Thursday 19 April 2012

St Alphege

Alphege on the Chichele tomb in Canterbury Cathedral

In 1011, between 8-29 September, Canterbury was besieged by a Viking army. Archbishop Ælfheah was captured and held prisoner for seven months with the Danish fleet moored at Greenwich. Finally, on 19 April 1012, he was killed by a group of drunken Danes (according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle) who pelted him with bones and ox-heads because he refused to allow a ransom to be paid for his freedom. The violent death of the elderly archbishop came as a terrible blow to a country which had suffered years of Viking raids, especially painful because of the symbolic significance of Canterbury as the mother church of Anglo-Saxon Christianity. The Chronicle laments the archbishop's imprisonment in unusually impassioned language, saying:
Wæs ða ræpling, se ðe ær wæs heafod Angelcynnes 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.

'Then was he a captive, who had been the head of the English race and of Christianity; there wretchedness might be seen where bliss had often been seen before, in that wretched town from where there first came to us Christianity and joy before God and before the world!'

It might have seemed things could not get worse, but they did: a year later, the Danish king Svein Forkbeard mounted a successful invasion of England and forced King Æthelred into exile.

I've written about the death of St Ælfheah before - from the English perspective, from the Danish perspective, and from the perspective of St Anselm and the Canterbury monks looking back after an interval of sixty years - as well as about the return of his body to Canterbury by Cnut in 1023 (and the service at Canterbury Cathedral in 2011 commemorating the 1000th anniversary of the siege). But I've never posted about the fullest account of Ælfheah's life and death, which was written in the 1080s at Canterbury, and today I'll rectify that omission.

That account was written by Osbern, a monk of Christ Church, Canterbury, at the instigation of Lanfranc, the first post-Conquest archbishop of Canterbury. When he arrived in England as archbishop Lanfranc found himself confronted with its array of native saints, and he seems initially to have been uncertain how to treat the bunch of scantily-recorded people with unfamiliar Saxon names who were treasured saints of the English church. According to the Canterbury monk Eadmer, Ælfheah (hereafter Alphege, as he is called today by those who - like Lanfranc - find Anglo-Saxon names tricky!) was one of those whose sanctity Lanfranc doubted. Eadmer claims that Lanfranc had to be convinced by the reasoned arguments of St Anselm that Alphege was really a martyr because he died for the principle of justice. Once Lanfranc had been persuaded, he commissioned Osbern to write a verse account of Alphege's life and death which was set to music and sung in honour of the saint, as well as a prose Vita.

Osbern's Life of Alphege in a 12th-century Canterbury manuscript (BL Cotton MS Nero C VII f.46v)

Lanfranc could not have chosen a more willing hagiographer. Osbern is an interesting character in his own right, an underrated writer whose life and work bridged the gap between Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman England. Born about fifteen years before the Norman Conquest, he grew up at Canterbury and spent most of his life there, eventually becoming precentor of the monastery. He was widely respected for his musical skill - William of Malmesbury said that in his day he was the best musician in England, and he wrote two treatises on musical subjects, now lost - and his works on the Canterbury saints Dunstan and Alphege are fascinating. But he was a troublesome young monk: shortly after the Norman Conquest imported a foreign hierarchy into Canterbury, Osbern seems to have clashed with the new prior and perhaps with Lanfranc too - possibly because they didn't respect his beloved Canterbury saints as much as he would have liked - and as a punishment he was sent to the monastery of Bec, to study with St Anselm. He comes across as a rebellious young man, extremely bright but difficult and resentful of authority, and too clever for his own good. During his time at Bec Anselm wrote a letter to Lanfranc asking for indulgence for Osbern, describing his quick mind and tenacious memory, sympathising with his bouts of serious illness, and saying Osbern repented of his imprudent behaviour. It's really rather hard not to warm to him.

Osbern, in a manuscript made at Canterbury shortly after his death (BL Arundel 16, f. 2)

When Osbern returned to Canterbury, having matured a little, he wrote first the verse hymn to Alphege (which is now lost) and then prose accounts of his life and of the translation of his body from London to Canterbury during Cnut's reign. The Life is available in translation in this useful little book, and it has lots of interesting things to say about Alphege. Some historians have questioned whether anything was actually known about Alphege at Canterbury at this time, some sixty years after his death, and have therefore suggested that Osbern basically just made lots of it up. However, there is much of interest in Osbern's Life even if it doesn't accurately represent the events of 1011-12. Osbern's intense personal devotion to Canterbury's two most recent saints, Alphege and Dunstan, is not only a product of local pride but of the times in which he lived: it's no wonder that someone who had himself lived through a violent conquest, whose own life had been shaped by its aftermath, found relevance and value in writing about the Viking siege of Canterbury.

And so, this is a summary of Osbern's account of Alphege's death, based on the translation by Frances Shaw in Osbern’s Life of Alfege (London: St Paul's, 1999); quotations are from that book.

Alphege on the south front of Canterbury Cathedral

Osbern describes the beginning of the siege, telling how the city hears that the Viking fleet has arrived at the port of Sandwich when it is too late to make preparations. The archbishop is urged to flee, but refuses; he knows he will be a target for the army because he has converted many Danes to Christianity, but he won't abandon his flock. By contrast, Osbern says, many of the Kentish nobility do flee Canterbury and leave the city to its fate. On Michaelmas Day, after a twenty-day siege, the army set fire to the city and finally break in. If you had seen that terrible blaze "you would think you were looking at Nero marvelling at the fire of Rome, or Aeneas weeping at the fire of Troy", says Osbern (who had himself witnessed Canterbury in flames, in the catastrophic fire which destroyed the cathedral just after the Norman Conquest).

Alphege goes to the leaders of the Danes and appeals to them, offering himself to them in place of the people. They seize him, put him in chains, and force him to watch the burning of the cathedral and the monks being killed by the sword as they are forced out one by one. Like the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Osbern sees this moment as a powerful symbolic turning-point, the end of England's glory and the beginning of inevitable decline: "Each singly would have been calamity enough to the kingdom – either the harm done to the priest or the deadly destruction of the city – so that deprived of either glory England would never from that time on regain her former status". From remarks in his other works, it's clear that Osbern is thinking here not only of the damage done by Viking raids but of the national humiliation of the Norman Conquest; for him England's golden age was the late tenth century, and after that all was decline and loss.

Alphege is dragged out of the city and taken to the Danish fleet at Greenwich, which was under the command of Thorkell the Tall. He is kept in captivity there for seven months, until April 1012. On Easter Sunday the leaders of the army ask Alphege to pay a ransom for his freedom, and tell him to convince the king to pay them a huge sum in tribute in exchange for a peace treaty. He refuses to sell the Church's treasures for such a purpose (Osbern compares him to St Lawrence in this respect), and after his refusal the Danes begin to plan his death.

Five days later Alphege has a vision, which seems to him like an angel leading him from his prison cell out into the marshes around Greenwich. There, in the darkness, the vision suddenly disappears, and he realises it was no angel, but the devil leading him away from his fate with false hope. Alphege cries out in despair, "The prison is behind me, the river is in front of me, shadows are all about me; but their creator is at hand!" God, hearing his prayer, sends an angel to lead him back to prison, to await his martyrdom.

(This scene must be entirely Osbern's imagination, but it's wonderfully atmospheric.)

Reading for St Alphege's day in a Canterbury manuscript (BL Harley 624, f.137)

In the dawn of the following morning, the Saturday after Easter, Alphege has a vision of St Dunstan welcoming him into heaven, and saying to him, "Unconquered soldier of our Eternal King, we have come to honour you with our respect. We have been sent by him who has laid up victory for you from hatred, and has prepared an everlasting crown for you in heaven. Ah, whose company shall you enjoy after the death of the flesh? [That of] the citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem and the servants of God – if you endure patiently in your flesh your sufferings, which fall far short of Christ’s. For we have seen the manifold troubles of the city: the burning of the temple, the slaughter of her sons, the dishonour done to you in your shackles, the tortures heaped upon you – twice as many as the kindnesses you have done. Accept whatever remains gladly, fortified by God’s power! Know that the suffering of this time is no match for the glory to come, which will be revealed in you. For there will be this one day only for the punishment, but an eternal, everlasting day for the prize."

The watchmen tell the men keeping guard over the army that visions have been appearing in the prison, and people flock to Alphege in curiosity. He has been preaching to them throughout his time in captivity, and has baptised some of the Danes secretly; on Maundy Thursday, he had cured many of the plague by feeding them with consecrated bread. Enraged by his behaviour, the leaders of the army immediately pronounce sentence of death upon him. "They feared that if he lived any longer, their men would march in arms against them and they would perish more grievously at the hands of their own men than slain by men of other nations". Alphege is taken from prison to the court, borne in a cart because his feet, damaged by his shackles, are too sore to walk. The leaders of the army again demand gold from him, but he, though silent at first from exhaustion, replies at last by saying simply, "I will set before you the gold of divine wisdom".

The angered army set upon Alphege with their axe-hafts and cast stones and ox-bones at him. Under the onslaught Alphege prays for his attackers, until a Danish man whom he had previously baptised (elsewhere named as Thrum) comes running up and sees Alphege struggling on the edge of death. Compassionately, "moved by piety to an impious deed", he aims his axe at Alphege's head, and it is the fatal blow.

Alphege's capture and death, from St Alphege's church, Canterbury

The leaders of the Danes want to throw Alphege's body in the river, but those he has been teaching rise up against this and won't permit it. They say Alphege is a martyr, and the leaders agree to ask the dead man to display his miraculous power, if he really is a saint. The Danes are allowed to choose the means of this miracle, and they present an oar, cut from an ash bough; they say, "if the dawn should find this growing after it has been dipped in his blood, we too will agree that we have killed a just and holy man, and he will be yours to bury with honour". They fix the oar in the earth, and in the morning it's growing green, sprouting fresh growth. (Could there be a better symbol - presumably Osbern's own choice - for a saint who converted Vikings, and died within the Octave of Easter?) The Danes are convinced, and the body is given over to the English to be buried in London. And "a house of prayer was constructed over him, and many Princes of the Danes were baptised, reborn of water and the Spirit, and entered the heart of mother Church."

Alphege was buried at St Paul's in London. Within five years of his death the Danes, under Cnut, had conquered England, and in 1023 Cnut allowed Alphege's body to be conveyed - in a royal dragon-prowed longship, Osbern says - back to Canterbury, where he was reburied with great honour. A Viking fleet took him from Canterbury, and a Viking ship brought him back.

The siege of Canterbury and the capture of Alphege, in a 12th-century window from Canterbury Cathedral


Anonymous said...

Why is he frequently depicted carrying ?stones in his gown?

Clerk of Oxford said...

It's because he was stoned to death (according to the late-11th century narrative of his martyrdom, that is; the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle actually says he was stoned with ox-heads and bones, rather than with stones!). Martyrs are often depicted with the instrument of their martyrdom.