Saint Elphege, Bishop, Martyr

April 19

Today is the feast day of Saint Elphege.  Ora pro nobis.

Saint Elphege (Alphege, Aelfheah, also called Godwine ) was born near Bath, England.  He entered religious life early on, giving up his inheritance, and leaving his widowed mother to enter the monastery at Deerhurst Abbey in Gloucestershire. (3)

He became a monk in the monastery of Deerhurst, near Tewkesbury, England, and afterwards lived as a hermit near Bath, where he founded a community under the rule of Saint Benedict and became its first abbot. (1)

After some years there he was made Bishop of Winchester. In 994 Elphege administered confirmation to Olaf of Norway at Andover, and it is suggested that his patriotic spirit inspired the decrees of the Council of Enham. In 1006, on becoming Archbishop of Canterbury, he went to Rome for the pallium. (5)

In 1011, Danish war parties again invaded England, overrunning the country, and laying siege to Canterbury. Saint Alphege, along with many other political and Church officials, were captured and held for ransom. While most of the ransoms were paid, Alphege would not allow his own (a staggering sum in those days) to be paid, as he recognized that his congregation did not have the money required.  (3)

He answered that he had no other gold to offer them than that of true wisdom, which consists in the knowledge and worship of the living God: which if they refused to listen to, they would one day fare worse than Sodom; adding, that their empire would not long subsist in England. (7)

His captors got drunk one night and, angry at his defiance, they pelted the poor man with ox-bones. Their leader, Earl Thorkell, tried to save him, but his men were uncontrollable The dying Archbishop was finally put out of his misery through a blow from an axe wielded by a sympathetic Dane, named Thrum, whom he had converted whilst a prisoner.

The murder took place where the current parish church of St. Alphege now stands in Greenwich. He lay there for several days, the Viking warriors refusing him a descent burial. However, when a dead stick, which had become anointed with his blood, grew green again and began to blossom – a power attributed to the pagan goddess, Dia Feronia – they relented and carried St. Elphege ‘s body to London. Here, Bishops Ednoth of Dorchester and Elfhun of London buried him in St. Paul’s Cathedral. By his countrymen,  Elphege was justly esteemed a martyr and pilgrims flocked to his side. In 1023 however, London lost its most holy of relics. King Canute the Dane was prevailed upon by his pious queen, Emma, to make amends for the cruelty and sacrilege which the followers of his father had committed in England. He removed the body of St. Elphege   to Canterbury Cathedral, where it was laid in a noble tomb, near the high altar, and the cathedral was enriched by many costly gifts from the King and Queen.

His principal feast is the date of his death, 19th of April; but his translation is also celebrated on 8th June. He is represented in art as an Archbishop, sometimes with an axe cleaving his skull. (6)

Image: Saint Elphege, artist: Vincent of Beauvais, circa 1400-1410 (8)

Research by Ed Masters, REGINA Staff


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