Friday, April 19, 2024

Holy High Elf

 Today is the feast of St. Aelfheah of Canterbury, more commonly known in English as St. Alphege or Alfege. He was born in the tenth century somewhere around Bath and became first a monk and then an anchorite, and in 984 was appointed Bishop of Winchester. He was a competent bishop, doing a fair amount to build up and maintain the local churches, but his claim to fame began to develop when a Viking raid in 994 went in an unexpected direction. Viking raids could be very, very nasty, but Vikings were also sometimes willing to listen to better offers, if you had any. The locals offered to negotiate so that the Vikings could go away wealthy without the hard work of seizing the wealth themselves, and it just so happens that one of the Viking leaders was a man named Olaf Tryggvason. Tryggvason's beloved wife had recently died, which is why he was out raiding in an attempt to get away from home and its memories, and he had some unusual experiences that led him to think that Christianity might actually be true. We don't know the exact timeline here. It's possible that Tryggvason was already baptized and was mostly just winding up his raiding voyage, or it might be that he was still considering it and saw this as a good opportunity to take the final leap. There's fairly good reason to think that St. Alphege was the bishop who gave him confirmation. In any case, Tryggvason received danegeld, was either baptized and confirmed or at least confirmed, and promised never to raid England again. Tryggvason, of course, would go home and begin the Christianization of Norway.

In 1006, St. Alphege became Archbishop of Canterbury, succeeding St. Aelfric. In 1011, a raiding party of Danes sacked Canterbury. He and several others were taken hostage, the Danes hoping to squeeze a ransom out of him. So he stayed a prisoner for seven months. As he refused to allow anyone to pay a ransom for him, however, the Danes saw no particular reason to keep him around. So one day, when they were drunk, they played the game of throwing rocks and bones at him and then finished him off by smashing his head in with the butt of an axe. Stories diverge on whether the axe-blow was part of the sport or a mercy-killing when he was already at the ragged edge. According to some stories, Thorkell the Tall, who was the leader of the Vikings, tried to protect Alphege, but it's hard to control a bunch of bored drunk Vikings; this may have contributed to Thorkell eventually joining the fleet of Aethelred the Unready, defending England from Viking invasion.

Aelfheah literally means 'High Elf', 'high' indicating either status (noble) or height (tall). 'Elf', of course, is a word used in Anglo-Saxon for spiritual beings, so we could perhaps also translate it as 'Noble Spirit'.