These are words of martyrdom, uttered by the first British Christian to be executed for his faith. A Roman citizen in the third century AD, Alban lived in the city of Verulamium some 20 miles north of London. A devout worshipper of pagan gods, he nonetheless gave refuge to an escaping Christian priest and was compelled and then converted by the priest’s prayers and teaching.
When the priest was found and ordered to execution, Alban exchanged garments with him and came before the Roman judge in his place. Furious that he had been deceived, the judge ordered Albans flogging and then drug him across the river Ver and up onto a hill for the execution. The long walk, one which we took today, made the troupe thirsty. Legend holds that at the crest of the hill a spring of water miraculously appeared to quench the martyr’s thirst.
A Roman citizen, Alban was entitled (as Paul was before him) to death by beheading—a gracious fate given the alternative of crucifixion. But the original executioner failed to deliver the blow. His replacement dispatched Alban but at a high cost—his eyes popped out of his head.
Within a hundred years, the Roman empire allowed the practice of Christianity and the grave of the first British martyr became a popular pilgrimage sight. In the eighth century, Alban was declared a saint and a monastery was established at his burial site for the training of Benedictine monks and nuns.
The church as we visited it today is a strata of Roman, Norman and Gothic layers. In 1077, the Normans pilfered building materials from the Roman city of Verulamium at the bottom of the hill to enlarge the building. Their contributions are mostly prominently evidenced in the round-arched windows and plastered stonework. In 1877 the abbey was elevated from a parish church to a cathedral but the building itself was falling into disrepair. It was taken into hand by Lord Grimthorpe (think Big Ben), who restored the abbey at his own expense, adding the silvery pointed Gothic windows and scrolling stonework.
Alongside the cathedral is the school of St. Albans, one of the most prestigious prep schools in England whose students—in their crisp dark blue jackets and slacks—invaded the quaint streets of the abbey town at lunchtime. A recent famous graduate is the physicist Steven Hawking.
Below the town stretch acres of smooth green playing fields, the unassuming cloak for the largely-unexcavated Roman city of Verulamium. There seems to be no rush to uncover more, a remarkably leisurely British mentality that seems incongruous with my American impatience and curiosity. A Roman theatre has been completely excavated, its stage and seating defined by thin layers of chalky British flint stone and the heavy glue of concrete.