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Alphege
Saint & Martyr
954-1012

Early Days, Deerhurst & Bath

Alphege, or Elphege, (written as Aelfheath in Anglo-Saxon times but pronounced as it is today, namely alf edge ) was reputedly born in 954 of a noble family in the village of Weston, now a parish in the west of Bath, Somerset. While still young he renounced the world and entered the monastery at Deerhurst, near Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire, apparently against the wishes of his widowed mother. The ancient church at Deerhurst still contains features from that time and a mediaeval stained glass window depicting the saint. Alphege served as monk, and later as Abbot, at Deerhurst, but he found the life there too lax for his taste. After 8 years, seeking a life of greater seclusion and austerity, he moved back to Weston in 980 and set up a small cell on the slopes of Lansdown Hill above the village. Ordnance Survey maps mark a spot there, just below Bath Racecourse, as St Alphage’s Well.

Alphege was not to find the peace and solitude he desired, however. People of all ranks crowded to hear his words of wise and holy counsel, and Dunstan, the great reforming Archbishop of Canterbury, persuaded him to become Abbot of the nearby monastery at Bath . Although he continued to live in seclusion, he enlarged the monastery so that the brethren might share in the “common life of the dormitory and the refectory”.

Bishop of Winchester

In 984 the bishopric of Winchester became vacant and Dunstan called upon Alphege to become the new Bishop of Winchester. There he became renowned for his care of the poor and for the austerity of his life. Many of the city’s churches were rebuilt. He is recorded as giving the Minster at Winchester a mighty organ, with 400 pipes, 40 keys and 26 pairs of bellows. It required two men to play it and 70 men to work it. It was said to make a noise like thunder which could be heard miles away.

The country was being subjected to an increasing number of raids by marauding Danes. Because of the disunity of his subjects, the king, Ethelred (Aelthelred - the Unready), sought to pay off the Danes with bribes (a practice which even Alfred the Great had found expedient in earlier years). In 994 Olaf Tryggyeson of Norway came raiding along the South Coast and settled for the winter at Southampton. King Ethelred sent Alphege and Ethelward the ealdorman to visit Olaf and persuade him to call upon the king, then staying at Andover. After leaving English hostages on some of his ships, Olaf accompanied Alphege to Andover where, already a baptised Christian, he was confirmed by Alphege, the king acting as his sponsor. Receiving a gift of £16,000, he made a solemn undertaking that he would not trouble England again. Soon afterwards Olaf became King of Norway.

Archbishop of Canterbury

After 22 years at Winchester Alphege was appointed to the Archbishopric of Canterbury, becoming Primate of All England in 1005. He travelled to Rome where Pope John XVIII bestowed upon him his pallium, the narrow-banded vestment denoting the authority delegated to him by the Holy See. At Canterbury Alphege furthered the cult of St Dunstan (who had died in 988) and introduced new practices into the liturgy. He brought St Swithin’s head from Winchester as a relic.

The Danes continued their attacks against England over the years. Between 1009 and 1011 they ravaged more than 15 counties. In the last weeks of September 1011 they raided Kent with a huge army, one of their leaders being Thorkell the Tall. After a short siege, Canterbury was betrayed to them by Alfmar, the Abbott of St Augustine’s, whose life had once been saved by Alphege. The city was plundered, the cathedral burned, and Archbishop Alphege seized and taken to the Danish base at Greenwich. Many of the citizens were taken as slaves. The country was running short of money and it took until April 1012 to raise the £48,000 they demanded to leave. They insisted on a further ransom of £3000 for Alphege, however, but he refused to allow this, insisting that his people were suffering great hardships already.

Martyrdom

On the eve of the Sunday after Easter, angry at his defiance and fuelled with alcohol, the men holding him captive attacked Alphege with ox-bones. Their leader, Thorkell, tried to call them off by offering all that he had except his ship, but it is never easy to control a drunken mob and the incident got out of hand. It is said that the dying Alphege was put out of his pain by a blow from an axe wielded by a sympathetic Dane named Thrum, a recent convert to Christianity who had been baptised by Alphege. A Viking commander who had lost control of his men was not likely to feel secure thereafter, and when the Danish army left England shortly afterwards, Thorkell came over to the English side with 45 ships.

Burial and the Return to Canterbury

Alphege lay where he had fallen at Greenwich for several days on the site where the current parish church of St Alphege now stands, the Danes refusing him burial. Tradition has it that a dead stick which had been covered with his blood grew green again and started to blossom, so the Danes transported him to London where the Bishops of London and Dorchester buried him in St Paul’s Cathedral. Alphege lay at St Paul’s for eleven years and pilgrims flocked to visit him. It was reputed that many miracles were obtained by Alphege for those who asked for his intercession. In 1017 the Danish King Canute (Cnut), who had taken the English throne, married Emma, the widow of King Ethelred. Emma persuaded Canute to make amends for the cruelty inflicted by the countrymen of his Danish father, so in 1023 he took Alphege’s body back to Canterbury with great ceremony. There it was laid in a tomb by the high altar and the King’s golden crown hung above it.

In 1078 Alphege was canonised by Pope Gregory VII. The Archbishop of Canterbury at that time was Lanfranc, who considered that many of the English saints were not worthy of veneration, their worth not having been adequately proven. Initially he doubted that Alphege deserved the title "martyr," as he had not ostensibly died in defense of the Christian faith. Saint Anselm, who was later to succeed Lanfranc, disputed this, saying, "Alphege was a martyr for justice, as John the Baptist was a martyr for truth". Eventually the revised calendar of saints which Lanfranc imposed on his monks at Canterbury listed but two, Augustine and Alphege, the only pre-conquest Anglo-Saxon Archbishop. Years later, Saint Thomas Becket is said to have commended his life into Alphege’s care just before he was murdered in the cathedral. Today, St Alphege's life is celebrated each year on 19th April.

The Story of St Alphege in Stone

It is appropriate that a church in Bath should be dedicated to Saint Alphege. When Sir Giles Gilbert Scott was designing the new Catholic church of Our Lady & St Alphege in the late 1920s he commissioned the sculptor William Drinkwater Gough to carve scenes from the life of the saint into the capitals of the pillars on the south side of the nave, 20 carvings in all, as follows:

Alphege as a monk, Deerhurst, Alphege as a Hermit, Alphege the Prior, Abbot at Bath, Bath Abbey Arms, Bishop of Winchester, Arms of Winchester, Alphege confirms the Norwegian King Olaf, Archbishop of Canterbury, Arms of Canterbury, Citizens of Canterbury sold as Slaves by the Danes, Alphege is captured by the Danes, Alphege refuses to pay a ransome, Alphege is brutally murdered, Removal of the body of Alphege after burial at St Paul's, Alphege is buried at Canterbury, Alphege receives the Crown of Martyrdom, St Anselm 1093, Arms of Downside, and on a pilaster, St Alphege before the towers of Canterbury Cathedral. Some of the carvings are illustrated on the right.


Bath Abbey, built on the site of the Anglo-Saxon Abbey of Alphege's day, has a chapel dedicated to the saint.



ST ALPHEGE MILLENNIUM CELEBRATIONS 2012

In 2012 we celebrated the millennium of the martyrdom of St Alphege with both celebrations both nationally and locally here at Bath. To see details and photos of the events Click here

                   


The New Icon of St Alphege

Read below about the icon and its blessing



The Story of St Alphege in Stone
A selection of the 20 carvings by William D. Gough
at Our Lady & St Alphege, Bath




Alphege confirms Olaf at Andover



Alphege refuses to allow a ransom to be paid



Alphege is slain at Greenwich



Alphege is carried back to Canterbury



Alphege is buried at Canterbury





Solemn blessing of our new Icon of St Alphege

The solemn blessing of our new Icon of St Alphege took place at St Alphege’s Church on 19th October 2011 during the celebration of the Office of Vespers, which were sung by the choir of the Orthodox Parish of St John of Kronstadt, Bath. The preacher was Father John Crowe, former Rector of Dorchester Abbey.

The icon was given in memory of Graham Griffiths, and as a devotional focus during the year 2012, which marks the millenium of the martyrdom of St Alphege at Greenwich. Graham Griffiths was a much loved member of St Alphege's Parish who died in 2008. The icon had been created by skilled iconographer Tamara Penwell, whose children attend St John's Primary School.

Present were members of the Orthodox Parish, who meet at 48 Lyncombe Hill, including Fr Seraphim Johnson (parish priest), Fr Yves Dubois (founder priest), and Mother Sarah (who lives at the Convent of St John of Kronstadt and also works part time at the Ecumenical Chaplaincy of Bath University). The choir was conducted by Charles Hetherington. The moving ceremony was followed by refreshments in St Alphege’s Hall and a talk by the iconographer Tamara Penwell.


Fr Crowe's Sermon
"Anyone who wants to save his life will lose it: but anyone who loses his life for the sake of Christ and the gospel will save it." (Matthew 8.35)

Thank you for the privilege to preach at this special service of Vespers in preparation for next year - the thousandth anniversary of the martyrdom of St Alphege. It is a joy to be here to witness the blessing of the new icon of St Alphege so beautifully and prayerfully painted by the iconographer, Tamara Penwell.

We need to focus on the saints of the Universal Church before the schism between the Catholic Church of the West and the Churches of the East and the later disunity through the Reformation. Those saints, including St Alphege, have a special part in our joint history and can be seen as living stones on which can be built progress towards unity. It is so good that this evening we are a truly ecumenical gathering, especially having so many from the Orthodox Parish of St John of Kronstadt.

But how much do we know about the saints of that period? What is the significance of St Alphege for us today? How can we be helped by his story?

St Alphege died a martyr's death - following in the Way of Jesus Christ. He was Archbishop of Canterbury at a time when marauding Danes were raiding the coast of England - pillaging, murdering and enslaving many thousands of prisoners, demanding money for their release. Rather like the Somali pirates of modern times. After a huge army of Danes had landed in Kent in late September 1011 they seized Canterbury, plundering the city, burning the cathedral and taking many citizens prisoner. They demanded a huge sum of money for their release, promising then to leave the country peaceably. It took up until the following April to raise the ransom money.

They then insisted on a further hefty ransom for the life of Archbishop Alphege, but he refused to allow this to be done. He said that his people were suffering great hardships already. He could have saved his life, but gave himself up for the sake of his people. Shortly after Easter Alphege was beaten to death by a drunken mob of Danes at Greenwich who attacked him with ox bones.

One of the Danish commanders, Thorkell the Tall, tried to save Alphege from the mob, without success. Later Thorkell went over to the English side with 45 ships. Surely the example of Alphege dying a martyr's death, showing a Christ-like witness, was part of Thorkell's change of heart!

We can also recognize Alphege's saintliness in the example he gave through the whole of his life up to his martyrdom. As parishioners here in Bath you have a great story to share with others. The whole of his story is shown carved into the capitals of the pillars of this wonderful church down the south side of the nave. A year's celebration lies ahead with special services and events to be organized in the places where he lived. Some of those places so close by!

Alphege was born in the village of Weston just outside Bath. Later, as a young man, he joined the monastic community at Deerhurst, near Tewkesbury. Do visit Deerhurst, a quiet out of the way village even now with its Saxon church where Alphege studied, prayed and worked. Then for a few years Alphege lived a hermit's life in a cell on Landsdown above Bath before being elected as Abbot of Bath Abbey. He was not one to seek preferment and had to be persuaded to become Bishop of Winchester where he was renowned for his care of the poor and the austerity of his life. Finally he was enthroned as Archbishop of Canterbury and Primate of All England in 1004 for those last 7 years of his life in the context of almost daily fear induced by the threat of Danish invasion.

We have briefly considered his life and the manner of his death. The coming year will be an opportunity to learn more. Surely a story so relevant to today's world. God's martyrs - those who are willing to stand up for the Gospel and for peace and justice have been and will continue to be from every generation, not least our own. Witnessing to Christ even unto death happens so much in many parts of the world today.

The Archbishop of Canterbury was in Zimbabwe a short time ago during a visit to Central Africa. 10,000 Anglicans were present at an open air Eucharist unable to use their cathedral stolen from them by Mugabe supporters. Archbishop Rowan was able to confront President Mugabe and present to him a dossier of abuses and violence including murder against clergy and laity in the Anglican Church there. Such intimidation and persecution is also suffered by Catholics and other denominations when anyone speaks up for the poor and against injustice and abuse.

The story and example of St Alphege is a source of great encouragement for wise and brave Christian leadership in today's world. Thanks be to God for the faithful and loving witness of St Alphege almost 1000 years ago here in our own country - for his caring pastoral work, his holy life and brave example and especially for his own self sacrifice, dying a martyr'e death - following in the Way of his Saviour, our Lord Jesus Christ to whom with the Father and the Holy Spirit be ascribed, as is most justly due, all might, majesty and power for evermore. Amen.

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