On 21 January 1642 the Benedictine monk Alban Roe, born Bartholomew Roe at Bury St Edmunds in around 1583, suffered martyrdom at Tyburn by being hanged, drawn and quartered for high treason. St Alban Roe was beatified in 1929 and canonised in 1970. He is one of the four canonised martyrs of the Roman Catholic Diocese of East Anglia, as well as being venerated at Ampleforth Abbey and Douai Abbey. Roe was a member of both Benedictine communities, since he joined St Laurence’s, Dieulouard in 1613 having been expelled from the English College at Douai for insubordination. He was then sent, appropriately enough given his birthplace, to found the Priory of St Edmund in Paris (the future Douai Abbey) in 1615.
Bartholomew Roe was born into a Protestant family and was sent to Cambridge. Whilst a student he travelled to St Albans in the hope of converting a Catholic priest held prisoner there to Protestantism. He found himself unable to answer the priest’s arguments, and ended up becoming a Catholic himself. Bartholomew took the religious name Alban as a monk in honour of the place of his conversion, but also perhaps because his story resembled that of St Alban himself, a pagan soldier who sheltered the Christian priest Amphibalus and ended up being converted and suffering a martyr’s death. In accordance with Benedictine custom, Roe also took a surname from the place of his birthplace, and was known in Latin as Albanus a Sancto Edmundo. Yet Roe did not immediately follow his saintly patrons in martyrdom; he spent much of his life imprisoned in the Fleet Prison, where he would famously play the other inmates at cards, asking for prayers if he won. He eventually fell victim to the intensification of anti-Catholic feeling in the run-up to the outbreak of Civil War, and was convicted of having received orders abroad under the authority of the Bishop of Rome and sentenced to a traitor’s death.
Alban Roe is today commemorated in the church of St Sebastien at Dieulouard with a painting executed shortly after his beatification in 1929, which shows the saint with a noose around his neck, holding a martyr’s palm in his left hand while offering his heart to Christ with his right; a banner under the image of Christ reads ‘My Saviour suffered for me, I want to suffer for him’. Behind the saint is a depiction of St Laurence’s on the left and Tyburn on the right. At the base of the painting is the seal of the English Benedictine Congregation, accompanied by a tankard of beer (representing the famous beer brewed at Dieulouard, but also perhaps Roe’s reputation as something of a bon viveur) and the grid iron of St Laurence. On the right side of the picture are two shields representing the Abbey of Saint-Mansuy at Toul, originally dedicated to St Peter (Dieulouard was in the Diocese of Toul until 1824) and Westminster Abbey, likewise dedicated to St Peter.
At Ampleforth the former junior school is known as Alban Roe House, and a modern statue of the saint, holding and pointing to a playing card in his right hand, can be seen at the Abbey. There seems to be only one parish church in the world dedicated to St Alban, at Wildwood, Missouri in the USA, and the church has a modern statue of the saint as a prisoner bound by chains. Wildwood is a suburb of St Louis, which is the location of an abbey of the English Benedictine Congregation founded from Ampleforth in 1955.
The most recent statue of St Alban Roe, by the sculptor Rory Young, was installed in the screen of St Albans Cathedral in April 2015 along with seven other figures associated with St Albans, a remarkable tribute from the Anglican cathedral to a man who died defending the Catholic faith. Young’s St Alban Roe holds a martyr’s palm in his right hand and, like the Ampleforth statue, playing cards in his left.
It is a shame that nothing commemorates St Alban in his home town of Bury St Edmunds, although the parish history group of St Edmund, King and Martyr is working to remedy this. A statue of the saint in the parish church – perhaps a replica of the Rory Young sculpture – would do much to remind Bury’s Catholics of the town’s modern martyr.