Tuesday, 19 April 2011

The Story of Archbishop Alphege

On 19th April in 1012, the Archbishop of Canterbury was murdered by a Viking army. Archbishop Ælfheah (whose name is often modernised to Alphege) was captured when the Vikings besieged the city of Canterbury in September 1011, and kept prisoner with the Danish fleet in Greenwich until the following Easter. He refused to allow ransom to be paid for him; England had been paying Danegeld to the Viking army since 991, with little result. Angry at this refusal, the drunken army pelted him with bones and ox-heads, until one of them struck him on the head with an axe, and he was killed (a later chronicler said this was a mercy blow, from a Danish man named Thrum, whom the Archbishop had converted to Christianity during his captivity).

Naturally enough the Archbishop was considered by the English to be a martyr, and venerated as a saint. He was buried in St Paul's Cathedral, and in 1023, after the Danes' final victory, King Cnut had his relics removed to Canterbury, as an act of reparation.

I'm in an Old English mood today, so here's the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle's account of these years, with my translation. The destruction of Canterbury provoked the usually dispassionate chronicler to anguished lament:

Þa on ðissum geare betweox Natiuitas Sancte Marie 7 Sancte Michaeles mæssan hi ymbsæton Cantwareburuh, 7 hi into comon þuruh syruwrencas, forðan Ælmær hi becyrde, þe se arcebisceop Ælfeah ær generede æt his life. 7 hi þær ða genaman þone arcebisceop Ælfeah 7 Ælfweard cynges gerefan 7 Leofrune abbatissan 7 Godwine bisceop, 7 Ælfmær abbod hi leton aweg. 7 hi ðær genamon inne ealle þa gehadodan men 7 weras 7 wif, þæt wæs unasecgendlic ænigum men hu micel þæs folces wæs, 7 on þære byrig syþþan wæron swa lange swa hi woldon. 7 hi ða hæfdon þa buruh ealle asmeade, wendon him þa to scypan 7 læddon þone arcebisceop mid him. Wæs ða ræpling, se ðe ær wæs heafod Angelkynnes 7 Cristendomes. Þær man mihte ða geseon yrmðe þær man oft ær geseah blisse on þære earman byrig þanon com ærest Cristendom 7 blis for Gode 7 for worulde. 7 hi hæfdon þone arcebisceop mid him swa lange oð þæne timan þe hi hine gemartiredon.

In this year, between the Nativity of St Mary [8 September] and Michaelmas [29 September], they besieged Canterbury. They got in through trickery, because Ælmær, whose life Archbishop Ælfheah had once saved, delivered the city to them. And there they captured Archbishop Ælfheah and Ælfweard the king’s reeve, and Abbess Leofrune and Bishop Godwine, but they let Abbot Ælfmær go free. They captured all ordained people, both men and women – it was impossible for anyone to say how many people that was – and they stayed in the city afterwards as long as they chose. And when they had been through the whole city, they went to the ships and took the archbishop with them. Then was he a captive, who had been the head of the English race and of Christendom! There wretchedness might be seen where bliss had often been seen before, in that poor city from where there first came to us Christianity and joy before God and before the world. They kept the archbishop with them for a long time, until they martyred him.

Ða on þæne Sæternesdæg wearð þa se here swyðe astyred angean þone bisceop, forþam ðe he nolde him nan feoh behaten, ac he forbead þæt man nan þing wið him syllan ne moste. Wæron hi eac swyþe druncene, forðam þær wæs broht win suðan. Genamon þa ðone bisceop, læddon hine to hiora hustinge on ðone Sunnanæfen octabas Pasce , þa wæs .xiii. Kalendas Maius , 7 hine þær ða bysmorlice acwylmdon, oftorfedon mid banum 7 mid hryþera heafdum, 7 sloh hine ða an hiora mid anre æxe yre on þæt heafod, þæt mid þam dynte he nyþer asah, 7 his halige blod on þa eorðan feol, 7 his haligan sawle to Godes rice asende. 7 mon þone lichaman on mergen ferode to Lundene, 7 þa bisceopas Eadnoþ 7 Ælfun 7 seo buruhwaru hine underfengon mid ealre arwurðnysse 7 hine bebyrigdon on Sancte Paules mynstre, 7 þær nu God sutelað þæs halgan martires mihta.

On the Saturday [after Easter] the army grew very angry with the bishop because he would not promise them any money, and he forbade that anyone should pay any money for his ransom. They were very drunk, because they had wine from the south. They took the bishop and led him to their husting [their assembly] on the evening of the Sunday after Easter, the thirteenth before the calends of May. And there they shamefully killed him, pelting him with bones and with the heads of oxen, and one of them struck him on the back of the head with an iron axe. With that blow he sank to the ground, and his holy blood fell on the ground, and his holy soul rose to the kingdom of God. In the morning his body was carried to London, and the bishops Eadnoth and Ælfun and the citizens received him with great honour, and they buried him at St Paul's minster, and there God now shows the virtues of the holy martyr with miracles.

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