Ælfheah of Canterbury

For other people with the given name, see Ælfheah.
Archbishop of Canterbury

A 15th-century illuminated manuscript showing Ælfheah being asked for advice
Appointed 1006
Term ended 19 April 1012
Predecessor Ælfric of Abingdon
Successor Lyfing
Other posts Abbot of Bath Abbey
Bishop of Winchester
Consecration 19 October 984
Personal details
Born c. 953
Weston, Somerset, England
Died 19 April 1012
Greenwich, Kent, England
Buried Canterbury Cathedral
Feast day 19 April
Venerated in Roman Catholic Church;[1] Anglican Communion;[2] Eastern Orthodox Church
Canonized 1078
by Pope Gregory VII
Attributes Archbishop holding an axe[3]
Patronage Greenwich; Solihull; kidnap victims[4]
Shrines Canterbury Cathedral

Ælfheah (Old English: Ælfhēah, "elf-high"; c. 953 – 19 April 1012), officially remembered as Saint Alphege within some churches,[2][3] and also called Elphege, Alfege,[5] or Godwine,[6] was an Anglo-Saxon Bishop of Winchester, later Archbishop of Canterbury. He became an anchorite before being elected abbot of Bath Abbey. His reputation for 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,[7] Ælfheah became a monk early in life.[8] His birth took place around 953.[6] 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.[8] The 12th century chronicler William of Malmesbury recorded that Ælfheah was a monk and prior at Glastonbury Abbey,[9] but this is not accepted by all historians.[8] Indications are that Ælfheah became abbot at Bath by 982, perhaps as early as around 977. He perhaps shared authority with his predecessor Æscwig after 968.[9]

Probably due to the influence of Dunstan, the Archbishop of Canterbury (959–988), Ælfheah was elected Bishop of Winchester in 984,[10][11] and was consecrated on 19 October that year.[12] 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,[13] and promoted the cult of Swithun and his own predecessor, Æthelwold of Winchester.[12] One act promoting Æthelwold's cult was the translation of Æthelwold's body to a new tomb in the cathedral at Winchester, which Ælfheah presided over on 10 September 996.[14]

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[15] and undertook never to raid or fight the English again.[16] Ælfheah may have played a part in the treaty negotiations, and it is certain that he confirmed Olaf in his new faith.[12]

In 1006 Ælfheah succeeded Ælfric as Archbishop of Canterbury,[17][18] taking Swithun's head with him as a relic for the new location.[12] 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.[19] While at Canterbury he promoted the cult of Dunstan,[12] ordering the writing of the second Life of Dunstan, which Adelard of Ghent composed between 1006 and 1011.[20] 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.[21]

Ælfheah sent Ælfric of Eynsham to Cerne Abbey to take charge of its monastic school.[22] 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.[23]

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.[24][lower-alpha 1] Ælfheah was taken prisoner and held captive for seven months.[25] 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, Ælfmær, managed to escape.[24] Canterbury Cathedral was plundered and burned by the Danes following Ælfheah's capture.[26]


Ælfheah refused to allow a ransom to be paid for his freedom, and as a result was killed on 19 April 1012 at Greenwich[25] (then in Kent, now part of London), reputedly on the site of St Alfege's Church.[17][18] The account of Ælfheah'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. Also they were very drunk, because there was wine brought from the south. Then they seized the bishop, led him to their "hustings"[lower-alpha 2] 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.[27]

Ælfheah was the first Archbishop of Canterbury to die a violent death.[28] A contemporary report tells that Thorkell the Tall attempted to save Ælfheah from the mob about to kill him by offering everything he owned except for his ship, in exchange for Ælfheah's life; Thorkell's presence is not mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, however.[29] 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." Ælfheah was buried in St Paul's Cathedral.[12] In 1023 his body was moved by King Cnut to Canterbury, with great ceremony.[30][lower-alpha 3] Thorkell the Tall was appalled at the brutality of his fellow raiders, and switched sides to the English king Æthelred the Unready following Ælfheah's death.[32]


Pope Gregory VII canonised Ælfheah in 1078, with a feast day of 19 April.[1] Lanfranc, the first post-Conquest archbishop, was dubious about some of the saints venerated at Canterbury. He was persuaded of Ælfheah's sanctity,[33] but Ælfheah and Augustine of Canterbury were the only pre-conquest Anglo-Saxon archbishops kept on Canterbury's calendar of saints.[34] Ælfheah's shrine, which had become neglected, was rebuilt and expanded in the early 12th century under Anselm of Canterbury, who was instrumental in retaining Ælfheah's name in the church calendar.[35][36] After the 1174 fire in Canterbury Cathedral, Ælfheah's remains together with those of Dunstan were placed around the high altar, at which Thomas Becket is said to have commended his life into Ælfheah's care shortly before his martyrdom during the Becket controversy.[12] The new shrine was sealed in lead,[37] and was north of the high altar, sharing the honour with Dunstan's shrine, which was located south of the high altar.[38] A Life of Saint Ælfheah 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.[12]

In the late medieval period, Ælfheah's feast day was celebrated in Scandinavia, perhaps because of the saint's connection with Cnut.[39] Few church dedications to him are known, with most of them occurring in Kent and one each in London and Winchester;[5] as well as St Alfege's Church in Greenwich, a nearby hospital (1931-1968) was named after him.[40] In 1929 a new church in Bath was dedicated to Ælfheah, under the name Alphege, designed by Giles Gilbert Scott in homage to the ancient Roman church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin.[41]


  1. How exactly Ælfheah had saved Ælfmaer's life is not recorded in any source.[12]
  2. "Hustings" derives from an Old Norse word that has the meaning of assembly or council, so there may have been some sort of trial that condemned Ælfheah.[27]
  3. Except perhaps for a finger, which a later tradition held was given by Cnut to Westminster Abbey.[31]


  1. 1 2 Delaney Dictionary of Saints pp. 29–30
  2. 1 2 Holford-Strevens, et al. Oxford Book of Days pp. 160–161
  3. 1 2 "St. Alphege". Catholic Online. Retrieved 18 February 2009.
  4. "Saint Alphege of Winchester". Saints. SPQN. Retrieved 18 February 2009.
  5. 1 2 Rumble "From Winchester to Canterbury" Leaders of the Anglo-Saxon Church p. 173
  6. 1 2 Rumble "From Winchester to Canterbury" Leaders of the Anglo-Saxon Church p. 165
  7. "Alphege, Saint and Martyr". St. Alphege's Church, Bath. Accessed 14 August 2009
  8. 1 2 3 Knowles, et al. Heads of Religious Houses, England and Wales pp. 28, 241
  9. 1 2 Rumble "From Winchester to Canterbury" Leaders of the Anglo-Saxon Church p. 166
  10. Fryde, et al. Handbook of British Chronology p. 223
  11. Barlow English Church 1000–1066 p. 109 footnote 5
  12. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Leyser "Ælfheah" Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
  13. Hindley A Brief History of the Anglo-Saxons pp. 304–305
  14. Rumble "From Winchester to Canterbury" Leaders of the Anglo-Saxon Church p. 167
  15. Stenton Anglo-Saxon England p. 378
  16. Williams Æthelred the Unready p. 47
  17. 1 2 Walsh New Dictionary of Saints p. 28
  18. 1 2 Fryde, et al. Handbook of British Chronology p. 214
  19. Barlow English Church 1000–1066 pp. 298–299 footnote 7
  20. Barlow English Church 1000–1066 p. 62
  21. Barlow English Church 1000–1066 p. 223
  22. Stenton Anglo-Saxon England p. 458
  23. Fletcher Bloodfeud p. 94
  24. 1 2 Williams Æthelred the Unready pp. 106–107
  25. 1 2 Hindley Brief History of the Anglo-Saxons p. 301
  26. Barlow English Church 1000–1066 pp. 209–210
  27. 1 2 Swanton Anglo-Saxon Chronicle p. 142
  28. Fletcher Bloodfeud p. 78
  29. Williams Æthelred the Unready pp. 109–110
  30. Hindley Brief History of the Anglo-Saxons pp. 309–310
  31. Rumble "From Winchester to Canterbury" Leaders of the Anglo-Saxon Church p. 171
  32. Stenton Anglo-Saxon England p. 383
  33. Williams English and the Norman Conquest p. 137
  34. Stenton Anglo-Saxon England p. 672
  35. Brooke Popular Religion in the Middle Ages p. 40
  36. Southern "St Anselm and his English Pupils" Mediaeval and Renaissance Studies
  37. Nilson Cathedral Shrines p. 33
  38. Nilson Cathedral Shrines pp. 66–67
  39. Blair "Handlist of Anglo-Saxon Saints" Local Saints and Local Churches p. 504
  40. "Greenwich District Hospital". Lost Hospitals of London. Retrieved 25 October 2015.
  41. "St Alphege's Church: The Building". St Alphege's Church, Bath. Accessed 30 August 2009


  • Barlow, Frank (1979). The English Church 1000–1066: A History of the Later Anglo-Saxon Church (Second ed.). New York: Longman. ISBN 0-582-49049-9. 
  • Blair, John (2002). "A Handlist of Anglo-Saxon Saints". In Thacker, Alan; Sharpe, Richard. Local Saints and Local Churches in the Early Medieval West. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. pp. 495–565. ISBN 0-19-820394-2. 
  • Brooke, Christopher; Brooke, Rosalind (1996). Popular Religion in the Middle Ages: Western Europe 1000–1300 (Reprint ed.). New York: Barnes & Noble. ISBN 0-7607-0093-1. 
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  • Fletcher, R. A. (2003). Bloodfeud: Murder and Revenge in Anglo-Saxon England. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-516136-X. 
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  • Nilson, Ben (1998). Cathedral Shrines of Medieval England. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press. ISBN 0-85115-540-5. 
  • Rumble, Alexander R. (2012). "From Winchester to Canterbury: Ælheah and Stigand – Bishops, Archbishops and Victims". In Rumble, Alexander R. Leaders of the Anglo-Saxon Church: From Bede to Stigand. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press. pp. 165–182. ISBN 978-1-84383-700-8. 
  • Stenton, F. M. (1971). Anglo-Saxon England (Third ed.). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-280139-5. 
  • Southern, Richard (1941). "St Anselm and His English Pupils". Mediaeval and Renaissance Studies. I: 5. 
  • The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Translated by Swanton, Michael James. New York: Routledge. 1998. ISBN 0-415-92129-5. 
  • Walsh, Michael J. (2007). A New Dictionary of Saints: East and West. London: Burns & Oats. ISBN 0-86012-438-X. 
  • Williams, Ann (2003). Aethelred the Unready: The Ill-Counselled King. London: Hambledon & London. ISBN 1-85285-382-4. 
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Further reading

  • McDougal, I. (1993). "Serious Entertainments: an examination of a peculiar type of Viking atrocity". Anglo-Saxon England. 22: 201–25. doi:10.1017/s0263675100004385. 
Christian titles
Preceded by
Bishop of Winchester
Succeeded by
Cenwulf of Winchester
Preceded by
Ælfric of Abingdon
Archbishop of Canterbury
Succeeded by

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