Tag Archives: Danes

19 April: Saint Alphege, first martyr of Canterbury.

From a window in Hythe parish church.

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.

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24 March: Alfred at Heaven’s gate; Gates VII.

Alfred-jewel-ashmolean.jpg (1536×2048)
The Alfred Jewel by Mkooiman, CC BY-SA 4.0

In this extract from Chesterton’s Ballad of the White Horse, King Alfred (r 871-899) is facing defeat at the hands of pagan Vikings and the loss of his Kingdom of Wessex, England. He prayed and received a vision of Mary, mother of Jesus, ‘Our Lady’. Two more extracts follow as part of our Gates series.

          Fearfully plain the flowers grew,
          Like the child's book to read,
          Or like a friend's face seen in a glass;
          He looked; and there Our Lady was,
          She stood and stroked the tall live grass
          As a man strokes his steed.

          Her face was like an open word
          When brave men speak and choose,
          The very colours of her coat
          Were better than good news.

          She spoke not, nor turned not,
          Nor any sign she cast,
          Only she stood up straight and free,
          Between the flowers in Athelney,
          And the river running past.

          One dim ancestral jewel hung
          On his ruined armour grey,
          He rent and cast it at her feet:
          Where, after centuries, with slow feet,
          Men came from hall and school and street
          And found it where it lay.

          "Mother of God," the wanderer said,
          "I am but a common king,
          Nor will I ask what saints may ask,
          To see a secret thing.

          "The gates of heaven are fearful gates
          Worse than the gates of hell;
          Not I would break the splendours barred
          Or seek to know the thing they guard,
          Which is too good to tell.

          "But for this earth most pitiful,
          This little land I know,
          If that which is for ever is,
          Or if our hearts shall break with bliss,
          Seeing the stranger go?

          "When our last bow is broken, Queen,
          And our last javelin cast,
          Under some sad, green evening sky,
          Holding a ruined cross on high,
          Under warm westland grass to lie,
          Shall we come home at last?"

This should not be read as a chauvinist or xenophobic text: two of Alfred's generals were Mark, a Roman still living in Wessex, and the Welshman Colan. And Alfred defeats the Danish invaders, but also converts them to Christianity and comes to a peace settlement with them. But that is in the future that he cannot see. Part of Mary's answer runs:
          "I tell you naught for your comfort,
          Yea, naught for your desire,
          Save that the sky grows darker yet
          And the sea rises higher."

Suffering, despair, fear are the gate to 'home at last'. 

                                                                      Read more about the Alfred Jewel, mentioned in the 4th verse here.


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