Ælfheah of Canterbury

Ælfheah of Canterbury bigraphy, stories - Bishop of Winchester; Archbishop of Canterbury; Saint

Ælfheah of Canterbury : biography

954 – 19 April 1012

Ælfheah ( "elf-high"; 954 – 19 April 1012), officially remembered by the name Alphege within some churches, and also called Elphege, Alfege, or Godwine, was an Anglo-Saxon Bishop of Winchester, later Archbishop of Canterbury. He became an anchorite before being elected abbot of Bath Abbey. His perceived piety and sanctity led to his promotion to the episcopate, and eventually, to his becoming archbishop. Ælfheah furthered the cult of Dunstan and also encouraged learning. He was captured by Viking raiders in 1011 and killed by them the following year after refusing to allow himself to be ransomed. Ælfheah was canonised as a saint in 1078. Thomas Becket, a later Archbishop of Canterbury, prayed to him just before his own murder in Canterbury Cathedral.


Purportedly born in Weston on the outskirts of Bath, Accessed 14 August 2009 Ælfheah became a monk early in life. He first entered the monastery of Deerhurst, but then moved to Bath, where he became an anchorite. He was noted for his piety and austerity, and rose to become abbot of Bath Abbey.Knowles, et al. Heads of Religious Houses, England and Wales pp. 28, 241 Probably due to the influence of Dunstan, the Archbishop of Canterbury (959–988), Ælfheah was elected Bishop of Winchester in 984,Fryde, et al. Handbook of British Chronology p. 223Barlow English Church 1000–1066 p. 109 footnote 5 and was consecrated on 19 October that year. While bishop he was largely responsible for the construction of a large organ in the cathedral, audible from over a mile (1600 m) away and said to require more than 24 men to operate. He also built and enlarged the city’s churches,Hindley A Brief History of the Anglo-Saxons pp. 304–305 and promoted the cult of Swithun and Swithun’s predecessor, Æthelwold of Winchester.

Following a Viking raid in 994, a peace treaty was agreed with one of the raiders, Olaf Tryggvason. Besides receiving danegeld, Olaf converted to ChristianityStenton Anglo-Saxon England p. 378 and undertook never to raid or fight the English again.Williams Æthelred the Unready p. 47 Ælfheah may have played a part in the treaty negotiations, and it is certain that he confirmed Olaf in his new faith.Leyser "" Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

In 1006 Ælfheah succeeded Ælfric as Archbishop of Canterbury,Walsh A New Dictionary of Saints p. 28Fryde, et al. Handbook of British Chronology p. 214 taking Swithun’s head with him as a relic for the new location. He went to Rome in 1007 to receive his pallium—symbol of his status as an archbishop—from Pope John XVIII, but was robbed during his journey.Barlow English Church 1000–1066 pp. 298–299 footnote 7 While at Canterbury he promoted the cult of Dunstan, ordering the writing of the second Life of Dunstan, which Adelard composed between 1006 and 1011.Barlow English Church 1000–1066 p. 62 He also introduced new practices into the liturgy, and was instrumental in the Witenagemot’s recognition of Wulfsige of Sherborne as a saint in about 1012.Barlow English Church 1000–1066 p. 223

Ælfheah sent Ælfric of Eynsham to Cerne Abbey to take charge of its monastic school.Stenton Anglo-Saxon England p. 458 He was present at the council of May 1008 at which Wulfstan II, Archbishop of York, preached his Sermo Lupi ad Anglos (The Sermon of the Wolf to the English), castigating the English for their moral failings and blaming the latter for the tribulations afflicting the country.Fletcher Bloodfeud p. 94

In 1011 the Danes again raided England, and from 8–29 September they laid siege to Canterbury. Aided by the treachery of Ælfmaer, whose life Ælfheah had once saved, the raiders succeeded in sacking the city.Williams Æthelred the Unready pp. 106–107 Ælfheah was taken prisoner and held captive for seven months.Hindley A Brief History of the Anglo-Saxons p. 301 Godwine (Bishop of Rochester), Leofrun (abbess of St Mildrith’s), and the king’s reeve, Ælfweard were captured also, but the abbot of St Augustine’s Abbey, Ælfmaer, managed to escape. Canterbury Cathedral was plundered and burned by the Danes following Ælfheah’s capture.Barlow English Church 1000–1066 pp. 209–210