Friday, 19 April 2013

A Middle English Life of St Alphege

I have a special fondness for St Ælfheah, Archbishop of Canterbury, who was murdered by Vikings on this day in 1012.  Celebrating the millennial anniversary of his death last year, I posted this account of his death, written by Osbern, a monk at Canterbury, in the late eleventh century, and in the past I've also provided sources which tell the story from the English perspective, the Viking perspective, and the perspective of St Anselm and the Canterbury monks looking back after an interval of sixty years.  I only recently learned that there's also a Middle English life of Ælfheah in the South English Legendary, which adds nothing to our knowledge of Ælfheah (it's too late and derivative for that) but is an interesting addition to the picture of his later veneration at Canterbury and beyond.

It's not very long but gets somewhat monotonous, so I've only posted the end; the whole text can be found here (on Google Books, from Charlotte D’Evelyn and A. J. Mill, eds., The South English Legendary: Corpus Christi College Cambridge MS. 145 and British Museum MS. Harley 2277, with variants from Bodley MS. Ashmole 43 and British Museum MS. Cotton Julius D.ix. EETS o.s. 235 (Oxford, 1956), vol. 1, pp.148-55).

I think my favourite thing about this text - as with much Middle English hagiography - is that it gives a slightly elided form of the saint's name, so that Ælfheah becomes 'Alphe'.  This makes me want to think of him as St Alfie, and forms an addition to my list of familiar saint's names...

It begins by describing his early life, and we pick it up when he becomes Archbishop of Canterbury in 1006.  (A translation of the Middle English follows after the picture below.)

Erche bissop he was ymaked a þousand 3er ri3t
And sixe after þat oure Louerd inis moder was ali3t
And erchebissop of Kanterburi six 3er he was and more
No tonge ne may telle al is wisdom ne his lore.
So þat in þe seueþe 3er þat he þuder com
þe luþer prince of Denmarch gret poer wiþ him nom
And wende hom her into Engelond as hi dude er ilome
For Deneis and men of Engelond selde beoþ ysome.
Þo þis luþer prince and is men to Engelonde come
Hy barnde and robbede al to gronde and heiemen nome.
Þe king Aþeldred was þo king of Engelonde
So simple he was and so milde þat he nolde a3en him stonde
He was seint Edwardes broþer þat is moder wiþ outrage
Let martri for is loue to wynne him þe heritage
And he was ek seint Edwardes fader þat king was suþþe also
þat at Westmustre was ibured and in ssrine ido.
Þe king Aþeldred was so milde and so hard lif nom
Vor is broþer was aslawe for is kynedom
þat he ne tok bote lite 3eme of þe worles prute
þei me sede him of eny were he told þerof lute
Of bataile he nolde noþing do bote huld him euere stille
þeruore hadde þe Denys into Engelond hore wille.
Kyrkel was þe prince ihote þat was þo of Deneis
Hider he come wel sturneliche and bro3te lite peis
Ouer al ware he wende aboute he bro3te al to ssame
His broþer was maister of is ost Edrik was is name
He let is broþer Edrik to Kanterburi vare
And sle and robby þat hy fonde and þe stretes make bare
Ac þe men of Kanterburi somdel were iware
So þat up is owe heued hy bro3te þe meste care
Hi cudde þat hi were of herte and slowe him anon
And to gronde slowe ek al is men þat hi mi3te ofgon
So þat to Kirkel þe prince þe tiþinge sone com
þat his broþer was aslawe gret deol to him [he] nom
þo Kanterburi he wende anon and bisette þene toun faste
Te toun [men] þei hi hardi were somdel were agaste
So þat Kirkil þe luþer prince wan hom attelaste
Hore gynnes and hore stre[n]gþe also sone bineþe he caste
To no3t he brende al þen toun and to gronde þat folk slou
þe erche bissop seint Alphe sori was inou
He wende him forþ wel baldeliche in oure Louerdes name
And bad for þe selymen þat me bro3te to ssame
And propherede is owe lyf forto 3iue for hore
þo þis luþer [men] him hadde inome ioiuol hi were þeruore
Hy nome verst þis holyman and suþþe slou to gronde
His monkes and is oþer men alle þat hy fonde
þe ministre also of Kanterburi hi robbede attelaste
And suþþe hi nome þis holyman and bond him vaste
And ladde him to Grenewich and þere hi hulde him longe
Half a 3er and somdel more in prison swuþe stronge.
þreo mile it is bi este Londone þe toun of Grenewich
So longe he lay in prison þer þat he nas noman illich.
As þis holyman in prison lay as he lange hadde ido
þe Fri ni3t in þe Ester wike þe deuel com him two
Alphe he sede wel þe be[o] to þe ich am iwend
An angel ich am of heuene frame oure Louerd isend
He nis no3t ipaid he sende þe word þat þou in prison be[o]
Ac forto saue Engelond he wole þat þou fle[o]
For holiore þanne seinte Peter þou ne derset þe make no3t
þat wende out of prison as þe angel him hadde ibro3t
And sein Poul bi an cupe wende adoun also
Bi a walle þo þe Giwes to deþe him wolde do
And oure Louerd wende ek out of þe temple in hudels alone
To fleo þe deþ þo þe Giwes hene him wolde wiþ stone
Holiore þanne oure Louerd sulf inot ware þou wost be[o]
þeruore as he þe send word hanne þou most fle[o].
þis holyman iluued him and þat oure Louerd him þuder sende
And wiþ him out of prisone al bini3te wende
So þat þe deuel him ladde uorþ ouer mani a foul slade
Ouer water and ouer oþer þat al he was biwade
Ouer dich and ouer heg and ouer many a voul slo
He harlede þis holyman þat wel feble was þerto
Ac it nas no3t þe verste schame þat he haþ men ido
Nou sorwe and sor him be[o] next fram toppe to þe ho
And as wide him worþe wo as þe sonne ssineþ aday
And ich bidde 3ou for my loue ne seggeþ neuer on nay
He harlede uorþ þis selyman and mid sorwe aboute drou
Attelaste he let him stonde in a grislich water inou
He wende forþ adeuelwei me nuste war he bicom
Nou ssame habbe such a ledere þat eny godman forþ nom.
Þo þe godman it vnder3et þat it þe deuel was
He made sor and deol inou þat hit non ende nas
He wende deope into þe water Louerd he sede alas
þat me ssole in min olde lyue valle so ssenful cas
Louerd wi hastou me forsake more nou þanne biuore
þat ich ssel here al one be[o] in min olde lyf forlore
þis stronge [water] me is biuore and þe gaihol bihinde
And derkhede me is al aboute þat I ne can no wei finde
And he þat is maister of derkhede me haþ here ibro3t
Haue merci of me mi swete Louerd for i necan me helpe no3t.
þe deol þat seint Alphe made no tonge telle ne may
[Ac] oure Louerd þo3te on him 3ute ar it were day
For an angel to him com in oure Louerdes name
þou fol he sede wy wenstou mid him þat doþ þe ssame
þat haþ iheued to þe envie suþþe þou were ibore
And nouþe he þe haþ a ssame ido as he þo3te longe biuore
Ok he naþ þe no3t one of prison ibro3t
Ac haþ þe eke bitraid wiþoute þat þou ne canst þe helpe no3t
To prison go anon a3en and neuere eft out ne fle[o]
For þou sselt for þe loue of God to morwe imartred be[o].
þis godeman ri3t as it was day toward prison drou
His wardeins him hadde er imist and sori were inou
And hadde iso3t him ver and ner and suþþe þo he hom com
Hom nas noþing to biseche to bringe him hard dom
For 3ute al to is oþer wo hi leide him to gronde
And on is feble body made mony harde wonde.
To prison him bere a3en þo he nemi3te him sulf no3t go
And 3ute þere hi dude him more ssame for al is oþer wo
For a gret smoke hy made him þere of stinkinge þinge
And fondede mid al hore mi3te in angwise him bringe
Al þulke day and þulke ni3t in such angwise he lay
Forte day amorwe as in þe Saterday
As it fel in þe Ester wike þer come sein Donston
Fram heuene to þis holyman and grette him uair anon
Alphe he sede oure swete Louerd þe sende gretinge by me
And seiþ þat a noble croune he haþ 3are to þe
Beo studeuast for þis o day ssel be[o] þi day of pine
And suþþe anoþer wiþ ioie inou seel laste wiþoute fine.
As þis tweie holyemen togadere þus speke
þe bendes ware wiþ he was ibonde to no3t anon tobreke
An[d] is wonden hole were him ne bileuede no3t on.
His wardeins þo hi seie þis dradde hom sore echon
Hit was sone wide couþ þat folke faste inou
Forto se[o] þis miracle touward þe prison drou.
Þo þe maistres iseie þat folk so faste þuder eorne
Hi doutede hom þat gret poer a3en hom wolde turne
And nameliche of hore owe felawes þat iseie þis aboute
And þat þe Englisse were so aboue þat was hore meste doute
Hy nome him out of prisone and ladde him toward is deþe
Ac so feble were is fet forbonde þat he mi3te stonde vnneþe
þere fore hi caste him up a best and þoru out þe toun him ladde
þe pouere men iseie þis loude hi wope and gradde
For deol of so god holyman þat so villiche ssolde dei3e
þer was into al þe toun aboute mony a weping ei3e
Hi ladde him forþ wiþoute þe toun and dude him ssame inou
And hende him wiþ harde stones as me seinte Steuene slou
And þo he wa[s] al atte deþe and almest ymartred so
On þat was is god sone more ssame him wolde do
He smot him wiþ an ax inþe heued to gronde
þat he bileuede anon þe lif and deide in a stonde
And in þis manere ymartred was in oure Louerdes name
For þe loue of Engelond þat me bro3te so to ssame...
Nou bidde we oure louerd seint Alphe þat þus bro3te is lyf to ende
þat we mote þoru is bone to þe ioie of heuene wende.

St Alphege in 15th-century glass from All Souls, Oxford

This extract draws on my favourite part of Osbern's story about Ælfheah's death - the moment when he's lost in the marsh, and cries out: "The prison is behind me, the river is in front of me, shadows are all about me and their creator is at hand".  This is all most likely Osbern's fertile imagination (for how would anyone know what Ælfheah did and said while alone?) but this is one of Osbern's attractive qualities as a writer - he's not the most accurate or scrupulous historian, but he is fully and personally engaged with the story he tells.  (The Middle English poet, I think we can assume, is not).  Osbern deeply loved St Dunstan, and his work on Dunstan is enlivened and made real by the strength of that personal love - even though William of Malmesbury complained that he'd got the square footage of Dunstan's monastic cell wrong.  With St Ælfheah, this tale about the elderly archbishop being led out of prison by the devil, and wandering alone in the dark and shadowy marshes around enemy-occupied Greenwich, gives a remarkably dramatic, almost spine-tingling quality to the story - if being pelted with ox-bones by Vikings wasn't quite dramatic enough for you.

Here's a rough translation of this really rather dreadful poetry (I've corrected the name Kirkel to Þirkel since it's meant for Thorkell the Tall):

Archbishop he was made a thousand years, aright,
And six after our Lord within his mother did alight,
And archbishop of Canterbury six years he was and more;
No tongue may tell all his wisdom or his lore.
Then in the seventh year after he there came
The wicked prince of Denmark with great power he came
And they arrived here in England as they had often done -
For the Danes and men of England have seldom been at one.
When this wicked prince and his men to England came
They burned and robbed all to the ground and noblemen they seized.
The king Atheldred was then king of England;
So simple he was and mild that he would not against them stand.
He was brother to Saint Edward, who his mother with outrage
Had martyred for [Atheldred's] love to win him the heritage.
And he was Saint Edward's father who king was later made,
Who at Westminster was buried and in a shrine was laid.
The king Atheldred was so mild, and had hard troubles in his life
(Because his brother for his kingdom lost his life)
That he took but little thought for the world's affairs:
When he was told of any wars, he gave it little care.
With battle he would have nothing to do, but always kept still
And so the Danes in England had all their will.
Þyrkel was the prince's name who then led the Danes
Hither he came most fiercely and brought but little peace:
Everywhere he went around he brought them all to shame.
His brother was leader of his host - Edrik was his name.
He let his brother Edrik to Canterbury fare
And slay and rob all those they met and the streets make bare,
But the men of Canterbury had been made aware
So that upon the attacker's head they brought the greatest care.
They showed that they were strong of heart and slew him anon
And to the ground slew all his men that they could overcome.
Then to Þirkel the prince the tidings soon were told;
That his brother was slain caused him the greatest dole.
To Canterbury he went at once and besieged the town so fast.
The townsmen, though they hardy were, were somewhat aghast,
So that Þirkil the wicked prince defeated them at last.
Their strategies and their strength all down below he cast.
To nothing he burned up all the town and to ground the people slew.
The archbishop St Alphe was sorry when this he knew;
He went out forth most boldly in our Lord's name
And sought peace for the poor men who had been brought to shame
And offered them his own life to be given in their stead.
When these wicked men had seized him, they were joyful indeed;
They first took this holy man and then they slew to ground
His monks and his other men, all that they found.
The church of Canterbury also they robbed at the last,
And after they took this holy man and bound him fast,
And led him to Greenwich and there they held him long
Half a year and a little more in prison very strong.
Three miles to the east of London the town of Greenwich stands;
So long he lay in prison there, he was no more like a man.

As this holy man in prison lay, as he long had done,
On the Friday night in Easter week the devil to him came.
"Alphe," he said, "be thou well! I am come to thee,
An angel I am of heaven, sent by our Lord to thee.
He is not pleased, he sends thee word, that thou in prison should be
And now to save England he wishes you to flee.
For holier than St Peter to be, you should wish it not,
Who came out of prison when the angel him brought;
And St Paul in a basket escaped, too,
Over a wall when the Jews his death wanted to do;
And our Lord went out of the temple in secrecy alone
To flee death, when the Jews said they would him stone.
Holier than our Lord himself it seems you wish to be!
And so, as he has sent you word, from here you now must flee."
This holy man believed him, that our Lord him thither sent,
And with him out of prison at dead of night he went,
So that the devil led him forth through many a foul marsh...

He led far away this blessed man and with sorrow dragged him around,
At last he left him standing in a horrible watery ground.
He went forth on his wicked way, none knows where he might go;
Shame to any guide who treats a good man so!
When the good man realised that it had been the fiend
He made grief and sorrow indeed, without any end.
He went deep into the water; "Lord," he said, "alas!
That I should now, in my old age, fall in a sinful case!
Lord, why hast thou me forsaken, more now than before,
That I should be here all alone, in my old age forlorn!
This strong river is before me, and the gaolhouse behind,
And darkness is all about me, that I no way can find;
And he who is master of darkness has me here brought;
Have mercy on me, my sweet Lord, for help myself I cannot!"
The sorrow that St Alphe made no tongue tell can or may
But our Lord thought yet upon him, before that it was day:
For an angel came to him, in our Lord's name.
"Thou fool," he said, "Why didst thou go with him who dost thou shame?
Who has had envy to thee, ever since that thou wast born
And now has done such shame to thee, as he planned long before...
To prison go at once again and do not from there flee,
For thou shalt, for the love of God, tomorrow martyred be."

[He goes back to the prison, where he is further tortured.]

The next day in the morning, on the Saturday
As it fell in Easter week, St Dunstan came there
From heaven to this holy man and greeted him so fair:
"Alphe," he said, "our sweet Lord sends thee greeting by me,
And says that a noble crown he has prepared for thee.
Be steadfast, for this one day shall be thy day of pain
And then the next day of joy shall last without end."
As these two holy men together thus spoke
The fetters he was bound with, all at once they broke,
And his wounds were healed so that not one remained.

[His captors decide to kill him, afraid he is arousing public sympathy.]

They led him forth outside the town and did to him much shame
And struck him with hard stones, as St Stephen was slain;
And when he was near his death and almost martyred so
One who was his godson more shame would to him do:
He smote him with an axe in the head to the ground.
Thus he left at once this life, and died in a stound [a short while];
And in this manner martyred was in our Lord's name
For the love of England which had been brought to shame.

Some time later his body is recovered and his sanctity proved by miracles, and the Danes are punished for their misdeeds. Except for 'punished for their misdeeds' read 'they won lots of battles, conquered the country, and ruled England successfully for twenty years'. Oops, sorry - that's my love of Cnut coming through... ;) The Life tells of the removal of Alphege's remains to Canterbury (though it doesn't mention Cnut's involvement; compare Osbern's version here), and concludes:

Now pray we to our Lord St Alphe, who thus brought his life to end,
That we may through his prayers to the joy of heaven wend.

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