Ælfheah of Canterbury

Ælfheah[a][b] (c. 953 – 19 April 1012) 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 during the Siege of Canterbury and later 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.


Archbishop of Canterbury
St. Alphege, Archbishop of Canterbury, is asked for advice
A 15th-century illuminated manuscript showing Ælfheah being asked for advice
Term ended19 April 1012
PredecessorÆlfric of Abingdon
Other postsAbbot of Bath Abbey
Bishop of Winchester
Consecration19 October 984
Personal details
Bornc. 953
Weston, Somerset, England
Died19 April 1012
Greenwich, Kent, England
BuriedCanterbury Cathedral
Feast day19 April
Venerated inCatholic Church;[1] Anglican Communion;[2]
by Pope Gregory VII
AttributesArchbishop holding an axe[3]
PatronageGreenwich; Solihull; kidnap victims[4]
ShrinesCanterbury 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.[9] 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,[10] 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.[10]

Probably due to the influence of Dunstan, the Archbishop of Canterbury (959–988), Ælfheah was elected Bishop of Winchester in 984,[11][12] and was consecrated on 19 October that year.[9] 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.[9] 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.[9]

In 1006 Ælfheah succeeded Ælfric as Archbishop of Canterbury,[17][18] taking Swithun's head with him as a relic for the new location.[9] 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,[9] 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][c] 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"[d] 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.[9] In 1023 his body was moved by King Cnut to Canterbury, with great ceremony.[30][e] 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.[9] 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.[9]

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 the town of Solihull in the West Midlands St Alphege Church is dedicated to Ælfheah dating back to approximately 1277.[41] 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.[42]


  1. ^ Old English: Ælfhēah, "elf-high"
  2. ^ Officially remembered as Saint Alphege within some churches,[2][3] and also called Elphege, Alfege,[5] or Godwine.[6]
  3. ^ How exactly Ælfheah had saved Ælfmaer's life is not recorded in any source.[9]
  4. ^ "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]
  5. ^ Except perhaps for a finger, which a later tradition held was given by Cnut to Westminster Abbey.[31]


  1. ^ a b Delaney Dictionary of Saints pp. 29–30
  2. ^ a b Holford-Strevens, et al. Oxford Book of Days pp. 160–161
  3. ^ a b "St. Alphege". Catholic Online. Retrieved 18 February 2009.
  4. ^ "Saint Alphege of Winchester". Saints. SPQN. Archived from the original on 19 March 2009. Retrieved 18 February 2009.
  5. ^ a b Rumble "From Winchester to Canterbury" Leaders of the Anglo-Saxon Church p. 173
  6. ^ a b Rumble "From Winchester to Canterbury" Leaders of the Anglo-Saxon Church p. 165
  7. ^ "Alphege, Saint and Martyr". St. Alphege's Church, Bath. Archived from the original on 10 January 2011. Accessed 14 August 2009
  8. ^ a b c Knowles, et al. Heads of Religious Houses, England and Wales pp. 28, 241
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Leyser "Ælfheah" Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
  10. ^ a b Rumble "From Winchester to Canterbury" Leaders of the Anglo-Saxon Church p. 166
  11. ^ Fryde, et al. Handbook of British Chronology p. 223
  12. ^ Barlow English Church 1000–1066 p. 109 footnote 5
  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. ^ a b Walsh New Dictionary of Saints p. 28
  18. ^ a b 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. ^ a b Williams Æthelred the Unready pp. 106–107
  25. ^ a b Hindley Brief History of the Anglo-Saxons p. 301
  26. ^ Barlow English Church 1000–1066 pp. 209–210
  27. ^ a b 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 – SolihullParish". www.solihullparish.org.uk. Archived from the original on 25 April 2017. Retrieved 24 April 2017.
  42. ^ "St Alphege's Church: The Building". St Alphege's Church, Bath. Archived from the original on 26 February 2012. 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.
  • Delaney, John P. (1980). Dictionary of Saints (Second ed.). Garden City, NY: Doubleday. ISBN 0-385-13594-7.
  • Fletcher, R. A. (2003). Bloodfeud: Murder and Revenge in Anglo-Saxon England. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-516136-X.
  • Fryde, E. B.; Greenway, D. E.; Porter, S.; Roy, I. (1996). Handbook of British Chronology (Third revised ed.). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-56350-X.
  • Hindley, Geoffrey (2006). A Brief History of the Anglo-Saxons: The Beginnings of the English Nation. New York: Carroll & Graf. ISBN 978-0-7867-1738-5.
  • Holford-Strevens, Leofranc; Blackburn, Bonnie J. (2000). The Oxford Book of Days. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-866260-2.
  • Knowles, David; London, Vera C. M.; Brooke, Christopher (2001). The Heads of Religious Houses, England and Wales, 940–1216 (Second ed.). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-80452-3.
  • Leyser, Henrietta (2006). "Ælfheah (d. 1012)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (October 2006 ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/181. Retrieved 7 November 2007. (subscription or UK public library membership required)
  • 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.
  • Williams, Ann (2000). The English and the Norman Conquest. Ipswich, UK: Boydell Press. ISBN 0-85115-708-4.

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.

External links

Christian titles
Preceded by
Bishop of Winchester
Succeeded by
Cenwulf of Winchester
Preceded by
Ælfric of Abingdon
Archbishop of Canterbury
Succeeded by
1010s in England

Events from the 1010s in England.

Adelard of Ghent

Adelard of Ghent was an 11th-century biographer of Saint Dunstan.

April 19

April 19 is the 109th day of the year (110th in leap years) in the Gregorian calendar. There are 256 days remaining until the end of the year.

Cissa of Crowland

Cissa of Crowland was a saint in the medieval Fenlands. He was the successor of Guthlac as abbot of Crowland, and is mentioned in Felix' Vita Guthlaci. According to the Crowland Chronicle his tomb was next to Guthlac's, and like the tomb of Guthlac, was destroyed by the Scandinavians. His relics were translated to Thorney Abbey in the 10th-century.


Saint Credan of Evesham (died 19 August 780) is a saint in the calendar of the Roman Catholic Church and of the Orthodox Church. He is also known in Latin as Credus or Credanus.


Dachuna was a medieval virgin saint venerated in Cornwall. Probably British in origin, Dachuna is known from the list of resting-places of Hugh Candidus, authored c. 1155. Dachuna, along with Medan and Credan, were allegedly associates of Saint Petroc, whom they rested alongside at the church of Bodmin.

Eadric Streona

Eadric Streona (died 1017) was Ealdorman of Mercia from 1007 to 1017. Eadric was given the epithet "Streona" (translated as "The Acquisitive”) in Hemming's Cartulary because he appropriated church land and funds for himself. Eadric became infamous in the medieval age because of his traitorous actions during the Danish re-conquest of England.

Eadric was one of at least eight children and had relatively humble beginnings: his father Ethelric attended the court of King Ethelred the Unready, but was of no great significance and is not known to have had any titles. Even before becoming an ealdorman, Eadric seems to have acted as Ethelred's enforcer; in 1006 he instigated the killing of the Ealdorman of York, Elfhelm. Eadric was married to Ethelred's daughter Edith by 1009, thus becoming his son-in-law. Eadric was appointed Ealdorman of Mercia in 1007.

As an ealdorman, Eadric played an important role in the affairs of the kingdom. In 1009 he negotiated with marauding Vikings to save the life of Archbishop Ælfheah of Canterbury, which proved to be unsuccessful. Eadric also continued to organise the killings of prominent nobles — supposedly upon orders of the king. However, he betrayed his father-in-law in 1015, joining the Dane Cnut, the son of Sweyn Forkbeard, against England.

Accompanying his new liege Cnut, Eadric went on a campaign of plundering throughout England until in the summer of 1016, when a series of major battles were fought with Edmund Ironside, the successor of the deceased king Ethelred. The decisive battle was fought at Assandun on 18 October 1016. Eadric by that time had returned to his brother-in-law's side, but he fled the field with his men for uncertain reasons, though it was possibly pre-planned. After peace was made between Cnut and Edmund, Eadric was allowed to remain earl, however after a year Cnut had Eadric killed at London during the Christmas festivities in 1017.

Ecgberht of Ripon

Saint Ecgberht (or Egbert) (died 729) was an Anglo-Saxon monk of Northumbria and Bishop of Lindisfarne.

Elfin of Warrington

Elfin of Warrington is a little-known saint venerated in medieval Warrington, near the modern city of Liverpool. He is known only from one entry in the Domesday Book, his cult or church holding one carucate of land. The name is Brittonic, derived from Latin Alpinus.


Hædde (died 705) was a medieval monk and Bishop of Winchester.


Milred (died 774) (also recorded as Mildred and Hildred) was an Anglo-Saxon prelate who served as Bishop of Worcester from circa 744 until his death in 774.


This article is about the Christian saint. For the customer relationship management and business process management software see Pegasystems.

Pega (c. 673-c.719), is a Christian saint who was an anchoress in the ancient Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia, and the sister of Saint Guthlac.

Saint Aldate

Saint Aldate (died 577) was a bishop of Gloucester, venerated as a saint with the feast day of February 4. Aldate's life is not detailed historically, but he was probably a Briton killed by the Anglo-Saxons at Deorham. He is reported to have roused the countryside to resist pagan invasion forces. He is mentioned in the Sarum and other martyrologies; his feast occurs in a Gloucester calendar (14th-century addition); churches were dedicated to him at Gloucester and Oxford, as well as a famous Oxford street: St Aldate's, Oxford and a minor street in Gloucester. But nothing seems to be known of him: it was even suggested that his name was a corruption of 'old gate'.

Saint Sidwell

Sidwell (Latin: Sativola) was a virgin saint from the English county of Devon, possibly of British origin. Her historical existence is not well established.

Siege of Canterbury

The Siege of Canterbury was a major Viking raid on the city of Canterbury fought between a Viking army led by Thorkell the Tall and the Anglo-Saxons that occurred between 8 and 29 September 1011. The details of the siege are largely unknown, and most of the known events were recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

Wulfsige of Sherborne

Wulfsige was a ninth-century Bishop of Sherborne.


Ælfheah is a given name. Notable people with the name include:

Ælfheah of Canterbury (died 1012), martyred Saint and Archbishop of Canterbury

Ælfheah the Bald (died 951), Saint, and the first Bishop of Winchester

Alphege of Wells (died c. 937), third Bishop of Wells

Elphege of Lichfield (died 1012–1014), Anglo-Saxon Bishop of Lichfield

Ælfheah, Ealdorman of Hampshire, brother of Ælfhere, Ealdorman of Mercia

Ælfwald I of Northumbria

Ælfwald (born 759-767 AD) was king of Northumbria from 779 to 788. He is thought to have been a son of Oswulf, and thus a grandson of Eadberht Eating.

Ælfwald became king after Æthelred son of Æthelwald Moll was deposed in 778. He was murdered, probably at Chesters, by ealdorman Sicga on 23 September 788. He was buried at Hexham Abbey where he was considered a saint.

Ælfwald was succeeded by his first cousin Osred, son of Alhred and Osgifu daughter of Eadberht Eating. Ælfwald's sons Ælf and Ælfwine were killed in 791 on the orders of King Æthelred.


Æthelgar (died 990) was Archbishop of Canterbury, and previously Bishop of Selsey.

British / Welsh
East Anglian
East Saxon
and Old Saxon
Irish and Scottish
South Saxon
West Saxon
Unclear origin
Early Medieval
High Medieval
Late Medieval
Early Modern
Late Modern

This page is based on a Wikipedia article written by authors (here).
Text is available under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license; additional terms may apply.
Images, videos and audio are available under their respective licenses.