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The History of Kent

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Saint Alphege

Reportedly born in Weston on the outskirts of Bath, Alphege 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. Probably due to the influence of Dunstan, the Archbishop of Canterbury (959-988), Alphege was elected Bishop of Winchester in 984, and consecrated on 19 October that year. While bishop he was mainly responsible for the construction of a large organ in the cathedral, audible from over a mile away and said to require more than 24 men to operate. He also built and enlarged the city's churches, and promoted the cult of Saint Swithun and Swithun's predecessor, AEthelwold 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 Christianity and undertook never to raid or fight the English again. Alphege may have played a part in the treaty negotiations, and it is certain that he confirmed Olaf in his new faith.

In 1006, Alphege succeeded AElfric as Archbishop of Canterbury, taking Saint 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.

While at Canterbury he promoted the cult of Saint Dunstan, ordering the writing of the second Life of Dunstan, which Adelard composed between 1006 and 1011. 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.

Alphege sent AElfric to Cerne Abbey where he took charge of its monastic school. 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.

In 1011, the Danes again raided England, and from 8�29 September, they laid siege to Canterbury. Aided by the treachery of AElfmaer, whose life Alphege had once saved, the raiders succeeded in sacking the city. Alphege was taken prisoner and held captive for seven months. Godwine (Bishop of Rochester), Leofrun (abbess of St Mildrith's), and the king's reeve, AElfweard were captured also, but the abbot of St Augustine's Abbey

Alphege refused to allow a ransom to be paid for his freedom, and as a result was killed on 19 April 1012 at Greenwich (then in Kent, now London), reputedly on the site of St Alfege's Church. The account of Alphege's death appears in the E version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:
'... the raiding-army became much stirred up against the bishop, because he did not want to offer them any money, and forbade that anything might be granted in return for him. In addition, they were very drunk, because there was wine brought from the south. Then they seized the bishop, led him to their 'hustings' on the Saturday in the octave of Easter, and then pelted him there with bones and the heads of cattle; and one of them struck him on the head with the butt of an axe, so that with the blow he sank down and his holy blood fell on the earth, and sent forth his holy soul to God's kingdom.'

Alphege was the first Archbishop of Canterbury to die a violent death. A contemporary report tells that Thorkell the Tall attempted to save him from the mob about to kill him by offering them everything he owned except for his ship, in exchange for Alphege's life; Thorkell's presence is not mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, however. Some sources record that the final blow, with the back of an axe, was delivered as an act of kindness by a Christian convert known as Thrum.

Alphege was buried in St Paul's Cathedral. In 1023, his body was moved by King Cnut to Canterbury, with great ceremony. Thorkell the Tall was appalled at the brutality of his fellow raiders, and switched sides to the English king AEthelred the unready following the Archbishops death.

Pope Gregory VII canonized Alphege in 1078, with a feast day of 19 April. Lanfranc, the first post-conquest archbishop, was dubious about some of the saints venerated at Canterbury. He was persuaded of Alphege's sanctity, but Alphege and Augustine of Canterbury were the only pre-conquest Anglo-Saxon archbishops kept on Canterbury's calendar of saints. Alphege's shrine, which had become neglected, was rebuilt and expanded in the early 12th Century under Anselm of Canterbury, who was instrumental in retaining Alphege's name in the church calendar. After the 1174 fire in Canterbury Cathedral, Alphege's remains together with those of Saint Dunstan were placed around the high altar, at which
Thomas Becket is said to have commended his life into Alphege's care shortly before his martyrdom during the Becket controversy. The new shrine was sealed in lead, and was north of the high altar, sharing the honour with Dunstan's shrine, which was located south of the high altar. A Life of Saint Alphege in prose and verse was written by a Canterbury monk named Osbern, at Lanfranc's request. The prose version has survived, but the Life is very much a hagiography: many of the stories it contains have obvious Biblical parallels, making them suspect as a historical record.

In the late medieval period, Alphege's feast day was celebrated in Scandinavia, perhaps because of the saint's connection with Cnut. In 1929, a new church in Bath was dedicated to Saint Alphege, designed by Giles Gilbert Scott in homage to the ancient Roman church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin.


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