Friday 8 June 2012

The Translation of St Alphege (yes, again)

I've gone on about St Ælfheah rather a lot in this, his millennial year, although he is almost the definition of a niche interest! But I have one more thing to post about him, because as I mentioned the other day in reference to Anglo-Saxon river pageants, the body of St Ælfheah was carried from St Paul's down the Thames to Canterbury in 1023 in a great public ceremony that was probably almost as memorable and splendid as the Jubilee festivities we've had this week (if perhaps with fewer fireworks). That was on June 8, i.e. today, and the date was subsequently commemorated at Canterbury as the feast of Ælfheah's translation.

(You may or may not know that saints often have two feasts, the first usually the day of their death and the second the day on which their relics were 'translated' to a new shrine. The movement of relics might not sound like a big deal today, but it makes sense within the context of a world where saints' relics were considered to be both precious miracle-working possessions and physical embodiments of the community which honoured them. You often find that the feast of the saint's death focuses on the saint and how he or she lived and died, while the feast of the translation focuses on everything that came after the saint's death: the first recognition of sanctity, posthumous miracles, and especially the role of the community - the church, town, king or family - which most valued them. I hope that makes sense; if you want more, wikipedia is fairly useful on this subject).

The account of Ælfheah's translation written at Canterbury in the 1080s, by Osbern, is a fascinating text and in honour of the day I thought I'd post a bit of it. In line with what I just said, it's not really about Ælfheah at all: it's about Canterbury. Specifically, about its Archbishop, Æthelnoth (1020-1038), and its monks, and how much they love Ælfheah, and how they are the proper people to honour him and look after his tomb. It's also substantially about how great Cnut is, and I always like that.

So: after he was murdered by a Danish army at Greenwich in 1012, Ælfheah's body was buried in London at St Paul's, and he quickly began to be considered a martyr. When, some five years after his death, Cnut became king of England, the shrine of Ælfheah was an obvious potential focus of anti-Danish feeling, and Cnut apparently began to feel he ought to do something about it; by a public act of respect towards Ælfheah, he would propitiate the wrath of God - and the wrath of the English - against the Danes for the archbishop's death.

Therefore, Osbern says:

"He sent a messenger and summoned Æthelnoth, who at that time was the most important priest in the holy church of Canterbury. He was a holy, good man and much in favour with the king because he had anointed him. He came to London on Saturday the eve of Pentecost, and commanded the king who, as it happened, was getting into the bath [! an odd detail, but there were apparently public bath-houses near St Paul's Cathedral], to come to him in the church of the blessed apostle Paul and declare what he wished to have done.

"When he (Cnut) heard this, he rose up from his ablutions without delay and, wrapping merely a cloak around his naked body, he placed his feet in plain sandals and thus quickly made his way to the archbishop. He told all the soldiers of his household, who are called 'housecarls' in the language of the Danes, that some of them should incite strife at the outer gates of the city, and others, fully armed, should take possession of the bridge and the banks of the river, so that the people of London would not be able to stand in the way of those leaving with the saint's body.

"The king went into the church, embraced the archbishop and kissed him, then, as soon as the doors had been closed, cried in a voice shaking with joy: 'Behold the day which the Lord hath made: let us be glad and rejoice therein. Behold the day of which the Lord said that the treasure of the relics of Lord Ælfheah should be transferred from a guest-house to his patriarchal dwelling.'"

Osbern claims that Æthelnoth, surprised but happy, agrees. It seems more likely that in fact Æthelnoth petitioned Cnut to give permission for this translation, so he can't have been that surprised; but let's go with it...

Æthelnoth, however, has one concern: he hasn't brought enough men with him to roll away the stone from the tomb. There's only him, the king, and two Canterbury monks he had brought with him - and this stone could hardly be moved by many teams of oxen. "The idea is ridiculous," says Æthelnoth. "It must be contemplated at another time and with other forces."

But the king won't hear of it: "It will be very clear, holy father, that the holy man himself wishes to go off with us, if he makes possible of his own will that which is impossible for men. For a difficulty always manages to produce a miracle. Let your holiness therefore prostrate yourself in prayer to God; let the monks approach with confidence to open the doors of the tomb. I shall take on the role of door-keeper [ostiarius]."

The monks - Godric, later dean of Christ Church, Canterbury, and Ælfweard the Tall, who had been a follower of St Dunstan - approach the tomb (as they later told Osbern), "tore up the iron candelabrum which stood on the spot, and achieved a break in the upper structure which had been firmly attached to the wall." But, they said, "the hands of the monks had scarcely began to be raised before small stones, lumps of mortar and whatever material was on top of it, came raining down like the leaves of trees tossed by the first winds of winter. When they reached the stone cover of the exposed monument they knelt down and bent forwards upon the ground and, placing their shoulders under it, they pushed and soon easily moved it aside... The king and archbishop, struck dumb with admiration, rushed up and, with tears in their eyes, looked inside."

There they see the body of St Ælfheah, undecayed in the eleven years since his death, and Cnut exclaims, "Most holy father, sweeter than all delight, most blessed father, more precious than all the treasures of the world, have pity on this sinner of a king, lest either the first indignity or the later cruelty unjustly perpetrated on you by my kinsmen against justice and goodness, should stand to my charge."

[This is a very interesting speech for Osbern, possibly himself of Danish descent, to have put into Cnut's mouth...]

They cover the body with the shroud they've brought but Godric, seeing a part of the body remaining uncovered, runs to a nearby altar and grabs the altar cloth to use as another shroud, leaving half a pound of gold to pay for the cloth. I find that detail kind of amusing.

The two monks pick up the body and carry it on their shoulders down to the river, where a "royal longship with golden dragon prows" is waiting to meet them. Cnut jumps in and takes the body in his arms, then steers the ship - personally, himself at the helm (yes, Osbern, whatever you say) - diagonally across the river to Southwark, the Danish garrison. There the body is transferred to a cart and carried off to Canterbury, defended by a force of Danish soldiers.

As they approach the city they are welcomed by "a large crowd of Kentish folk, on horseback and on foot, men and women, old and young, each leading choirs through their ranks, striking harps, as though escorting with song the Ark of the Lord's Covenant... As for the citizens of Canterbury, when they heard that their father in life and companion in death was approaching, they rose up, like Jacob woken out of a deep sleep because of Joseph and, dissolved in tears of joy, ran to meet him. They rejoiced to see again him whose beneficence both in life and death their kinsmen had felt in so many ways.

"The monks of Christ Church rejoiced more than anyone. Preparing their church according to solemn ritual, they dressed themselves in the robes of deacons and priests. Some of them continually clashed cymbals together, others carried in their hands lamps, gospel books and bejewelled crosses; and, chanting, they marched out to meet him beyond the limits of the city."

Osbern concludes by saying: "These are the ceremonies of this feast day, this day of solemnity... And however much we all celebrate together the day of his Passion, we ought to celebrate the day of his Translation above all others. For on the former we have one sole reason for joyfulness, but on the latter we have the gift of twofold joy: on the first day we have related that he was borne up to Heaven, on the second day he was both crowned in Heaven and also given by God to us [that is, Canterbury] on Earth. Blessed be the Son of God who both crowned him in Heaven and, in answer to our prayers, granted him to us on Earth; who, with the Father and the Holy Ghost liveth and reigneth, God, world without end. Amen."

All quotations are from the translation by Rosemary Morris and Alexander Rumble, printed as an appendix to the excellent collection of essays edited by Rumble, The Reign of Cnut: King of England, Denmark and Norway (London, 1994), pp.283-315.

No comments: