Alban is revered as the first British martyr. The first reference to him occurs in Constantius’s Life of St Germanus, written around 480. Some 80 years later he is mentioned by Gildas. The fullest account of his martyrdom, however, is found in the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, composed around 731. According to this source Alban died under the persecution of Diocletian, at the beginning of the fourth century.
Bede introduces Alban as a pagan who gave shelter to a Christian priest being hunted down by the Roman army.
So impressed was he by the devotion and constancy of his guest that he himself was soon converted to the proscribed faith.
Eventually the authorities discovered that the priest whom they sought was living in Alban’s house, and sent some soldiers to arrest the man. Alban, though, fired by convert zeal, put on his lodger’s cloak, and passed himself off as the priest. The ruse was soon discovered. Asked about his true identity, the prisoner responded with a ringing declaration: “My name is Alban and I worship and adore the living God who created all things.”
The judge had him flogged, in the hope of moderating his enthusiasm, but there was no question of Alban recanting his new faith.
Led out to execution, he had to cross a river, which obligingly dried up at his approach. So impressed was the executioner at the obvious power of Alban’s God that he refused to carry out his work. Indeed, he “changed from a persecutor to a companion in the true faith”.
Some 500 yards further on, at the top of a slope, a spring suddenly gushed at Alban’s behest. Another executioner was found, who decapitated both Alban and the original headsman. All this took place, Bede records, in the Roman town of Verulamium, the present St Albans.
Modern critics have deemed it unlikely that Alban was martyred under Diocletian, whose persecution was confined to the eastern Empire. Britain at the beginning of the fourth century was under the rule of Constantius, who had a Christian wife and actively protected Christians.
It seems more likely, therefore, that Alban’s martyrdom took place either under the persecution of Septimus Severus (c 209) or under that of Decius (c 254). On the whole scholars prefer the latter date.
In current versions of the story Alban is often presented as an officer in the Roman army. The idea is not impossible; there is, however, no early evidence to support it. No doubt Alban must have been a prominent citizen if he possessed a house large enough to conceal a priest.
In 793 King Offa of Mercia established a Benedictine monastery on the supposed site of Alban’s execution – the origin of the present cathedral.