Who Were the First Christian Martyrs of Britain?

Alban, Julius, and Aaron are said to be the first Christians in Britain. Their martyrdom occurred during the persecutions of Christianity. Were these Christian martyrs mere legends?

Feb 28, 2024By Michael Parry, MA Sociolinguistics and Religion, BA Philosophy and Religion
first martyrs britain alban julius aaron

 

There’s little evidence available regarding the lives of the saints Alban, Julius, and Aaron, even though some notable medieval historians and scholars have documented their existence, albeit in scarce detail. Who were the courageous soldiers of Christianity who stood their ground during the Roman persecution of the religion? There’s evidence that pertains to their origin when Christianity was a mere cult movement on the pagan isles of Britain. Their shrines and churches still stand today, and Alban, Julius, and Aaron, are still revered and celebrated as the first Christian martyrs of Britain.

 

The First Three Christian Martyrs of Britain: Myth or Legend?

caerleon ampitheatre wales christian martyr
Ruins of the Caerleon amphitheater in South Wales, Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

During the first century, around 40 CE, Christianity was beginning to spread from its Middle Eastern origins and into other parts of the world. This was on a small scale, spoken in passing by merchants and pilgrims. By the second and third centuries, Christianity had a foothold in the British Isles. However, there was some conflict and tension with the pagan and Druid religions that defined the wilderness of the island.

 

Not only did the vilification of Christianity come from the British natives, but they also encountered grievances from Rome, which was still predominantly a polytheistic civilization. Under the rule of the Emperors Decius and Valerian in the middle of the second century, Christianity and its followers were deemed a cult movement and a potential threat to Roman political and religious stability. The persecution of Christianity in Britain led to the martyrdom of three notable saints of Isca Augusta, a Roman fort in Caerleon Wales.

 

The first Christians to stand up for their beliefs were Alban, Julius, and Aaron. Of these three very little is known, except for accounts by the medieval scholars Gildas and Bede, in their works on the history of the English Church.

 

Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter

It is documented that Julius and Aaron were citizens of Isca Augusta, a major Roman site that was erected to expand the Roman army further north in Britain and into Scotland. These two men were deemed martyrs and put through a series of tortures and interrogations, but they held steadfast before succumbing to their deaths. Their defiance of the Roman persecution and their dedication to their faith has seen them become saints and legends in Welsh Christianity. The Church of All Saints sits a few miles from the Roman site at Caerleon, attracting thousands of visitors yearly.

 

The Sacrifice and Honour of Alban the First Martyr

church julius aaron david caerleon
All Saints Church, Caerleon, South Wales, Source: RCADC

 

Historical records of St Alban are much more plentiful. St. Alban is recorded as the true first Christian martyr of Britain, hailed as the protomartyr of the Isles. His tale is widely known among medieval British literature enthusiasts and scholars, who have painted a tale of honor, sacrifice, and dedication.

 

During the 3rd century when the Romans were persecuting Christians for their beliefs, Alban took in a wandering Christian priest who was fleeing danger. It is documented that the Romans were searching for a cloaked figure. Alban came to admire the man he sheltered for his piety and dedication to God. This led Alban to convert to his new faith and the man he gave his home came to be known as Amphibalus, meaning “the cloaked one” in Latin.

 

When the priest was discovered, Alban put on his cloak and claimed to be the one they wanted. Upon his judgment and persecution, Alban did not waiver. It was discovered that he had imitated the priest in wanting and the judge ordered him to be executed unless he rescinded his new faith and worshipped the pagan gods of the old world. Upon Alban’s refusal, he was tortured, dehydrated, and beheaded on a hill.

 

Before his execution, Alban had made known his thirst and prayed to God for water. Supposedly, his head rolled down, and where it came to rest a spring appeared. On the site of St Alban’s death sits the cathedral of St Alban, and a few feet below where his head came to rest lies St Alban’s Holy Well.

 

What Proof Do We Have of the Other Two Martyrs?

henry viii
St. Alban window at Church of the Good Shepherd (Rosemont, Pennsylvania), Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

Documented history regarding the other two martyrs Julius and Aaron are undetailed. The only real information comes from St. Gildas in his seminal work De Excidio Britanniae. In this scholarly book, Gildas dedicates only a small section to the martyrs, stating that;

 

“God … in the … time of persecution … lest Britain should be completely enveloped in the thick darkness of black night, kindled for us bright lamps of holy martyrs … I speak of Saint Alban of Verulamium, Aaron and Julius, citizens of Caerleon, and the rest of both sexes in different places, who stood firm with lofty nobleness of mind in Christ’s battle.” (Gildas, On the Ruin of Britain) 

 

This sentence is exceedingly vague and does not hold much information regarding who they were. Another passage comes from The Book of Llandaf, a seminal piece of Welsh Christian literature from the 11th century and one of the first pieces of Welsh theological work from any Abrahamic religion.

 

There is a section that describes a person named Merthyr Iun Aaron — the translation of Merthyr from Welsh to English is “martyr.” Scholars have debated the legitimacy of the information within this book, with most agreeing that the passage likely describes the resting place or grave of the martyr Aaron. The 11th-century historian Giraldus Cambrensis mentions the site of two churches in close vicinity that are dedicated to Julius and Aaron.

 

This is mirrored by Bishop Godwin in the fifteen hundreds, in which he describes two chapels in Caerleon only two miles apart  at opposite ends of the town. The sites today are a farmhouse once a mansion of the Lord Cherbury, and the ruins of a Roman camp called Penrhos. Upon excavation of these locations, two Christian stone coffins were found.

 

The Importance of Caerleon and St Alban in British Medieval History

dublin trinity college life alban christian martyr
Martyrdom of St Alban, featured in a 13th century manuscript at the Trinity College in Dublin, Source: St Julian Parish Church

 

British medieval history is often defined by its Arthurian roots. Literature, castles, and media all encompass the legends. How is the relatively little-known story of the three martyrs deemed important in British history? The well at St. Alban’s has roots in Arthurian legend as well. During the reign of Richard III in the 15th century, the chronicler John Brompton wrote that Arthurs’ father Uter Pendragon, “a British Prince, had fought the Saxons in a great battle at this place, and received a dangerous wound: and lay a long time confined to his bed: and that he was cured at length by resorting to a well or spring not far distant from the city; at that time salubrious; and for that reason, and for the cures thereby performed, esteemed holy; and blessed in a peculiar manner with the flavor of Heaven” (Brompton, The Fitzhugh Chronicle)

 

The site at Caerleon is mentioned many times in the stories of Arthur. It has been proclaimed that Caerleon could have been the original site of Camelot. The 11th-century monk Geoffrey of Monmouth stated:

 

They had adorned the city with royal palaces, and by the gold-painted gables of its roofs it was a match for Rome. What is more, it was famous for its two churches. One of these, built in honour of the martyr Julius, was graced by a choir of most lovely virgins dedicated to God. The second, founded in the name of the blessed St. Aaron, the companion of Julius, was served by a monastery of canons, and counted the third metropolitan see of Britain. The city also contained a college of two hundred learned men, who were skilled in astronomy and the other arts and so by their careful computations prophesied for King Arthur any prodigies due at that time.” (Geoffrey of Monmouth, Vita Merlini)

 

King Arthur’s Resting Place & The First Martyrs of Britain

thomas cromwell earl of essex
King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table by Michel Gantelet, 1472, Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

Due to Caerleon having already been built and occupied by Roman settlers many years prior when it was known as Isca, it is believed that Arthur saw this site as an important and ideal location to settle and build his legion. The site of the Roman amphitheater (pictured above) is believed to have been the location of the round table, although this is absolute conjecture. Another tale of Caerleon states that it is the slumbering place of King Arthur and his knights. It tells of a time when a local farmer came to a nearby glade. Upon entering the glade, he was commanded to push aside a boulder that revealed a long entrance to a cave.

 

Within this cave there slept a thousand knights and warriors and among them, including king Arthur himself. Above rested two bells. Upon accidentally ringing one of the bells, the knights woke up from their dormancy and asked if it was time (to defend the country). The farmer claimed that it was not yet time to do so. When said farmer tried to find the entrance to the cave again, it never appeared.

 

The story of the first Christian martyrs of Britain isn’t the most well-known or historically documented. Nevertheless, this fascinating tale has links and connections to some of Britain’s most important and influential history. Their story may, or may not be myth, but their sacrifice and legend lives on.

Author Image

By Michael ParryMA Sociolinguistics and Religion, BA Philosophy and Religion Mike is a doctoral researcher in sociological religions. He has an academic background in anthropology, philosophy, and sociolinguistics. His primary interests are in the functions of religion within society and world cultures. Mike currently lives in Wales, nestled between the remote hills and open coast.