of Alphege, Martyr of Canterbury?
By CORMAC RIGBY
NEARLY every English schoolboy must have heard of King Alfred's defence of Wessex and of the disastrous appeasement policy followed later by Ethelred, the Unready.
But how many have heard of Ethelred's saintly and courageous primate, who recalled the heroism of the earlier age and redeemed a dishonourable reign with an outstanding act of selflessness?
St. Alphege (or Aelfheah) was born in 954 during the happy reign of Edgar the Peaceful, the king who safeguarded England against marauders and ornamented the Church with St. Dunstan and his colleagues. He was well-born, but abandoned a career of local power and opulence for the harsh living and loneliness of a hermitage. But his ability stood between him and the oblivion that he sought: as the followers of Dunstan faded from the scene (Dunstan himself died in 988) the Church felt a great need for able men.
Alphege rose from being a simple mc.nk of Deerhurst to the abbacy of Bath and in 984 was raised to the bishopric of Winchester. The Parker Chronicle (Ms A of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle) records for 984: "In this year passed away the benevolent bishop Aethelwold. The consecration of his successor AcIfheah, who was also known as Godwine, was on 19 October: he was installed in the bishop's see at Winchester on the festival of the two apostles Simon and Jude."
Bishops were expected to uee their talents in the royal service and in 994 the Bishop of Winchester was sent by Ethelred on an embassy to Olaf TryggvessOn. Olaf, the future king of Norway, and at that juncture the recent victor of Maidon, held a strong position near Southampton after a victorius march through Kent.
But the ability of Alphege as an ambassador was considerable and reinforced, moreover, by the zeal for converts which burns strong in a missionary's breast. Olaf was so impressed that he consented not only to leave England atone but, with the King as his sponsor, to be confirmed: he abandoned his Danish partner. King Sweyn, and returned to Norway —and stayed there.
We know little of Alphege's pastoral work. but we do know that he was a .patron of Aelfric. His predecessor at Winchester was Dunstan's great colleague, Aethelwold, who had had the young Aelfric educated in the cathedral School. In 987 when Aelfric had been ordained it was Alphege who sent him to Cerne Abbas in Dorset where he wrote his "Catholic Homilies" and his "Lives of the Saints".
It was in 1005 that Aelfric went as Abbot to Eynsham; in that same year Canterbury fell vacant and was given to the most obvious candidate among the bishops. his patron, Alphege of Winchester. In the following year the new primate went to Rome. according to custom. to receive his pallium from the Pope.
As Archbishop. one of his contributions to the fame of his cathedral was the removal thither of the skull of the much-venerated St. Swithun. the humble tutor of Alfred the Great who was one of Alphege's predecessors in the See of Winchester.
In 1009 a major Danish force invaded Kent under the leadership of Thorkell and Hemming, and exacted much tribute from the wretched county. After burning Oxford in 1010. Thorkell returned to Kent and in 1011 besieged Canterbury. It was a well-fortified city and could have held out for some time. bul eller three weeks. the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle sadly records. "between the Nativity of St. Mary and Michaelmas (R-29 September) they besieged Canterbury, and made their way in through treachery. for Acifmacr. whose life archbishop Aelheah had saved betrayed Canterbury to them".
The pillage was terrible: many men. clergy and lay, were carried off into slavery. and their useless and helpless dependents were murdered. The Archbishop came before the pirate leader to plead for his city. but he was seized and thrust into his church, which they then fired. The monks who had barricaded themselves in were soon choking in the thick smoke from the blazing timbers. They had the choice of perishing in the flames or trying to escape under cover of the smoke. But their tormentors were waiting for them. and only four survived the butchery.
The Archbishop was seized as he tried to escape from the furnace by some Norsemen who saved him from their fellows in the hope that the ransom they might extort from him would more than compensate for the relinquished pleasure of cleaving open his skull.
Their hopes of ransom were unfulfilled. Alphege refused to waste money on his own freedom and absolutely rejected proposals to levy a tax on his flock to pay for his ransom. The invaders thought he was bluffing; they could not believe that Christians would not pay a large sum for their high priest. So they kept him a prisoner at Greenwich.
Alphege knew that a ransom would cripple his people. Already the ravages of the warlike Scandinavian hordes had devastated the countryside and drained away much of its hoarded wealth. So he waited for the inevitable moment when his captors would lose patience and meanwhile occupied himself in prayer and preaching Christ to his enemies, He had some converts. the most illustrious being the Not wegian prince, Olaf Haraldssain. It is certain that St. Ofals conversion to Christianity belongs to this period and likewise his joining with Ethelred against the Danish Cnut. Tradition makes the captured Alphcge his teacher.
Meanwhile the angry Danes were incensed by the failure of the men of Kent to pay the ransom. Their hostility spluttered into action on the evening of April 19, 1012. The Army had been feasting and drinkina; suddenly a drunken lout caught d red-eyed glimpse of the captive prelate and flung at him one of the bones from which the meat had been gnawed. A ^omrade jeered when he missed and swore to do better: others ioined in.
him now. To end it mercifully. one of his converts whom he had baptised only a few hours earlier, "smote him on the skull with the iron head of an axe so that with the blow he sank down and hie holy blood fell upon the earth and his holy soul was sent forth to God's kingdom."
In the sober light of morning, those whom he had instructed and those who had come to love the good old man even though they steered clear of his funny ideas joined together to clean the body and start it on its journey to London. The incident seems all the more terrible because of its isolation; for although obviously some abbeys and churches got in the way of the wars. the life of the Church at this period was one of progress.
That this was a regretted and isolated incident may be seen by the amends made in 1023 when Cnut, by then King of England, "gave full permission to Archbishop Aethelnoth, Bishop Beorhtwine and to all the servants of God who were with them to take up from the burial place the body of Archbishop Se Aelfheah; and they did so on June 8.
"The illustrious king, the archbishop, diocesan bishops, earls and very many others, both clergy and laity. conveyed his holy body by ship over tne Thames to Southwark, and there delivered the holy martyr to the archbishop and his companions. who then with a distinguished fallowing and happy jubilation carried him to Rochester.
"Thee on the third day came Emma the Lady with her royal son Hartchaenut, and with great pomp and rejoicing and hymns of praise they conveyed the holy archbishop into Canterbury, and with equal Ceremony brought him on June 11 into Christ Church. Likewise afterwards on the eighth day, June 15, Archbishop Azthelnoth. Bishop Aelfsige, Bishop Beorhtwine, and all who were with them, buried the holy body of St. Aelfheah on the north side of Christ's altar to the glory of God. and to the honour of the holy archbishop and to the eternal salvation of all those who daily resort there to his holy body with deveut heart and in all humility."
Another set of invaders challenged the dead Archbishop after 1066. Several of the imported Norman abbots poured scorn on their English predecessors, Paul of St. Albans, for example, slighted the tombs of his predecessors, quos
• tedes et idiotas consuevit appellare, And Archbishop Lanfranc, the new Norman primate, zealous to purge the Church's calendar of obscure national saints, with unofficial states and dubious claims, tried to remove St. Alphege's name from the list. How, he asked his friend Anselm of Bee. could you count a man a martyr who had been killed accidentally in an ugly drunken brawl?
But Anselm. less high-handed and more wise, replied that Alphege had in truth laid down his life for hie flock and sacrificed everything to save Christ's poor from the burden of his ransom. He had therefore given up his life as a pure sacrifice to Christ. And Lanfranc was great enough when convinced by his friend to patronise the English scholar of Christ Church, Canterbury, Osbern, who wrote the loves of three of the English archbishops, Oda, Dunstan and Alphege.
So St Alphege continued to be honoured alongside the great Dunstan. In 1105 his remains were examined and his body was found uncorrupted, being seen and venerated by many of the faithful. Until Becket eclipsed both. they were the twin glories of Canterbury.
There were plenty of bones and ox-skulls to hand and soon all the
drunkards were enjoying the new game of peltit g. The contemporary German chronicler. Thietmar of Mersehurg, tells up that their leader. Thorkell the Tall. seeing disaster imminent, ordered them to stop and •Yhen erders failed. tried to distract them by offering them gold ark: silver all he had. save his ship But by that time they were drawing blood and the old man had slumped to his knees. There was no stopping them, no saving