This week we celebrate two saintly Archbishops of Canterbury, two very different men who both lived in difficult times. Today’s feast is for Alphege, a Saxon martyr who ‘smelt of his sheep’. The day after tomorrow is Anselm, a great teacher.
It was the reign of Ethelred the Unready when Alphege became Archbishop. He had retired from his monastery to become a hermit, but was needed elsewhere, in particular to seek an honourable peace with the marauding Danes. Canterbury and London are both close to the North Sea, the great open highway for the Danish Longboats, both cities vulnerable to attack.
Alphege reached a peace agreement with some of the invaders, who converted to Christianity, but another group took him captive and led him off to Greenwich, now a suburb of London on the River Thames. Here they held him to ransom, demanding money from the people of Canterbury.
The good shepherd of his sheep refused to let them pay. Stalemate ensued for some months, until his captors had a mighty ox roast with plenty of stolen alcohol, and decided to get some fun out of him if they couldn’t get any money. They stoned and beat him to death using the bones of the beasts they were feasting upon.
A short while after his martyrdom on this day in 1012, Saint Alphege’s remains were transferred to Canterbury Cathedral, near those of his predecessor, Saint Dunstan. Thomas Becket would be buried nearby.
This link explores a fascinating connection between Thomas (1120 – 1170) and his hero, Saint Alphege.