Saint of the Week: St. Alphege of Canterbury (Ælfheah)

Not only is today my birthday, it is the feast of St. Alphege (Ælfheah) of Canterbury (954-19 April, 1012) — 1000 years after the man died in a morbidly humorous manner. Because Alphege is easier to write, and because that’s how I’ve known him until recently due to that spelling in my Prayer Book, that’s the spelling I’ll use here. Although Ælfheah, which means ‘elf-high’, is a very cool way of spelling; I’m fond of Old English names (but promise never to name a child Leofdæg).

Anyway, Alphege was Archbishop of Canterbury during some of the stormier bits of Anglo-Saxon history.* He started his ecclesiastical career as a simple monk at Deerhurst, and later moved to Bath. At Bath he became an anchorite, and people noted his austerity and his piety. As seems to have happened frequently in the earlier years of monasticism, the rest of the monks decided that he was too good a monk to be left alone as an anchorite (see saints of the week Antony the Great and John Climacus) and made him abbot.

In 984, Alphege became Bishop of Winchester (St. Dunstan [d. 988] may have helped in this). Winchester (whose current cathedral, besides having the longest nave in Europe, figures in this song) was one of the most powerful episcopates in Anglo-Saxon England, at times rivalling Canterbury due to the fact that Winchester was for a time the English capital, having been made official capital of Wessex by King Egbert in 827 (you can’t make up names this good!) — it had beende facto capital since 686 in the reign of Caedwalla.

Let’s avoid an entire history of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Wessex and the unification of what is now England and just say, ‘Winchester was a very important bishopric.’ Indeed, the Bishop of Winchester had a palace in London when the seat of government moved there, he was that important. I wonder if there were ever clerical boat-races between it and Lambeth Palace.

Anyway, Alphege decided that nothing could be better for his bishopric in Winchester than an enormous organ. Rumour has it, 24 men were required to operate the organ, and it could be heard over a mile away! I’ve experienced some loud organ postludes in my day; this must have been something! Alphege was also a big promoter of the local saints Swithun and Æthelwold.

The era of Alphege was the era of King Æthelred II (the Unready or Ill-Advised — Unræd) and Viking raids on England by the Danes. This wasn’t going too well for poor Æthelred (hence his nickname); even the conversion of and peace treaty with (possibly influenced by Alphege) Olaf Tryggvason (Viking names are also fantastic) in the 990s didn’t really stop the escalation of devastation.

In 1006, Archbishop Ælfric having died in November 1005, Alphege was elected Archbishop of Canterbury and translated to his new see. Alphege brought St. Swithun’s head with him (as you do …) and promoted the cult of his former protege, Dunstan, in Canterbury.

The History Today article in the April 2012 article about him refers to ‘an army of piratical Vikings’ who set siege to Canterbury in 1011 (p. 9). Given that a Viking is basically a Danish pirate with horns,** this is an amusing statement to make. Basically, the Danes raided again, and a Viking is an early-mediaeval Scandinavian sea-raider, and a pirate is a person who commits raids and theft on the sea/by ship. Anyway, these ‘piratical Vikings’ besieged Canterbury.

After two weeks, another person with an elfish name — Ælfmaer (abbot of St. Augustine’s Abbey [don’t forget, St. Augustine of Canterbury was saint of the week once!]) — let the Danes in. Canterbury fell. And was sacked (these are Vikings, after all). Amidst the booty taken by the Danes were Alphege and a well-named trio: Godwine (Bishop of Rochester), Leofrun (abbess of St. Mildrith’s), and Ælfweard (the King’s reeve).

Alphege refused to allow himself to be ransomed. I think this is pretty noble; save the money for stuff that matters. Like gigantic organs. Right? Or the poor. Yeah, the poor. Anyway, the Danes took Alphege to Greenwich where they kept him hostage, waiting for the ransom.

And then, one night, drunkenness struck:

.. the raiding-army became much stirred up against the bishop, because he did not want to offer them any money, and forbade that anything might be granted in return for him. Also they were very drunk, because there was wine brought from the south. Then they seized the bishop, led him to their “hustings” on the Saturday in the octave of Easter, and then pelted him there with bones and the heads of cattle; and one of them struck him on the head with the butt of an axe, so that with the blow he sank down and his holy blood fell on the earth, and sent forth his holy soul to God’s kingdom. (Swanton Anglo-Saxon Chronicle p. 142)

Not exactly a glorious martyrdom. Indeed, I’m not really sure St. Alphege is a martyr. They didn’t intend to kill him, and they didn’t kill him for religious reasons. They didn’t even capture him for religious reasons; this was political/economic for the Danes (who, I reckon, had come down on a jaunt from the Danelaw in Northern England; but that’s just a guess — Denmark isn’t that far from England to begin with).

There aren’t any lessons to be taken from the death of St. Alphege/Ælfheah. It’s just an interesting story. And his feast is my birthday, and today is 1000th anniversary of his death by cow bones and axe-butt. And the names are magnificent. So I had to share it with you.

*This statement gives you no clue of when he was Archbishop; it was all stormy.

**Fact: Vikings didn’t wear horned helmets. Also, I stole this from Dan Carlson who got it from a T-Shirt that said, ‘Vikings are just Swedish pirates with horns’.