Little can actually be known about the real St Alban (estimated to have died c. 209 – 305 A.D.) Alban is believed to have been a Romano-British citizen of the third century in the Roman city of Verulamium, in the valley below the present Cathedral. The earliest versions of his history say that he gave shelter to a stranger fleeing from persecution. This was a Christian priest, originally un-named but later called Amphibalus in the re-telling of the story. Alban was so moved by the priest’s faith and courage that he asked to be taught more about Christianity, then still a forbidden religion.
Before long the authorities came to arrest the fugitive priest. But Alban, inspired by his new-found faith, exchanged clothes with Amphibalus, allowing him to escape. Instead Alban was arrested and brought before the city magistrate.
Alban was bound and taken before the judge. The judge was furious at the deception, and ordered that Alban should receive the punishment due to the priest, if he had indeed become a Christian. In front of the judges, Alban refused to sacrifice to the emperor and the Roman gods and declared his Christian faith, saying in words still used at the Cathedral of St. Alban in England, “I worship and adore the true and living God, who created all things.”
The magistrate ordered that Alban should receive the punishment due to the priest. He was brought out of the town, across the river and up a hill to the site of execution where his head was cut off.
Legend tells us that on the hill-top a spring of water miraculously appeared to give the martyr a drink and that the original executioner was so moved by this manifestation of God’s power that he refused to carry out the deed. After his replacement killed Alban the executioners’ eyes dropped out.
Alban was probably buried in the Roman cemetery now located by modern archaeological digs to the south of the present Cathedral. Alban is honoured as the first British martyr, and his grave on his hillside quickly became a place of pilgrimage. Amphibalus too was later arrested and martyred at Redbourn, a few miles away.
The first churches here were probably simple structures over Alban’s grave, making this the oldest continuous site of Christian worship in Great Britain. Recent finds suggest an early basilica over the spot and in 429 St Germanus recorded his visit to this church. In the early eighth century the historian Bede told the story of St Alban and described ‘a beautiful church, worthy of his martyrdom’.