Born in 954, Alphege (Ælfheah) gave his witness in the troubled time of the second wave of Scandinavian invasion and settlement in England. After serving as a monk at Deerhurst, and then as Abbot of Bath, he became in 984, through Archbishop Dunstan’s influence, Bishop of Winchester (the capital of the English kingdom). He was instrumental in bringing the Norse King Olaf Tryggvason, only recently baptized, to King Æthelræd to make his peace and to be confirmed at Andover.
Transferred to the see of Canterbury in 1005, Alphege was captured by the Danes in 1011, along with other magnates. Ransom was paid for the other prisoners, but Alphege refused to pay the enormous ransom demanded or to allow it to be collected from his already over-burdened people. Seven months later he was brutally murdered, despite the Viking commander Thorkell’s effort to save him by offering all his possessions except his ship for the Archbishop’s life.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle relates 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. He was buried in St Paul’s Cathedral, London, and his body was translated to Canterbury in 1023.
- Adapted from Lesser Feasts and Fasts, with additions.
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 and Martyr, are published on the Lectionary Page website.