The Saxon Cathedral at Canterbury and The Saxon Saints Buried Therein/Chapter 11

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THE original life of St. Alphage was written by Osbern, monk of Christ Church Priory, in 1070, but was finished by Edmer. To this foundation many writers have added as more knowledge came to hand.

St. Alphage was born of noble and virtuous parents who gave him a good education. As a youth he renounced the world, the flesh and the Devil, going rather against the wish of his mother to the monastery of Deerhurst in Gloucestershire, where he began "to live to God," though in his desire for greater perfection he felt that his foot was not even yet on the lowermost rung of the ladder. Here he became servus servorum Dei, but feeling that life in a community was not strict enough he built himself a hut at Bath, and lived there the life of either an anchorite or a hermit. He was visited and consulted by all classes of people, to whom he gave such perfect instruction with such profound humility that many joined his way of life, becoming monks and members of his congregation. The Chronicler Florence of Worcester says that he became Abbot of Bath, and it is likely, as that abbey was refounded for a community of monks in 970, whose seal we have already referred to (see page 11).

Here after a time Alphage lamented the irregularities of the brethren. He would say that "it was much better for a man to have stayed in the world than to be an imperfect monk," and "to wear the habit of a saint, without having the spirit, was a perpetual lie; an hypocrisy which insults, but could never impose, on Almighty God," maxims which, in the twentieth century, are as true as in the tenth, and still more needed to be taken to heart.

In 984 Ethelwold, Bishop of Winchester, died, and Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury (admonished by St. Andrew in a vision, as he believed), called upon the Abbot to leave his monastery at Bath, take on the office of Bishop and administer the See of Winchester. Ethelwold, the late Bishop, had evacuated the secular clerks who had been serving that Cathedral, and had installed Regulars. Both classes of clergy were, therefore, interested in the appointment of his successor. The choice of the Archbishop was wise—Alphage was a holy and devoted Bishop, as the history of his life shows. He ruled the See for twenty-two years, and it was whilst he was Bishop of Winchester that an event occurred which probably gave rise in after years to the terrible hatred which Osbern says was exhibited and the animosity which was shown at the martyrdom of the saint by the heathen Danes; this was on account of his preaching and the success which attended it.

Olaf of Norway and Sweyn of Denmark "sat," as the Chronicler says, in Southampton in the winter of 994, the King, Ethelred the Unready, sent the Bishop of the Diocese, Alphage, as an Ambassador to the Northerners. Olaf was already a Christian—at least he had been baptized in his own land by English missionaries; he travelled with Alphage to Andover to meet Ethelred, and whilst there he received the rite of Confirmation from the Bishop, and at the same time made a solemn promise, which he kept, that he would never invade the Realm of England again.[1]

This confession of Faith on the part of the Norwegian King so angered the Pagans, that they took the barbarous revenge on the Bishop when they had him in their power in after years.

Alphage, when he became Bishop of Winchester, was about thirty years of age. He was an ascetic from the beginning of his career. We are told that even in winter, he rose at midnight, and went out, however cold it might be, and prayed, barefoot and without even putting on his scapular, i.e. the upper garment of the monk. He only very occasionally ate flesh meat, and was no less remarkable for charity to his neighbours than for severity to himself. During his time there were no beggars in the Diocese of Winchester.

At the age of fifty-two years he was, on the death of Elfric, translated to Canterbury. He who had trembled at the idea of becoming Bishop of Winchester, was terrified at the prospect of becoming Archbishop of Canterbury. He was translated in 1005 and immediately went to Rome for the pallium. On his return he held in 1009 a great National Council at Enham, in which thirty-two Canons were published for the reformation of errors and abuses and the establishment of discipline, amongst them the ancient law of the "Friday Fast" was confirmed; they also provided against heathenism, lawlessness and the sale of slaves, especially to heathen men; the setting up of a Navy and of an Army,—but as Ethelred the Unready was King all these provisions came to naught.[2]

As it was during the Archiepiscopate of St. Alphage that the Danish invasions culminated in the attack on the City of Canterbury, the massacre of the inhabitants, and the captivity and martyrdom of the Archbishop, it is necessary to enter into this period of our history in rather more detail.

From the year 787 when the first ships of the Danes sought the land of the English, the Saxon Cathedral was in constant and imminent danger of destruction. The eighth, ninth and tenth centuries were, to the English monasteries, times of ruin and desolation. They were the Treasure Houses of the Nation, and consequently it was the Religious House, and not the Parish Church, that the heathen Northmen (as they were called) plundered and burnt. This, I think, accounts for many of these latter buildings coming down to us more or less unscathed.

Whether they were Danes, Norwegians, Saxons, Jutes or Goths, they were all called "Northmen," and the history of their depredations is such that it is a marvel that Christianity in the country survived at all; that it was not wiped out as completely in the northern and eastern parts of the country, as it had been three centuries and a half before by the Saxons, Angles and Jutes.

For the purpose of this history we can only very briefly refer to those invasions which affected the County of Kent; and more particularly the City of Canterbury. The earliest attacks on the latter were in 839 and in 851; on both occasions the Cathedral was unharmed, though the Saxon Chronicle says that on the former date there was great slaughter. It is suggested that on these occasions the enemy was bribed by Archbishop Ceolnoth to desist. Dean Hook refers to the enormous amount of money minted during his occupancy of the See, and the little he left behind him, caused by the drain upon his resources due to what might be called "Blackmail"; but it seems more likely that the city and the Cathedral owed its immunity to the strength of the city walls and the valour of its defenders.

In the year 854, the Danes for the first time wintered in the Isle of Sheppey. In 865 they made their head-quarters in the Isle of Thanet, but on the promise of money they executed a peace with the men of Kent; under the guise of which their army stole out in the night and overran all East Kent. The same kind of cunning was used by later hordes of these pagans, who invaded East Anglia, Mercia, and the north. In 870 they attacked Canterbury again, and Gervase says that the Cathedral suffered rather severely. In 871, Wessex was attacked; and the following year they occupied London for the winter. In 885, Rochester was besieged; but the men of the city, with the help of the army of Alfred the Great, who came to their assistance, defeated them and drove them to their ships. Later Alfred's fleet met sixteen of these Danish pirate ships at Stourmouth on the Wantsum, and sank them, but on their return to their base, they themselves were beset by a larger fleet of the pirates and the Danes secured the victory.

In 930, the Isle of Thanet was again overrun; in 994, Kent suffered burning, plundering and murder; in 999, Rochester was attacked for the second time, but the men of Canterbury were called to their assistance, marched against them and after a fierce battle the heathen were driven into West Kent, which was overrun.

In 1002, a tribute of £24,000 was paid in the way of "blackmail"; and in 1007, £30,000 was demanded and paid. In 1009, Thurkill's army came to Sandwich, and marched to Canterbury, which they would have stormed, but at this time they rather desired peace; and so for the payment of £3,000 a peace with East Kent was secured. In the autumn they returned to Kent and went into winter quarters on the Thames. Two years afterwards, in 1011, the final blow fell on the City of Canterbury.

There can be little doubt that during all these years the City of Canterbury owed its preservation to its well-defended walls and gates, as before mentioned, and it is quite likely that it would not have fallen in 1011 had it not been set on fire.

St. Alphage had ruled for six years as Archbishop, when an army of the Danes, who had ravaged East Anglia, turned westward, and desolated Huntingdonshire, Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire. Then they turned to the east and, coming to Canterbury, encompassed the city with a siege.

According to the Chronicle entitled Flores Historiarum,[3] on the twentieth day of the siege a part of the city was set on fire by the treachery of Almar, Archdeacon of Canterbury, whom Archbishop Alphage had formerly saved from being put to death. The Saxon Chronicle has the same story, but calls Almar, "Elfmar," and "an abbot." Henry of Huntingdon, Simeon of Durham, Florence of Worcester, Gervase of Canterbury, Thorne, Hoveden and others, taking their accounts from the Saxon Chronicle and copying one another almost word for word, continue what might be considered a falsification of history. Henry of Huntingdon does not give him the title of "Archdeacon"; and Brompton styles him simply "a deacon."

Osbern, who wrote the Life of St. Alphage at the request of Lanfranc, in describing the siege says that

"the city was soon brought to great stress through want of provisions; the enemy planted battering-rams against the walls, and threw fire-brands into the city, whereby the houses were presently all in flames. The citizens then forsook the defence of the city walls, to look after their houses, wives and children. By this advantage the enemy made breaches in the walls, entered the city and caused dismal slaughter after a siege of twenty days."

In this account there is no word of any Archdeacon or even of anyone of the name of Almar, as being a betrayer of the city, but only conclusive evidence of the city having been taken by force of arms.

There was at this time, however, an Abbot of St. Austin's whose name was Almar, or Elfmar, but it is impossible now to ascertain what authority later chroniclers had for styling Elfmar the Abbot an Archdeacon. It is suggested by Battely, the continuator of Somner,[4] that the monks of St. Austin's could possibly foresee that in time to come their Abbot might be suspected to be the traitor from the account given in the Saxon Chronicle, and to divert such infamous treachery from an Abbot of the famous monastery of the Benedictine Order, the monks conspired to invest the traitor with the title of Archdeacon, and to set him in Canterbury, where the scene of his villainy was enacted; such as directing the besiegers to attack the walls in certain weak places, or to cast in fire where it would do most mischief.

It is a coincidence that Almar or Elfmar the Abbot and his monastery escaped untouched; Thorne ascribes it to a miracle[5] which has to do with the history of that abbey. It is sufficient to record here that except for the reference to an Almar, in connection with the siege and destruction of Canterbury in the Chronicles mentioned, the name of Almar, or Elfmar, as Archdeacon of Canterbury is unknown.

With regard to Almar or Elfmar the Abbot, it is recorded that he was consecrated as Bishop of Sherborne in 1017 (the See was afterwards removed to Salisbury), and after ruling that See for many years he became blind, so resigning his bishopric he returned to St. Austin's Abbey, where he lived in the infirmary a life of purity and devotion, and dying in the odour of sanctity was buried in the chapel of St. John which was on the south side of the choir of the Abbey Church, over whose grave according to tradition "a heavenly light" was often seen to hover. It seems unthinkable that such a man could have made such shipwreck of his conscience and jeopardized his soul by the act attributed to him. In the light of the Danish love of tribute, it seems much more likely that he purchased his and his abbey's safety by the payment of "blackmail."

To return to the story of the siege, after the city was taken, the pagans set the Cathedral on fire, Edmer says:

these children of Satan piled barrels one upon another and set them on fire, designing thus to burn the roof; already the heat of the flames began to melt the lead which ran down inside."

The Archbishop then appealed to the enemy to save the people, but he was seized, bound and dragged to the churchyard to see the Cathedral in flames, and to witness the defenceless people who had taken refuge in the church, driven forth by the falling of the boiling lead and flames; some were immediately murdered, some thrown back into the flames, others thrown headlong from the walls of the city, etc., etc.

Amidst all these horrors, Godwin the Bishop of Rochester and the Abbess Leofrond, the Mother-Superior of St. Mildred's Nunnery which was probably established in Canterbury at this time, were both taken prisoners, with an innumerable crowd of both sexes.

After that, the Cathedral was stripped and burned; and the whole population decimated, so that nine were slain and the tenth saved; the number of those saved amounted to four monks, and eighty men. The city was plundered and wholly burnt, the Archbishop was dragged to the Fleet and taken to Greenwich, where he remained in prison for seven months; and in order to be compelled to ransom himself was tortured.

It is refreshing to read in the Flores Historiarum[6] that, amidst all these calamities, "the anger of the Divine Mercy so raged against these Infidels that it destroyed two thousand of them by the most excrutiating and fearful torments of the bowels." If we can trust the writers of the Chronicle, this must have been caused by an outbreak of malignant cholera, possibly the first on record in this country.

The Saxon Chronicle, under date 1012, goes on to state that all the oldest Councillors of England, clergy and laity, went to London about Easter to collect a tribute of £48,000 to buy off the Danes; and that on Saturday, the day before Low Sunday, the thirteenth day before the Kalends of May (April 19) because the Archbishop would not promise them any ransom and forbade any man to do so for him, they were stirred against him and having drunk much wine they took him to their hustings and shamefully killed him by overwhelming him with the bones and horns of oxen. A certain Dane, Thrum by name, when he saw the Archbishop smitten down, dashed his axe into his head, and so transformed the Archbishop, who was confessing Christ with all constancy to the last, into a glorious martyr, and sent his exulting soul to Heaven.

There is a picture of the attack on Canterbury, of the driving of the Archbishop on board the ship, and of the final scene at Greenwich, in the third triforium window from the west on the north side of the choir of the Cathedral. The pictures are in three circular medallions; they are remarkable for the beauty of the scroll-work on its ruby ground, and viewed from a little distance a warm rich light floods the space they occupy. They are part of the most beautiful windows in the Cathedral and are of about the year 1200. They were probably formerly in the two triforium windows of St. Anselm's Church, inserted by William of Sens after the fire of 1174, situated over the place for the Easter sepulchre, where the chained Bible now is, where they formed three pictures of a group of six and looked on to the shrine and altar of the martyr whose dust still probably lies beneath its site.

Miracles began early—at Greenwich, a dry log of wood which had been sprinkled with the blood of the martyr, after one night became green again and put forth branches and leaves. At this sight the Infidels became alarmed and after kissing the sacred corpse, permitted it to be carried to London where it was honourably buried in St. Paul's Cathedral.

After the payment of the above-mentioned tribute a convention was made—all the Danes who were in the kingdom were to live peaceably with the English everywhere and both nations should have, as it were, "one heart and one soul." This was confirmed by hostages and oaths given and taken on both sides, after which the Danish King, Sweyn, returned to his own country and persecution ceased in England for a while.

It is recorded by Gervase that the Cathedral has suffered thrice by fire; first when the blessed martyr Alphage was captured by the Danes, and received the crown of martyrdom; secondly in 1067 when Lanfranc, Abbot of Caen, took the rule of the Church of Canterbury, and thirdly in the days of Archbishop Richard and Prior Odo in 1174, four years after the martyrdom of St. Thomas Becket.

We have described the first of these events and shall deal later with the second which brought the Saxon Church to an end, It is now necessary to attempt to discover the amount of damage done by the fire of 1011.

The extract from Osbern, given above, told us how the roof had been set on fire, and from the fact that it melted the lead the fire must have been considerable. Fortunately we have another reference to this: Edmer (Epis. de corp. S. Dunst. Ang. Sac., Tom. II, p. 225) tells us that the church, though it was despoiled of its ornaments, and profaned, yet it was not consumed by the fire with which the furious band assailed it to drive out the Archbishop and his familia; nor were its walls or its roofs destroyed. Having taken the Archbishop, they abandoned the fire; which apparently died out of itself after destroying part of the roof.

The Archbishop who succeeded Alphage was Livingus; he had been translated from Wells to Canterbury in 1013. He is said to have been held prisoner by the Danes for seven months, which is probably the reason for any neglect by him to repair the damage done to the Cathedral, and when he regained his liberty he fled across the sea, whilst the church lay desolate and in ruins. On his return to Canterbury he renewed the roof of the Cathedral, procuring the timber needed from Hase Church of Athelstane; Athelstane or, as the obituary says, Livingus himself also gave them two villages in Surrey, Merstham and Clayham, towards the reparation of the Cathedral.

Livingus died in 1020 and was succeeded by Ethelnoth (1020–1038), who had been Dean of Canterbury and Chaplain to King Canute. He is stated to have restored the Church of Canterbury to its former dignity. He had been the means of converting King Canute, who had succeeded on the death of Sweyn, from being a bloodthirsty barbarian to that of a humble and consistent Christian. The King completely restored the Cathedral, and, moreover, he gave his royal crown of gold to the church, which Edmer says was kept at "the head of the Great Cross in the nave," and he also says that the Queen, Emma, presented to the church the celebrated relic of the arm of St. Bartholomew, which was kept in a silver-gilt receptacle. There was an altar dedicated to St. Bartholomew in the crypt at one time, and it is probable that the relic was kept there.

In the year 1023, the body of the murdered Archbishop, which had been ransomed by the people of London and buried in St. Paul's Cathedral, was translated to Canterbury.

The King was then in London; he, followed by his nobles, went to St. Paul's Cathedral and, as we are told in the Flores Historiarum,[7] lifted the body with his own hands, and Archbishop Ethelnoth, Bishop Britwine, and all God's servants that were with them (Saxon Chronicle), on the 6th day before the Ides of June (June 7), together with the diocesan bishops, earls and many others, clergy and laity, carried by ship his holy body over the Thames to Southwark, where the Archbishop and his companions with worthy pomp and sprightly joy carried him to Rochester. Thence, Canute, Queen Emma and her son Hardicanute, and they all with much majesty and bliss and songs of praise, carried the Holy Archbishop into Canterbury and brought him gloriously into the church on the 3rd day before the Ides of June (the 9th); afterwards on the 17th day before the Kalends of July (June 14) the Archbishop, Bishops Elfsey and Britwine and all they that were with them lodged the holy corpse on the north side of the Altar of Christ.

It should be remembered that the body of Archbishop Odo rested on the south side of this altar; and that St. Dunstan had been buried in front of the passage-way leading to the confessio with an altar at his head.

These three Saxon Archbishops, and especially the circumstances of the death of the last, invested the Church of Canterbury with a solemnity and sanctity it had never before possessed. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle speaks of the mighty miracles done at the tomb of St. Alphage at St. Paul's. What might not now take place when the first Martyr of the Anglican Archiepiscopate lay buried in honour in his own Cathedral? The people had already reckoned Alphage as a Saint, but until convinced by Anselm in 1078 Archbishop Lanfranc would not look upon him as a Martyr.

In Canterbury, and throughout the Catholic Church, his day is kept on April 19. In the Kalendar in Register K,[8] it is noted as a Red Letter Day; in that in the Archdeacon's Black Book,[9] it is noted as a Black Letter Day. It is mentioned in the Canterbury Benedictional,[10] and the Canterbury Martyrology.[11] There are no less than five forms of benediction for him in the Canterbury Benedictional; two for April 19, and three for his translation, on June 8; and the day, of course, occurs in Hollingbourne's Psalter.[12] It was St. Alphage who brought with him to Canterbury in 1006, when he became Archbishop, the head of St. Swithin, as recorded by Edmer. This he deposited with other relics in the altar which was placed in the chord of the apse of the Saxon Church, dedicated to Our Lord. The Sacrist at the Cathedral paid for extra music and bells pro sonitu in 1273, the following sums:

on the ordination of St. Alphage vd.
on the day of St. Alphage (Aprl. 19) if in Lent vijd.
on the day of the translation of St. Alphage (8th June) vijd.

In the Roll of Psalms and Collects for Saints' Days in use at the Cathedral (Ch. Ch., Cant, MSS. Y. 68) in the thirteenth century, occurs the following:

De Sancto Elphego

Ad Vesperas
Deus tuorum gloria sacerdotum presta quesumus ut Sancti Maitiris tui atque pontificis Elphegi cuius memoriam agimus senciamus auxilium Per etc.

Ad Laudes, oracio sancti Martiris tui Domine Elphegi nos oracio sancta conciliet que sacris virtutibus veneranda refulget, Per etc.

The jewels and ornaments belonging to the altar of St. Alphage were kept in the Great Cupboard in the church after the enlargement of the choir by St. Anselm in 1100, amongst them was the super altar of St. Alphage and a chalice of gold and crystal enamelled and a paten with pearls, which belonged to St. Alphage himself.

Leland mentions the stone wall (see page 72) behind the High Altar, and between it and the steps leading up to the Archbishop's throne. It was also behind this wall that St. Alphage was buried on the north and St. Dunstan on the south as already stated. Sir William St. John Hope was of opinion that this was

"a stone reredos, no doubt a low wall like that still standing at Westminster Abbey Church, extending across the presbytery and enriched with tabernacle work and imagery on both sides. Against it stood the three altars, viz. The High Altar, and those of St. Alphage and St. Dunstan, with doors between leading to the space behind and to the steps up to the Archbishop's marble chair.[13]

It is interesting to observe that the site of these doors can be accurately placed in a picture of the interior of Canterbury Cathedral of about the time of the Great Rebellion, in the possession of Mr. W. D. Caroe, that portion of the step leading from the Sanctuary on either side of the position of the High Altar being very much worn from constant use.

Prior Chillenden (1390-1411) "ornamented these three altars with work of silver and gold and wood curiously carved."

We have already mentioned the image of St. Alphage which was placed on the beam above the High Altar (see page 72). This image was doubtless behind the altar of St. Alphage and to the north of the Majesty of Our Lord.

Amongst the relics in the list of Prior Eastry's time (1321) is, of course, mentioned the body of St. Alphage in the shrine next the High Altar; and the furnishing of this altar has already been referred to (see page 73).

In the absence of any record it is impossible to say what happened to the shrine and relics at the time of the Suppression of the Monastery (1540), except that the shrine was demolished and the relics disappeared; the latter were probably buried beneath the tomb when it was destroyed with its shrine, the gold and silver were taken for the King's use and the image was turned out in the first year of Edward VI under his Injunctions (1547).

  1. Dictionary of National Biography.
  2. Dictionary of National Biography
  3. Rolls Series.
  4. Antiquities of Canterbury, Nicholas Battely, 1703.
  5. Thorne's Chronicle, Coll., 1782.
  6. Rolls Series.
  7. Rolls Series.
  8. Ch. Ch., Cant., MSS., Case F.i.
  9. Ditto, XYZ Cabinet.
  10. Henry Bradshaw Society.
  11. British Museum, Arundel MS., 68.
  12. Lambeth MSS., 558.
  13. Inventories of Christ Church, Canterbury, Legg and Hope, p. 109.