Story of St Alphege

Panels 1&2:  Canterbury falls after the siege

‘The city was surrounded and after twenty days Ælfheah sent a man to make a proposal to the Danes that they should desist and stop punishing innocent people. But the English (!) pressed upon them ‘all the more fiercely, brought siege-mantlets, built siege-towers, battered the wall with rams, hurled blazing torches and left nothing untouched.’ Fire took hold and as the citizens ran, the enemy killed them with their swords….The city was broken open: ‘Some were pierced by the sword, others devoured by the flames, yet more fell headlong from the walls. Several, shameful to say, hanged themselves through fear and so died. Mothers whose noble birth distinguished them from the rest were compelled to produce treasure which they did not have. They were dragged by the hair through all the city’s squares, and at last were thrown on the flames and died. Worst of all their cruelty raged against the young. Babies were snatched from their mother’s breast and caught on spears, or were crushed as a cart was driven over them.’  From Osbern of Canterbury Vita Sancti Elphegi

Panel 3:  Alphege is taken prisoner

‘Ælfheah ‘had been surrounded in Christ Church by a crowd of wailing monks, but suddenly he slipped out of the grasp of those holding him and escaped from the Church. Running to a place packed with corpses, he planted himself in the thick of the enemy, groaning and crying out: “Spare us, spare us; ad if you know you are men, stop persecuting innocent youngsters. It is no victory when innocent babes and sucklings are destroyed … Come, take me! To increase the Christian population I have robbed you of a great army! I have always condemned you freely for your impiety! … your anger should rage chiefly against me.”’ Ælfheah was immediately ‘grabbed by countless hands. His words were cut short even as he spoke, as he was throttled. His hand were shackled with chains, his cheeks were scratched with nails; his sides were bruised with fists and feet.’  Ælfheah was dragged to the Northgate. The prisoners ‘held under military guard, their feet strapped to boards’ protested at his imprisonment.’  From Osbern of Canterbury Vita Sancti Elphegi

Panel 4:  Alphege heals his Viking captors of plague

 ‘…the wrath of almighty God began so to rage against the murderous people, that in a short space of time two thousand of them were stricken dead with terrible suffering of their internal organs, and the remaining masses struck by a similar disease were verging on a similar death … soon they all ran to Ælfheah; they wept for their crime with albeit unwilling tears … Then came that solemn day of reconciliation, on which the Saviour entrusted the most holy mystery of his body and blood to his disciples’ and Ælfheah preached before the masses. He agreed “Just as [Christ] himself prayed to his father for those who put him on the cross, so I shall intercede for my torturers. Bring bread, so that it may be returned to you straightaway as the means of your well-being [salutarem – salvation]. When you have fed  on this and good the goodness of the health [salutis] you have wished for, you may either give solemn thanks to the Saviour or else continue blasphemers, in even greater wickedness” After calling on Christ as the creator of the world, he gave everyone bread that had been blessed by him and so freed them all from the deadly plague.  From Osbern of Canterbury Vita Sancti Elphegi

 Panels 5&6:  The evil angel visits Alphege

On the night of the fifth day of the Easter feast the devil appeared to Ælfheah in the guise of an angel and freed him from his prison. But while out on the marshes the angel vanished. Ælfheah despaired and beseeched God.

Panels 7&8:  The good angel visits Alphege

As dawn broke ‘a young man cloaked in golden splendour appeared, holding out the banners of the divine flag’. He explained that the previous angel was the work of the devil who did not want to rescue Ælfheah only seduce him from his prison and thus cheat him out of his martyrdom. The good angel led Ælfheah back to his cell….  Ælfheah saw a vision of Dunstan reaching out his hands towards him. Dunstan told him that God had “prepared an everlasting crown for [Ælfheah] in heaven … if you endure patiently in your flesh your sufferings … Know that the suffering of this time is no match for the glory to come, which will be revealed in you. For there will be this one day only for the punishment but an eternal everlasting day for the prize.” From Osbern of Canterbury Vita Sancti Elphegi

Panel 9:  Martyrdom

When he was a bow’s shot away ‘all the Council with a deep rumbling roared out these words: “Bishop, give us gold or today you will be a spectacle for all the world.” Ælfheah, clasped respectfully by the hands of his friends, at first was silent for a little while from exhaustion. Then once he had got his breath back he replied as follows: “I set before you the gold of divine wisdom. Abandon the vanity which you love, and turn your thoughts to the one true living and everlasting God… (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:  Also they were very drunk, because there was wine brought from the south. Then they seized the bishop, led him to their ‘hustings’[1] on the Saturday in the octave of Easter,[2] and then pelted him there with bones and the heads of cattle;)  Then came running up a certain man whom he had taken from the sacred spring [so someone Ælfheah had baptised]. When he saw Ælfheah struggling still longer on the edge of death, moved by piety to an impious deed, his stuck his axe in his head. At once Ælfheah came to rest in everlasting peace…’ From Osbern of Canterbury Vita Sancti Elphegi

 Panel 10:  The Oar becomes an Ash tree

To put an end of the enquirey, the Danish enemy should choose the nature of that trial of strength: “Here is an oar” they said “cut from an ash bough, entirely stripped of sap and bark. If the dawn should find this growing after it has been dipped in his blood, we too will agree that we had killed a just and holy man, and he will be yours to bury with honour. But if the wood remains in its former dry state, we shall say that out of your love for him you have made a mistake, and it will be up to us what we wish to decide about his corpse.”…  The stick which the Danes fixed in the earth in the evening, on rising in the morning they saw in full bloom.’ From Osbern of Canterbury Vita Sancti Elphegi

Panel 11:  King Canute removes Alphege’s body from St Paul’s, London, by boat

They raised the body onto their shoulders and descended the narrow streets which led to the river Thames with Cnut and Æthelnoth following. As they approached the river ‘they met a royal longship with golden dragon prows, full of armed men, come to meet the martyr. Quick as a flash, the king jumped in and, with open arms, received the martyr. Then, offering his right hand, he helped the pontiff aboard. Soon the ship had sailed from the shore with the king at the helm, steering it to the opposite bank of the river. Thus you would have seen that the great power of God showed favour to the martyr’s service, as here you would have seen the bridge and the entire banks of the river lined with armed men; over there you would have heard the pretended strife incited at the outer gates of the city; you would have espied the king steering the ship, the noble oarsmen pulling on the oars, the archbishop praying and the holy monks performing obsequies.’ From Osbern of Canterbury Vita Sancti Elphegi

Panel 12:  Alphege’s body is returned to Canterbury Cathedral

The citizens of Canterbury ran to meet Ælfheah. The monks of Christ Church rejoiced more than anyone: ‘Preparing their church according to solemn ritual, they dressed themselves in the robes of deacons and priests. Some of them continually clashed cymbals together, others carried in their hands lamps, gospel books and bejewelled crosses; and, chanting, they marched out to meet him beyond the limits of the city.’ From Osbern of Canterbury Vita Sancti Elphegi

 With thanks to Dr Hilary Powell


[1] An Old Norse word, hús-þing, ‘house-assembly, -council’.

[2] 19 April.