Last moments of St. Alban Roe OSB: 21 January

Extract of a study by David Atherton & Michael Peyton


St. Alban Roe was an English Benedictine martyr, born in Suffolk, 1583. Educated in Suffolk and at Cambridge; he became converted through a visit to a Catholic prisoner at St. Albans which unsettled his religious views. He was admitted as a convictor into the English College at Douai, entered the English Benedictine monastery at Dieulouard where he was professed in 1612, and, after ordination, went to the mission in 1615. From 1618 to 1623 he was imprisoned in the New Prison, Maiden Lane, whence he was banished and went to the English Benedictine house at Douai but returned to England after four months. He was again arrested in 1625, and was imprisoned for two months at St. Albans, then in the Fleet whence he was frequently liberated on parole, and finally in Newgate.


On 19 January 1642 Alban Roe was brought to the bar of the Old Bailey and charged with offending against “An act against Jesuits, seminary priests, and such other like disobedient persons, also known as Jesuits, etc. He was accused of high treason by being a priest and having seduced the people. The chief witness against him was a fallen Catholic.

Initially he refused to make a plea to the charge since, in the words of Challoner, “he boggled at being tried by his country, that is by the 12 ignorant jurymen, as being unwilling that they should be concerned in the shedding of his innocent blood.” The presiding judge, the identity of whom is unknown, warned him of the penalty imposed on those who would not plead. He would be subjected to “peine forte et dure”, that is violent and severe pain by being placed under planks loaded with weights and crushed until he did make a plea.

He was sent back to prison to reconsider. After taking the advice of learned priests he did enter a plea of “Not Guilty”. Challoner gives a brief outline of the events which followed:

The jury went aside, and quickly returned, declaring him guilty of the indictment, viz. of high treason, on account of his priestly character and functions, and the judge pronounced sentence upon him according to the usual form, which he heard with a serene and cheerful countenance; and then making a low reverence, returned thanks to the judge, and to the whole bench for the favour, which he esteemed very great, and which he had greatly desired; and how little, said he, is this, which I am to suffer for Christ, in comparison with that far more bitter death which he suffered for me! He then acknowledged himself to be a priest but withal loudly condemned those laws by which the priests were put to death; and made a proffer, to maintain by disputation in open court, against any opponent whatsoever, the catholic faith, which he had laboured, for thirty years, to propagate and was now about to seal with his blood. This the judges would not hear of, but sent him back to prison wondering at his constancy and intrepidity.


On his return to Newgate he preached a sermon to the Catholic prisoners and others who had gone there to see him. He urged them to keep the Faith and accept persecution with joy as coming from the hand of God. On the 21 January he said his last Mass and gave a blessing to the assembled Catholics. To be executed at the same time as Alban was Thomas Reynolds, alias Greene, a secular priest of more than eighty years of age. Reynolds considered himself to be weak and timid, fearing the death he was to endure. He found great comfort in having Alban, an intrepid “champion of the Faith”, with him in his final hours.

Alban and Thomas Reynolds were tied on a hurdle, drawn by four carthorses. The route was extremely muddy so that their hands, faces and clothes were spattered with dirt. As they made their way to the Tyburn Tree there were cries of support, and no doubt some of derision, from the assembled crowds.


De Marsys wrote that, at Tyburn, Alban got up first and then helped his aged companion and they kissed the ropes that were hanging from the gallows. Three felons were to die with them, one of whom had been converted to Catholicism the previous day in prison. According to custom, those condemned were allowed a final speech. Thomas Reynolds was the first to do so, speaking for about half an hour. The Nymphenburg document gives a dispassionate account of what followed:

Immediately after him followed Dom Alban Roe, of the Order of St. Benedict, a man of dauntless soul, and brave in all things. When he also, according to custom, began to speak on the scaffold, he declared that enough had already been said by his brother, pointing to Mr. Reynolds with his finger, so that it would be unnecessary to repeat it; but that if he had as many lives as he had committed sins during his whole life, he would willingly lay them all down in so good a cause. When he began to speak a little more sharply of the laws against priests made under Queen Elizabeth, and called them tyrannical and heretical, he was commanded by the Sheriff to desist from this manner of speech. He then asked the Sheriff whether his life would be granted him if he embraced the Protestant religion, and was answered that his life would without doubt be spared and there was nothing they wished more. The man of God then called upon God and men to bear witness that he died for his God and his religion only.

De Marsys provides more information. Alban spoke with a Captain Godfrey and another gentleman who could not be identified because he had covered his face. He gave to the Captain the little black skull cap which he always wore. It had not been known that the Captain was a Catholic and, when this episode came to the attention of the leaders of Parliament, a reward was offered for his capture. Alban also saw amongst the crowd one of the jailers from the Fleet prison where he had spent so many years. He said to him:

“My friend, I find thou art a prophet: thou hast told me often that I should be hanged; and truly my unworthiness was such, I could not believe it, but I see that thou art a prophet.”

The priests recited together the Miserere and gave each other absolution. The cart was then drawn away and they were allowed to hang until they were fully dead. They were then cut down, and, according to de Marsys, “the hangman opened those loving and burning breasts, as if to give air to that furnace of charity which consumed their hearts.”


Alban was declared venerable on 8 December 1929 by Pope Pius XI and beatified one week later on 15 December. Blessed Alban Roe was canonised nearly 40 years later, on 25 October 1970 by Pope Paul VI, as one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales with a common feast day of 25 October. His feast day is also celebrated on 21 January, the day of his martyrdom.

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