Lecture on St Alfege

Lecture on St Alfege by John Sabapathy, University College, London.

'His heart gripped justice with amazing strength': invasion, conversion and the martyrdom of St Alphege*'

 

A thousand years ago, Alphege, Archbishop of Canterbury, previously Bishop of Winchester, and Abbot of Bath, was held captive here by what was described as ‘an immense raiding army’ controlled by the Danish warrior Thorkell the Tall.[1] Alphege would have been quite old.[2] He was kept here with others where, a contemporary German historian tells us, ‘they were bound, in chains, in hunger and in terrible pain, following [the Vikings’] shameful custom’.[3]

Greenwich was a strategically chosen base, offering easy access up the Thames to London, south to Kent and north to East Anglia. From here Thorkell’s fleet ‘ravaged as often as they pleased’ we are told.[4] From here, in 1014, they extorted £21,000, perhaps more, from King Æthelred.[5] From here, in 1016, they positioned themselves in the aftermath of King Æthelred’s death for an assault on London.[6] A Viking war kit comprising seven battle axes, one wood axe, six spearheads, tongs and a grappling iron from precisely this time was excavated just down the river at the site of the old London Bridge.[7] Greenwich was the Viking’s foot in England’s back door ­– or at least one of them.

By January 1012 Alphege had been held captive for around three months.[8] In September he had been captured during the grim siege of Canterbury. Betrayed apparently by an archdeacon of the cathedral itself, the city was ransacked, and its population, one source claims, literally decimated.[9] Alphege was taken with all the churchmen and lay men and women, and brought here, to Greenwich.[10]

By the time they took Canterbury, the Danes had overrun enormous swathes of England south and north of the Thames, including East Anglia, Essex, Middlesex, Oxfordshire, Cambridegshire, Hertfordshire, Kent, Sussex, Surrey, Berkshire, Hampshire and Wiltshire.[11] As one chronicle of the period says,

All those disasters befell us through bad policy, in that [the Danes] were never offered tribute in time nor fought against; but when they had done most to our injury, peace and truce were made with them; and for all this truce and tribute they journeyed none the less in bands everywhere, and harried our wretched people, and plundered, and killed them.[12]

The English were getting the worst of both worlds: paying them off only appeared to encourage the Northmen; yet armed resistance had been singularly useless, despite the building of a brand new navy.[13] Five years earlier a Viking army had been paid off with £36,000 pounds, yet here they were again.[14] The Vikings ran an economy of fear and the English had very good reasons to be afraid.

~

Taking Alphege himself hostage was an extraordinary coup for the Danes.[15] As today, alongside the archbishop of York, the Archbishop of Canterbury was the most senior Christian authority in England. Agreed (if sometimes coerced) hostage-taking itself was a regular occurrence, either in the short-term during negotiations, or for the long-term.[16]But to take the Archbishop of Canterbury in these circumstances was a major blow. Senior ecclesiastical figures were not only symbolic and actual focuses for religious morale but major political figures. In 994 a joint Danish and Norwegian force of ninety-four ships which had attacked London and been repulsed carried out brutal reprisals in Essex, Kent and Hampshire.[17] The King sent Alphege – then Bishop of Winchester – as one of his lead negotiators with its leader King Olav Tryggvason of Norway.[18] As a result Olav agreed to convert to Christianity and to leave England – as indeed he did, going on to himself convert Norway and influence Iceland.[19] To be chosen for such a task Alphege must have been no political lightweight. Alphege was also involved in the governmental response in 1008-1009 to the appearance of Thorkell’s ‘immense raiding army’. Alphege and Wulfstan of York were the only two named individuals who with King Æthelred summoned a council to establish the English’s practical policies – military and spiritual ­ in response to the disasters they faced.[20]

So, thinking about the man whose captivity and martyrdom is commemorated in this church, if – perhaps – one were to imagine Rowan Williams was Foreign Secretary and held captive by an armed group which had successfully terrorized much of southern England systematically for the previous twenty years, then one might have some sense of what the Northmen had been to the English, and who it was that the Northmen had got hold of in 1011.[21]

With Alphege hostage, it was completely unclear what any satisfactory response was, making the necessity for one all the harder for Athelred’s ministers. The army was demanding two ransoms. One was for Alphege himself, for £3,000 one source says, yet Alphege ‘forbade that anything should be paid for him’. The second ransom was to leave and was for the astronomical sum of £48,000, a sum which was paid just after the 13th April, 1012, Easter.[22] 

So, a thousand years ago, Alphege had almost three months to live. The endgame, in the words of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle came like this. After Easter

the army became greatly incensed against the bishop because he would not promise them any money, but forbade that anything should be paid for him. They were also very drunk, for wine from the south had been brought there. They seized the bishop, and brought him to their assembly [hustinge] on the eve of the Sunday of the octave of Easter which was 19th April and shamefully put him to death there: they pelted him with bones and with ox-heads and one of them struck him on the head with the back of an axe, [so] that he sank down with the blow, and his holy blood fell on the ground, and so he sent his holy souls to God’s kingdom. And in the morning his body was carried to London, and the bishops Eadnoth and Ælfhun [of Dorchester and London] and the citizens received it with all reverence and buried it in St. Paul’s minster, and God now reveals there the holy martyr’s might.[23] 

~

Now, almost nothing of what I have told you comes from the greatest source for the ‘passion’ and martyrdom of Alphege: the writings of a Canterbury monk called Osbern who died around 1094, 82 years after Alphege.[24] Osbern was a devotee of one of the greatest theologians ever to sit on St Augustine’s chair at Canterbury, that is the Italian monk St Anselm. Osbern wrote lives of Canterbury’s two greatest and most recent saints, the tenth century reformer, Dunstan, and an account of Alphege’s ‘passion’, as well as an account of the 1023 ‘translation’ of his body from London to Canterbury. The only two details taken from Osbern, and which cannot be verified elsewhere, in what I’ve said are that the population of Canterbury had one in ten of its population cut down; and that Alphege’s personal ransom was £3,000.

I have deliberately excluded Osbern from my narrative so far, because while he is certainly one of the richest sources for Alphege’s life and death, he is also one whom historians have been, and are, sniffiest about. They are suspicious of Osbern in particular because, it is assumed, he wished to see Alphege’s cult elevated at Canterbury and so can be assumed to have habitually exaggerated. They are suspicious because he lived so long after the events he describes, and the tradition is an oral one of self-interested ecclesiastical communities.[25] And they are suspicious most fundamentally because of the sort of narrative he wrote – hagiography, instructive writing about holy, exemplary figures. Hagiography is a genre subject to the same genre problems as modern detective novels. Hagiographical pictures of saints – the argument runs – are as predictable as crime fiction’s hard-drinking, socially dysfunctional, domestically disastrous detectives. They conform to a pattern, and insofar as the genre sets that pattern, hagiography is an unreliable guide to the actual actions of really existing individuals.[26] Just as fictional detectives are unreliable guided to real ones, so hagiographical pictures of saints are unreliable guides to those behind the relics. So, when the Londoners protest in Osbern’s account of the ‘translation’ of Alphege’s body from St Paul’s to Canterbury in 1023, a sceptic will argue that this is so, not because it is credible that the Londoners protested, but because this is the sort of thing which happens in stories like this.[27] But we need a better method than this for dealing with such tics and tropes in hagiographical writings – even if it is simply a case by case examination. So, in fact, resistance from London to the theft/relocation of Alphege seems perfectly credible – this was the stubborn London which in 994 had been the only source of successful resistance to the assault of ninety-four Danish and Norwegian ships, in fact visiting on the Northmen ‘more harm and injury than ever they thought townsfolk would do to them’.[28] Osbern’s story seems perfectly likely. Why should Londoners acquiesce in the loss of their potent holy martyr?

Still, for a crushing view of Osbern’s Alphege more generally, one can go nowhere more authoritative than to the judgement of Sir Richard Southern, the biographer of Saint Anselm and a very great historian. Of Osbern’s Passion of St Alphege Southern said

He eked out his few facts with a great deal of imaginary discourse and rhetorical elaboration and a little unwritten tradition [...] The one thing which he makes clear is that almost nothing was known about Elphege at Canterbury except that he had been murdered by the Danes.[29]

Southern speaks for quite a few historians on this.[30] But one of the things I have wanted to show by not relying on Osbern so far is that, even if we exclude Osbern’s details, we know rather a lot about St Alphege, and we know it from reliable sources. 

How far can we rely on Osbern though? Firstly the question of testimony. Osbern died around 1094. Alphege died in 1012. Osbern says that he will

declare nothing which I have not taken either from those who saw it or from those who heard it from those who saw it, those people also likewise showing both faithfulness and authority to a very high degree.[31]

Is this possible?  Well, Osbern doesn’t say who he had spoken to. We might expect him to. Gregory the Great in his compendium of late sixth century Italian saints and wonders, makes it clear that giving your sources was an important warrant of reliability.[32] Thietmar of Merseburg’s account of Alphege’s death is quite careful to name his informant – ‘Sewald’ – about whom, admittedly, we know nothing more.[33] Gregory and Thietmar’s context is not Osbern’s though. Gregory was concerned to refute a widespread perception that sanctity had evaporated from Italy: hence his need to cite his sources. Thietmar was writing in Germany, about a distant country and his information was fallible (he confuses Alphege with another archbishop): hence Thietmar might be expected to cite his sources. Osbern was de la maison speaking à la maison sitting dans la maison. He may have thought it unnecessary to bolster his account with named sources, especially if the basic narrative of Alphege’s death was already hallowed by tradition.

But could Osbern have spoken to eye-witnesses? Alphege was not alone when he died, and others from the siege were imprisoned with him. If, say, Osbern was 50 when he died he would have been born around 1044.[34] A Canterbury monk could have been both a 20 year old contemporay of Alphege in 1010 and have been able to talk to Osbern in 1064, if this monk was about 74 (old) and Osbern about 20. But we could make Osbern older at death and therefore more likely to have talked to an older eye-witness, or younger at the time of the conversation. So it is possible, if tight, for Osbern to have spoken with eye-witnesses. It easier still to imagine that he spoke to those who knew others who had been in Canterbury during the siege and martyrdom: a generation’s distance from Alphege is little time at all.[35] It is especially notable that, while Osbern may lack some details that other sources had, there is no heavy lifting we must do to get the sources for Alfege’s life to converge. Precise details vary; the narrative does not.[36]

Alphege was a Canterbury monk. And Canterbury looked after its own. This was a period moving from oral memory to written record, and therefore well-used to the oral  transmission of evidence. So it would be quite odd for Alphege to have been completely forgotten at Canterbury in a single generation. He was not, and as we shall see it seems that there was a quite critical, informed debate about Alphege at Canterbury by the late eleventh century. It seems perfectly feasible that Osbern, in the right place, if not quite the right time, would have had access to the best people who could have furnished informed, local traditions about Alphege.

Scepticism is one of the historians most reliable defences against accusations of credulity and naivety. In the case of St Alphege, and Osbern’s writings about him, one cannot help thinking we have perhaps strapped our armour on too tightly, and should, perhaps, give Osbern’s accounts of Alphege more historical credit than we have done. We cannot absolve him of bias, but there are good circumstantial reasons for absolving him of complete ignorance.

But bias is harder. Saints generally pose problems for historians since writings dedicated to them have as their main object the propagation of that saint’s cult and are, to the disinterested historian, therefore a source of some suspicion. Yet historians are content to pillage the accounts of saints’ lives for interesting nuggets of social history, political history, details of dates and the like. I have never been able to rid myself of the unease that, in intermixing such attitudes, we often risk readings in bad faith. The central point of the writings in question ­was to demonstrate the sanctity of the saint. If, as one historian has said, ‘every saint’s life is an exercise in persuasion’, then their sanctity is what those Lives wish to be most persuasive about.[37] This though, is what we are most inclined to discard as least credible.

About the standing of those sacred claims historians are somewhat out of their depth - theology is not the historian’s usual province. There may well be no resolution to such an intractable problem, but one has to concede the problem is there. So in what follows I want to develop a number of themes implicit in what I’ve said, and at the same time to explore some of the problems of using Osbern’s accounts of Alphege.

1. Violence and the Vikings

You do not need to believe in the worst practices attributed to the Vikings, or Northmen, to accept that they were, when raiding, extremely dangerous and difficult to deal with. If, for instance, you would like to know about the very unpleasant, but quite possibly non-existant, form of Viking execution known as the blood-eagle, then you can ask afterwards.[38]

But there are plenty of less extravagant examples of political hostages; and other examples of summary executions. So in 859 the Danes

took captive Bishop Immo [of Noyen in France] along with other nobles, both clerics and laymen, and after laying waste the city, carried the prisoners off with them and slew them on the march.[39]

Ransoming though was more normal – and more pragmatic. It may even be, as one source suggests, that the offer to Alphege to ransom himself should be seen as a courtesy.[40] Perhaps this courtesy got lost in translation. Perhaps too the manner of Alphege’s death risks being lost in translation.

In Osbern’s Life the Danish leaders pass a death sentence out of anxiety that Alphege’s continued captivity is undermining morale.[41] The execution is carried out at a council (concilium), a ‘synagogue of Satan’ (synagogam Sathanae) where a final ransom demand fails to move Alphege to terms.[42] Enraged, the Danes ‘smash the man down with their axe-hafts. Then more and more crushed him with stones’.[43] Finally a man whom Alphege had baptized intervened: ‘when he saw the the man [i.e. Alphege] struggling for a long time on the edge of death, moved by impious piety, he drove his axe into his head’.[44] So here we have a stoning with stones, not bones, and an execution taking place under some formal procedural rubric, rather than a drunken free-for-all.

There are grounds for thinking that Osbern’s account of the stoning was not simply a piece of anti-Viking prejudice, but that there was a practice of using prisoners as target practice.[45] For one thing it is a feature in all the earliest texts about Alphege. There is also Scandinavian literary evidence that throwing bones at people after dinner was a custom.[46] There is even some legal evidence that in the early eleventh century it was an accepted punishment that recurrent offenders against a group’s customs could be pelted with bones.[47] And there are thirteenth century prohibitions against stoning people, with stones or bones – implying that the practice was then alive and well.[48] It is worth remembering that the benefit of stoning someone is that it is a group activity which avoids anyone getting their hands bloody. Responsibility is dispersed. It would have been a very sensible way of dealing with a unpredictable holy man whose powers the Danes were unsure of – whether pagan or Christian. No one would have wanted sole responsibility for Alphege’s death.

There are grounds then for lending more credit to Osbern’s account than we otherwise might have. Likewise with the idea that Alphege was killed at or following some sort of public Viking ceremony. Osbern’s Life of Alphege portrays his martyrdom as occurring at a concilium, a council. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle talks independently about a hustinge, the first occurrence of a word which eventually gives us our word ‘hustings’ and was used in medieval England to mean a court or tribunal.[49] Both the Danish reasoning for Alphege’s execution (impatience, worry about the effect of keeping a holy man prisoner) and the – relatively – procedural manner of the execution should carry some weight I think. The Chronicle has an assembly and bones; Osbern has a council and stones. There may be more truth in Osbern’s account than has often been credited.

2. ‘The Mixed City’

That is still to construct a picture of Viking groups which is, to us, generally negative. But a more nuanced portrait of Vikings, including individual Vikings is possible, and is indeed to be found in both Osbern’s work and Thietmar of Merseburg’s (c. 975-1018).

Firstly, ‘vikings’ as a group. ‘Viking’ itself is a nineteenth century term.[50] The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tends to speak simply of an army (here) when it speaks of the Danes. In fact it is striking that the Chronicle tends to avoid describing the here ethnically. It may return to ‘Denemarce’, but it is not ‘Danish’.[51]As historians have noted, modern authoritative translations can be quite misleading here. One eminent translator for instance repeatedly glosses the here or flotan as ‘Danish’ when the Chronicle has it as just that, an army, a fleet. More importantly, such contrasts are added specifically and therefore misleadingly just at points when a modern mentality might expect ethnic tensions to be underscored, but which an Anglo-Saxon mentality did not.[52] We are looking at opposed groups, but not always opposed ethnicities per se here.

Secondly then to individual ‘vikings’. For Alphege and his contemporaries it was more important to say to whom an army belonged, than to what ethnicity it did. Individuals mattered. The here (army) which produces Alphege’s eventual killers is not stressed by the Chronicle as a Danish one but as Thorkell’s (?urkilles here).[53] Likewise, the flotan (fleet) which cuts a swathe from Sandwich to East Anglia to Oxford to London in 1013 was not a Danish one, but King Svein Forkbeard’s (Swegen cyning mid his flotan).[54] And Svein was in fact Christian.[55]

Furthermore, at this individual level we are offered some reasonably nuanced, or implicitly complex, portrait sketches. Thietmar offers a picture of a more pacible, or at least political, Thorkell. In Thietmar’s account, Thorkell protests against the killing of Alphege, apparently because of Alphege’s holiness. There would certainly have been sensible practical reasons for counselling the Vikings not to dispose so readily of their celebrity hostage.

Osbern, as I have said, gives the other side of the coin – a picture of rational, pragmatic Danes who ultimately execute Alphege because he is playing an alien game by foreign rules, offering only folly and stumbling blocks.[56] These Danes reason that Alphege is too much of a liability to be kept alive indefinitely. And despite his negative picture of the Vikings’ ‘synagogue of Satan’ Osbern’s Danes are a complex group. One, converted by Alphege, finally dispatches the pitiable archbishop. A later, partially separate, tradition of the martyrdom corroborates Osbern’s account and gives this Dane a name, Thrum, adding to Osbern’s statement that Alphege had baptized him, by claiming that this had been done the previous day.[57] Osbern also has a splinter group of Vikings opposed to the killing.[58] The main viking leaders want to drown the body. But the ‘whole multitude of all the people which had cast away error through his [Alphege’s] teaching’ – that is Danes ­– demand the body be saved. In fact it is for these Danes that Alphege provides his first post-martyrdom miracle, ensuring that in this argument over disposing of the body, they have their way and Alphege is taken to St Paul’s.[59]

This implies – possibly surprisingly – a more textured picture of Danish and Norwegian groups; a picture which nevertheless retains a tendency towards enslavement, violence, and summary hostage execution. But if a picture of irredeemably bad, pagan Vikings is simplistic, so too is that of good, Christian Englishmen. Every element of that last description needs testing.

First Englishmen. England flickered in and out of existence in this period. The established image of a singular English kingdom unified by the Church was a description as much of things as Bede had wanted them to be in the early eighth century as of how they were, even if there was a network of bishops and Benedictine monasteries across the country. England was linguistically disunited and politically fragmented. Bede’s ecclesiastical picture of England was still very much an assertion in the late tenth century.[60] The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s stress on the regional basis on which groups acted against Vikings is important here. In 1010 as Thorkell’s army beached at Ipswich, it is the ‘East Angles’ who fled while the ‘men of Cambridgeshire’ who stood firm. Again, the army raised against Thorkell, is raised by King Æthelred, but the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle – as distinct from its modern translators – does not designate that army as invariably ‘English’.[61]

Secondly, Christian. While Osbern is clear that the Vikings were the principle agent in Alphege’s martyrdom, he is not at all clear that they bore the principle responsibility. Instead a very great deal of the writings of this period attribute the problems of the English with the Vikings to their own religious backsliding, selfishness and deceit.[62] I have already mentioned various individuals whose political and religious alignments were not straightforwardly those of their own ethnic group. The picture of the ‘majority view’ is again mixed. Late eleventh century laws against English heathen practices imply that they existed.[63] And earlier in the tenth century King Edgar, otherwise praised for his peace-making, is severely criticised by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle because

He loved evil, foreign customs, and brought too firmly heathen manners within this land, and attracted hither foreigners and enticed harmful people to this country.[64]

If this is testament to a certain group of medieval Little Englanders, then it is equally a testament to their failure to assert that view in practical ways. There was a debate about what Christian meant, and it, clearly, did not always mean English Christian, just as Bede had dramatized a particular fight to make the Christianity of England Roman not Irish. If the Danes are God’s hammer against the English this explains their presentation by Osbern, but they were also participants in the christianization of Europe, on which the English, by no means, had a simply monopoly.[65]

Thirdly and finally in this context, if one should be wary of crude simplifications about what ‘English’ or ‘Christian’ meant, one should be even more wary of presuming that in some way the English were the better sort. Christian belief, for instance, in no way precluded an English capacity for glorying in violence. A poem commemorating the 937 battle of Brunaburgh and its defeat of a group of Dublin Vikings talks of how they ‘returned  with shameful hearts’, leaving

The Land of Wessex, triumphing in war.

They left behind them corpses for the dark

Black-coated raven, horny-beaked to enjoy,

And for the eagle…/ The greedy war-hawk, and that grey wild beast

The forest wolf. Nor has there on this island

Been ever yet a greater number slain,

Killed by the edges of the sword before

This time […][66]

Nor did the blood remain on the page. On the 13th of November 1002 King Æthelred had condoned, at the very least, what has become known eponymously as the St Brice’s Day massacre: a pogrom of Danes who, the King said, ‘had sprung up in this island, like cockles among the wheat’. The resulting slaughter included the destruction of much of Oxford.[67]

~

Augustine, in his tour de force for converting educated pagans, his City of God, written after the sack of Rome in 410 by Visigoths, argued there that one cannot distinguish on earth the ultimate members of the heavenly city from those of the worldly city. The earthly city is by definition a mixed one. The events both before and after the sack of Canterbury in 1011 argue the same case. While different groups of Danes and English fought on different sides, one cannot polarize them as completely different. The proselytizing Olav Tryggvason, the quisling Ælfmær, the thoughtful Thorkell, the impiously pious Thrum: all give the lie to the idea that English and Danes were two wholly immiscible groups, incapable of adaptation, mutual comprehension or collaboration.[68]

3. Alphege’s character

Let me turn to Alphege’s character. Largely because Alphege leaves no clear trace of his own personality in writings historians have not been inclined – or able – to attribute much character to him, nor much autonomy to him as a man of learning or religion. We know St Augustine felt the cold uncommonly.[69] Our picture of Alphege by contrast is admittedly opaque.

So, first of all, can we find any warrant outside of ‘self-interested’ Anglo-Saxon sources that Alphege was thought a holy man?

Funnily enough, one small sign that he was is provided by an error about who he was. Thietmar of Merserburg, an independent and contemporaneous German source for Alphege’s death, gets Alphege’s story right and his name wrong. Thietmar calls Alphege Dunstan, a recent, holy, Archbishop of Canterbury (959-988). Dunstan though was not martyred. Now, as a German, Thietmar has no especial axe to grind for Alphege. In fact he gives, as I will say, the most critical account of Alphege’s state of mind at the time of his martyrdom. So the most critical text about Alphege takes him as holy enough to be confused with another unquestionably holy, dead, Canterbury archbishop.

If we also look at Alphege’s role as a patron of others we can find numerous, if small, pieces of evidence for some quality of holy learning. Here are four, which I take chronologically. Firstly, as patron of scholars: as Bishop of Winchester in 987, Alphege played an important role in ‘seconding’ Ælfric, one of the most learned men of his day, to a new abbey at Cerne Abbas in Dorset where he produced a body of Old English literary and religious work which was and remains of major importance.[70] Alphege was also clearly a patron of another learned and talented monk, Wulfstan of Winchester, whose Metrical Narrative of the Life of St Swithun is dedicated to Alphege.[71] Secondly and directly related was Alphege’s interest in learned ways of promoting the cult of the saints, of which these writings are some expression. This interest did not decline once at Canterbury, where he commissioned a Life of his predecessor Dunstan from a monk called Adelard at the monastery of St Peter’s, Ghent.[72] Thirdly, again at Winchester, Alphege played a crucial role in the rebuilding of the cathedral, a project begun by his predecessor as Bishop, Æthelwold, certainly himself a very significant ecclesiastical reformer.[73] But it was Alphege who completed the rebuilding of Winchester, and in so doing appears to have extended the crypts in a singularly sophisticated way. The crypts we know were very dark, the only sources of light being small windows in each of their compartments where there was an altar an relics. We are told that Alphege took

care to add hidden crypts which Daedalian wit had constructed in such a way that, should any unfamiliar visitor enter them he would not know whence he came nor how to retrace his steps.[74]

It has recently been suggested that this design was ‘conceived as a labyrinth seemingly intended to disorientate the first-time visitor […] [that disorientation] may be a metaphor for the path of the Christian’, who, lost in the dark, fumbles towards the only sources of light, namely where the altar and relics were.[75] If Alphege was responsible for such a sophisticated approach to the rebuilding of Winchester, we are dealing with a sophisticated and spiritual minded prelate. Fourthly and finally, we should not completely discount a role for Alphege in the substantive development of Anglo-Saxon law, although one can in no way prove his contribution to it. Law was very much the political ideology of its day and we know Alphege was present at the drafting of at least one of Æthelred’s law codes.[76]

In the particular context of law, and learning more generally, Alphege is objectively overshadowed by the looming presence of his co-archbishop, Wulfstan, who very clearly did have a major role in developing, drafting and revising late Anglo-Saxon laws.[77] Yet that Wulfstan was an undeniable intellectual, political, and legal force does not require that Alfege was a wholly irrelevant one. One can, and perhaps must, say no more than that. It certainly seems likely that Wulfstan should be shaken by Alphege’s martyrdom, and his thunderous rebuke to the English, the Sermon of the Wolf, owed, I think, something to the shock he had received by his co-archbishop’s murder.[78]

A final feature of Osbern’s Alphege was his concern with the public good, as opposed to the private good. So prevalent a topos is especially hard corroborate ‘independently’ of self-interested testimony. Osbern’s Alphege is continually resisting the sort of self-interestedness which sees the defence of Canterbury collapse during the siege.[79] When he is pressed to sell Canterbury’s assets to redeem himself he cites St Lawrence’s rejection of similar arguments to defend himself.[80] Eadmer presents Alphege as rejecting this option because it would despoil his own men, reducing some to beggary.[81] There are good reasons, to be sure, to suspect that these are Alpheges cannily echoing what were deemed appropriate motifs and concerns. But observing that the sentiments a politician today mouths are merely populist platitudes in no way refutes the fact that they have expressed such sentiments. Furthermore, why should not Alphege in fact have expressed such sentiments? He had seen up front the long-term success of paying off Danes or Norwegians – he had been on Olav Tryggvason’s ship in 994. He had, presumably, also seen the long-term effect of making such extraordinary payments on English resources.

This brings us to the heart of the problem with dealing with hagiography which I have mentioned – the relation between what are called topoi – the genre rules of the form – and some, more or less, credible account of a perceptible historical reality.

The problematic fact of the matter is that there is no reason why the rules of the genre should not have been so compelling that they bled from the pages of manuscripts back into reality, and influenced how individuals acted.[82] On the brink of martyrdom, Thietmar’s Alphege tells the Danes,

I am ready, prepared for everything you now dare to do to me, and by the love of Christ, that I should deserve to become an example of his servants, I am not, today, afraid.[83]

Why, having seen, read, and heard how saints do die through the course of his whole life, should Alphege not have determined to die like one? Such imitation was after all the point of Christ’s and the saints’ examples. They were intended to act as a pattern for one’s own actions. To say that behaviour is inauthentic – or even falsifiable – because we are told someone imitated another’s example risks a peculiar circularity. Scepticism is one of the historian’s most reliable defences against accusations of credulity and naivety, but blind scepticism is as damaging as blind credulity and there may be some middle way here.

4. The killing of Alphege and the debate about its meaning

I want to turn now to the most difficult, and, from the perspective of the Anglo-Saxon church, sensitive issue about Alphege: whether he deserved to be called a martyr. One historian has suggested that the only reason that Alphege was treated as a martyr was that he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.[84] Having been executed or butchered by the Danes, this line of thinking goes, it was impossible for Alphege not to be made a martyr. I am not so sure.

After all, what is very striking about eleventh century reflection on Alphege is its willingness to debate the question of Alphege’s sanctity. The willingness to do so seems a clear sign that the question could be resolved against Alphege; that such deliberation could result in a decision that Alphege was not a saint. One explanation indeed of why it took so long to produce a Life of Alphege could be such hesitancy about his martyrdom, as I will suggest.

Let me focus on three accounts of this problem. The first is commemorated at the traditional point of Alphege’s martyrdom - the inscription before the altar which every communicant member of this church walks over when they cross: ‘he who dies for justice dies for Christ’.[85] Those words were spoken some 70 years after Alphege’s death in a conversation between the then Archbishop of Canterbury, a Norman called Lanfranc, and a future archbishop, a Lombard-Savoyard called Anselm. Lanfranc was concerned that Alphege did not really deserve to be called a saint. He worried about this because Alphege had resisted the Vikings only because he did not wish to reduce his church to penury, ‘He preferred to lose his life, than to protect it in such a way’.[86]

Lanfranc was in the process of tearing up lists of English saints from being commemorated at Canterbury, probably less as an anti-English gesture, and more as a desire to assert ‘proper’ Canterbury saints against other foundations’ saints.[87] But Lanfranc wanted a second opinion. Anselm provided it.

Anselm’s logic was that he who is faithful in small things will be so much the more loyal in great things. He reasoned that Alphege had not wanted to injure his men by forcing them to pay a large fine, and was content to die for this. Since Alphege was willing to die for this small thing; how much more willing then would he have been to die for Christ if this had been the test he was put to. From this, said Anselm, ‘It is clear that his heart gripped justice with amazing strength’.[88] It was impossible for Anselm to be faithful in little things; and not to be faithful in greater things. In this way, Lanfranc, says Eadmer, was reassurred.

Other accounts focused more on changes in Alphege’s intentions. The second, Thietmar’s, presents a didactically negative picture of Alphege intially. Here the newly captive Alphege, ‘moved by human weakness […] promised [the Danes] a ransom and arranged a truce so that he could obtain it’.[89] When the deadline expires and the ransom is unforthcoming, only then does Alphege repent, ‘This is my body, which I loved excessively in this exile, I hand it over to you, guilty’.[90] This is a fallible and faulted saint; one who arrives at sanctity and martyrdom through an unedifying poverty and a trial of his own weakness of will.

The third account, Osbern’s in his Life and Passion of Alphege, is not so blunt. Alphege here converts Danes, and refuses on principle to pawn his church for his freedom. But Osbern’s Alphege is similarly tempted – explicitly by the Devil ­– who leads him out of prison then evaporates. Alphege, realising what has happened repents, ‘not bright like a bishop, but vile with shame’, and is led back to the prison by an angel in the shape of a young man.[91] 

Each of these accounts offers a different version of Alphege’s sanctity: some are more, some are less comforting, from a Christian believer’s perspective. But what is interesting is that all record some sort of a debate; some anxiety, some uncertainty either on the part of Alphege or about him. It is to these texts’, and their authors’, credit ­that they did not seek to flatten their presentation of Alfege, even in the case of Osbern, his most ardent advocate.[92]

5. The politics of St Alphege

I want to talk a little about the politics of St Alphege now; not his own politics, but the politics made of his cult after his death. Saints and martyrs exist to be used by their devotees; but they have little control over the terms of that use once dead. We tend to think of saints as means for bringing members of communities together. But the bodies of saints were, quite literally, holy capital, and, like other forms of capital, their bodies were often a source of conflict. When Alphege, for instance, came from Winchester to Canterbury he took his own (illicit?) memento of Winchester’s cult of St Swithun – Swithun’s head.[93]

Now the competition for the body of a saint could get vicious. In the case of the Anglo-Saxon Saint Mildred, both St Gregory’s Canterbury and St Augustine’s Canterbury claimed her body in the late eleventh century and we can still read the bitter polemic the monk Goscelin of St Augustine’s wrote against St Gregory’s claims.[94]

Who owned a saint mattered therefore, and there were three things, three legs to the tripod of any saint’s cult which one historian suggests were absolutely necessary, if not sufficient, elements of any successful cult.[95] You needed firstly the X and Y coordinates to map a saint: that is a name, and a birthday, a dies natalis, which is of course, in fact the saint’s death day. We have no idea when Alphege was born, but we know very specifically when he died. This is in a period when very few birthdays proper are known even for kings. Secondly, you needed bones. No cult without relics, so no saint without bones. Where and who owns the bones of a saint therefore becomes a pressing issue. Thirdly you needed a story to make the bones move. You need a hagiographical account, a ‘Life’. In the case of Alphege we have both an account of his life and ‘passion’, and an account of the translation of his bones ­– again indicating how important the location of the saint’s relics were.[96]

The odd thing is that for about 70 years after his death, when it was freshest in the minds of the English, Alphege lacked the crucial final leg of his tripod: a life. Why? Well, firstly, it was in only in 1016 that Alphege was properly replaced as Archbishop. The lack of a leader at Canterbury cannot have strengthened Alphege’s cult. Secondly, by that time, there was a new Danish King, Cnut. Alphege must have been an embarassment to Cnut. It was Danes after all that had killed Alphege. This perhaps also explains why we have no ‘Alphege’s Saga’, even though his cult does appear modestly in Scandinavian sources.[97] Cnut would have had reason to take further against the cult since the shrine at St Paul’s seems  to have become a focus for anti-Danish sentiment in London.[98] Thirdly, because of this, Alphege’s body was in the ‘wrong place’ to encourage its most obvious official patrons – Canterbury. St Paul’s had Alphege’s body, but he had not died there; nor did he any meaningful London connection. Yet, as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle remarked, it was ‘there that God now shows this holy martyr’s might’.[99] There were a sequence of ironies here. Alphege’s own see which might have done most to promote his cult didn’t have his bones; the see which did have them had nothing really to do with him; and the place where he had died was in the middle of nowhere. Two of the three legs of Alphege’s cult were jammed against each other, bones and Life. I could add a fourth, speculative, reason for the absence of a Life earlier on: that the arguably ambivalent circumstances of Alphege’s martyrdom meant that some concerted effort was needed to overcome the doubts concerning Alphege’s holy standing; effort which the three factors described above thwarted, at least until 1023.[100]

In 1023 however, Cnut judged that this if you can’t beat them join them. According to Osbern, in secret and under military guard, Cnut had Alphege’s body removed to Canterbury, implicitly using as a dupe the then Archbishop, Æthelnoth.[101] This fact that Canterbury doesn’t come out especially well in Osbern’s version of Alphege’s translation is an argument in favour of Osbern’s account.[102] But it is important to undersand that this written account of Alphege’s translation is just as much an act of appropriation as the actual relocation of the body seems to have been. By both acts Canterbury took Alphege from St Paul’s.

Strictly speaking Canterbury had had nothing to do with Alphege’s martyrdom. That belonged first to the marsh at Greenwich and then to St Paul’s. I have just quoted the Anglo Saxon Chronicle’s identification of St Paul’s as the site, and therefore source, of Alphege’s holy power. Osbern (and Canterbury) would have been, I think, quite sensitive about this. The existence of both the actual and the written translation is evidence of that. In the Translation Osbern quite pointedly has Cnut say that the ‘treasure’ of Alphege ‘should be transferred from a guest-house to his own patriarchal home’.[103] It is also quite striking that in his Life and Passion narrative, Osbern never makes it completely plain that the captured Alphege has been taken away completely from Canterbury. Greenwich is not mentioned, and we only hear of a ‘camp’.[104] Our only topographical clue in Osbern’s Life and Passion is that when the Devil tempts Alphege out of prison they ‘forded huge silt-lands of waters all through the deep shadows of night’, and that when Alphege finally comes to his senses it is ‘in the middle of the marshes’.[105] It may well be likely that a cult developed here early on after Alphege’s death, but there is simply no evidence until the twelfth century.[106] So, it was clearly felt, even after Osbern had written his account of Alphege’s martyrdom, that some additional text was needed to boost further Canterbury’s role in its archbishop’s life and death. It is no accident that Osbern closes his Translation by talking about how Alphege was brought from ‘alien soil’ back to his own.[107] The question of whose saint Alphege was needed to be definitively answered in Canterbury’s favour.[108] Alphege’s translation and Osbern’s Translatio were two crucial elements of that.

­~

Alphege remained a significant presence at Canterbury. On Christmas Day 1170, days before another Canterbury Archbishop found himself martyred Thomas Becket placed particular stress on Alphege, Canterbury’s one martyr saint during the service.[109] ‘Soon there will be another martyr’, he is supposed to have said.[110] Certainly, it was at Canterbury’s high altar, between the altars of two saints, two predecessors, Dunstan and Alphege, that Becket’s body was laid the night of the murder.[111]

Nor did Becket’s martyrdom eclipse Canterbury’s memory of its two other greatest recent saints.[112] During the rebuilding works of the 1180s, complex new stained glass cycles of both Dunstan and Alphege were laid out. Dunstan perhaps had two panels; Alphege one. Three of the images of Alphege’s story survive: of the siege of Canterbury; of Alphege offering himself up as a sacrifice during the siege in a vain attempt to halt the slaughter; and finally of Alphege led in chains onto a Viking ship.[113]

6. Alphege as a human saint

I want to close by making a few comments about Alphege as a saint and a man, perhaps of a sort that historians today seldom make, but which this setting permits and, perhaps, demands.

All history is an exercise of looking through a glass darkly, and perhaps no cases are more problematic than those which involve claims of sanctity. All sanctity is disturbing but how it is disturbing varies – and varies, no doubt, in the eye of the beholder. Different societies conceive, read and re-receive their saints in different ways.[114]

I have wanted to argue that as difficult, fragmentary, and partial as they are, the texts referring to St Alphege perhaps allow us to sketch a picture of a saint with less scepticism than has been the case for many historians.

Alphege’s sanctity appears a profoundly human one. There is little that is grandiloquently, heroic; little that is self-aggrandizing about it. To be battered to death under a hail of chewed ox-bones is not an elevated way to die. Furthermore, depending on which of the accounts you give most credence to, Alphege’s response faced with execution was an entirely human one. Both Osbern and Thietmar dramatize a very recognizable, and – it seems to me – a very credible and fallible struggle with the prospect of execution.

These texts refuse to comfort readers with any easy picture of martyrdom – if such a thing exists. The credibility of Alphege’s own doubt in the face of death reflects favourably on the seriousness of eleventh century thought about Alphege’s martyrdom. It gave Lanfranc and Anselm pause for thought at Canterbury, and it can give pause for thought today. It is precisely in its human lack of elevation that Alphege may be humanely instructive – if he is to remain instructive.

 

John Sabapathy

University College, London


Further Reading

Below I give the bibliography for this essay. Endnote references below are summary, full references can be found in the bibliography. Anyone interested in the period will be more generally interested in James Campbell (ed.) The Anglo-Saxons (London, 1982, repr. 1991) and Nicholas Vincent, A Brief History of Britain 1066-1485 (London, 2011), who begins his exceptionally well-told narrative with this period. There are now a great many translations of key sources for this period, including several versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, translations of Osbern’s Life and Passion and Translation of Alphege; Eadmer’s lives of Anselm, Oda, Oswald and Dunstan; several other early lives of Dunstan and numerous later histories covering the period (e.g. John of Worcester, formerly ‘Florence of Worcester’, Henry of Huntingdon, William of Malmesbury etc). Many of these can be found translated in the indispensible Oxford Medieval Texts series. As a compendium of the full range of sources ranging all across this period Dorothy Whitelock’s English Historical Documents I, c. 500-1042, 2nd ed. (London, 1979) remains invaluable. Cambridge and King’s College London’s Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England database (http://www.pase.ac.uk) is an exhaustive resource for delving into the detail of individuals in this period, as is the (online and printed) Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (http://www.oxforddnb.com). All references to the latter here are from the online version.

Copies of Osbern’s writings on Alphege are in British Library, Cotton MSS Otho A. xii, Vitellius D. xvii, Nero C. vii, Tiberius D. iii; Harley MS 624; Lambeth Palace MS 159 and Bibliothèque Nationale de France, latin MS 2475. There is no modern critical edition of Osbern’s Life and Passion and I have relied on the Anglia sacra edition.

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Endnotes

 



[1] Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, tr. Whitelock, p. 89 for 1009, se ungemætlica unfriðhere in the Old English (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. A Collaborative Edition. Volume 5. MS. C, ed. O’Brien O’Keeffe, p. 93 for 1009)Here (army, host) is a frequent Anglo-Saxon synonym for raiding (Danish) groups. On naming, and ‘othering’ Vikings see Janet L. Nelson, ‘England and the Continent in the Ninth Century: II, the Vikings and Others’, pp. 1-12, esp. at 5ff. See also comment below. On Thorkell, see Richard Abels, ‘Thorkell the Tall , earl of East Anglia (fl. 1009–1023)’.

[2] Extrapolating from Brooks, Early History of the Church at Canterbury, p. 279, 383-384 n. 65. Alphege attested charters from 970 as Abbot of Bath. For a general biography of Alfege see Henrietta Leyser, ‘Ælfheah (d. 1012)’ and ‘Alphege’, in Farmer, Oxford Dictionary of Saints, pp. 13-14. Farmer gives his birth as 953. For Alphege’s early years, see Byrthferth of Ramsey, Lives of St Oswald and St Ecgwine ed./tr. Michael Lapidge, p. 113, n. 77. The most complete set of references for Alphege can now be found by searching for ‘Ælfheah’ in the online Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England database, at http://www.pase.ac.uk, where this Alphege is ‘Ælfheah 44’. I use Anglo-Saxon name spellings, with the exception of Alphege, since that is the spelling which his church retains.

[3] ‘vinculis et inedia ac ineffabili poena more suo nefando constringerent’, Thietmar, Chronicon, 7.42 ed. Holtzmann, p. 448.

[4] Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, tr. Whitelock, p. 93 for 1013.

[5] Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, tr. Whitelock, p. 93 for 1014. John of Worcester for 1014 has £30,000 (John of Worcester, Chronicle, 2, p. 478). John of Worcester is a later chronicler (fl. 1095-1140), but that is no disproof per se of his reliability. For an interesting discussion of the problem of using later chroniclers’ otherwise unsubstantiated detail for earlier periods see Whitelock, ‘Fact and Fiction in the Legend of St. Edmund’, pp. 223-233.

[6] Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, tr. Whitelock p. 95 for 1016.

[7]Mortimer-Wheeler, London and the Vikings, pp. 18-21, putting the find to c. 1000.

[8] Going from Michaelmas, 29th September 1011, the terminus ad quem for the siege of Canterbury, see Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, tr. Whitelock p. 91 for 1011. John of Worcester has Alphege imprisoned for a total of seven months (John of Worcester, Chronicle, 2, p. 470), as does Osbern in the Vita S. Alphegi, Anglia sacra, 2, p. 137.

[9] The decimation is alleged in John of Worcester, Chronicle, 2, p. 468, who also specifies that Ælfmær was an archdeacon, and that Alphege ‘sent him away beforehand, lest he be given up to be killed’ (‘ne morti traderetur prius eripuit’). The decimation claim is neat enough to be suspect. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle mentions Ælfmær as a traitor but not these other details (tr. Whitelock p. 91 for 1011). Osbern does mention the high political treachery of Eadric Streona, but the immediate fall of Canterbury is down not to a quisling, but Danish fire and violence. The decimation claim probably originates with Osbern (Vita S. Alphegi, Anglia sacra, 2, p. 132-137). One significance of Thietmar’s account is that it does not mention the 1023 translation so can be presumed to predate it (Thietmar, Chronicon. 7.42 ed. Holtzmann, p. 448-451).

[10] Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, tr. Whitelock p. 91 for 1011. Neither the Chronicle, nor John of Worcester, nor Osbern names Greenwich, but the other Anglo-Saxon Chronicle references naming Greenwich, as well as the later tradition of Greenwich as the site of the martyrdom, make this surmise sensible. See also below for comments on the marsh where Alphege is imprisoned in Osbern’s Life.

[11] Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, tr. Whitelock p. 91 for 1011.

[12] Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, tr. Whitelock p. 91 for 1011, my emphasis.

[13] Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, tr. Whitelock pp. 88-89 for 1008-1009.

[14] Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, tr. Whitelock p. 88 for 1007. This figure belongs to the ‘C’ version of the Chronicle; versions ‘E’ and ‘F’ have £30,000. There are eight extant versions of the Chronicle, of varying dates designated by scholars by the letters A-H. Whitelock’s translation is a composite of them, noting variations and divergences. 

[15] Cf Smyth, ‘Effect of Scandinavian Raiders’, pp. 22-4.

[16]E.g. hostages were given during Alfege’s negotiations in 994 (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, tr. Whitelock p. 83 for 994, ‘C’, ‘D’, ‘E’). See in general Kosto, ‘Hostages in the Carolingian World’ and Lavelle, ‘The Use and Abuse of Hostages in Later Anglo-Saxon England’. Kosto has a book forthcoming on this subject.

[17] Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, tr. Whitelock p. 83 for 994.

[18] Anglo-Saxon Chronicle ‘A’ implies this rapprochement occurs soon after the 991 Battle of Maldon. ‘C’, ‘D’, ‘E’ put the rapprochement clearly in 994. See Whitelock ed. p. 82.

[19] On Olav see Winroth, Conversion of Scandinavia, pp. 115-116, 122-128, 155. Winroth’s basic thesis (see pp. 5-11) reasserts Scandinavian agency over the process of their conversion to Christianity. Winroth therefore rejects earlier arguments (such as Robert Bartlett’s in The Making of Europe) taking Scandinavians as the objects of an imposed Europeanization, partly expressed through conversion.

[20] See the lawcode known as ‘Æthelred VI’ (Latin), ed. in Councils and Synods, I.i pp. 362-373 at 362. See also ‘Æthelred V’, ‘Æthelred VIIa’, ‘Æthelred VII’ and Wormald, Making of English Law, pp. 330-35; Keynes, ‘An Abbot, an Archbishop, and the Viking Raids’, pp. 177-179. The business of dating the laws is exceptionally complex.

[21] I follow here Simon Keynes’s general interpretation of the seriousness of the Danish threat in this period. See Keynes, ‘An Abbot, an Archbishop, and the Viking Raids of 1006-7 and 1009-12’.

[22] The quotation is from Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, ‘C’ tr. Whitelock, p. 91 for 1012 which also gives the £48,000. ‘E’ and ‘F’ have the considerably lower £8,000. The £3,000 is from John of Worcester, Chronicle, 2, p. 470. Osbern also specifies £3,000 although in talents and pounds (Vita S. Alphegi, Anglia sacra, 2, p. 138).

[23] Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, tr. Whitelock, pp. 91-2 for 1012, slightly adapted. Old English text for ‘C’ at Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. A Collaborative Edition. Volume 5. MS. C, ed. O’Brien O’Keeffe, pp. 96-97. Note that this account, like Thietmar’s, predates Alphege’s translation to Canterbury in 1023.

[24] On Osbern, see J. C. Rubenstein, ‘Osbern (d. 1094?)’. It is notable that some important details are corroborated or only provided in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, John of Worcester or Thietmar. These include, the Danes’ drunkeness during Alphege’s killing, the statement that he was killed with bones and ox-heads (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, tr. Whitelock pp. 91-92 for 1012; Thietmar, Chronicon, 7.42 ed. Holtzmann, p. 450) or that it was the just-converted Dane, named Thrum, who out of pity dispatched the broken Alphege by cracking his head open with an axe (John of Worcester, Chronicle, 2, p. 470). I comment on this further below.

[25]E.g. Rubenstein, ‘Life and Writings of Osbern’, pp. 35-36.

[26]Cf. Rubenstein, ‘Life and Writings of Osbern’, pp. 36-37.

[27]‘Translatio Sancti Ælfegi Cantuariensis archiepiscopi et martiris’, ed. Rumble, pp. 287-288; Hayward, ‘Translation Narratives in Post-Conquest Hagiography’, p. 71, where it is ‘the topos which has been most obviously intruded by Osbern’ (into his account). But it would be more surprising if the Londoners were not aggrieved at the peremptory removal of a recent, potent source of sacred power. Rumble likewise cites other hagiographical narratives where the translation of saints’ relics provokes resistance, arguing that the topos therefore undermines Osbern’s account. This seems to me to miss the wood for the trees – if there was no resistance Osbern could have given a less ambiguous narrative in which the Londoners too celebrated the return of Alphege to his ancestral home; Canterbury would have come out better.

[28] Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, tr. Whitelock, p. 83 for 994 lightly adapted; Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. A Collaborative Edition. Volume 5. MS. C, ed. O’Brien O’Keeffe, p. 87 for 994, ‘maran hearm ? yfel þonne hi æfre wendon þæt him ænig buruhwaru gedon sceolde’.

[29] Southern, St Anselm and His Biographer, p. 250.

[30]E.g. Rubenstein, ‘Life and writings of Osbern’; Hayward, ‘Translation Narratives in Post-Conquest Hagiography’, both passim.

[31] ‘ut nulla me […] dicturum profitear, quae non aut ab iis qui viderunt, aut a videntibus audierunt, acceperim, et eis fide simul et auctoritate plurimum praestantibus’, Osbern, ‘Vita S. Alphegi’, Anglia sacra, 2, p. 122.

[32]Dialogi, I. Prol. 7-10, esp. 10. ed. de Vogüé, 2, pp. 14-18.

[33]Thietmar, Chronicon, 7.42 ed. Holtzmann, p. 448. He is implicitly the source of earlier English information, p. 446.

[34]Southern does not gauge Osbern’s age other than to say he was ‘of mature age in the community’ (Saint Anselm and his Biographer, p. 248) at 1070 when Lanfranc becomes archbishop. Say if Osbern was 30 then, this would put him as being born in 1040, only 30 years from the martyrdom.

[35]Cf. Whitelock on late ninth and late tenth century accounts of the 869 martyrdom of Edmund. Abbo claimed his 985 x 987 account was based on eyewitness testimony. As Whitelock said, ‘It is possible for two memories to cover some 116  years. Abbo’s Passio must be treated with respect’ (‘Fact and Fiction in the Legend of St. Edmund’, p. 219). The same rule would apply to Osbern’s Life. See further discussion in McDougall, ‘Serious Entertainments’, pp. 203-04.

[36]Again, in contrast to, say, Abbo’s Passio of Edmund, where the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle has Edmund fighting a battle against the Danes, but Abbo does not. See Whitelock, ‘Fact and Fiction in the Legend of St. Edmund’, p. 221.

[37]Bartlett, ‘Saint-making in the Middle Ages’.

[38]For Alfred Smyth’s restatement of his argument for the existence of the blood-eagle sacrifice see Smyth, ‘Effect of Scandinavian Raiders’, pp. 17-20, and more generally the pages following on Viking violence, esp. 24ff. For comment on how ‘Vikings’ have been excessively differentiated from Franks (what we would today call the French) or Anglo-Saxons, see Nelson, ‘England and the Continent in the Ninth Century, II’, passim esp. e.g. pp. 11-12.

[39]Annals of St-Bertin, ed. Nelson, p. 91 for 859; cf Smyth, ‘Effect of Scandinavian Raiders’, pp. 21-23.

[40] ‘pro reverentia illius’, Eadmer, Life of St. Anselm, ed. Southern, p. 51.

[41]‘statim in illum mortis sententiam promulgant, ne illo diutius vivente contra invicem armati procedant, graviusque a se quam ab exteris gentibus occisi depereant’, ‘at once they proclaim a death sentence against that man, lest with him living longer, their soldiers turn against them and at their hands they die a grimmer death than at those of foreign peoples’, Osbern, ‘Vita S. Alphegi’, Anglia sacra, 2, p. 140.

[42]Osbern, ‘Vita S. Alphegi’, Anglia sacra, 2, p. 140.

[43] ‘aversis securibus virum dejiciunt. Deinde alii atque alii eum lapidibus obruunt’, Osbern, ‘Vita S. Alphegi’, Anglia sacra, 2, p. 140.

[44]‘cum videret virum in confinio mortis diutius laborentem, impia pietate motus, securim capiti illius infixit’, Osbern, ‘Vita S. Alphegi’, Anglia sacra, 2, p. 141.

[45]One account occurs in Olav Tryggvason’s Saga (compiled late thirteenth century) and is quoted in McDougall, ‘Serious Entertainments’, pp. 213-15.

[46]McDougall, ‘Serious Entertainments’, pp. 215-220.

[47]McDougall, ‘Serious Entertainments’, pp. 221-222, the 1181/2 Latin translation, Lex castrensis, of the Danish Vederlow, supposedly from the time of Cnut.

[48]McDougall, ‘Serious Entertainments’, pp. 223-224.

[49]Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. A Collaborative Edition. Volume 5. MS. C, ed. O’Brien O’Keeffe, p. 96 for 1012; McDougall, ‘Serious Entertainments’, pp. 221-2.

[50] Nelson, ‘England and the Continent in the Ninth Century, II’, p. 2.

[51]See Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. A Collaborative Edition. Volume 5. MS. C, ed. O’Brien O’Keeffe, p. 91.

[52] In her translation, from the period between the St Brice’s Day Massacre to the year after Alphege’s martyrdom (i.e. 1002-1013), Whitelock gives thirteen instances of ‘Danes’ or ‘Danish’, taking the ‘C’ Chronicle as her base text (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, tr. Whitelock, pp. 86-93). However, the ‘C’ Chronicle only in fact states that such groups were Danes/Danish twice (page references to Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. A Collaborative Edition. Volume 5. MS. C, ed. O’Brien O’Keeffe): firstly when stipulating that those massacred by the English on St Brice’s Day were ‘ealle þa deniscan menþe on Angelcynne wæron’ (p. 89); and secondly in 1010 at the battle of Ringemere near Ipswich where the ‘Denan ahton wælstowe geweald’ (p. 94). So when Whitelock counterpoints for 1003 the ‘Danish’ army ravaging Wiltshire and the ‘English’ army mustering to fight them, ‘C’ gives no such warrant for the ethnic opposition (Whitelock’s ed. p. 86; O’Brien O’Keeffe’s p. 90). Likewise when in 1013 Svein Forkbeard of Denmark’s fleet and numerous groups surrender and give hostages, including the here (army) living north of Watling Street in the Danelaw (O’Brien O’Keeffe, p. 97). Whitelock notes the term but arguably overtranslates here again as ‘Danish settlers’ (her tr. p. 92 n. 8). One instance not included in the tally above is the note that in 1005 the fleet returned ‘to Denemarce’ (O’Brien O’Keeffe, p. 91). Cumulatively all this indicates (a) that the Chronicler was perfectly able to specify ethnicity when he wished to (b) that he seldom wanted to in these contexts. In making these comments I am transposing the criticisms made by Jinty Nelson of an earlier period – see Nelson ‘England and the Continent in the Ninth Century, II’, pp. 5-6.

[53]Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. A Collaborative Edition. Volume 5. MS. C, ed. O’Brien O’Keeffe, p. 93.

[54]Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. A Collaborative Edition. Volume 5. MS. C, ed. O’Brien O’Keeffe, p. 97.

[55]See discussion in Winroth, Conversion of Scandinavia, pp. 31, 141.

[56]Osbern’s Danes’ final ultimatum to Alphege is ‘Gold, bishop, or today you will be a spectacle for the world’, (‘Episcope, aurum, aut hodie mundo eris spectaculum’), Osbern, ‘Vita S. Alphegi’, Anglia sacra, 2, p. 140. Osbern is quite clearly playing with the different uses of the spectacle of martydrom (??????, ‘witness’ in Greek) which a Christian and a pagan would expect such an execution to provide (respectively inspiration or warning).

[57]John of Worcester, Chronicle, 2, p. 470. John has both the text of Osbern’s Vita, which he quotes and adapts, as well as additional information. The pridie claim may be too good to be true. Didactically this feature redounds to Alphege’s reputation as an apostle, but it also serves to complicate the picture of the Danes, since it demonstrates receptiveness to Christianity. There seems no reason to doubt that Alphege converted Danes while prisoner.

[58]Osbern portrays the rational debate about the fate of the body continuing in the council, with rival groups of senatores arguing their case, Vita S. Alphegi’, Anglia sacra, 2, p. 141.

[59] ‘omnis populi multitudo, quae illo docente errorem abjecerat’. ‘Vita S. Alphegi’, Anglia sacra, 2, p. 141 and 141-142 generally. If one were to postulate a point from which the foundation of St Alphege’s Church, Greenwich dates it would be here: a blood-soaked oar is rammed in the ground and left overnight to see whether it will sprout by the morning as proof of Alphege’s power-in-death. It does, and ‘rising in the morning they saw [the oar] blossom’ (mane surgentes florere viderunt), and ‘there with a house of prayer having been built over it [taking illum as referring to the remus], many of the Danish magnates were reborn in the same way by water and Spirit’, (Ibi orationis super illum domo fabricata plerique Danorum Magnates ex aqua et Spiritu in eadem regenerati […]), ‘Vita S. Alphegi’, Anglia sacra, 2, p. 141.

[60]See the comments of Nick Vincent in his Brief History of Britain, pp. 3-8, 20, 58-61.

[61] Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, tr. Whitelock, p. 90 for 1010; Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. A Collaborative Edition. Volume 5. MS. C, ed. O’Brien O’Keeffe, pp. 94-95 for 1010. Again, the Chronicle could so designate the army, cf. in 1016 when Æthelred and Cnut fought the battle of ‘Assandun’ and Æthelred gathered ‘ealle Engla þeode’ against them. (Whitelock tr. p. 96 for 1016; O’Brien O’Keeffe ed. p. 102 for 1016).

[62]The classic contemporary expression of this view is Wulfstan of York’s ?1014 ‘Sermon of the Wolf to the English’. See Wilcox, ‘Wulfstan’s Sermo Lupi ad Anglos’. For comment on its dating, see below.

[63]Councils and Synods, I.i pp. 361-362 (V Æthelred), 366 (VI Æthelred Latin); Wormald, Making of English Law, I, p. 334.

[64] Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, tr. Whitelock, p. 75 for 959 (‘D’). See also Keynes, ‘An Abbot, an Archbishop, and the Viking Raids’, p. 162, the ‘Letter to Brother Edward’.

[65]See the comments above on Olav Tryggvason.

[66]Hamer ed./tr. A Choice of Anglo-Saxon Verse, p. 45.

[67]See Williams, ‘Cockles among the Wheat’.

[68]See Nelson, ‘England and the Continent in the Ninth Century, II’, passim.

[69]Chadwick, Augustine of Hippo, p. 1.

[70]Lapidge, Cult of St Swithun, pp. 575-576.

[71]Lapidge, Cult of St Swithun, pp. 372-397. It is possible that Wulfstan went to Canterbury with Alphege, see pp. 338, 365;Wulfstan, Life of St Æthelwold, ed. Lapidge and Winterbottom, pp. xxxvii-xxxix. It is not completely explicit from Wulfstan that Alphege commissioned the Life of St Swithun, but he was clearly Wulfstan’s patron. Lapidge says Wulfstan had ‘a more subtle understanding of Latin metrical technique than any English poet since Bede (Lapidge, Cult of St Swithun p. 335).

[72]Early Lives of St Dunstan, ed. Lapidge and Winterbottom, pp. cxxv-cxxx, 113. Alphege wanted a prose and verse Life, and was explicitly Archbishop by the time this was written.

[73]See Lapidge, ed. Cult of St Swithun, pp. 374-397 (Narratio metrica de S. Swithuno, the dedicatory letter to Alphege); Palazzo, ‘Relics, Liturgical Space, and the Theology of the Church’, pp. 104-5.

[74]Lapidge, Cult of St Swithun, p. 380 (Lapidge’s translation), see also pp. 372-76, 390-97. See also Palazzo, ‘Relics, Liturgical Space, and the Theology of the Church’, pp. 104-05 and nn.

[75]Palazzo, ‘Relics, Liturgical Space, and the Theology of the Church’, p. 105.

[76]Æthelred VI (Latin), ed. Councils and Synods, I.i, pp. 362-373 named at 362. See also Wormald, Making of English Law, pp. 330-35.

[77]See Wormald, ‘Wulfstan (d. 1023)’ and Townend (ed.), Wulfstan, Archbishop of York.

[78]Wilcox, ‘Wulfstan’s Sermo Lupi ad Anglos’, pp. 378, 396. There is much argument about the ‘original’ dating of the Sermo. It seems to me perfectly feasible that Alphege’s martyrdom played a role in the Sermon’s composition. Keynes has recently argued that 1012 (rather than the traditional 1014) is one possible terminus ad quem for the first composition of the Sermo which is supposed to have been set down when the Northmen threatened England maxime. Keynes himself prefers 1009, but it seems to me that 1012 marks the end of the worst in the medium-term (Keynes, ‘An Abbot, an Archbishop, and the Viking Raids’, pp. 203-213). Certainly the Chronicle saw the events of 1011, just prior to Alphege’s imprisonment as a low-point – this was when the Danes ‘had done most to our  injury’ (hi mæst to yfele gedon hæfdon) (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, tr. Whitelock, p. 91 for 1011; O’Brien O’Keeffe ed. p. 95 for 1011). This entry includes an elegiac coda on Alphege’s captivity.

[79]‘Vita S. Alphegi’, Anglia sacra, 2, p. 135.

[80]‘Vita S. Alphegi’, Anglia sacra, 2, p. 138.

[81]Eadmer, Life of St. Anselm, ed. Southern, p. 51. This is interesting since it implies (a) the levy would not have been exacted more generally out of Canterbury assets, since it is Alphege’s men, not Canterbury Eadmer stresses (b) that the scale of it would not have reduced only some, but not all, of them to beggary.

[82]Cf. Geary on this in Furta Sacra, pp. 9-10 and quoted in this context by McDougall, ‘Serious Entertainments’, p. 205.

[83]‘“Presto sum”, inquit, “paratus ad omnia, quae in me nunc presumitis facere, ac Christi amore, ut suorum merear fieri exemplum servorum, non sum hodie turbatus”’, Thietmar, 7.42 Chronicon, ed. Holtzmann, p. 450.

[84]Rubenstein, ‘Life and Writings of Osbern of Canterbury’, p. 39.

[85] In fact, the original Latin is slightly different, ‘qui pro veritate et justitia moritur, pro Christo moritur’, Eadmer, Life of St. Anselm, ed. Southern, p. 53.

[86]‘eligit vitam perdere, quam eam tali modo custodire’, Eadmer, Life of St. Anselm, ed. Southern, p. 51.

[87]Brooks, Early History of the Church at Canterbury, p. 265; also Collinson et al (eds.), A History of Canterbury Cathedral, pp. 43-4.

[88] ‘Unde datur intelligi mira vi pectus ejus justitiam possedisse’, Eadmer, Life of St. Anselm, ed. Southern, p. 52. Southern makes the following point about this logic: ‘Anselm’s procedure in this case reflects the principles on which his theology was built: he accepted the statements of faith of the whole Christian community, and set about finding explanations which satisfied the demands of reason. If his explanations were wrong, it made no difference to his faith; if they were right, they strengthened the community of believers against the attacks of critics, and added the pleasure of understanding to the duty of believing’ (Southern, Anselm: A Portrait in a Landscape, p. 330, my emphasis). This probably seems a quite alien way of relating belief and proof, and that is perhaps a measure of our distance from this world. ‘Faith seeking understanding’ is Anselm’s famous one-sentence simplification of his philosophy. His defence of Alphege’s sanctity expresses it very well.

[89] ‘Hic humana motus fragilitate pecuniam eis promittit et ad hanc impetrandam inducias posuit’, Thietmar, Chronicon, 7.42 ed. Holtzmann, p. 448.

[90] ‘Corpus hoc meum, quod in hoc exilio supra modum dilexi, vobis culpabile offero’, Thietmar, Chronicon, 7.42 ed. Holtzmann, p. 450. Note the echo of Christ’s words at the Last Supper.

[91] ‘non clarus Pontificio, sed vilis opprobrio’, ‘Vita S. Alphegi’, Anglia sacra, 2, p. 139.

[92] For the capacity for sophisticated debates about historicity and reliability of hagiographical claims see Goscelin on Mildred in Colker, ‘A Hagiographic Polemic’.

[93]Lapidge, Cult of St. Swithun, pp. 38-40; Eadmer, ‘Edmeri Cantuarensis cantoris nova opuscula de sanctorum veneratione et obsecratione’, ed. Wilmart, pp. 362-370.

[94]Colker, ‘A Hagiographic Polemic’.

[95]The following points are drawn from remarks of Robert Bartlett, ‘Saint-making in the Middle Ages’, part of a much larger project of his on the cult of the saints in the Middle Ages.

[96]On translationes, Geary, Furta Sacra, pp. 10-15.

[97]Toy, English Saints in the Medieval Liturgies of Scandinavian Churches, pp. 27-30; Blair, ‘Handlist of Anglo-Saxon Saints’, p. 505.

[98]Hill, ‘An Urban Policy for Cnut?’, p. 103-104; more sceptical comment, ‘Translatio Sancti Ælfegi Cantuariensis archiepiscopi et martiris’, ed. Rumble, pp. 286-287.

[99]þær nu God sutelað þæs halgan martires mihta’ (my stress), Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. A Collaborative Edition. Volume 5. MS. C, ed. O’Brien O’Keeffe, p. 97.

[100]Canterbury had some form in failing to capitalize on its archbishops’ reputations for sanctity. Dunstan seems to have made little of Oda’s during his archiepiscopate. See Catherine Cubitt and Marios Costambeys, ‘Oda (d. 958)’.

[101] Having been called to London, Cnut announces to Æthelnoth that Alphege will be moved, at which Æthelnoth ‘tremefactus super quam dici potest sacerdos [i.e. Æthelnoth]. non enim sciebat cuius rei gratia a rege uocatus fuisset’. ‘Translatio Sancti Ælfegi Cantuariensis archiepiscopi et martiris’, ed. Rumble, p. 302 and see 304. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle interestingly gives no hint of the complex subterfuge Osbern describes.

[102]Æthelnoth is either a fool or a liar; a fool if he did not realize what Cnut was up to; a liar if he did and denied it.

[103]‘transferatur […] de domo hospicij ad domum patriarchatus sui’, ‘Translatio Sancti Ælfegi Cantuariensis archiepiscopi et martiris’, ed. Rumble, p. 302 drawing on their translation.

[104]Vita S. Alphegi’, Anglia sacra, 2, p. 138. At the point of his capture, Osbern has Alphege neatly moved ‘de urbe ad classem, de classe ad carcerem, de carcere ad judicem iniquitatis’, without at all indicating that Alphege is now nowhere near Canterbury, Vita S. Alphegi’, Anglia sacra, 2, p. 136.

[105]‘Plurimis autem aquarum alluvionibus per obscuras noctis umbras transvadatis’, ‘mediisque se paludibus’, Vita S. Alphegi’, Anglia sacra, 2, p. 139.

[106]Although as noted above, Alphege’s first post-martyrdom miracle, according to Osbern, entails the building of a shrine on this site, implicitly in Greenwich, Vita S. Alphegi’, Anglia sacra, 2, p. 141.

[107] ‘de alieno ad sua’, ‘Translatio Sancti Ælfegi Cantuariensis archiepiscopi et martiris’, ed. Rumble, p. 314. 

[108]Pace Stanton, ‘National Martyrs and Willing Heroes’, who argues that Osbern for Alphege, and Abbo for Edmund, are trying to make the saints more nationally acceptable (pp. 192, 200, 203-4). I would see Alphege’s attractions to Osbern as being local ones in the first instance. Stanton gives too simplistic an account of Osbern’s Danes (v. p. 200). Stanton’s stress on theses accounts in a post-Conquest context is sensible, but the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s entry for 1011 had already placed Alphege in such a national context.

[109] Before Alphege, Canterbury had other saints or venerated archbishops – Augustine (596-604), Cuthbert (741-760), Bregowine (760-764), Æthelhard (790-805), Oda (942-958), Dunstan (959-988) – but no martyrs. See Gelin, ‘Gervase of Canterbury, Christ Church and the Archbishops’, p. 458 and n. 35.

[110]Barlow, Thomas Becket, p. 233.

[111]See the endpaper maps in Barlow, Thomas Becket.

[112] Gelin, ‘Gervase of Canterbury, Christ Church and the Archbishops’, pp. 458-461.

[113]Budney and Graham, ‘Les cycles des saints Dunstan et Alphege…’, pp. 75, 78. Images of these may be found at http://www.cvma.ac.uk, the Corpus Vitrearum Medii Aevi. The three panels are inventory numbers 002980, 002983, 002984.

[114]A good, fitting, example of this is the c. 830 Saxon version of the Gospel account of Christ, the Heliand, recasting Christ as a warrior chieftain. Cf. on relics as empty vessels whose meaning is constructed by their devotees, Geary, Furta Sacra, pp. 1ff, 124.

 

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