On the trail of St Alban

   Posted by: Dorothea Preis   in Medieval Miscellany

It is amazing how sometimes strands of seemingly unrelated interests come together.  This happened when I was planning a trip to Europe for next year to attend the “Blood and Roses” Special Interest Weekend in Oxford in March, an event at Christ Church College in association with the Richard III Society.  Afterwards I was thinking of spending a few days in Germany visiting sites of personal interest, after all I would be in the area, so to speak.

During my recent research into St Albans I had read that a church in Cologne is said to hold relics of St Alban.[1]  At the time I didn’t pursue this any further, but now that a visit to Cologne is on the cards I decided to find out more.

At first I came across the former church of St Alban, one of the oldest parish churches in Cologne.  It was mostly destroyed during the 2nd World War and not rebuilt.  The ruin now stands as a memorial to the dead of two World Wars and contains a copy of the sculpture “Mourning Parents” by Käthe Kollwitz.[2]  A fascinating place and on my list as a ‘must visit’.  However, as far as any relics of the English saint are concerned this proved to be a red herring.

As it turns out they are in a different church.  When St Germain [3] as Bishop of Auxerre visited St Albans in the 5th century he took some of the saint’s relics home as souvenirs.  He built a church dedicated to St Alban in Auxerre, but also sent some of the relics to Rome.  In 984 Empress Theophanu brought these relics from Rome to Cologne gave them to St Pantaleon Abbey, of which she was very fond.

St Pantaleon, Cologne (Photograph taken by Hans Peter Schaefer; obtained through Wikimedia Commons.)

There is different St Alban, who is venerated in Mainz.  So in the 10th century an  Archbishop of Mainz, another saint by the name of Willigis, who was also an influential statesman [4], decided that it would not be a good idea if his saint was confused with the other one  and Cologne’s St Albanus had to change one letter of his name to become St Albinus.  But this did not mean that he was any less venerated and in the late 12th century a shrine was built for him which can still be seen in St Pantaleon church.  In 2002 a shoulder blade from the Cologne relics of the saint was with much ceremony returned to his native country and is now in the restored shrine in St Albans Cathedral.[5]

Shrine of St Alban in St Albans Cathedral (Photograph taken by Michael Reeve; obtained through Wikimedia Commons.)

The late gothic rood screen in St Pantaleon church contains images of the Virgin Mary, St Pantaleon and St Alban/Albinus.[6]

Rood Screen in St Pantaleon, Cologne (Photograph taken by Hawobo; obtained through Wikimedia Commons.)

Having found St Alban’s relics, I wanted to learn a bit more about this Theophanu, who had brought them to Cologne.  She was a niece of the East Roman Emperor and lived from approx. 960 to 15 June 991.  She was married to Emperor Otto II and they had five children. And this is where the connection to another strand of interest lies.  Otto II was the son of Otto I, whose first wife was the English princess Eadgyth, whom I had also researched previously.  Otto II must have been the son of Otto I’s second wife Adelheid of Burgundy, as he was only born in 955[7] and Eadgyth had died on 26 January 946.  Neverthelesss, this makes Theophanu the Otto I’s daughter-in-law.

She must have been a remarkable woman.   She is often mentioned in her husband’s documents, which shows her influence on and interest in the affairs of the empire.  After the sudden death of Otto II on 7 December 983, our friend Willigis, Archbishop of Mainz, called Theophanu and her mother-in-law Adelheid back from Rome.  Theophanu, supported by Adelheid, then became regent for her young son Otto III, who was only 3 years old when his father died.  She signed official documents in her name as ‘Emperor’ instead of ‘Empress’ and the years of her reign were counted from 972, when she had married Otto II.   Her intelligent reign made it possible for her son to become emperor without problems.  Theophanu died on 15 June 991 in Nijmegen and was buried according to her wishes in St Pantaleon in Cologne in front of the altar containing the relics of St Alban.  After several moves her remains have been since 1962 in a white marble sarcophagus in her favourite church.[8]

Incidentally the two children of Eadgyth and Otto I, Liudolf, who died young, and Liutgard, who became the ancestress of the Salian dynasty, were both buried in the church dedicated to the other St Alban in Mainz.[9]
St Pantaleon in Cologne was the church of a Benedictine abbey (just like St Albans in Hertfordshire).  It is the oldest of the romanesque churches in the city, which was often called the “Rome of the North” due to its many churches.   The abbey was founded by Bruno, a brother of Otto I (and thus brother-in-law of Eadgyth), who was Archbishop of Cologne as well as Duke of Lotharingia, who also had a great interest in education.[10]  His work on the church was continued by Theophanu.[11]

I believe, Richard III, who was involved with several chantries as well as King’s College Chapel Cambridge and was interested in education, would probably have found a kindred spirit in Bruno.

1    “Reformation and the Parish of St Albans Abbey”, The Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Alban (accessed 24 May 2010)
2    “Alt St. Alban”, de.wikipedia (accessed 4 Oct 2010)
3    For the life of St Germain see:  “St Germain”, New Advent, Catholic Encyclopedia (accessed 4 Oct 2010)
4    For the life of St Willigis see:  “St Willigis”, New Advent, Catholic Encyclopedia (accessed 4 Oct 2010)
5    Klaus Martin Reichenbach, „22. Juni“, Ökumenisches Heiligenlexikon, Florilegium Martyrologii Romani (accessed 4 Oct 2010)
6    Werner Nolte, „Sankt Pantaleon“ (accessed 4 Oct 2010)
7    „Otto II. (HRR)“, de.wikipedia (accessed 24 Oct 2010)
8    “Theophanu (HRR)”, de.wikipedia (accessed 4 Oct 2010)
9     “Edgitha”, de.wikipedia (accessed 19 June 2010)
10    For Bruno see:  “Brun (Köln)”, de.wikipedia (accessed 4 Oct 2010)
11    Nolte

Tags: ,

This entry was posted on Tuesday, October 5th, 2010 at 0:01 and is filed under Medieval Miscellany. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

Leave a reply

Name (*)
Mail (will not be published) (*)