Alban (DNB01)

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ALBAN, St. (d. 304?), called 'the protomartyr of Britain,' and by many mediaeval writers, by a strange confusion, 'the protomartyr of the English,' was according to Bede a pagan when, during the persecution in the reigns of Diocletian and Maximian, he gave shelter to a christian cleric and was converted by him. After some days the 'prince,' hearing that the cleric was with Alban, sent to arrest him. On the approach of the soldiers Alban put on his teacher's cloak or cowl, and gave himself up in his stead. "When taken before the judge, who asked him how he dared shelter a 'sacrilegious rebel,' he declared himself a christian, and refused to sacrifice to the heathen deities. He was scourged and led forth to be beheaded outside the city of Verulamium. A great multitude accompanied him, and thronged the bridge across the river (the Ver), whose waters divided so that he crossed dryshod. On this the executioner threw down his sword, declaring that he would rather die with him than put him to death. Alban was led to the top of a flower-clad hill (the site of the future abbey), where a spring of water rose miraculously to quench his thirst. One was found to act as executioner, and Alban was beheaded. The soldier who had refused to execute him was also beheaded, and the eyes of him who had taken the executioner's place dropped out. Alban suffered on 22 June. "When the persecution ceased a church was built on the place of his martyrdom, and there down to Bede's day (731) it was believed that frequent miracles were wrought. Bede, copying from Gild as, adds that at the same time Aaron and Julius were martyred at 'Legionum urbs,' or Caerleon, and many more of both sexes in various places.

Doubt has been cast on this narrative, because the Diocletian persecution did not extend to Britain ({(sc|Eusebius}}, Historia Ecclesiastica, viii. 13, and other authorities quoted in Councils and Ecclesiastical Documents, i. 7). Aaron and Julius are certainly rather shadowy persons, and the statements of Gildas and later writers as to numerous martyrdoms, which imply a widespread persecution in Britain, are untrustworthy. Yet there is not sufficient reason for rejecting the individual case of Alban, who may have suffered at some other time, and in a merely local persecution. In any case his martyrdom rests on fair historical ground, since it was believed at Verulamium a century and a quarter after the date generally assigned to it. For Constantius, in his 'Life of Germanus' [q. v.], bishop of Auxerre, written about forty years after the bishop's death, records that in 429 Germanus and Lupus visited the tomb of Alban, and that Germanus took away some earth which was believed to be reddened by the martyr's blood. Germanus built a church at Auxerre in honour of St. Alban, which was standing in the eleventh century (Recueil des Historiens, X. 172). In the sixth century the martyrdom was recorded by Gildas, and noticed in a poem written 569-74 by Venantius Fortunatus, afterwards bishop of Poitiers, in a line quoted by Bede, whose account of Alban was probably taken from some source not now known to exist. The foundation of the abbey of St. Alban is attributed to Offa (d. 796) [q. v.], who was believed to have discovered the martyr's body.

It was believed at St. Albans that Alban's body was carried off by the Danes, and restored through the agency of the sacristan Egwin, who went to Denmark and secretly abstracted it. In the twelfth century the convent of Ely claimed that they had the body, but an inquisition into the matter having been made by order of Hadrian IV, they definitely renounced their pretensions. It is said that while some excavations were being made at Verulamium, in the time of the ninth abbot, in the latter part of the tenth century, an ancient book was discovered in a wall of the Roman city, bound in oak boards, and written in a language which none could read save an old priest named Unwon. He declared it to contain the story of Alban written in the British language. By the abbot's command the book was translated into Latin, and when the translation was finished the original volume crumbled away.

The cleric who was sheltered by Alban received the name Amphibalus, which first appears in the ‘Historia Britonum’ of Geoffrey of Monmouth [q. v.], and is evidently a confusion between the man and his cloak, for ‘amphibalus’ is equivalent to ‘caracalla,’ the word used in Bede's story. In 1178 a body asserted to be the remains of Amphibalus was found on Redbourn Green, near St. Albans, where it was believed that he was put to death after the martyrdom of his disciple. The body was laid in the abbey church, and, at the bidding of Abbot Symon, a monk of the house named William translated from English into Latin the story of Alban and his teacher in an elaborate form, supplying, as he says, the name Amphibalus from the ‘History’ of Geoffrey of Monmouth. The compiler of the ‘Chronica Majora’ took the legend from William's work. St. Alban of Britain has been confused with a St. Alban or Albinus of Mainz, said to have been martyred in the fifth century, and with a martyr Albinus, whose body was translated by the Empress Theophano to the church of St. Pantaleon at Cologne. At least three places in France bear the name St. Alban, a village near St. Brieuc (Côtes du Nord), a village near Roanne (Loire), and a small town near Mende (Lozère).

[Bede's Hist. Eccl. i. cc. 7, 18 (Plummer's Bede, 11, 17-20, 33); Constantius's Life of St. Germanus, 1, 25, ap. AA. SS. Bolland, Jul. 31, v. 202 sqq. 224, 250; Gildas, Hist. p. 17 (Engl. Hist. Soc.); Venantius Fortunatus, De Virginitate, Miscell. viii. 6 (Patrol. Lat. lxxxviii. 267); William of St. Albans and notes, ap. AA. SS. Bolland, Jun. 22, v. 126 sqq.; Matt. Paris's Chron. Maj. i. 149-52, 233, 331, 356-8, ii. 302; Gesta Abb. S. Alb. i. 12-18, 27, 70, 176, 192-3; Geoffrey of Monmouth's Hist. Brit. v. 5, ed. Giles; Usher's Antiq. pp. 76-89, 281; Bright's Early Engl. Church Hist. pp. 6, 7, ed. 1897.]

W. H.