Dictionary of National Biography – AElfheah

detail of a stained glass window of Saint Alphege of Winchester at the clerestory of Great Saint Mary's church, Cambridge, England, date and artist unknown; photographed by Brother Lawrence Lew, OP; swiped off his flickr site and used with permissionArticle

AElfheah (954–1012), Archbishop (Saint Alphege), also called Godwine, was born of noble parents. Against the wishes of his widowed mother, he left her and his father’s estate, and entered the monastery of Deerhurst in Gloucestershire, and there made himself the servant of all. After a while he longed for a stricter life. He left Deerhurst, and, building himself a hut at Bath, lived there as an anchorite. Many great people came to him for advice; some of them became monks and lived under his rule, and others gave him the means of supporting the new brotherhood. Florence of Worcester says that he became abbot of Bath. If it is true that Eadgar in 970 refounded the church of Bath as a convent of regulars, the new society probably owed to Ælfheah a considerable increase in its numbers. In 984 Ælfheah was made bishop of Winchester. His predecessor Æthelwold had violently driven out the canons from his church, and had put in monks in their stead. When Æthelwold died, the dispossessed clergy and the monks each tried to get a bishop appointed from their own order. Considerable difficulty arose, which was solved by a dream of Archbishop Dunstan, and by his influence Ælfheah was appointed to the bishopric. His sanctity and self-devotion as bishop are celebrated by his biographer Osbern. Dunstan seems to have had a warm regard for him.

Some of the efforts of Ælfheah for the conversion of the heathen Northmen, recorded by Osbern as made during his archiepiscopate, may be assigned to this period of his life. In 994, the Northmen, under Olaf Tryggwesson of Norway and Swend of Denmark, wintered at Southampton. While they were there, King Æthelred sent Ælfheah, the bishop of the diocese, and the ealdorman Æthelward as ambassadors to Olaf. The Norwegian king had, it seems, already received baptism in his own land from English missionaries. He went with the ambassadors to meet the English king at Andover, and there he received the rite of confirmation from Bishop Ælfheah. Another and less trustworthy account says that Olaf first embraced Christianity in England. Ælfheah may at least be said to have caused this famous convert to make a decided choice, and it is certain that the result of the embassy was a promise, which the Norwegian kept, that he would never invade England again. Osbern is therefore probably right in speaking of the hatred which the preaching of Ælfheah stirred up against him among the heathen Northmen, and this religious animosity may have been to some extent the cause of his death.

In 1006 he was made archbishop of Canterbury, and at once journeyed to Rome and obtained the pall. The one act of his primacy of which we have evidence, besides the circumstances of his death, shows that he probably had something of the statesmanlike spirit of Dunstan. The undated council of Enham was, to some extent at least, his work. It was held at a time when the Danish invasion had brought the people very low. A desire of grappling with the spiritual and material evils of the time is evident in the decrees of this council, which the two archbishops are said to have persuaded the king to hold. Its provisions against heathenism, lawlessness, and the sale of slaves, especially to heathen men, and the solemn pledge of loyalty with which the record ends, mark the ways in which the demoralisation of society was making itself felt. A kindred spirit to that of Dunstan appears in the ecclesiastical legislation of the council. Men were to live according to their profession; the stricter life was recommended, but not enforced. With these provisions are directions for the organisation and meeting of a fleet, and of the national land force. While, however, Dunstan had Eadgar to follow his counsels, Ælfheah had Æthelred for his king, and so the decrees of Enham were fruitless, and the state of the country grew ever worse.

In 1011 the large sum of 48,000 pounds was promised to the Danes to buy them off. They did not cease their ravages while the money was being raised. On 8 Sept. they appeared before Canterbury, and on the twentieth day of the siege the city was betrayed by an ecclesiastic, was taken, and burnt. The archbishop with many others was made captive, and was bound, half-starved, and otherwise ill-used. In the hope of gaining a large ransom the Danes took Ælfheah to their ships and kept him prisoner for seven months. Meanwhile the great men of the kingdom remained inactive in London, fearing, as it seems, to come forth until the promised bribe was collected and paid to the invaders. At first Ælfheah agreed to ransom himself; but he remembered the people who would have to suffer to raise the money. He repented and determined that no one should have to pay anything for his life. During his captivity he evidently spoke often on religious matters to his captors, and his words had good effect. At length, on 19 April, 1012, the day had come on which the archbishop had promised to pay his ransom. The fleet lay off Greenwich. On that day the Danes held a great feast, drinking themselves drunk with wine which they had obtained from the South. They demanded the promised ransom. Ælfheah took back his word; he was ready to die, and he would not make others pay for him. The Danes in wrath dragged him into their husting, and gathered round him ready to slay him. Thurkill, their famous leader, saw what was about to happen. He was probably one of those who had heard the archbishop speak of the christian faith and who had believed his words, for soon after this he became a christian and joined himself to the English. He hastened to the spot, and offered to give gold and silver and all that he had, save his ship, if they would spare the life of the archbishop. They would not hearken, and threw at Ælfheah the skulls of oxen, the remnants of their savage feast, and stones and wood, until he sank dying. Then one Thrum, whom Ælfheah had confirmed the day before, seeing that he still lived, to put him out of his agony struck him on the head with his axe and slew him. The deed was done in drunken frenzy, and was probably quickly regretted. For this reason, and because there were many in the host who were converts, the archbishop’s body was allowed to be reverently taken to London, and was there buried in Saint Paul’s. Eleven years after his death, Cnut caused his body to be translated with great pomp to his church at Canterbury. This translation, in which the king took part in person, was a national act, and is of some interest as illustrating the policy of Cnut towards his new subjects. The circumstances of the death of Ælfheah invested him with sanctity, and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicler, writing before the translation, speaks of the mighty works done at his tomb. His name was associated in later years with a great question affecting the national church. When Anselm visited England in 1078, Archbishop Lanfranc consulted him about those whom the English had set up for themselves as saints, and took Ælfheah, who was looked upon by his countrymen as a saint and a martyr, as an example. Lanfranc denied the right of Ælfheah to these honours. Anselm, however, asserted that he was worthy of them, because he died in the cause of justice. Lanfranc was convinced, and did devout honour to his predecessor. At his command Osbern, a monk of Canterbury, wrote lives of Ælfheah in prose and in verse. These compositions were used in the service on the day of the martyrdom of Saint Alphege, the name by which the archbishop appears in the Calendar. The prose life remains. It is a piece of hagiology rather than an historical biography. Osbern also wrote an account of the translation of the saint, which was read on the anniversary of that event. A plain and trustworthy account of the death of Ælfheah is contained in the contemporary chronicle of Thietmar, bishop of Merseburg, who states that he had his information from an Englisman named Sewald. Osbern and Florence of Worcester give many particulars of the death with the evident object of heightening the effect and proving the voluntary character of the martyrdom. They apparently depended on some common source.

MLA Citation

  • William Hunt. “AElfheah”. Dictionary of National Biography, 1885. CatholicSaints.Info. 6 April 2019. Web. 4 August 2021. <>