28 November 2018

Holy Hierarch Ælfríc of Abingdon and Canterbury

Abingdon Abbey

The feast of Saint Ælfríc of Abingdon, the late tenth-century Archbishop of Canterbury and successor to Saint Dúnstán in that office, is celebrated tomorrow on the Orthodox Old Calendar. Ælfríc belonged to a family of well-born Kentish Jutes, and he spent much of his early career as a simple Benedictine monk at Abingdon Abbey in Berkshire. Being high-born, he was not well-fit for bookish pursuits, but as a man of his time he found his calling in shielding his flock from Danish sea-raids with his body during the ill-fated reign of Æþelræd II ‘Unræd’ in England.

Ælfríc took well, it seems, to the monastic life, and he was chosen as abbot for the Cathedral and Abbey Church of Saint Alban in Herts; after this, he was given the Bishopric of Ramsbury in the year 990 and the Archbishopric of Canterbury in 995. He was (and this was a particularly crucial issue in this era of the English Church) a bold and vocal champion of the rights of monasteries vis-à-vis sæcular lords and kings, who regularly attempted to wrest control of lands from the Church as well as the right to make appointments of high clergy. (This issue came to a head, not coincidentally, in the wake of the Great Schism, and has never really gone away. It is indeed a problem in some Orthodox jurisdictions.) Ælfríc managed to secure for his home abbey of Abingdon in particular the right to elect their own abbots internally, as well as getting rulers to return lands that had been taken from the abbey since the death of a former abbot of Abingdon, Æþelwold.

Æþelræd ‘Unræd’ was particularly egregious in this regard, in the early part of his reign. He had appointed a political yes-man to head Abingdon, and had proceeded to take Church lands and distribute them to his vassals. Ælfríc was instrumental, as bishop, in getting Æþelræd to repent of his anti-clerical actions. As Abingdon’s biography of Ælfríc states:
Æþelwold had adopted a French practice of including in his charters statements that anyone breaking their terms to the detriment of the monks would be under a curse. Nonetheless, after 984 when both Æþelwold and Osgar died, King Æþelræd gave the abbacy to an unsuitable candidate in exchange for a large sum of money and began to take over and disperse the Abbey’s endowments. In the early 990s, with the resumption of intense and destructive Viking incursions, Æþelræd became convinced that the curse was taking effect. There was a negotiation in which Ælfríc must have taken a major part, and at Pentecost (Whitsun) 993, at a large gathering in Winchester, the king admitted his faults and issued a charter of reconciliation. The monks had shown their forgiveness by asking God to forgive him. They had celebrated 1500 masses and completed a thousand ‘singings’ of psalms for the king’s soul, and he now guaranteed the abbey’s liberties and began a lengthy process of returning its properties. Ælfríc was one of the first of a long list of witnesses to the charter. He was also given one of the disputed estates, which he duly left to the abbey in his will.
Though this is the only example that the sæcular Abingdon biography gives, we see in Ælfríc’s letters that this was neither a lone nor a self-serving stance; indeed, he is consistent in his epistolary exhortations to the laity to be just and fair in their dealings, merciful to the poor, generous to orphans and widows, meek and peaceable in their interactions with each other; and there is good evidence to suggest that as abbot he made himself an example in all of these things. Ælfríc was apparently far better at being an abbatial administrator than he was a scholar or ascetic; even so, he commissioned hagiographic works commemorating his predecessors, Æþelwold and Dúnstán. As Archbishop of Canterbury he also championed and deepened Æþelwold’s policy of reforms against simony and finical abuses of church property, for which he was accounted a ‘beacon among the bishops’.

However, in addition to all of this, when the Danes began raiding the Kentish shoreline Ælfríc seems to have taken up arms in defence of his home (as indeed, in time of distress, some of the monks of Radonezh did when the Tatars attacked Russia at the Battle of Kulikovo). His will, additionally, leaves to the English king a number of ships and a store of military equipment, and a request that with the receipt of this gift by the king, the military levies on the common folk be reduced. Even though the deeds which he himself is supposed to have done against the Danes have been lost to time, his epitaph at Abingdon describes him as a ‘Defender of the Kingdom’ and ‘Guardian of the Homeland of the English’, which seem to indicate a certain degree of military exploit during his time as bishop.

The hagiographic and sæcular treatments of the life of Ælfríc show us the portrait of a Teutonic atheling – not particularly learnèd, not particularly ascetic in the conventional sense, still possessed of a certain degree of warlike thumos and ambition, but a man nevertheless who had learned in some degree to moderate these worldly faults and bend them to serve the Church. In other words, Ælfríc was a gentleman in the mediæval sense: a fighter who held himself in check, a lordling who noted his inborn pride and yoked it to the defence of the Church’s rights against his own kin by way of blood and by way of the world. We may also see in his example, someone who understood his own strengths and lay down his body to shield the weak, to guard his beloved Kent against heathen Danes gone a-viking when the strength of his king failed. In both of these things, we can see a different, but no less honourable, form of askēsis.

Holy Hierarch Ælfríc of Canterbury, pray to God for us sinners!

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