Our Island Story - H. E. Marshall
The first Christian martyr in Britain was called Alban. He lived in the town called Verulamium. He was a Briton, but he was one of those who had learned many things from the Romans. When he was a boy he had even travelled to Rome, and had seen the beautiful city from which these conquerors took their name. And all that he had seen and learned had helped him to grow up a noble, generous man.
Alban had a great deal of money, and with it he used to help the poor people who lived around him. Every one loved and trusted him. Even the Christians loved and trusted him although he was a heathen. If any one was in trouble he would go for help to Alban the great, rich, kind man.
When the wicked Roman Emperor sent men to kill the Christians in Britain, a holy man called Amphibalus, who also lived in Verulamium, fled to the house of Alban for shelter.
'My lord,' said this old man, 'the soldiers of the emperor seek me to take my life. Hide me, and God will reward you.'
'What evil have you done?' asked Alban.
'I have done no evil,' replied Amphibalus. 'I am a Christian, that is all.'
'Then fear nothing,' said Alban kindly. 'I have heard much of the Christians, but nothing that is bad.'
Then Alban took Amphibalus into his house and hid him. He seemed quite safe there, as the soldiers did not think of looking for him in the house of a man who was a heathen.
Alban talked every day with Amphibalus, who told him all the story of Christ. It seemed to Alban very beautiful and wonderful that any one should die to save others. He felt that this religion of love and gentleness was much better than the fierce teaching of the Druids.
For some days Amphibalus lived in peace. But one day while he sat talking with Alban, a frightened servant came to say that soldiers were at the gate. They had found out where Amphibalus was hiding.
'My son,' said the old man trembling, 'I must say farewell, for I am about to die.'
'No,' replied Alban, 'I will save you yet. Give me your robe.'
Then hastily taking off his own beautiful robe he threw it over the old man's shoulders, and thrust a purse of gold into his hand. 'God,' he said, 'go quickly; my servant will take you by secret ways. I will keep the soldiers from pursuing you. But bless me, father, before you go.'
Alban knelt, and Amphibalus gently laid his hand upon the bowed head.
'May God the Father reward you, and may the Holy Spirit lead you in the true way of Christ. Farewell, my son.' Then he made the sign of the cross over him, and was gone.
Alban wrapped himself in the robe which Amphibalus had taken off and, drawing the hood over his head, waited.
The soldiers, having at last forced a way into the house, rushed in upon him. Seeing a man in the robe of a priest, they seized and bound him, never doubting that it was Amphibalus the Christian.
Alban was then led before the Roman Governor. There his hands were unbound, and he threw off his long robe. Great was the astonishment of the soldiers when they discovered that their prisoner was not the Christian priest for whom they had been seeking, but the heathen lord, Alban.
The Governor happened to be offering up sacrificed to idols, when Alban was led before him. He was very angry with the soldiers for allowing Amphibalus to escape, and still more angry with Alban for helping him to do so.
'Who are you, and how dare you hide wicked and rebellious people in your house?' he asked. 'You must tell me where this Christian is hiding, and offer sacrifices to the gods to show that you are sorry for what you have done.'
'I can do neither of these things,' replied Alban.
'Who are you, that you dare to defy me?' demanded the Governor.
'What does it matter to you who I am?' replied Alban.
'I asked for your name,' repeated the Governor in furious anger. 'Tell it to me at once.'
'My parents called me Alban,' he then replied.
'Then, Alban, if you would have the gods forgive you, you must offer sacrifices to them, and repent of your wicked words and deeds.'
'I cannot,' replied Alban. 'I no longer believe in these old gods. They teach men to be cruel and wicked. I shall never sacrifice to them again. Amphibalus is a good and gentle old man. He has never hurt nor wronged any one, yet these gods tell you to torture and kill him. I will not believe in them any more. I would rather believe in the God of Amphibalus, who teaches people to love one another.'
Then the Governor cried out, 'This man is too wicked to live. Take him and put him to death.'
The soldiers led Alban away, and it soon became known all over the town that Alban, who was good and kind and loved by every one, was to be put to death. So a great crowd followed him as he was led across the river and up the grassy slope to the top of a hill. Indeed so many people followed that no one was left in the town, except the wicked Governor. Perhaps when he was alone in the terrible silence of the empty streets, he felt sorry for what he had done. But it was too late. Alban had gone to death, and there was not one person remaining in the town whom the Governor could send after him to bring him back.
With tears and sobs the people followed and pressed round Alban. Every one was eager to show his love for him, and to say a last good-by.
When they came to the little bridge over the river, the crowd was so great that it was impossible for Alban to pass. So the soldiers, impatient and angry, said he must walk through the water. Then, we are told, a wonderful thing happened. The water of the river dried up, and Alban passed over on dry land.
On they went up the hillside. It was a beautiful green, grassy slope where the children used to play in the summer sunshine. Sweet-scented wild-flowers made it gay with their bright colors. Pretty butterflies fluttered about, and the air was full of the hum of bees and the song of birds.
On the top of the hill Alban knelt down, feeling tired and thirsty. Just at that moment there seemed to spring from the ground a clear stream of water which no one had noticed before. Alban bent down, drank from it and felt refreshed.
A tall soldier had been walking beside Alban, carrying a great sword with which to cut off his head. But when he saw how gentle and good Alban was and how the people loved him, he began to feel sorry for what he had to do.
As Alban knelt upon the grass the soldier threw down his sword, crying out, 'This is a holy man. I cannot kill him.'
The captain of the soldiers was very angry at this. 'Take up your sword,' he said, 'and do your duty.'
'I cannot,' replied the man, 'I would rather die.'
'Then you shall die,' replied the captain. And drawing his own sword, with one blow he cut off Alban's head and with a second the head of the soldier. At the same moment, we are told, the captain lost his sight and remained blind for the rest of his life.
This is the story of how the first martyr in Britain died. He was brave, and wise, and kind and, like Christ, he gave his life for others.
After his death Alban was called St. Alban, and the name of the town in which he had lived was changed from Verulamium to St. Albans. The sorrowing people built a church on the spot where he died and, when it became so old that it fell into ruins, a still more beautiful one was built. That church remains to this day, and people still worship God on the very spot where the first Christian martyr in Britain died.
Although we need not believe the wonderful stories of what happened at St. Alban's death, it is interesting to know that there is still a spring called Holywell at St. Albans, and that the hill up which the people followed the saint is still called Holywell Hill.