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BRITAIN’S FIRST MARTYR

Father Francis's picture
Saint Alban

As the first British martyr Saint Alban should hold a very special place in our hearts.

Born in the third century when Britain was part of the Roman Empire, he belonged to a pagan Roman family who lived in the city of Verulamium and served as a soldier in the imperial army. He later went to Rome to complete his education and then returned to his home town, where he became one of its leading citizens.

The Christian faith came to this country through the efficient communication systems of the Roman Empire. For some time it was tolerated alongside pagan religions but when Diocletian became emperor in the year 284 he was determined to destroy Christianity. A reign of persecution began which reached as far as Britain, and Christians were arrested, tortured and put to death.

Although a pagan Alban was evidently not hostile towards Christians. He was a generous and hospitable man and when he met a priest who was fleeing from the persecutors he took pity on him and hid him in his own home. Perhaps Alban's intention was simply to help a man in distress, but as the days went by he was able to observe his guest. The priest's deep devotion to prayer attracted Alban and he began to ask questions about the Christian religion. The priest gladly taught him and with God's grace Alban received the gift of faith.

The governor was informed of the priest's hiding place and soldiers were sent to Alban's house. He quickly exchanged clothes with the priest and allowed himself to be arrested in his place. At his trial he was ordered to pay homage to the pagan gods, but he confessed that he was a Christian, a worshipper not of useless idols but of the true and living God. The governor had him scourged and when Alban still refused to renounce his new-found faith he was condemned to death.

A large crowd watched as Alban was taken to the place of execution, a small hill just outside the town. Saint Bede describes it as a lovely spot, covered in wild flowers. On that summer day Alban was thirsty and he knelt down and prayed for water: a spring immediately emerged from the ground and he drank from it. The executioner was so moved by this miracle and by Alban's piety and courage that he threw down his sword and was converted. Another soldier was ordered to carry out the sentence and Alban was beheaded, with his convert being executed a few minutes later. After Alban's death many more miracles and conversions were achieved through his intercession.

The saint's birthplace was re-named 'St. Albans' as a reminder of his sacrifice. His martyrdom proves how effective personal example can be and we must never underestimate its value because God often uses conversion as a tool to draw others to him. We see how the prayer life of the priest aroused Alban's interest and admiration and Alban's own example inspired the soldier to turn to Christ. We might ask ourselves whether our way of life would draw other people to the Catholic faith. Do they see in us an enthusiasm, a conviction, that would prompt them to say, 'We must find out more'?

Saint Alban, first martyr of Britain, pray for us.