By John Martin

The Venerable Bede, renowned as the father of English history, loved to embellish his tales of the miraculous. He told, for example, that when Roman executioners beheaded Alban, England’s first martyr in 303, their eyes fell out.

The Cathedral and Abbey Church of St. Alban marks the site where Alban died. The execution of Alban is re-enacted every year in June with pilgrims approaching 10,000. You can even buy chocolate eyeballs from the cathedral’s gift shop.

The cathedral plans to renew the shrine of St. Alban with Heritage Lottery funding. Cathedral authorities want to develop a new entrance to the site, a place of pilgrimage for 1,700 years, and launch an educational program.

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“We feel strongly that far too few people realize the importance of St. Alban as our first British saint and of St. Albans Cathedral as our oldest [continuous] place of Christian worship,” said the Very Rev. Jeffrey John, dean of the cathedral.

Alban converted to Christianity through the ministry of a priest named Amphibalus. When the authorities ordered the death of the priest, Alban exchanged clothes with him and he escaped. Alban was arrested in his place and at his trial testified to his faith in “the true and living God who created all things.” The project hopes to include restoration of the medieval shrine dedicated to Amphibalus.

An ancient basilica built over the execution site is believed to date from the third century. Later a Benedictine monastery was founded, probably by King Offa, in about 793. This in turn was replaced in 1077 by a Norman church and monastery, the remains of which are still visible.

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