Born in 953 or 954, Alphege (Old English, Ælfheah) became a monk at Deerhurst in Gloustershire, but retired after some years to a hermitage in Somerset. Dunstan appointed him abbot of Bath, a community largely composed of Alphege’s former disciples. In 984 Alphege became bishop of Winchester, where he became known for his personal austerity and his lavish almsgiving. In 994 king Æthelred sent him to parley with the Danes Anlaf and Swein, who had raided London and Wessex. The English paid tribute to the Danes, but Anlaf became a Christian and promised never again to come against England “with warlike intent”, a promise that he kept.
In 1005 Alphege succeeded Aelfric as archbishop of Canterbury and received the pallium at Rome. Meanwhile, Æthelred had proved himself unable to defeat the Danish invaders, and in 1011 the Danes overran much of southern England. Though the Danegeld tribute was paid to them, it did not prevent their pillaging and other acts of war against the English. In September of that year they besieged Canterbury and captured it through the treachery of an English archdeacon, Ælfmaer. For seven months they imprisoned Alphege with other magnates and demanded ransom. The ransom was paid for the other prisoners, but the sum demanded for the archbishop’s ransom was enormous and would have reduced his people to penury. Alphege refused to pay the ransom himself and forbade his people to do so as well. In response, the archbishop was brutally murdered, despite the efforts of the Viking commander Thorkell to save him by offering up all his possessions except his ship for Alphege’s life.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that the Danes were “much stirred against the bishop, because he would not promise them any fee, and forbade that any man should give anything for him. They were also much drunken…and took the bishop, and led him to their hustings, on the eve of the Saturday after Easter…and then they shamefully killed him. They overwhelmed him with bones and horns of oxen; and one of them smote him with an axe-iron on the head; so that he sunk downwards with the blow. And his holy blood fell on the earth, whilst his sacred soul was sent to the realm of God.”
This took place at Greenwich. Alphege was buried in St Paul’s Cathedral in London and became a national hero by his death.
When the Danish king Canute became king of England in 1016 his policy, after a short period of violence, was one of reconciliation between English and Dane. His policy found expression in the endowment of the abbey of Saint Edmund at Bury and in the translation of the body of Alphege to Canterbury in 1023. The body was interred north of the high altar, where the monks venerated it at the beginning and the end of each day. In his last sermon, Thomas Becket alluded to Alphege as Canterbury’s first martyr, and just before his death commended his cause to God and Saint Alphege.
prepared from the Oxford Dictionary of Saints
and Lesser Feasts and Fasts (1980)
O loving God, your martyr bishop Alphege of Canterbury suffered violent death when he refused to permit a ransom to be extorted from his people: Grant that all pastors of your flock may pattern themselves on the Good Shepherd, who laid down his life for the sheep; and who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The propers for the commemoration of Alphege, Archbishop of Canterbury and Martyr, as published on the Lectionary Page website.
The icon of Saint Alphege is taken from Aidan Hart’s gallery of icons and is reproduced here with his generous permission.