Alban lived in the Roman city of Verulamium in the 3rd century AD. He was a Roman and worshipped the Roman Gods. One day a Christian priest who was fleeing persecution took shelter with Alban and converted him to Christianity. When the authorities came to arrest the priest. Alban swapped clothes with him so that the priest could get away. Alban was arrested and when the rouse was discovered the judge decided that Alban should receive the same punishment as the priest would have received. Alban refused to give up his newly found Christian faith and he was sentenced to death.
Three miracles are said to have happened. The first was that the river Ver which was bigger in those days parted so that all the people could cross without getting wet. Alban was taken across the river and up the hill to the place of execution where his head was cut off. According to legend a spring of water miraculously appeared where his head fell. The original executioner had refused to carry out the execution as he was moved by Alban’s words so another executioner chopped off Alban’s head and apparently his eyes fell out hence the third miracle.
In 429 AD St Germanus visited and founded a shrine here. This was acceptable as in 323 Constantine the Great was actively interested in Christianity and he played a crucial role in its development and the Christianization of the Roman world. The cathedral is a shrine to St Albans which has been visited by pilgrims since his death. There were so many pilgrims in the middle ages that St Albans became the premier abbey in England. During the Reformation, the shrine was taken down and the stonework was hidden in the walls of the cathedral and the body was removed to Europe for safe keeping. A few years ago a relic of St Albans body was returned to St Alban and is now kept in a red cloth draped box on top of the shrine.
Another interesting part of the shrine is the watcher’s loft. When pilgrims visited they would put pieces of clothing for the part of the body which they wished to be healed as well as other offerings. Two monks would keep watch over the shrine to ensure that nothing was removed or stolen. They also kept watch over the queues of pilgrims to watch out for signs of illness like leprosy and plague. The 14th-century watching loft is made of oak and around the string course are carved scenes of everyday life with a milkmaid, suckling pigs, bear baiting and even a wife beating her husband. It also shows the execution of St Alban.
Outside the shrine is another shrine to St Amphibalus who was the priest who Alban saved. His name was unknown so Amphibalus means unknown person. This shrine will be restored with some of the money from the lottery fund in the next few years. St Alban’s Cathedral and Abbey church contains 2 of only eight shrines which still exist in England.
St Alban’s saint day is June 22 and every year on the weekend closest, this year 23/24 June there is a procession from the top of the town down to the cathedral followed by a church service. On Sunday is a festival in the market area.
In the early eighth century, the historian Bede told the story of St Alban and described ‘a beautiful church, worthy of his martyrdom’.
Matthew Paris, the celebrated medieval historian and most famous of the Abbey’s monks, produced a beautifully illustrated ‘Life of St Alban’ in the 13th century. This is now at Trinity College in Dublin.
The shrine of St Alban can be seen here today. It is Purbeck marble base of 1308 supports a modern red and gold canopy under which rests a shoulder-blade said to come from the original relics of the saint’s body. The canopy is embroidered with English wildflowers, commemorating Bede’s description of Alban as ascending a hill “adorned with wildflowers of every kind.” The red rose, in particular, has come to be a special symbol of the saint reflecting the words of an ancient prayer: ‘Among the roses of the martyrs, brightly shines Saint Alban.’
Alban is a saint of the undivided church, a saint for all Christians. His welcome to a persecuted stranger was a powerful example of courage, compassion and hospitality.