Monk and Bishop

St. Alphege Archbishop and Martyr

Monk and Bishop

According to tradition, Alphege was born in 954 of a noble family at Weston near Bath. He entered Deerhurst Priory in Gloucestershire (then the Saxon kingdom of Hwicce) as a monk but left to live as a hermit for some years near to Bath, becoming renowned for his holiness of life and self-denial. Archbishop Dunstan called him away from his hermitage and appointed him Abbot of Bath in 976. Later he was appointed to the Diocese of Winchester, one of the foremost sees in England, and in 1006 he became Archbishop of Canterbury. He travelled to Rome to receive the pallium from Pope John XVIII.

For a brief summary of the life of Alphege click here.


The Martyrdom

No doubt Alphege would have wished to spend his years in Canterbury tending the needs of the English Church and caring for the spiritual needs of his flock. But the times were unsettled and Alphege was caught up in a period of chaos and tragedy.

In 1011, after a period of relative peace, the Danes again invaded southern England seizing Canterbury and taking Alphege prisoner. They expected him to raise a ransom for his release, as was the custom, but Alphege’s flock were already in poverty as a result of the Danegeld they had had to raise to buy off previous raids. The sum demanded for Alphege (£3,000) was an enormous amount in those days. Alphege steadfastly refused to let his people raise a ransom and he remained in prison.

On the 19th April 1012 the Danes were feasting in their camp at Greenwich by the Thames. In their drunken fury they remembered Alphege languishing in prison close by and decided to take out on him their frustration at his resistance. They started by pelting him with ox bones and stones. Then, as he was dying from his injuries, a soldier killed him with an axe blow to the head – some say it was intended to be an act of mercy.


The Cult of the Martyr

Alphege’s body was conveyed to St Paul’s, London where it was held in great reverence. When Cnut (the King of Denmark) took the English throne, as a mark of reconciliation, he allowed Alphege's remains to be translated to Canterbury Cathedral in 1023. They were buried on the north side of the High Altar opposite the shrine of St Dunstan and remained an object of pilgrimage until the Reformation.

The cult of St Alphege survived the Norman Conquest. Anselm persuaded Archbishop Lanfranc that Alphege had died for the sake of justice and that he should remain in the church calendar. He was canonised by Pope Gregory VII in 1078.


Relevance of St Alphege today

Today we honour the memory of one who suffered a cruel and unjust death in order to ensure that those who were within his care were not forced to impoverish themselves even further. We also remember him as someone who in his death was honoured not just by his own people but by those who had killed him.

Here was a Christian pastor who was so devoted to the welfare of those for whom he cared that he gave his life for them. He could easily have secured his release but he didn’t. His love for his people was such that, following Our Lord’s example, he was prepared to make the utmost sacrifice. Significantly Alphege’s sacrifice was to be remembered by Thomas Becket at the moment when he himself was about to be murdered in Canterbury Cathedral years later.

The message of Alphege’s example lives on telling us that Christians must be prepared to make heavy sacrifices for those whom they love and that such sacrifice can conquer hatred and ignorance.

“May a modern generation learn that love can conquer hate.”


The Committee is grateful to the following for permission to reproduce images on this web site:
Home Page: statue from St Alphege Solihull
St Alphege, Archbishop and Martyr: stained glass window and photograph of the site of the martyrdom from St Alfege Greenwich; pillar capitals from the church of Our Lady and St Alphege, Bath; Icon of St Alphege by Aidan Hart

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