Odd this day

Coates
3 min readJun 22, 2024

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22 June 209 (or 251, or 304)

The precise date is… disputed, let’s say, but it is, without a shadow of a doubt, the 1,815th anniversary of St Alban’s head being forcibly detached from the rest of him, causing his executioner’s eyes to pop out. Unless it’s the 1,773rd anniversary. Or the 1,720th, obviously.

Medieval drawing shows a man on the left, standing, wielding his sword with one hand. It is halfway through Alban’s neck, and blood is coming out of the wound. Alban is kneeling, almost on all fours. Above him, the executioner’s other hand is free, and he’s catching his eyes, which have popped out.

There are many splendid depictions of the moment the sword-wielding Roman (or sword-wielder working for the Romans, who were annoyed at Alban being unwilling to renounce his Christian faith) either drops the sword to catch his eyes, or saves them with his free hand.

martyrdom of St Alban by beheading and the fate of his executioner, by Matthew Paris, TCD MS 177 f38r — from the Book of St Albans, Trinity College Dublin. 13th century illustration shows several figures gathered at each side of the scene, and in the middle, Alban kneeling by a tree. Behind him, a knight bends to swing a sword, and Alban’s head appears to catch on a branch of the tree. Streams of blood flow from Alban’s neck, and the executioner catches his (own) eyes in his free hand

…but I particularly like the wild, staring eyes of everyone whose peepers are still in their heads in this one:

The Martyrdom of Saint Alban in the Saint Albans Psalter, about 1120–30, English. Tempera and gold on parchment. Dombibliothek Hildesheim. Portrait-oriented image. The executioner stands just to left of centre, while Alban falls to the right. The executioner’s eyes are shown in mid air

We know it definitely happened, because the Venerable Bede says so. Alban was tortured to renounce his god, refused, and was walked to the top of a hill to be done in. Thirsty when he got to the top, he prayed for water, and a spring appeared.

The river having performed the holy service, returned to its natural course, leaving a testimony of its obedience. Here, therefore, the head of most courageous martyr was struck off, and here he received the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love Him. But he who gave the wicked stroke, was not permitted to rejoice over the deceased; for his eyes dropped upon the ground together with the blessed martyr’s head.
Excerpt from Bede: Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation

This illustration also shows the first Roman who was supposed to execute Alban also being executed because he refused to do the executing:

Image from a psalter held in the British Library. There are four figures, and a tree to the left. From left to right: Alban, kneeling, blood coming out of his neck, his head on the ground; his executioner, his sword just fallen from his grasp, catching his eyes — which have red movement lines showing their direction of travel from his eye sockets to his hands; another executioner waving a sword; the first executioner, who refused to the job, himself being executed

The judge who ordered the beheading, incidentally, amazed by all the eye popping, “ordered the persecution to cease immediately”.

22 June 1979

In a slight change of subject, it’s also the 45th anniversary of the acquittal of Jeremy Thorpe on charges of attempting to procure the doing in of “sponger, whiner and parasite” Norman Scott.

Jeremy Thorpe lifts his both his arms in salute/triumph as he leaves court after being acquitted

Despite his nominal success, it wasn’t great for his career, but it did enhance Peter Cook’s. Five days later, it was the first night of the Secret Policeman’s Ball, which got largely positive reviews, save for one paper raising the question of where the biting satire was.

Stung by this, Peter Cook — the trial understandably fresh in his mind — wrote a new sketch for the show in three hours. (I’ve used a link rather than embedding, because it will only play on YouTube, so you’d have to click through to see it anyway.)

(One of everybody’s favourite lines from it is the description of “Norma St John Scott” as a “player of the pink oboe” — which, as another clip (which also won’t embed here) shows, was a line he threw in at the last minute.)

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Coates

Purveyor of niche drivel; marker of odd anniversaries