St. Alban, the first English martyr, was executed during an imperial persecution sometime in the mid-third century. A prominent Roman citizen of the ancient city of Verulamium, he was beheaded on a lovely hill thirty miles north of London. There his namesake church now stands, surrounded by the town of St. Albans.
Alban, while he was still a pagan, hid in his house a certain priest, who was running from the persecutors. He observed his guest engaged in continual prayer and keeping vigil day and night. And prompted by a sudden infusion of divine light, he began to imitate the priest’s example of faith and piety. Gradually instructed by his wholesome admonitions, Alban cast off the darkness of idolatry, and became a sincerely committed Christian. The wicked prince heard that the holy confessor of Christ was concealed at Alban’s house. So he sent some soldiers to make a strict search for him. When they came to the martyr’s house, St. Alban, dressed in the priest’s long coat, immediately presented himself instead of his guest and master, and was led bound before the judge.
Enraged that Alban had substituted himself for the priest, the judge ordered him to profess his faith in the Roman gods. Alban stoutly refused. The judge tried to break the saint’s adamantine will by having him flogged. But the saint endured through every torture, so the official condemned him to death.
Being led to execution, Alban came to a rapidly surging river which ran between the wall of the town and the arena where he was to be martyred. There a multitude had so obstructed the bridge that he would not be able to cross that evening.
St. Alban, eager for his martyrdom, approached the stream. And as he lifted his eyes to heaven, the channel immediately dried up, and he saw that the water had departed and made way for him to pass. The executioner observed this and, moved by divine inspiration, he hastened to meet Alban at the place of execution. Casting down the sword which he had carried ready drawn, he fell at Alban’s feet, and prayed that he might suffer with the martyr or, if possible, instead of him. Alban walked up a hill near the arena. To make it clear to all that his prayer had dried the river, Alban asked aloud that God would give him water and a spring bubbled up at his feet. Then he and his new Christian companion were beheaded.
A beautiful church was built on the site of Alban’s death, where centuries later Bede said, “sick folk are healed and frequent miracles take place to this day.” Even now Alban’s wondrous spirit still seems to linger there. Visitors to St. Alban’s Church report that they sense a near palpable holiness at the place of his martyrdom and are drawn to God in prayer.