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Translating St Alban: Romano-British, Merovingian and Anglo-Saxon Cults

  • M. D. Laynesmith (a1)


This article treats the early medieval cult of St Alban of Verulamium. It explores how, and how far, the cult extended in Britain, France and Germany. As well as crossing geographical boundaries, Alban's relics were also shared among different cultures: British, Anglo-Saxon and Merovingian. The article argues that this resulted in differing appreciations, interpretations and applications of Alban's cult, and that the Gallic contribution to the cult's survival was particularly important.


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*Chaplaincy Centre, University of Reading, Reading, RG6 6AH. E-mail:


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This article is based on ongoing doctoral research into ‘The Cult of St Alban of Verulamium, c.400–c.750’ (Archbishop's Examination in Theology, Lambeth Palace). A gazetteer of medieval Alban churches is online at: <>, accessed 15 April 2016.



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1 Brown, Peter’s The Cult of Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity (Chicago, IL, 1971) remains seminal. On the phenomenon of translation, see Crook, John, ‘The Enshrinement of Local Saints in Francia and England’, in Thacker, Alan and Sharpe, Richard, eds, Local Saints and Local Churches in the Early Medieval West (Oxford, 2002), 189224.

2 Wood, Ian N., ‘Levison and St Alban’, in Becher, Matthias and Hen, Yitzhak, eds, Wilhelm Levison (1876–1947). Ein jüdisches Forscherleben zwischen wissenschaftlicher Anerkennung und politischem Exil (Siegburg, 2010), 171–85, at 178–9. On the classical background of this name, see Rivet, Albert L. F. and Smith, Colin, The Place-Names of Roman Britain (London, 1979), 39, 247–8. ‘Alba’ was the Old Irish name for Britain. On ‘Albion’ during the Anglo-Saxon and Norman periods, see Hingst, Amanda Jane, The Written World: Past and Place in the Work of Orderic Vitalis (Notre Dame IN, 2009), 5169. On Albion in Æthelred's charters, see Hayward, Paul Antony, ‘The Cult of St Alban, Anglorum Protomartyr, in Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman England’, in Leemans, Johan, ed., More than a Memory: The Discourse of Martyrdom and the Construction of Christian Identity in the History of Christianity (Leuven, 2005), 169–99, at 183.

3 Thomas, Charles, Christianity in Roman Britain to AD 500 (London, 1981), 4650. The Severan date no longer holds: Sharpe, Richard, ‘The Late Antique Passion of St Alban’, in Henig, Martin and Lindley, Phillip, eds, Alban and St Albans: Roman and Medieval Architecture, Art and Archaeology (Leeds, 2001), 30–7.

4 For the passio text, see Meyer, Wilhelm, ‘Die Legende des h. Albanus des Protomartyr Angliae in Texten vor Beda’, Abhandlungen der Königlichen Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften zu Göttingen, Philogisch-historische Klasse n.s. 8 (1904), 3647. The text is erroneously labelled ‘Excerpt’, reflecting Meyer's (mis)interpretation: see Sharpe, ‘Late Antique Passion’, 32–4.

5 Prosper of Aquitaine, Epitoma chronicon, s.a. 429 (in Chronica Minora saec. IV. V. VI. VII, MGH AA 9, 341–499, at 472).

6 Martin Biddle and Birthe Kjølbye-Biddle, ‘The Origins of St Albans Abbey: Romano-British Cemetery and Anglo-Saxon Monastery’, in Henig and Lindley, eds, Alban and St Albans, 45–77, at 62. I am not persuaded by Ian Wood's claim that Germanus founded the cult: ‘Germanus, Alban and Auxerre’, Bulletin du Centre d’Études Médievales d'Auxerre 13 (2009), 123–9.

7 Biddle and Kjølbye-Biddle, ‘Origins’, 62.

8 Victricius of Rouen, De laude sanctorum 12 (CChr.SL 64, 69–93, at 92; my translation).

9 Vita Germani episcopi Autissiodorensis autore Constantio 16, 18 (in Passiones Vitaeque Sanctorum aevi Merovingici, MGH SRM 7, 225–83, at 262, 265); Gildas, De excidio Britonum 1 (Winterbottom, Michael, ed., Gildas: The Ruin of Britain and Other Works [London, 1978], 19, 92); Venantius Fortunatus, De virginitate (Carmina 8.3) 155 (in Opera Poetica, MGH AA 4/1, 181–91, at 185); Bede, Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum [hereafter: HE] 1.7, 18, 20 (Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People, ed. and transl. Bertram Colgrave and R. A. B. Mynors [Oxford, 1969], 28–35, 58–61, 64–5); Julia Crick, ed., Charters of St Albans (Oxford, 2007).

10 Levison, Wilhelm, ‘St Alban and St Alban's’, Antiquity 15 (1941), 337–59, at 338–9, 358.

11 Arnold-Forster, Frances E., Studies in Church Dedications: or, England's Patron Saints, 3 vols (London, 1899), 2: 293–9.

12 Ibid. 3: 1–26.

13 Chronicon abbatiæ de Evesham ad annum 1418, ed. William D. Macray (London, 1863), 73.

14 Bassett, Steven, ‘Churches in Worcester before and after the Conversion of the Anglo-Saxons’, Antiquaries Journal 69 (1989), 225–56, at 243–5.

15 Baker, Nigel and Holt, Richard, Urban Growth and the Medieval Church: Gloucester and Worcester (Aldershot, 2004), 139, 197203.

16 Mike Naptham, ‘Archaeological Evaluation at St Alban's Church, Deansway, Worcester, WCM 101278 (2006)’, Unpublished report SWR18691, held at the Worcester Archive and Archaeology Service, 7.6.2, 8.6, 9.1–2.

17 Grimes, William F., The Excavation of Roman and Mediaeval London (London, 1968), 203–7.

18 Cohen, Natalie, ‘St Alban's, Wood Street’, in Milne, Gustav, ed., Excavations at Medieval Cripplegate, London: Archaeology after the Blitz, 1946–1968 (Swindon, 2001), 86100, at 94.

19 Gesta abbatum monasterii sancti Albani, s.a. 793, ed. Robert Niblett, in ‘Appendix 2: Sources for the Archaeology of St Albans’, in Niblett, Rosalind and Thompson, Isobel, Alban's Buried Towns: An Assessment of St Albans’ Archaeology up to AD 1600 (Oxford, 2005), 359–88, at 360.

20 Julia Crick, ‘Offa, Ælfric and the Refoundation of St Albans’, in Henig and Lindley, eds, Alban and St Albans, 78–84; see also Taylor, Pamela, ‘The Early St Alban's Endowment and its Chroniclers’, HR 68 (1995), 119242.

21 Thomas M. Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 350–1064 (Cambridge, 2013), 397410.

22 Hayward, ‘Cult’, 181.

23 Wilson, H. A., ed., The Calendar of St Willibrord from MS Paris. Lat. 10837 (London, 1918). Another Briton, Gildas, appears to be a later addition: ibid. 3, 20.

24 HE 1.7 (my translation).

25 For other speculations regarding Offa's motives, see Martin, Richard, ‘The Lives of the Offas: the Posthumous Reputation of Offa, King of the Mercians’, in Hill, David and Worthington, Margaret, eds, Æthelbald and Offa: Two Eighth-Century Kings of Mercia, British Archaeological Reports, British Series 383 (Oxford, 2005), 4954, at 50–1.

26 Annales regni Francorum, s.a. 794 (MGH SRG i.u.s. 6, 3–115, at 95).

27 Tattenhall predates its acquisition by Abbey, St Werburgh, 1096x1101: The Chartulary or Register of the Abbey of St. Werburgh, Chester, ed. Tait, James, 2 vols (Manchester, 1920–3), 1: 1337 (charter 3). Frant first appears in a 1093x1103 charter: Eeles, Henry S., Frant: A Parish History (Tunbridge Wells, 1947), 18–9, 46–9. Withernwick predates its acquisition by Aumale Priory in 1115: Allison, Keith J. and Kent, G. H. R., ‘North Division: Withernwick’, A History of the County of York, East Riding, 12 vols, Victoria History of the Counties of England (London, 1969–2012), 7: 405–15.

28 See Biddle and Kjølbye-Biddle, ‘Origins’, 66–9; Crick, ‘Offa’, 80–3.

29 Hayward, ‘Cult’, 182–6.

30 Earsdon (7), founded c.1097; Wymondham (8), 1107: Arnold-Forster, Studies, 2: 298. Wickersley (10), probably twelfth-century, is first mentioned c.1230: Fasti Parochiales, ed. A. Hamilton Thompson and S. T. Clay, 5 vols (Wakefield, 1933–85), 2/2: 118. Alban's body was briefly moved to Ely (11) during the Conquest (whence relics were translated to Denmark): Liber Eliensis: A History of the Isle of Ely from the Seventh Century to the Twelfth, transl. Janet Fairweather (Woodbridge, 2005), 207–8. Beaworthy (12) may be a confusion with John the Baptist: Orme, Nicholas, English Church Dedications: With a Survey of Cornwall and Devon (Exeter, 1996), 131.

31 Levison, ‘St Alban’, 340–3.

32 Gildas, De excidio 10 (Winterbottom, ed., Gildas, 19, 92). On the interpretation of this passage, see Garcia, Michael, ‘Gildas and the “grievous divorce from the barbarians”’, EME 21 (2013), 243–53.

33 HE 1.7.

34 HE 2.16; 3.9, 10; 5.18.

35 Davis, Kenneth Rutherford, Britons and Saxons: The Chiltern Region 400–700 (Chichester, 1982), 118–20.

36 Biddle and Kjølbye-Biddle, ‘Origins’, 65–6, 72–3.

37 The ‘excerpts’ (BHL 211a), and the ‘P’ (BHL 211) and ‘T’ (BHL 210d) versions: Meyer, ‘Die Legende’, 35–47. BHL numbers refer to the Bollandist catalogue Bibliotheca hagiographica latina antiquae et mediae aetatis, 4 vols, Subsidia Hagiographica 6, 12, 70 (Brussels, 1898–1986).

38 On Norman support, see Hayward, ‘Cult’, 186–98, though note the dispute with Ely: Ridyard, S. J., ‘Condigna Veneratio: Post-Conquest Attitudes to the Saints of the Anglo-Saxons’, in Anglo-Norman Studies 9: Proceedings of the Battle Conference 1986, ed. Brown, R. Allen (Woodbridge, 1987), 179206, at 190.

39 Lowe, William R. L., ‘History of the Legend of St Alban’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of London 27 (1914–15), 5867; Baker, Eric P., ‘The Cult of St Alban at Cologne’, Archaeological Journal 94 (1938), 207–56; Beck, Marcel, ‘St Alban in Uri. Ein Zeuge spät-antiken Christentums’, Zeitschrift für Schweizerische Geschichte 28 (1948), 273309; Büttner, Heinrich, ‘Zur Albanverehrung im frühen Mittelalter’, Zeitschrift für schweizerische Geschichte 29 (1949), 116; Dolch, Martin, ‘Die Heiligennamen Albin und Alban. Zur Verehrung westfränkischer Heiliger im 8. Jahrhundert’, Archiv für mittelrheinische Kirchengeschichte 39 (1987), 4366. On Gallic cults generally, see Ian Wood‚ ‘Constructing Cults in Early Medieval France: Local Saints and Churches in Burgundy and the Auvergne 400–1000’, in Thacker and Sharpe, eds, Local Saints and Local Churches, 155–87.

40 The principal topographical source is Dauzat, Albert and Rostaing, Charles, Dictionnaire étymologique des noms de lieux en France, 2nd edn (Paris, 1978), 583–4, though this is far from complete. Brigitte Beaujard lists various sixth-century Gallic cults but not Alban's: Le Culte des Saints en Gaul (Paris, 2000), 524–31.

41 Nègre, Ernest, Toponymie générale de la France, 4 vols (Geneva, 1990–8), 3: 1530–1.

42 Dolch, ‘Die Heiligennamen Albin und Alban’.

43 First mentioned in 910: Courson, Aurelien de, ed., Cartulaire de l'Abbaye de Redon en Bretagne (Paris, 1863), 226. For Gildas, see Largillière, René, ‘La Topographie du culte de Saint Gildas’, Mémoire de la Société d'histoire et d'archéologie de Bretagne 5 (1924), 125.

44 Picard, Jean-Charles, ‘Auxerre’, in Gauthier, Nancy and Picard, Jean-Charles, eds, Topographie chrétienne des cites de la Gaule des origines au milieu du VIIIe siècle, 16 vols in 17 (Paris, 1986–2014), 8: 4765, at 56.

45 Mathisen, Ralph W., Ecclesiastical Factionalism and Religious Controversy in Fifth-Century Gaul (Washington DC, 1989), 101–2.

46 Dynamius, Vita sancti Maximi episcopi Reiensis 8 (Pascal Boulhol et al., Maxime de Riez entre l'histoire et la légende [Valensole, 2014], 112, cf. 58–9); Alban's church was later rededicated to Maximus: 72–3. Philippe Borgard and Marc Heijmans, ‘Riez’, in Françoise Prévot, Michèle Gaillard and Nancy Gauthier, eds, Topographie chrétienne, 16/1: 240.

47 Vita Germani 19–24 (MGH SRM 7, 265–9). Germanus died before November 450: Gillett, Andrew, Envoys and Political Communication in the Late Antique West, 411–533 (Cambridge 2003), 278–82.

48 Cf. Mathisen, Ecclesiastical Factionalism, 69–173.

49 Bromwich, James, The Roman Remains of Southern France: A Guidebook (London, 1993), 286–8.

50 Meyer, ‘Die Legende’, 41, 43.

51 Rivet, Albert L. F., Gallia Narbonensis: Southern France in Roman Times (London, 1988), 243–6.

52 Vita sancti Severi Viennensis presbytreri et confessoris 3, 8 (AnBoll 5 [1886], 416–24, at 417, 421). The vita mentions the relics of Desiderius of Vienne (d. 607), but was itself used by Florus of Lyon (d. c.860), so must have been composed between these dates.

53 Françoise Descombes, ‘Vienne’, in Gauthier and Picard, eds, Topographie chrétienne, 3: 31.

54 Locatelli, René and Moyse, Gérard, ‘Une Pierre d'attente du volume de Gallia Pontificia en chantier pour le diocèse de Lyon. L'Abbaye de Saint-Claude’, Revue Mabillon 79 (2007), 253–73, at 268–9 (charters 14, 16).

55 Autun, Séminaire, MS S38 (34), fols 70r–70v; Guy Lanoë, ‘S 38 (34) Passiones martyrum’, Catalogue des manuscrits d'Autun, Bibliothèque municipale et Société Éduenne, ed. Claire Maître (Turnhout, 2004), 128–33.

56 Coralie Belleville and Julie Régnier, ‘Fonts baptismaux, actuellement bénitier’, Inventaire général du patrimoine culturel, Région Rhône-Alpes, Dossier IM69000851 (2002), online at: <>, accessed 14 December 2015. Gardes, Gilbert, Lyon. L'Art et la ville (Paris, 1988), 129, considers the church to be sixth-century.

57 Vita Germani 12 (MGH SRM 7, 259). Bede indicates his diocese: HE 1.17.

58 Fontvannes (Aube), first mentioned in 1019: Denajar, Laurent, L'Aube (Paris, 2005), 345–6; and Fontaine Luyères (Aube), near the source of the Barbuise.

59 Vita Germani 28 (MGH SRM 7, 271–2).

60 Columbus, Johannes, De rebus gestis episcoporum vivariensium, 4 vols (Lyon, 1651), 1: 17.

61 ‘Inventaire général du Patrimoine Culturel de Rhône Alpes Canton de Viviers – Commune de Viviers – Saint-Ostian. Réf. Mérimée ia00048156’, online at: <>; from the same site: ‘Saint-Michel’, <. . . /ia00048151/>; ‘Saint-Julien’, <. . . /ia00048150/>; ‘Saint-Victor’, <. . . /ia00048149/>; ‘Saint-Aule’, <. . . /ia00048153/>, all accessed 14 December 2015; Paul-Albert Fevrier, ‘Alba-Viviers’, in Gauthier and Picard, eds, Topographie chrétienne, 3: 55–61; Marc Heijmans, ‘Viviers’, in Prévot, Gaillard and Gauthier, eds, Topographie chrétienne, 16/1: 326–8.

62 ‘Saint-Alban’, online at: <>, accessed 14 December 2015. The church is listed as twelfth-century.

63 Fevrier, ‘Alba-Viviers’, 58.

64 Fevrier, Paul-Albert, ‘Aime et Moutiers (Tarentaise)’, in Gauthier and Picard, eds, Topographie chrétienne, 3: 141–4, at 144.

65 Jaulmes, Michel and Hudry, Marius, ‘L'Archéologie en Tarentaise, 1940–1980’, Mémoires de l'Académie des sciences, belles-lettres et arts de Savoie 12 (1981), 5772, at 66.

66 ‘Région Poitou-Charentes, Inventaire général du patrimoine culturel. Cognac Périphérie (Charente). Réf. Mérimée: IA00059251’, online at: <>, accessed 14 December 2015.

67De loco ubi sanguis eius influxerat, sustulit ex terra pulverem cum cruore et fideliter domi referens’, Vita Bibiani vel Viviani episcopi Santonensis 8 (in Passiones Vitaeque Sanctorum aeui Merovingici, MGH SRM 3, 92–100, at 99). This seems to copy ‘de loco ipso ubi martyris sanguis exfluxerat massam cruenti pulueris rapuit’ from Alban's passio (common words shown in italics): Meyer, ‘Die Legende’, 45.

68 Krusch thought it dated from the eighth century: MGH SRM 3, 92–3. Ferdinand Lot thought it was earlier: ‘La Vita Viviani et la domination Wisigothique en Aquitaine’, Mélanges Paul Fournier (Paris, 1929), 467–77. On the possibility of borrowing, see Gillett, Envoys, 143–8.

69 Vita Bibiani 9 (MGH SRM 3, 100).

70 In the suburbs of Saint-Germain and Saint-Alban-des-Vignes (Isère): Pelletier, André, Vienna, Vienne (Lyon, 2001), 113. For context, St Vincent's church, at the north end of the Circus, is from the late fifth or early sixth century: Descombes, ‘Vienne’, 33.

71 Saint-Alban-de-Roche and Saint-Germain d'Abeau, Isère: Berger, Michelle et al., Histoire des communes de l'Isère, 4 vols (Saint-Étienne, 1987), 2: 432–3, 443–4.

72 St Alban, Elven, and the hamlet of Saint-Germain (Morbihan); St Alban, Albens, and St Germain-la-Chambotte (Savoie). Dual dedications are also present in Auxerre and St Albans.

73 See Wood, ‘Constructing Cults’.

74 Vita Germani, epistola ad Censurium (MGH SRM 7, 248–9).

75 For Lyon, see Reynaud, J. F., ‘Lyon du IVe au VIIIe siècle. Édifices religieux, nécropoles et topographie urbaine’, Walker, Stephen, ed., Récentes recherches en archéologie gallo-romaine et paléochrétienne sur Lyon et sa région, British Archaeological Records, International Series 108 (Oxford, 1981), 126–33.

76 Venantius Fortunatus, De virginitate 155 (MGH AA 4/1, 185).

77 Levison, ‘St Alban’, 338. Nopper, Hans Werner, Die vorbonifatianischen Mainzer Bischöfe. Eine kritische Untersuchung der Quellen zu den Anfängen des Bistums Mainz und zur Zuverlässigkeit der Bischofslisten (Norderstedt, 2001), 4556, 124–33.

78 Terrien, Marie-Pierre, La Christianisation de la région rhénane. Du IVe au milieu du VIIIe siècle, 2 vols (Besançon, 2007), 1: 68–9, 78, 84, 94; 2: 141.

79 Rabanus Maurus, Martyrologium (CChr.CM 46, 1–161, at 60); Passio S. Theonesti, ActaSS Oct. 13, 335–48 (BHL 8110); Ewig, Eugan, ‘Die ältesten Mainzer Bischofsgräber, die Bischofsliste und die Theonestlegende’, in Lenhart, Ludwig, ed., Universitas. Dienst an Wahrheit und Leben, 2 vols (Mainz, 1960), 2: 1927.

80 Palmer, James T., ‘The Frankish Cult of Martyrs and the Case of the Two Saints Boniface’, Revue Bénédictine 114 (2004), 326–48, at 338–43.

81 Alban of Mainz figures as an addition by a second hand in the Berne and Wissembourg MSS: Martyrologium Hieronymianum, ActaSS Nov. 2, 1–156, at 80.

82 Yorke, Barbara, ‘Aldhelm's Irish and British Connections’, in Barker, Katherine and Brooks, Nicholas, eds, Aldhelm and Sherborne: Essays to Celebrate the Founding of the Bishopric (Oxford, 2010), 164–80, at 164–9.

83 Baker, ‘Cult’, 217–18.

84 Turin, Biblioteca Nazionale, MS D.V.3, fol. 254r; David Ganz and Monique Goullet, ‘Le Légendier du Turin et L’écriture AB’, in Goullet, Monique, ed., Le Légendier de Turin. Ms. D.V.3 de la Bibliotheque Nationale Universitaire (Firenze, 2014), 75–9.

85 Plummer, Charles, ed., Venerabilis Baedae Opera Historica, 2 vols (Oxford, 1896), 1: lxxxvi–viii, 18–21; 2: 18.

86 Dolch, ‘Die Heiligennamen Albin und Alban’, 54–5.

87 Beck, ‘St Alban in Uri’, 281–3.

88 Becker, Petrus, Die Benediktinerabtei St Eucharius-St. Matthias vor Trier (Berlin, 1996), 564.

89 Hupe, Joachim, ‘Ein römisches Gräberfeld bei Trier-Feyen und die Anfänge der Kapelle St Germanus ad undas’, Funde und Ausgrabungen im Bezirk Trier 40 (2008), 95106.

90 Space does not permit similar speculation as to the origin of the cathedral of Saint-Aubain in Namur.

91 Vita Germani 25 (MGH SRM 7, 269); HE 1.21. René Borius thought Severus was instead from Vence: Vie de Saint Germain d'Auxerre, SC 112, 89; cf. Higham, Nicholas J., ‘Constantius, St Germanus and Fifth-Century Britain’, EME 22 (2014), 113–37.

This article is based on ongoing doctoral research into ‘The Cult of St Alban of Verulamium, c.400–c.750’ (Archbishop's Examination in Theology, Lambeth Palace). A gazetteer of medieval Alban churches is online at: <>, accessed 15 April 2016.

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Translating St Alban: Romano-British, Merovingian and Anglo-Saxon Cults

  • M. D. Laynesmith (a1)


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