despite the uncertainties, it is possible to specify where the uncertainties are, why they arise, and what that in turn is so. Amphibalus is too elusive and generic for anything to be known about him, and matters are not helped by the lack of detail about the history of Christianity in early 4th-century Britain. That three bishops signed a letter to a council in 314 is useful to know, and it allows certain inferences: but it does not supply much biographical detail. So it is not only the fact of problems, but their nature & detail, that is significant.

  • Honeybadger

    Take a look at St Philomena’s official website. Google it.

    It might clear things up a wee bit.