April 19: Alphege, Archbishop of Canterbury & Martyr, 1012

Welcome to the Holy Women, Holy Men blog! We invite you to read about this commemoration, use the collect and lessons in prayer, whether individually or in corporate worship, then tell us what you think. For more information about this project, click here.

Born in 954, Alphege (or Aelfheah) gave his witness in the troubled  time of the second wave of Scandinavian invasion and settlement in  England. After serving as a monk at Deerhurst, and then as Abbot  of Bath, he became in 984, through Archbishop Dunstan’s influence, Bishop of Winchester. He was instrumental in bringing the Norse King  Olaf Tryggvason, only recently baptized, to King Aethelred in 994 to make his peace and to be confirmed at Andover.

Transferred to Canterbury in 1005, Alphege was captured by the  Danes in 1011. He refused to allow a personal ransom to be collected  from his already over-burdened people. Seven months later he was  brutally murdered, despite the Viking commander Thorkell’s effort  to save him by offering all his possessions except his ship for the Archbishop’s life.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle relates that the Danes were “much stirred  against the Bishop, because he would not promise them any fee, and  forbade that any man should give anything for him. They were also  much drunken … and took the Bishop, and led him to their hustings, on the eve of the Saturday after Easter … and then they shamefully killed him. They overwhelmed him with bones and horns of oxen; and one of them smote him with an axe-iron on the head; so that he sunk downwards with the blow. And his holy blood fell on the earth, whilst his sacred soul was sent to the realm of God.”


I  O loving God, whose martyr bishop Alphege of Canterbury suffered violent death because he refused to permit a ransom to be extorted from his people: Grant, we pray thee, that all pastors of thy flock may pattern themselves on the Good Shepherd, who laid down his life for the sheep; through him who with thee and the Holy Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

II  O loving God, your martyr bishop Alphege of Canterbury suffered violent death when he refused to permit a ransom to be extorted from his people: Grant that all pastors of your flock may pattern themselves on the Good Shepherd, who laid down his life for the sheep; and who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.


1 Samuel 24:7b–19

Philemon 1–9a

Luke 23:1–9

Psalm 49:1-9

Preface of a Saint (3)

From Holy, Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints © 2010 by The Church Pension Fund. Used by permission.

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We invite your reflections about this commemoration and its suitability for the official calendar and worship of The Episcopal Church. How did this person’s life witness to the Gospel? How does this person inspire us in Christian life today?

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12 thoughts on “April 19: Alphege, Archbishop of Canterbury & Martyr, 1012

  1. This commemoration is already in the Calendar. But, all of the Scripture readings are new (Hebrew Scripture, Psalm, New Testament and Gospel).

  2. Scripture readings:
    Hebrew Scripture: As the verses preceding this reading begin with Saul ‘relieving’ himself in the cave (1 Samuel 24: 3a) I wonder if given the context of these chosen verses it is still appropriate.
    New Testament: Ending with verse 9a seems a bit arbitrary. What’s wrong with:
    …and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus.
    Gospel: Another odd ending place, IMO.
    Who decides these things?

    Collect: Though this is a collect retained from the earliest editions of LFF I note that the godly bishop is noted as a “martyr bishop.” HWHM needs to adopt a style for collects which is consistent. Other ‘martyr bishops’ are not similarly recognized (for instance, Óscar Romero is named as a ‘servant’; Thomas Cranmer gets nothing; Polycarp is named as a ‘venerable servant … holy and gentle …’; etc.). Sometimes the ordained status of the person commemorated is not even mentioned in the collect (see Cranmer above). This is another example of consistency that needs to be incorporated into HWHM.

    • I do think some things in HWHM would benfit from a careful study of consistent usage. I don’t see that it’s necessary or even desirable to refer to every ordained person or martyr or missionary in the same way in the collect. What strikes me (and I wouldn’t have been able to think of this so clearly without Michael’s thoughtful comments) is that the usage is not only inconsistent, but doesn’t seem to be thought through as carefully as would be desired. The various nouns and adjectives chosen can shine a particular light on each person being commemorated, causing us to ponder a certain facet of that person’s life. Instead, from time to time, there’s a “use the thesarus” feeling. (By the way, I think that most of the collects do the work they need to do and do it well; I also greatly appreciate the time and care put into their composition.)

  3. Since this is Holy Week we shall have to wait until next year to use these propers. But Alphenge is worth commemoration, although he won’t mean much to those who are not students of medieval English history.

  4. Alphege
    He didn’t raise hostage taxes, he shrank government by doing away with an incumbent in upper management, he refused to negotiate with hostage takers, and he’s portrayed as a martyr — where have I heard all this before?
    I can’t help feeling the emphasis is in the wrong place. What strikes me as more significant than his response to the famous Jack Benny dilemma — “Your money or your life?” — was his overall religious service and life’s commitment to Christian ministry and faith. It gets treated as mere prologue: “After serving as a monk at Deerhurst, and then as Abbot of Bath, he became … Bishop of Winchester. He was instrumental in bringing the Norse King Olaf Tryggvason … to King Aethelred in 994 to make his peace and to be confirmed at Andover.”
    According to the narrative Alphege wasn’t killed for his faith, he was killed because he refused to pay his kidnappers the money they demanded. Granted, he was taken because as bishop he was a symbol of the church, but he was murdered because of economics, not anything in the creed. The martyrdom spin may be traditional, but to me it doesn’t hold water.
    Which brings us to the readings. I agree with Michael’s observation that the starting and stopping points should be re-examined with less concern on economy and more on the integrity of the passages. Others are possible, but I recommend as follows:
    FROM: 1 Samuel 24:7b–19 TO: 24:1-17.
    FROM: Philemon 1–9a TO: 1-9.
    FROM: Luke 23:1–9 TO: 23:1-11.
    FROM: Psalm 49:1-9 TO: 49:5-15.
    COLLECT: My gravest concern with the collect bypasses the lack of a “so that” section, and ignores the “martyr bishop” reference. I think we are ill-advised to draw a parallel between Alphege’s refusing to pay ransom, on the one hand, and “the Good Shepherd” laying down his life for the sheep, on the other. Jesus WAS the ransom for the many, while Alphege (so far as we are told here) acted from economic motives – his people were “already over-burdened” — which is quite different. The collect should be completely re-thought, with Alphege’s LIFE, not his murder, (and an appropriate petition and response to the commemoration) from the church) as the new focal point in the collect.

    (“Take my life — I need my money for my old age.” –Jack Benny) 🙂

  5. I think the writeup does show Alphage’s work for the church. He was not technically a martyr – the men who killed him were clearly more interested in money than faith – but his refusal to pay up came from his desire not to be a burden to his people, surely an act of Christian charity. And, I must admiit, the voyeur in me does savor that description of Death by Bones.

  6. I know that the biography for Alphege was written some years ago but it could use some editing to make it more understandable to contemporary Episcopalians. I am no student of medieval history and I found I needed to look up much information before the commemoration of Alphege began to make sense to me.

    1. It would be helpful if the towns mentioned were given a bit more information about location, especially Deerhurst and Andover.
    2. Unless one has a real interest in English history before Guillaume le Bastard, about all anyone might have heard about Ethelred (or Aethelred) is his pejorative nickname of “the unready.” Even the nickname is apparently a mistranslation, since its correct meaning is “without counsel” or “folly.” So perhaps the fact that Ethelred was a King of Wessex would be helpful information and would remind people that these events precede the Norman Invasion of 1066.
    3. The last sentence of the first paragraph gives lots of information. But it is unclear and therefore confusing. Olaf Tryggvason, king of Norway, was confirmed at a church in Andover with Bishop Alphege as his godfather. But that is nor clear from the sentence. On first reading I thought it was King Ethelred who was confirmed at Andover.
    4. A bit more information about Thorkell would also be helpful. Thorkell the Tall invaded England near Ipswich in 1010. The next year, Thorkell was paid a large Danegeld or tribute raised by taxing the local people to buy off the attackers and keep the Vikings from plundering the area.
    5. Alphege was apparently murdered at Greenwich in Kent during a feat of April 19, 1012. Apparently there is some debate as to whether to blow to his head by the butt of an axe was a “mercy killing,” It is said that Thorkill was so appalled by the murder of the Archbishop of Canterbury that he switched sides.
    6. Instead of the quote from a translation of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, the information might be provided in modern English since “husting” is not likely to be understood, unless one is from Virginia. I had only heard the term in British English in connection with political speeches, the American equivalent being the phrase “on the stump” or “stump speech.” I had to look up the older meaning and I assume that most people would be similarly situated. But I guess one has to careful or Alphege’s death might come out as “stoned with bones.”
    7. Since Alphege was canonized well before the Reformation, would it not be helpful to say that he was canonized in 1078? Would it also not be helpful to say the Alphege and Augustine of Canterbury were the only pre-Conquest saints kept on the calendar of saints at Canterbury after the invasion of William the Conqueror? We include Alphege’s mentor, St Dunstan, in HWHM as well.
    8. I am far from certain of the importance of Alphege besides his martyrdom and his refusal of a ransom obtained by taxing an already overburdened people. I would assume that he is being commemorated as a man for whom justice was more important than life. Perhaps this is more on the model of John the Baptist than Jesus, the Good Shepherd, as suggested in the collects. But then, there may be more to Archbishop Alphege’s self-sacrifice than is told in the biography.

  7. Æthelred is known to history as Æthelred the Unready, but the epithet was earned not for unpreparedness (although he was certainly guilty of that fault) but for recklessness. In Old English he was “Unrede,” “devoid of counsel.” As his given name meant “of Noble Counsel,” Æthelred was not only a Bad King but an oxymoron as well.
    The Norman archbishop of Canterbury Lanfranc (c. 1010-89, archbishop from 1070) tried to stip Alphege of the title “martyr” on the grounds that he had not actually died for the faith. St. Anselm (1033-1109, April 21), who was then abbot of Bec (France), argued that since Alphege had died to spare his people from unjust extortion, he had died for justice and thus for truth. And if Alphege died for truth, then he died for God. Lanfranc had to agree–he had made the same argument in a commentary of Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Lanfrac restored Alphege to the calendar as a martyr, and no one has questioned the saint’s right to the title of martyr since (or so I thought until today).
    If we restrict the title “martyr” to those killed because they were Christians — as opposed to those whose killers acted out of political, racial, nationalistic, or financial motives, or even out of mistaken identity — we’re got a lot of biographies to rewrite and re-title: Martin Luther King Jr., Jonathan Daniels, Thomas a Becket, Laurence, Patterson and his companions, etc, etc, etc. Besides, arguing with St. Anselm is a fool’s errand if ever there was one.

  8. I would prefer to see just “Martyr” as a subtitle, but I question his inclusion as such. He was captured and refused to be ransomed. Certainly he was a “Holy Man”, but he didn’t die for his faith.

    Line 1, first paragraph: add “at Weston, Somerset” after “Born”.

    Line 3, second paragraph: add “,on April19, 1012, at Greenwich, Surrey,” after “later”.

  9. Steve — You have such an interesting, well informed way of putting things I ALMOST feel I should send you a thank you note — but I’ve got to get these coals to Newcastle. (If this were the only thing in my life that qualifies as foolish, I’d not have lived up to the reason for my having been created the way I am.) Despite being on the “receiving” end occasionally, I greatly enjoy your lucid way of putting things. I can’t help seeing things the way I see them, but I don’t expect that my opinion will change them. That’s the fun of being an Episcopalian — not only do we affirm fallibility, we demonstrate it as often as possible!

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