The Saxon Cathedral at Canterbury and The Saxon Saints Buried Therein/Chapter 10
ST. ELFRIC, ARCHBISHOP AND CONFESSOR
ELFRIC was the 26th Archbishop of Canterbury, succeeding Sigeric (or Siricius according to the Latinized form) in 995.
This Archbishop has been confounded with four other more or less eminent historical personages of the same name who were his contemporaries; viz. Elfric the Grammarian, a great theological scholar and divine; Elfric, the Archbishop of York; Elfric, who was Abbot of Malmesbury; and Elfric Bata (or The Bat), a monk of Winchester and disciple of Elfric the Grammarian.
Elfric, the Archbishop of Canterbury, had been a monk of Abingdon, where the celebrated Ethelwold was his teacher. Ethelwold's chief delight was to teach young men and boys, and give them rules for grammar: by his pleasant and delightful conversation he drew them to better and higher things, for he was a popular master, and is reported to have invented "cribs" for his pupils by turning Latin books into English.
Matthew Paris, in his Historia Anglorum says that Elfric the Archbishop was brother to Leofric who was the son of Eardwulf, ealdorman of Kent, a benefactor to Canterbury. It is possible that Elfric's mother had made a second marriage after the death of his own father, whose name is not known. Matthew Paris gives a long account of these two half-brothers, who both joined the abbey of St. Alban's, but modern authorities discredit much of what he says, for as the Rev. William Hunt declares in the Dictionary of National Biography, "it is wholly incomprehensible."
It is agreed, however, that Elfric became the 10th Abbot of St Alban's, being installed by Oswald, Bishop of Worcester and Archbishop of York; and on his elevation to the Bishopric of Ramsbury in A.D. 990 his half-brother Leofric was elected Abbot to succeed him.
His translation to Canterbury is omitted by William of Malmesbury; but under date A.D. 995 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, we read:—"This year was Elfric consecrated Archbishop at Christ Church (Canterbury)." The previous year notes the date of his election: "A.D. 994, this year Archbishop Siric died and Elfric Bishop of Ramsbury was chosen on Easter Day, April 21, at Amesbury by King Ethelred and all his Council."
In that particular MS. of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in the British Museum (Cotton MS. Domitian A. viii) which appears to have originally belonged to the Library of Christ Church, Canterbury, and indeed to have been compiled within its walls and written in its scriptorium, are many references to Kent. Amongst them is the story of how Archbishop Elfric on arrival at his Cathedral was, much to his disgust, received by clerks and not by monks. It is curious that the references in this MS. to the expelling of Seculars and the filling up of their places by Regulars at Canterbury, are mostly additions added after the original transcription of the MS. and appear in the margin or on inserted scraps of vellum. It should be remembered that this particular MS. was written at the end of the eleventh, or the beginning of the twelfth century, and that these interpolations were probably influenced by a very natural monastic ambition on behalf of the Benedictine Priory at Canterbury for its glorification.
The statement that "Elfric was a very wise man, and that there was no saner man in England" we can accept unhesitatingly. It is the glory of the Church in England that we are able to say that most of its Archbishops of Canterbury bore the same character; but the special pleading found in this MS. as to the presence of monks in Christ Church Cathedral before the Conquest will scarcely be accepted by the students of Church History. Elfric was consecrated in 996, the year after his election to Canterbury, and as he had already been consecrated to Ramsbury, this statement probably means installation and enthronization on the reception of the pallium.
The Archbishop was a man of undoubted ability, but his learning has been overshadowed by his namesake Elfric the Grammarian, whose works in the Anglo-Saxon language are prodigious. He also had been a monk at Abingdon, and later was "monk and mass-priest at Cerne," and later Abbot of Eynsham. He taught that particular theology and doctrine to the Anglo-Saxons five hundred years afterwards was stated by the Reformers to be the Theology and Doctrine of the Church of England, and it certainly was accepted as such in his own day. This man appears to have the better claim to the title of "Saint" than the Archbishop, but contemporary writers do certainly also speak of the Archbishop's ability as being remarkable. He died in November, 1005, and was buried first at Abingdon, but during the reign of Canute his body was translated to Canterbury.
His will, in Anglo-Saxon and Latin, is given at length by Thorpe in his Diplomatarium Anglicum Aevi Saxonici, p. 549; it is from the Cotton MS. Claud, B. vi. fol. 103, and Claud, C. ix. fol. 125 verso.
Upon the translation of the body of the Archbishop from Abingdon to Canterbury by Canute, it was buried in the church of St. John. After the fire of 1067, the remains were placed in a coffin and removed to the upper vault in the north transept; and after the choir of the Cathedral was enlarged in the time of St. Anselm, they were deposited about 1121 at the altar of St. John the Evangelist in the northern apse of the south-eastern transept. In the inventory made in the time of Prior Henry of Eastry (1321) the remains, probably only bones in a chest, lay where it had been deposited nearly two centuries before. And in a MS. of the time of Archbishop Warham in the sixteenth century now amongst the Parker MSS. at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, it is stated that the relics of Elfric "lie upon a beam before the altar of Saints John the Baptist and Evangelist in the south part of the Choir." At this time the relics were certainly in a chest or shrine and placed upon the beam which went across the apse, where they remained until the Dissolution. Upon the issue of the Injunctions put forth in the name of Edward VI in 1547, they were taken down and probably buried beneath the pavement at this spot.
The name of St. Elfric does not occur in any extant Canterbury Kalendar, possibly he was commemorated with others on All Saints Day only.
- British Museum, Galba, E. IV.
- Legg and Hope, Inventories of Christ Church, Canterbury, p. 35.