Saint Alphege (also spelt "Alfege") is the commonly used name for Ælfheah (954 – 19 April 1012), an Anglo-Saxon Bishop of Winchester and subsequent Archbishop of Canterbury. Noble-born, he became an anchorite before being elected abbot of Bath Abbey. His piety and sanctity led to his promotion to the episcopate, and eventually becoming archbishop. Alphege was responsible for furthering the cult of Saint Dunstan and he also encouraged learning. In 1011 St Alphege was captured by Viking raiders, and after refusing to be ransomed, was murdered in 1012. Later Alphege was regarded as a saint, and it was to Saint Alphege that Saint Thomas Becket prayed to just before he was slain.
St Alphege was born in Weston
, to a noble family, but in early life became a monk. He first entered the monastery of Deerhurst
, but then he moved to Bath
, where he became an anchorite. Eventually he was named abbot
of Bath Abbey, noted for his piety and austerity. Dunstan
's influence probably secured his election in 984 to the Bishopric of Winchester
. While bishop of Winchester, he was largely responsible for the building of a large organ that was audible over a mile away from the cathedral and said to require more than twenty-four men to operate. He also built and enlarged the city's churches. After a Viking raid in 994, a peace treaty was arranged with Olaf Tryggvason
in which not only danegeld
was paid to Olaf, but Olaf was converted to Christianity. In the treaty, Olaf also agreed to not raid or fight the English ever again. There are indications that Alphege had a hand in negotiating the treaty, and it is certain that it was Alphege that confirmed Olaf in his new faith.
In 1006, he succeeded Aelfric as Archbishop of Canterbury. He went to Rome in 1007, and was robbed while on his journey. While at Canterbury, he furthered the cult of Saint Dunstan, and he ordered the writing of the second Life of Dunstan, composed by Adelard between 1006 and 1011. As well, he introduced new practices into the liturgy. He also brought Saint Swithun's head to Canterbury with him as a relic. Alphege also was behind the recognition of Wulfsige of Sherborne as a saint by the Witenagemot in about 1012.
It was Alphege who sent Ælfric of Eynsham to Cerne Abbey to be in charge of the monastic school there. Alphege was present at the council of May 1008 where Wulfstan II, Archbishop of York preached his sermon Sermo Lupi ad Anglos or The Sermon of the Wolf to the English, which castigated the English for their moral failings and blamed those failings for the tribulations that were afflicting the country.
In 1011 the Danes once more raided into England, and from 8 September to 29 September they laid siege to Canterbury. The invaders eventually sacked the city through the treachery of a man named Ælfmaer, who had once been saved by Alphege. During the sack, Alphege was captured and kept in captivity for seven months. Captured along with him were Godwine, Bishop of Rochester, Leofrun, abbess of St Mildrith's, and the king's reeve Ælfweard. Ælfmaer, abbot of St Augustine's Abbey managed to escape. Alphege refused to allow a ransom to be paid, and he was murdered at Greenwich, Kent (now London), reputedly on the site of St Alfege's Church there, on 19 April 1012.
An account of Alphege's death appears in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
: After Alphege's capture, the cathedral at Canterbury was plundered and burned by the Danes.
St Alphege was the first Archbishop of Canterbury to die violently. Thorkell the Tall is alleged in a contemporary report to have been present and to have tried to bribe the mob with all his belongings and loot, except his ship, to spare Alphege, but the Anglo Saxon Chronicle does not mention his presence. Some sources record the final blow, with the back of an axe, as being dealt by one Thrum as an act of kindness by a Christian convert. He was buried in St Paul's Cathedral, but his body was removed by King Canute to Canterbury, with great ceremony in 1023. After Alphege's death, Thorkell the Tall was appalled at the brutality of his fellow raiders and switched sides to the English king Ethelred the Unready.
St Alphege was canonized
in the year 1078 by Pope Gregory VII
with a feast day
of 19 April. Along with Augustine of Canterbury
, Alphege was the only pre-Conquest Anglo-Saxon archbishop of Canterbury who Lanfranc kept on the calendar of saints at Canterbury. His shrine, which was neglected by Lanfranc
, was rebuilt and expanded under St Anselm of Canterbury
in the early part of the twelfth century. After the fire in Canterbury Cathedral
in 1174, Alphege's remains were placed, along with Saint Dunstan
, around the high altar, where Saint Thomas Becket
is said to have commended his life into St Alphege's care just before he was martyred. An incised paving slab to the north of the present High Altar of Canterbury Cathedral
marks the place where the medieval shrine
is believed to have stood. A Life of St. Alphege
in prose—which survives—and verse were written by a Canterbury monk named Osborn at the request of Lanfranc
A new Catholic church in Bath in 1929 was dedicated to Our Lady and St Alphege, in recognition of the fact that it was the close to the saint's birthplace. This "little gem" is by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, in Bath stone, closely following the model of the Roman basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin. Scott commissioned the sculture D.W. Gough to carve 20 scenes from the life of Alphege in the capitals of the pillars on the south side of the nave covering his time at Deerhurst, Bath, Winchester, Greenwich and Canterbury.
- The Incorruptibles, a list of Catholic saints and recognised holy persons whose bodies are reported to be incorrupt; that is, the bodies did not undergo any major decay after their burial and hence are considered to be under some form of divine protection.
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