19 April 2019

Holy Hieromartyr Ælfhéah of Canterbury

Saint Ælfhéah of Canterbury, Archbishop and Martyr

One of the great holy martyrs of the English Church, Ælfhéah of Canterbury (nowadays often rendered as ‘Alphege’), is celebrated today in the Orthodox Church. Born in 953 near Bath in Somerset to a high-born mother who was widowed when Ælfhéah was yet very young, he was drawn to the monastic way of life from a very early age. Despite the initial entreaties of his mother to stay with her, at some time during his twenties he left the sæcular life and entered the Benedictine Priory of Saint Mary at Deerhurst near Tewkesbury. He spent several years there in a humble life of service to God and his brothers, and became a particularly beloved spiritual support to the younger monks; at some point he was prevailed upon to become the prior at Glastonbury Abbey.

However, he eventually desired – as Saint Gúðlác had before him – to retire from the communal life and to pursue a life of solitary battle against the spiritual powers. To this end he returned to his mother’s side and to his birthplace in Bath, where he established a solitary cell. A number of disciples still gathered around him; these became the first brethren of a great monastery at Bath, at which Saint Ælfhéah was (reluctantly) appointed Abbot in 980 by his friend and kinsman Archbishop Saint Dúnstán of Canterbury.

As a Benedictine Abbot in Bath, Ælfhéah became an enthusiastic supporter of the reformist tendency of Archbishops Dúnstán and Osweald. The Benedictines of Bath had apparently grown lax in their observances – Ælfhéah singled out these slothful and self-loving monks for special censure, saying that it was better for a man’s soul to stay a layman in the world than to become a bad monk. His vigorous reforms to the monastic life in Bath were ultimately successful, and they were matched with an inner asceticism on his part and a matchless generosity and compassion for the poor. His almsgiving from the abbey stores was total, which made him particularly well-loved among the lay community in Bath.

Upon the repose of Bishop Saint Æþelwold of Winchester, Archbishop Saint Dúnstán again prevailed upon his kinsman in Bath to take the honour of the bishopric as his successor in 984. This too was a case of nolo efiscofari: it was only woth the greatest reluctance and the repeated insistence of Saint Dúnstán that he accepted. Even as a bishop, he persisted in his caritative form of asceticism: he was so generous in his tenure as bishop that it was said there were soon to be found no more beggars in the whole diocæse. In addition to this, Saint Ælfhéah commissioned, built and patronised a number of new churches in Winchester, and encouraged the local culti of Saints Swíþhún and Æþelwold of Winchester. During the bishopric of Ælfhéah, Winchester became one of the healthiest and most dynamic sees in the whole country.

The English people, however, lived under a constant threat: that of the emboldened Danes, who took advantage of the political weakness of the English king Æþelræd Unrǽd in the wake of his half-brother Saint Éadweard’s murder. The unlucky English king was forced by a string of early defeats to essentially buy off the Danes í víking, paying them a heavy tribute of silver – danegeld – to leave them alone. For obvious reasons, this proved to be an unreliable long-term strategy.

It was largely Saint Ælfhéah’s idea to split apart the alliance of the Danes with the Norwegians in order to break the former’s power to make war on England. This was to be done by approaching Ólafr Tryggvason, whose raiders had tried to sack London but were beaten off by the townsfolk. His men wintered at Southampton, and it was there that Bishop Ælfhéah met him. Ólafr konung had been baptised before (but not confirmed) in the Celtic tradition, and it was not hard for Ælfhéah to get him to accept chrismation with Æþelræd king as sponsor – and to get from him his word that he would leave English shores and not return. As it turned out, the fierce Norwegian who bowed his neck to Christ was true to his word, and never harried English strands again. Saint Dúnstán’s trust in his younger kinsman had indeed been well-placed.

This little manœuvre bought a few years’ frith for free England: the Danes no longer had the numbers to carry out the kinds of attacks they were wont to threaten. It also added to Saint Ælfhéah’s reputation as a churchman and diplomat. Ælfhéah spent twenty-two years as Bishop of Winchester before being elevated to the Archbishopric of Canterbury in 1005 – whereupon he brought the head of Saint Swíþhún with him and did his best to encourage the veneration of both Saints Swíþhún and the more recent Dúnstán. He undertook a pilgrimage to Rome to receive his omophor. After returning from Rome, he took part at a witan at Enham Alamein, wherein he made a rousing plea for the king to improve the kingdom’s defences. His plea was well-timed: the English folk were in greater plight than before, as by 1011 the Danes were striking again, fiercer and faster than hitherto. One band was led by a man named Þórketill ‘the High’ (‘inn hávi’), a grandson of Gormr gamli, and the other band was led by his brother Hemmingr and his companion Eiláfr.

The Danes even assailed the walls of the Churchly burgh itself. Betrayed from within by the archdeacon Ælfmær of Canterbury Abbey, the Danes poured into Canterbury. And once inside they did as Vikings usually did and had done all across England for the past century and a half: burn, rape, kill, pillage and take hostages. The Danes lay hold of Bishop Godwine, Abbot Leofwine of Canterbury, the king’s reeve Ælfweard, and Archbishop Ælfhéah himself – but they let the treacherous Ælfmær go. They began demanding ransom of their captives.

The witan led by Æþelræd Unrǽd offered a series of ransoms totalling £48,000 to the Danes under Þórketill to release the captives and leave England, but they demanded an extra £3,000 in gold for the person of Archbishop Ælfhéah. This, Ælfhéah refused to pay, and refused to let anyone pay for him – as he knew the money would be wrung from the poor folk of England whom he dearly loved, and he would not allow his own skin to be spared at their cost. This roused the fury of the Danes against him, and as they feasted in drunkenness one night in Greenwich, they brought him out before them and demanded again the ransom for his life. Again he refused. The drunken Danes then began beating the Archbishop and pelting him with the bones from their feast. They tortured him thus for a long time, and when Þórketill himself heard of it he tried to stop his men – according to one version of the story even offering them everything he had save his ship, if they would spare his life – but in their drunken frenzy they would not heed him. At last one of the Danes took an axe-handle and, meaning it as a kindness, struck Ælfhéah a killing blow with it to end his suffering. Thus the martyr met his repose.

For several days, the Danes refused to allow Ælfhéah to be buried. However, some of his blood happened to fall on a dead branch, which after those several days they found to be growing roots and sprouting green, living new leaves. The heathen, thinking this wonder to have been a sign from Frigg, fearfully bore the dead Archbishop’s body to London and delivered it into the keeping of the bishops there, who interred it with all due wonder. Saint Ælfhéah was at once considered by the people of London and Canterbury to be a martyr for the faith.

This episode seems to have a profound impact on Þórketill, who was outraged by his men’s failure to obey him in the matter of the martyred Archbishop. The Dane took a handful of his trusted hirðmenn and forty-five long-ships, and defected from his own army, seeking service instead with Æþelræd. He also sought to be baptised as a Christian, and so he lived the rest of his days. The relics of Saint Ælfhéah stayed only a brief time in London, for when the Danish Cnut was king of England, at the behest of his believing wife Ælfgifu and in repentance for his former deeds, he had the relics of the martyr translated back to a place of honour in the city of Canterbury.

It is clear that Ælfhéah is indeed a saint and martyr. But his martyrdom is peculiar in that, though it was brought upon him to suffer at the hands of heathen, he did not suffer specifically in odium fidei, as the Latins say. His suffering was instead for the sake of his neighbours, for the sake of the poor folk of Canterbury – which is also a form of suffering for Christ. His refusal to brook any ransom money paid on his behalf to the Danes bespeaks, indeed, an œconomic concern for the well-being of the people in his parish; the same concern as motivated his almsgiving in Winchester. Saint Ælfhéah’s sort of witness for Christ has a tendency to beguile the disbelieving and to baffle the modern believer – who is taught to embrace a false dichotomy between ‘materialist’ and ‘spiritual’ ideas when it comes to his neighbour’s wants. But Saint Ælfhéah was similar to the Desert Fathers in this respect, to the Russian hermits, and later to Nikolai Berdyaev who said ‘the question of bread for my neighbour is a spiritual question’. Saint Ælfhéah was keenly aware that the money that would have bought his freedom, was the blood and the tears and the bread of the poor. Sparing his neighbour, Saint Ælfhéah truly did ‘lay down his life for his friends’, and it is Saint John who assures us that this is indeed the greatest love.

Holy Hieromartyr Ælfhéah of Canterbury, pray to Christ our God for us sinners!

No comments:

Post a Comment