He was eldest son of the Count of Bollstädt, and born at Lauingen, Swabia, in the year 1205 or 1206, though many historians give it as 1193. Nothing certain is known of his primary or preparatory education, which was received either under the paternal roof or in a school of the neighbourhood. As a youth he was sent to pursue his studies at the University of Padua; that city being chosen either because his uncle resided there, or because Padua was famous for its culture of the liberal arts, for which the young Swabian had a special predilection. The date of this journey to Padua cannot be accurately determined.
In the year 1223 he joined the Order of St. Dominic, being attracted by the preaching of Blessed Jordan of Saxony second Master General of the Order. Historians do not tell us whether Albert’s studies were continued at Padua, Bologna, Paris, or Cologne. After completing his studies he taught theology at Hildesheim, Freiburg (Breisgau), Ratisbon, Strasburg, and Cologne. He was in the convent of Cologne, interpreting Peter Lombard’s “Book of the Sentences”, when, in 1245, he was ordered to repair to Paris.
There he received the Doctor’s degree in the university which, above all others, was celebrated as a school of theology. It was during this period of reaching at Cologne and Paris that he counted amongst his hearers St. Thomas Aquinas, then a silent, thoughtful youth, whose genius he recognized and whose future greatness he foretold. The disciple accompanied his master to Paris in 1245, and returned with him, in 1248, to the new Studium Generale of Cologne, in which Albert was appointed Regent, whilst Thomas became second professor and Magister Studentium (Master of Students).
In 1254 Albert was elected Provincial of his Order in Germany. He journeyed to Rome in 1256, to defend the Mendicant Orders against the attacks of William of St. Amour, whose book, “De novissimis temporum periculis”, was condemned by Pope Alexander IV, on 5 October, 1256.
During his sojourn in Rome Albert filled the office of Master of the Sacred Palace (instituted in the time of St. Dominic), and preached on the Gospel of St. John and the Canonical Epistles. He resigned the office of Provincial in 1257 in order to devote himself to study and to teaching. At the General Chapter of the Dominicans held at Valenciennes in 1250, with St. Thomas Aquinas and Peter of Tarentasia (afterwards Pope Innocent V), he drew up rules for the direction of studies, and for determining the system of graduation, in the Order.
In the year 1260 he was appointed Bishop of Ratisbon. Humbert de Romanis, Master General of the Dominicans, being loath to lose the services of the great Master, endeavoured to prevent the nomination, but was unsuccessful. Albert governed the diocese until 1262, when, upon the acceptance of his resignation, he voluntarily resumed the duties of a professor in the Studium at Cologne.
In the year 1270 he sent a memoir to Paris to aid St. Thomas in combating Siger de Brabant and the Averroists. This was his second special treatise against the Arabian commentator, the first having been written in 1256, under the title “De Unitate Intellectus Contra Averroem”. He was called by Pope Gregory X to attend the Council of Lyons (1274) in the deliberations of which he took an active part.
The announcement of the death of St. Thomas at Fossa Nuova, as he was proceeding to the Council, was a heavy blow to Albert, and he declared that “The Light of the Church” had been extinguished. It was but natural that he should have grown to love his distinguished, saintly pupil, and it is said that ever afterwards he could not restrain his tears whenever the name of St. Thomas was mentioned.
Something of his old vigour and spirit returned in 1277 when it was announced that Stephen Tempier and others wished to condemn the writings of St. Thomas, on the plea that they were too favourable to the unbelieving philosophers, and he journeyed to Paris to defend the memory of his disciple.
Some time after 1278 (in which year he drew up his testament) he suffered a lapse of memory; his strong mind gradually became clouded; his body, weakened by vigils, austerities, and manifold labours, sank under the weight of years. He was beatified by Pope Gregory XV in 1622; his feast is celebrated on the 15th of November. The Bishops of Germany, assembled at Fulda in September, 1872, sent to the Holy See a petition for his canonization; he was finally canonized in 1931.