Saint of the Month

Saint of the month – Alphege (feast day 19 April)

Known to us as Alphege, his Saxon name was Alfheah. He was born near Bath around 953, and early in his life entered the monastery of Deerhurst as a monk, but after some years he withdrew to become an anchorite. Noted for his piety and austerity, he soon attracted a number of disciples. He came to the notice of Dunstan, who was at that time Archbishop of Canterbury, and he appointed him Abbot of Bath abbey, a community largely composed of his former disciples. In 984 he became Bishop of Winchester where he was much involved in building and enlarging that city’s churches. This was during the reign of Ethelred the Unready, a time when incursions by raiding Norsemen was a regular feature. Ethelred appears to have used Alphege as a negotiator with the Danish invaders.

In 1005 or 1006 Alphege became Archbishop of Canterbury. Meanwhile, Ethelred had proved unable to defeat or even control through the payment of Dane geld, the Danish invaders. Five years after his translation to Canterbury, the Danes overran much of southern England and laid siege to Canterbury. Owing to the treachery of an archdeacon, the Danes entered the city after three weeks and sacked it, taking Alphege prisoner. They demanded the then huge ransom of £3000 for him, but he refused to allow it to be raised, knowing the burden would fall on his tenants. The raiding party had returned to Greenwich with him and, enraged at his refusal, it was there during a drunken feast on “Saturday in the octave of Easter” (according to the Anglo-Saxon chronicle) they pelted him with ox bones and the heads of cattle. The poor man was then released from his agony by being struck on the head with the butt of an axe. It is said that the blow was an act of kindness by a Danish Christian convert. His body was removed to St Paul’s Cathedral in London where he was buried until 1023 when he was returned to Canterbury, during the reign of Cnut. Until the death of Thomas a Becket, who died, it is said praying to Alphege, close to his tomb, Alphege was the focus of pilgrimage to Canterbury, but the death of his successor eclipsed his importance.

Nevertheless, he is worthy of our remembrance for his faith and his courage. It is a pity we don’t see his like any more.

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