The Lives of the Early English Saints: Prelude, and St Alban, proto-martyr of Britain

“Be it known to you, that I am now a Christian, and bound by Christian duties.” ­

English History

The Lives of the Early English Saints
Prelude, with the Life of St Alban, Proto-Martyr of Britain

The Whig Interpretation of History – Its Lasting Influence
Suffering Under Persecution – the Example of Robert Southwell and the English Martyrs
The heroic and moving life of L’Abbé Henry Essex Edgeworth, Louis XVI’s Anglo-Irish confessor
A Forgotten Triumph – Hadrian’s Wall, St Oswald and the Battle of Heavenfield


At his trial on 20 November 1587, after hearing that he had been sentenced to death for treason, the Jesuit missionary priest, Edmund Campion, delivered a final oration to the court, in which he declared:

“In condemning us you condemn all your own ancestors – all the ancient priests, bishops and kings – all that was once the glory of England, the island of saints, and the most devoted child of the See of Peter. For what have we taught, however you may qualify it with the odious name of treason, that they did not uniformly teach? To be condemned with these old lights – not of England only, but of the world – by their degenerate descendants, is both gladness and glory to us. God lives; posterity will live: their judgment is not so liable to corruption as that of those who are now going to sentence us to death.”

But who were these holy priests, bishops and kings, to whom Campion appealed as models of the true religion? Who were these great saints, whose glory redounded throughout their native land?

Campion was referring the hundreds of English saints who had given glory to God in the one thousand years since the arrival of St Augustine of Canterbury in 597 AD. These saints were honoured for centuries, they gave their names to town and villages, churches were dedicated to them, and the people reverenced them. After the Reformation, while their names would remain known, devotion to them faded, even among Catholics. And in later centuries, the memory of the post-reformation martyrs, and the cults of saints popular in the rest of Europe, came to predominate in the devotional lives of the Catholics of England.

Today, there is little active devotion to these saints.

We think that it is time for that to change.

Which saints will this series discuss?

In this series, we will focus on presenting the lives of the “Early Anglo-Saxon saints”, by which we mean the saints who lived between the arrival of St Augustine of Canterbury in England in 597 AD and the death of St Bede the Venerable in 735 AD. These are the saints of the missionary period of English Christianity, the men and women who brought the gospel to England, secured its spread, and were its first fruits. 

We will consider as “Anglo-Saxon saints” men and women who were of Anglo-Saxon origin or who originated outside England but who served as missionaries or held ecclesiastical office in England during this period. Such men as St Augustine of Canterbury, St Theodore, and St Aidan, will therefore be included in this series.

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What are our sources?

Our main source for this period is the Ecclesiastical History of the English People [Amazon link], by St Bede the Venerable (672/723 – 735 AD). [UK link: here]. St Bede, a monk of the Northumbrian monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow was by far the greatest scholar of his day, not only in England, but throughout the Christian world. The majority of his works were of scriptural exegesis, and included commentaries on many books of the Old and New Testament. He also wrote on music, grammar and history, and composed hymns, hagiography, and homilies. Manuscripts of his works were widely copied and were transmitted throughout Europe. In 835, the Council of Aachen described him as a “venerable and admirable doctor”, and he was venerated as a saint in the north of England from a very early date. In 1899 his status as both a Saint and a Doctor of the Church was officially confirmed by Pope Leo XIII, who established 27 May as his feast on the universal calendar.

The Saint gave a brief description of himself and his work at the end of his Ecclesiastical History

“Thus, much concerning the ecclesiastical history of Britain, and especially of the race of the English, I, Baeda, a servant of Christ and a priest of the monastery of the blessed apostles St. Peter and St. Paul, which is at Wearmouth and at Jarrow, have with the Lord’s help composed so far as I could gather it either from ancient documents or from the traditions of the elders, or from my own knowledge.

“I was born in the territory of the said monastery, and at the age of seven I was, by the care of my relations, given to the most reverend Abbot Benedict [St. Benedict Biscop], and afterwards to Ceolfrid, to be educated. From that time, I have spent the whole of my life within that monastery, devoting all my pains to the study of the Scriptures, and amid the observance of monastic discipline and the daily charge of singing in the Church, it has been ever my delight to learn or teach or write.

“In my nineteenth year I was admitted to the diaconate, in my thirtieth to the priesthood, both by the hands of the most reverend Bishop John [St. John of Beverley], and at the bidding of Abbot Ceolfrid. From the time of my admission to the priesthood to my present fifty-ninth year, I have endeavored for my own use and that of my brethren, to make brief notes upon the holy Scripture, either out of the works of the venerable Fathers or in conformity with their meaning and interpretation.”

Of all his works the one that is most read today is certainly the Ecclesiastical History of the English Peoplewhich was probably written in 731 AD. It tells briefly of the history of the Britain before the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons, and in much more detail of the history of the Catholic Church in England, from the arrival of the Roman mission of St Augustine to Kent in 597 AD, up to his own lifetime. St Bede was an exceptional historian, who drew from a wide range of sources, which he outlines in depth for his readers at the beginning of the work. We therefore know the foundations on which each section of book, which gives the text an extraordinary trustworthiness.

St Bede then is the foundation of our work, but we will refer also to a multiplicity of saints lives and other ancient works, each of which we will introduce to readers in the proper place. 

How will we relate these lives?

It can sometimes be hard to grasp the full humanity of the saints and martyrs, especially those who lived many centuries ago, in societies very different from our own. We have very little biographical information about many saints, and this can make it hard for us to see the real man or woman behind the depiction of sanctity.

John Henry Cardinal Newman wrote about the way in which the lives of the saints can be often more treatises on certain virtues, than biographies which give us a sense of a real person, and how the action of grace transformed and sanctified them:

“An almsgiving here, an instance of meekness there, a severity of penance, a round of religious duties,—all these things humble me, instruct me, improve me; I cannot desire anything better of their kind; but they do not necessarily coalesce into the image of a person. From such works I do but learn to pay devotion to an abstract and typical perfection under a certain particular name; I do not know more of the real Saint who bore it than before… This seems to me, to tell the truth, a sort of pantheistic treatment of the Saints. I ask something more than to stumble upon the disjecta membra of what ought to be a living whole. I take but a secondary interest in books which chop up a Saint into chapters of faith, hope, charity, and the cardinal virtues. They are too scientific to be devotional. They have their great utility, but it is not the utility which they profess. They do not manifest a Saint, they mince him into spiritual lessons.” [Newman, Historical Sketches, Vol II, UK link: here

Newman commented that this can be avoided when we have surviving writings – particularly personal writings – of a saint. When it comes to the early Anglo-Saxon saints, we are rarely so fortunate – St Bede is an exception. Therefore, in this series we will attempt to remedy this defect by placing the saints in the historical context in which they lived, which we hope will help us see the work of divine grace in their souls in more accurate proportions. 

To begin, let us place our period, and our saints, in their context.

The origins of Christianity in the British Isles

During the lifetime of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and during the first centuries of the Church, most of the area that we now call England was under the rule of the Roman Empire. At its greatest extent the Roman province of Britannia covered the whole of the area of Great Britain that now consists of the nations of England and Wales, and the lowlands of Scotland. Therefore, we may expect that the gospel arrived in Britain very soon after the foundation of the Church on Pentecost, and the rapid diffusion of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire.

However, precise details of the early spread in Britain are lacking. Writing around 200 AD, Tertullian writes about the existence of Christians in Britain, as does Origen at a similar date. By the time of the Council of Arles in 314 we have clear evidence of an ecclesiastical structure – three British bishops attended the Council. By the fourth century Christianity was clearly very widespread in Britain, as in the rest of the Empire, though paganism was still also prevalent. 

This is a series on the early Anglo-Saxon saints, and the Anglo-Saxons were not to arrive in Britain for another 150 years, but we would like to end this article by paying tribute to first Christians of Britain, those of native British birth in the Roman province of Britannia, and we will do this by briefly retelling the life of “the proto-martyr of Britain”, St Alban, who was venerated for centuries by Briton and Saxon alike. St Bede tells us his story. 

St Alban – the proto-martyr of Britain

In the late third century AD, during the persecution of the Church which was commenced by the emperor Diocletian, a pagan named Alban offered hospitality to a priest fleeing from persecution: 

This man he observed to be engaged in continual prayer and watching day and night; when on a sudden the Divine grace shining on him, he began to imitate the example of faith and piety which was set before him, and being gradually instructed by his wholesome admonitions, he cast off the darkness of idolatry, and became a Christian in all sincerity of heart.

In due course, it came to the attention of the authorities that the priest was being sheltered by Alban, and soldiers were sent to apprehend him:

When they came to the martyr’s house, St. Alban immediately presented himself to the soldiers, instead of his guest and master, in the habit or long coat which he wore, and was led bound before the judge.

Alban’s subterfuge gave the priest time to escape, but Alban was brought before the judge in the priest’s place:

It happened that the judge, at the time when Alban was carried before him, was standing at the altar, and offering sacrifice to devils. When he saw Alban, being much enraged that he should thus, of his own accord, put himself into the hands of the soldiers, and incur such danger in behalf of his guest, he commanded him to be dragged up to the images of the devils, before which he stood, saying, “Because you have chosen to conceal a rebellious and sacrilegious person, rather than to deliver him up to the soldiers, that his contempt of the gods might meet with the penalty due to such blasphemy, you shall undergo all the punishment that was due to him, if, you abandon the worship of our religion.” But St. Alban, who had voluntarily declared himself a Christian to the persecutors of the faith, was not at all daunted at the prince’s threats, but putting on the armour of spiritual warfare, publicly declared that he would not obey the command.

The judge commenced an interrogation:

Then said the judge, “Of what family or race are you?” 

“What does it concern you,” answered Alban, “of what stock I am? If you desire to hear the truth of my religion be it known to you, that I am now a Christian, and bound by Christian duties.” ­

“I ask your name,” said the judge; “tell me it immediately.” ­ 

“I am called Alban by my parents,” replied he; “and I worship and adore the true and living God, who created all things.” 

Then the judge, inflamed with anger, said, “If you will enjoy the happiness of eternal life, do not delay to offer sacrifice to the great gods.” 

Alban rejoined, “These sacrifices, which by you are offered to devils, neither can avail the subjects, nor answer the wishes or desires of those that offer up their supplications to them. On the contrary, whosoever shall offer sacrifice to these images shall receive the everlasting pains of hell for his reward.” 

The judge then ordered St Alban to be tortured “believing he might by stripes shake that constancy of heart, on which he could not prevail by words.” But St Alban:

being most cruelly tortured, bore the same patiently, or rather joyfully, for our Lord’s sake. When the judge perceived that he was not to be overcome by tortures, or withdrawn from the exercise of the Christian religion, he ordered him to be put to death. Being led to execution, he came to a river, which, with a most rapid course, ran between the wall of the town and the arena where he was to be executed. He there saw a multitude of persons of both sexes, and of several ages and conditions, who were doubtlessly assembled by Divine instinct, to attend the blessed confessor and martyr, and had so taken up the bridge on the river, that he could scarce pass over that evening. In short, almost all had gone out, so that the judge remained in the city without attendance. 

A miracle was then performed as a divine witness to the truth of the Catholic faith, and for the salvation of the would-be executioner:

St Alban… drew near to the stream, and on lifting up his eyes to heaven, the channel was immediately dried up, and he perceived that the water had departed and made way for him to pass. Among the rest, the executioner, who was to have put him to death, observed this, and moved by Divine inspiration hastened to meet him at the place of execution, and casting down the sword which he had carried ready drawn, fell at his feet, praying that he might rather suffer with the martyr, whom he was ordered to execute or, if possible, instead of him. 

While he thus from a persecutor was become a companion in the faith, and the other executioners hesitated to take up the sword which was lying on the ground, the reverend confessor, accompanied by the multitude, ascended a hill, about 500 paces from the place, adorned, or, rather clothed with all kinds of flowers, having its sides neither perpendicular, nor even craggy, but sloping down into a most beautiful plain, worthy from its lovely appearance to be the scene of a martyr’s sufferings. On the top of this hill, St. Alban prayed that God would give him water, and immediately a living spring broke out before his feet, the course being confined, so that all men perceived that the river also had been dried up in consequence of the martyr’s presence. Nor was it likely that the martyr, who had left no water remaining in the river, should want some on the top of the hill, unless he thought it suitable to the occasion. The river having performed the holy service, returned to its natural course, leaving a testimony of its obedience. Here, therefore, the head of most courageous martyr was struck off, and here he received the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love Him. But he who gave the wicked stroke, was not permitted to rejoice over the deceased; for his eyes dropped upon the ground together with the blessed martyr’s head. 

Not only holy Alban met his death that day, but also his would-be executioner who, unable to receive baptism by water, was justified and saved by baptism in his own blood:

At the same time was also beheaded the soldier, who before, through the Divine admonition, refused to give the stroke to the holy confessor. Of whom it is apparent, that though he was not regenerated by baptism, yet he was cleansed by the washing of his own blood, and rendered worthy to enter the kingdom of heaven. Then the judge, astonished at the novelty of so many heavenly miracles, ordered the persecution to cease immediately, beginning to honour the death of the saints, by which he before thought they might have been diverted from the Christian faith. The blessed Alban suffered death on the twenty ­second day of June, near the city of Verulam, which is now by the English nation called Verlamacestir, or Varlingacestir, where afterwards, when peaceable Christian times were restored, a church of wonderful workmanship, and suitable to his martyrdom, was erected. In which place, there ceases not to this day the cure of sick persons, and the frequent working of wonders.

The blood of St Alban sanctified the land of Britain, and though Roman Britain would fall, the Church in Britain would be reborn. It is this story that we will begin to tell in the next part of this series. 

For more, see: The Venerable Bede – Ecclesiastical History of the English People (UK link: here)

English History

The Lives of the Early English Saints
Prelude, with the Life of St Alban, Proto-Martyr of Britain

The Whig Interpretation of History – Its Lasting Influence
Suffering Under Persecution – the Example of Robert Southwell and the English Martyrs
The heroic and moving life of L’Abbé Henry Essex Edgeworth, Louis XVI’s Anglo-Irish confessor
A Forgotten Triumph – Hadrian’s Wall, St Oswald and the Battle of Heavenfield


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