St Ælfheah: Canterbury’s other martyr

The notorious murder of Thomas Becket in 1170 has overshadowed that of an earlier archbishop of Canterbury, St Ælfheah, who died 1,000 years ago. Sarah Foot relates his story

The death of Aelfeah at the hands of the Danes, portrayed in a window of St Luke's church, Bath. (Photo by: MyLoupe/UIG via Getty Images)

This article was first published in the April 2012 edition of BBC History Magazine

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As Thomas Becket fell to the floor of his cathedral church in Canterbury on 29 December 1170, fatally wounded by the blows of Henry II’s four knights, he commended his soul to God and the Blessed Virgin Mary. In his last breath, he called also on the patron saints of his cathedral, among them his 11thcentury predecessor, St Ælfheah (also known as St Alphege).

Archbishop Ælfheah had also been murdered in gruesome circumstances; the Canterbury community guarded his relics, buried beside the high altar, and preserved the saint’s memory in liturgy and hagiography. Now largely displaced by Becket in the popular imagination, in his own day Ælfheah’s cult attracted much attention. His death 1,000 years ago this month (on 19 April 1012), sent shock waves through Europe and he was widely proclaimed as a martyr.

Ecclesiastical background

Ælfheah came from western England and was probably born in the mid-10th century. After living as a hermit at Deerhurst in Gloucestershire, he helped in the refounding of the abbey of Bath as a Benedictine monastic community.

A protégé of Archbishop Dunstan, Ælfheah rapidly found promotion, becoming first abbot of Bath c970, and then bishop of Winchester in 984. Ælfheah was an energetic bishop, completing impressive building works at Winchester, including the installation of a new organ so loud that people inside the cathedral had to stop their ears while the sound of the pipes could be heard across the city. But his appointment coincided with the return of Danish raiders to England after a long period of peace and he found himself caught up in national affairs as a key adviser to the young king, Æthelred (dubbed ‘the Unready’).

Vikings – Scandinavian raiders – began to attack England in the eighth century; by the 870s the raids amounted to an invasion, bringing parts of England under Danish rule. A series of military victories, notably by kings Alfred and Æthelstan, restored English authority and brought peace to the island of Britain by the mid-10th century.

The return of the Vikings

But in 980 the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reported that naval forces had attacked England on several fronts; further raids followed elsewhere so that it soon became clear that the Danes’ return posed a serious threat to the continued stability of England. These armies were led by the King of Denmark, Swein Forkbeard, and the Norwegian adventurer Olaf Tryggvason.

In 991, after the disastrous defeat of the battle of Maldon, the English first paid tribute (Danegeld) to the Danes; in 994 they handed over an even larger sum to make peace. As part of this, Olaf was baptised as a Christian and promised never to attack England again (a promise he kept). Bishop Ælfheah played a prominent role in negotiating this peace and himself performed the baptism at Andover, while King Æthelred stood as Olaf’s sponsor.

Close to the king, Ælfheah was a natural choice to succeed to the archbishopric at Canterbury when it fell vacant. He proved an active advocate of a new liturgy and of the cults of Canterbury’s saints, among them especially his former patron Dunstan, but he remained a royal advisor. Ælfheah’s influence appears in the code issued by the king at Enham in 1008, with its zealous promotion of one Christian faith and rejection of heathen practices.

Death of an archbishop

Paying Danegeld had been no guarantee of peace: in September 1011, the Danes besieged the town of Canterbury. On the 20th day of the siege they entered the city (supposedly through the treachery of the archdeacon of Canterbury) and set it on fire. Thus Canterbury fell. A 12th-century chronicler, John of Worcester, elaborates the narrative of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle listing the terrible cruelty meted out to Canterbury’s population – men, women, and babes at the breast. All accounts agree: the whole town was ransacked, the cathedral, Christ Church, was pillaged and burnt, and Archbishop Ælfheah taken prisoner.

For seven months he languished in captivity while the English tried to accumulate the tribute of £48,000 payable to the Danes at Easter 1012. As the Danish army assembled on Saturday 12 April (Easter Eve) to collect their money, the question of what to do with the captive archbishop remained unresolved. A contemporary German chronicler Thietmar of Merseburg reported that Ælfheah at first tried to buy himself out of his predicament by raising his own ransom (although in the end he failed to raise the cash), while the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle claimed that the Danes sought an additional payment of £3,000 for his life. By Thietmar’s account one of the Danes, Thorkell, realising that the archbishop could not pay, offered to provide the money himself, declaring:

“I will give to all of you with a willing heart gold and silver and all that I have here or can get by any means, except only my ship, on condition that you do not sin against the Lord’s anointed!”

Yet Ælfheah refused to allow anyone to buy his life and in that act of selflessness, he hastened his own death.

On the following Saturday (19 April), the army gathered again. By now incensed at Ælfheah’s refusal to be ransomed, they had the archbishop dragged before them. Although the Anglo-Saxon chronicler tried to excuse what happened next, explaining that the Danes were very drunk, “for wine from the south had been brought there”, he clearly thought the Danes’ behaviour shameful. The army pelted Ælfheah with bones and ox-heads (Thietmar added: stones and blocks of wood) until one of them sunk his axe into the archbishop’s head. As his blood flowed on the ground, he died. The Anglo-Saxon chronicler and Thietmar described this death as martyrdom, the chronicler stressing Ælfheah’s sanctity, while Thietmar noted that one of the raging Danes was crippled on the spot as a sign of the divine displeasure at the death of this ‘martyr of Christ’.

The cult of St Ælfheah

Sobered, apparently, by the archbishop’s death, the army carried his body the next day to London, where it was received by the bishops of London and Dorchester and buried in St Paul’s. Ælfheah’s body was only translated to Canterbury in 1023, by the Danish king, Cnut, who had finally conquered England in 1016.

Osbern of Canterbury’s later account of the translation of St Ælfheah portrayed this act as one of reparation by Cnut for the deeds done by the Danes during the wars of Æthelred’s reign. According to him, Ælfheah prophesied in his last hours that the Danes would never take root in England because of their sins; only by according honour to this native saint could Cnut consolidate his power among the English. The translation of Ælfheah’s relics fulfilled Cnut’s vow to rule England justly and so helped to secure his authority.

Whether Ælfheah did fall victim to a brutal Danish after-dinner entertainment remains uncertain, but other sources suggest that bone-throwing at meals was a Scandinavian habit, so there may be some element of truth in the narrative accounts. More importantly, all involved in the events of 1012 recognised Ælfheah to have died a martyr’s death. The promotion of his cult at Canterbury proved one means by which the conquering Danes could integrate themselves more effectively with their new English neighbours.

Sarah Foot is the regius professor of ecclesiastical history at Christ Church, Oxford. Her latest book is Æthelstan: The First King of England (Yale)

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Books: Æthelred the Unready: The Ill-Counselled King by Ann Williams (Hambledon and London, 2003); Cnut: The Danes in England in the Early Eleventh Century by MK Lawson (Longman, 1993); Osbern’s Life of Alfege by Frances Shaw (St Paul’s, London, 1999)