Home Uncategorized St Paul’s pilgrims remember St Alban, the first English martyr

St Paul’s pilgrims remember St Alban, the first English martyr

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A GROUP of pilgrims from St Paul’s and All Saints churches in Wokingham recently remembered the first English martyr.

Wearing a red rose – the symbol of St Alban – the 12 headed to the city that bears his name, St Albans on Saturday, June 23.


The day’s events included a pilgrimage procession and a sermon by the Revd Dr John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York.

A play, enacted by giant puppets, retold the story of how St Alban was arrested and tried, while activities were organised for children in the afternoon.

The day eneded with a procession to the shrine of St Alban in the East End of the Cathedral where the pilgrims left their red roses.

Here, church member Margaret Hancock shares her recollections of the day.


It was early morning on St Alban’s Day, Saturday, June 23, when 12 parishioners from St Paul’s and All Saints gathered in St Pauls’ carpark  for the start of our journey to St Albans for the Annual Festival Pilgrimage in honour of England’s first martyr. Fr Tony gave each of us a red rose (the symbol of St Alban) to wear, and offered a prayer for a safe journey and a happy pilgrimage, then we left Wokingham in four cars. 

Arriving at St Albans, we walked to Verulamium, the site of the Roman city where Alban lived in the third century AD. We had some welcome refreshments, then waited with the crowd of pilgrims of all ages for the proceedings to begin. The first thing I noticed was the arrival of a crowd of about fifty excited little boys dressed as Roman soldiers, who were joined by two ENORMOUS centurion puppets, which, like all the puppets we were to see, were about four or five times the size of a man!

A display in the cathedral groundsPromptly at 11 o’clock, the band started to play, and the first scene of the story, The Arrest of Alban, was enacted by giant puppets. Alban, a pagan, had sheltered an elderly Christian priest who was fleeing from persecution, and had been so impressed by the courage of this priest, Amphibalus, that he was converted to Christianity and was baptised. Soon afterwards the soldiers came looking for Amphibalus. Alban quickly changed clothes with the old priest, allowing him to escape, and was himself arrested instead, and led away for trial.

After this first scene the pilgrimage procession began. The Bishop, the Dean, the suffragan bishops of St Alban’s diocese, and the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, who was to be the guest preacher at the Festival Eucharist later, were followed by all the clergy in pairs, wearing albs and red stoles. They were preceded by the giant puppets who enacted the story. These included the priest Amphibalus, the Judge, the centurions with their little foot soldiers, a couple of very fierce lions, a horse, two angels, various other characters in the story, and, of course, Alban, now a prisoner in chains. We followed the procession to the lake at the bottom of the hill.

Here, by the lake, the second scene, The Trial of Alban, took place. The judge questioned Alban about his conversion, trying hard to get him to recant, because Alban was a highly-respected Roman citizen. He was asked to renounce Christ and to burn incense to the Roman gods, but Alban steadfastly refused, saying, “I worship and adore the true and living God.”

Finally the judge ordered the soldiers to take Alban across the River Ver and up the hill to the highest point, where he was to be beheaded.

We followed the procession, and came to a lawn just below the cathedral. Here the final scene of the story, The Martyrdom of Alban, unfolded.

IMG 2275aAlban was given a final chance to recant, but again he refused, bravely proclaiming his new Christian faith. He was made to kneel down, and the executioner raised his sword and chopped off his head.

There was a gasp from the crowd as the puppet’s head fell off, and at the same time the eyes of the executioner popped out! Yes, it was funny, and the children loved it, but it was moving, too.

We all then entered the cathedral, and at midday the Festival Eucharist began with the entrance of all the clergy, followed by the giant puppet characters, including the headless Alban! The service was our familiar Mass, with great congregational hymns and beautiful musical settings to the Latin texts sung by the choir.

The Archbishop of York preached the sermon, ending with the challenging but startling words, “Go and die!”. The service was really inspiring. It always thrills me to worship with a large congregation of Christians, gathered from many different parishes, and all singing their hearts out, because it’s so encouraging to realise that there are so many more of us than we sometimes think.

There were exciting activities arranged for children during the afternoon, and an Orthodox service for those who wished to attend it. But the next big event was the Festival Evensong at four o’clock, and some of us were lucky to get seats on the front row for this, so we had a marvellous view.

The service began with the Dean, John Jeffrey, reading greetings from parishes all over the country, making good-humoured, amusing remarks as he did so. With us were visitors from the Shrine of Our Lady of Loreto in Italy, who had come to sign an Affirmation of Unity between their Shrine and the Cathedral of St Albans. The sermon was preached by the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nicholls; he and representatives from other Christian denominations gave the service a truly ecumenical feeling.

The pilgrimage ended with the whole congregation processing to the Shrine of St Alban, near the east end of the cathedral. The original shrine containing the remains of the saint was destroyed at the Reformation, but the present, reconstructed one resembles it and was built in the same place, exactly over the spot where Alban was martyred.

Personally I find it very evocative, and also the original worn steps up to the Watching Chamber where the monks used to sit to guard the shrine.

As we passed by in procession we all laid our red roses on the shrine, honouring St Alban, and this was to me the most moving moment of the whole day.

If you have never been on pilgrimage and experienced the fellowship, the fun, the enjoyment and the inspiration it can give, do please come with us to St Albans next year. You won’t be disappointed!   


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