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Hertfordshire (United Kingdom)

Last modified: 2003-04-19 by rob raeside
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St. Albans

[Flag of St Albans] by Ivan Sache, 5 March 1998

St Albans is an English town located in Hertfordshire. The city flag, a yellow saltire on a blue field, is hoisted over the town hall. The corresponding shield can be seen on several municipal buildings.
Ivan Sache, 5 March 1998

This flag is flown over the city and cathedral of St. Albans in Hertfordshire, England. The golden saltire represents the first English martyr St. Alban, a Romano-British soldier.
John Windle, 12 March 1999

The traditional arms of St Albans derive from St Alban being the first British martyr, hence the cross. It is diagonal as he was not crucified, but beheaded. Hence he was entitled to the cross of martyrdom, but not in the usual form. These arms were assigned to St Alban along with those assigned to many other early Christian saints and figures.
Michael Faul, 5 October 2001

The association of St. Alban with a gold saltire on blue seems to have some reality. A quick web search shows "azure a saltire or" as the arms of St. Alban's Parish in Kooringal, New South Wales; and St. Alban's School in Washington, DC, has as its coat of arms "azure a saltire or on a chief gules a Jerusalem cross argent." (I know this violates the law of tincture and may have the field and saltire reversed, but I don't think so.) Also which is the site of a US fraternal organization, says the gold saltire on blue is the traditional coat of arms of St. Alban. What I haven't found is why.
Joe McMillan, 17 January 2001

About St. Alban

The fugitive's convert

The 19th-century founders of the Anglican Church in South Africa had a great regard for St Alban, the first Christian martyr in Britain, whose saint's day (in English tradition) falls on June 17(1). Pretoria's Anglican cathedral and diocesan college are named for him, as is the chapel at Draaifontein, west of Port Elizabeth, which gave its name first to a railway halt and then to a prison. The Natal town of Verulam is named for his Roman-British hometown, but that, strangely, has no Anglican church of St Alban(2).

Unfortunately, like many saints of early times, Alban has had myths and legends weaved about his name until we are not sure what it true and what is fantasy. However, at the core of the legend there is enough hard fact for us to appreciate what the man did and what its value is for us. His name was Albanus(3) and he was the son of Roman-British parents who lived in Verulamium, a city (fortified town) on the River Ver in what is now Hertfordshire, during the 3rd century AD. Educated in Rome, Albanus returned to Verulamium, situated on the Roman road now called Watling Street(4), which joined the capital, Londinium, to Viroconium on the Severn (Wroxeter, in Shropshire).

Christianity had arrived in Britain during the 2nd century AD and the British king or tribal ruler Lucius had been baptised. But in 303 the Emperor Diocletian ordered the confiscation of Christian books, the dismissal of Christians from military and administrative posts, and the imprisonment of clergy. In 304 he ordered all Christians to offer sacrifices to the gods.

Enter a priest. His name is not known, but later writers gave him the name Amphibalus(5). Fearing for his life, he begged Albanus for shelter. The priest did not stay long, but in that time Albanus was so taken with his manner and his message that he asked for baptism. Meanwhile the prefect of the city had heard that a priest was in hiding, and ordered Albanus's house searched. Albanus, learning of the search just in time, sent the priest away in disguise and presented himself for arrest in the priest's long coat. "But he was recognised by the judge, who was of course infuriated at the trick which lost him his rightful quarry, and who demanded that Alban should at once offer sacrifice to the gods or pay the utmost penalty due for blasphemy. Alban then declared that he could not obey this command."(6)

The judge questioned him about his family, but Albanus would only tell him his name and that he was now a Christian. The judge ordered him scourged, and when that brought no change, sentenced him to death. A crowd had gathered to watch him taken from the city, across the Ver and to the top of a nearby hill. Legend has much to say about this walk, including the claim that a spring burst forth from the hilltop when Albanus asked for a drink. It also has it that the executioner refused to kill Albanus because he could not harm such a good man. Another swordsman was found to chop off both Albanus's head and the executioner's - and, it is said, was struck blind. The martyr was buried on the hilltop, which became a site for pilgrimage and a church was built above it. The pagan Saxons destroyed the church, and in 793 Offa, King of Mercia(7), rebuilt it and established a monastery which eventually took first place among the Benedictine abbeys of England. Nicholas Breakspear, the only English Pope, was a brother there before going to Rome, where he ruled as Adrian IV from 1154 to 1159. The abbey church dominated the city to the extent that its older Roman and Saxon names were forgotten. Today it is called simply St Albans. The present church building, one of England's largest, was begun in 1077 and added to down the centuries, becoming (in 1877) a cathedral.

Since the 15th century the city has been famed for printing. The "Scolemaster Printer" (name unknown) who operated there from 1479 to 1486, produced The Boke of St Albans, the earliest example of colour printing in England.

(1) He actually died on 22 June 304. The date on his tomb is given as XXII (22), but it was for some reason read as XVII (17).

(2) Other Anglican churches of St Alban are to be found at Pacaltsdorp, Cathcart, Vincent (East London), Engcobo, Green Point (Cape Town), Kimberley, Virginia in the Free State and Mvangana in Zululand. But Verulam was founded by Methodist settlers sponsored by the Earl of Verulam, so they're unlikely to have been thinking of Alban at all.

(3) The name means "of Alba". There is a town of that name near Turin.

(4) The road takes its name from the early Anglo-Saxon name for Verulamium, Waetlingceaster.

(5) Which means cloak. The name seems to have been a later invention.

(6) Quoted from Stars Appearing by Sybil Harton.

(7) The leading Anglo-Saxon kingdom of the time.

Mike Oettle, 23 January 2002

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