The Terrible Tale of Ælfheah – Archbishop of Canterbury

Being the Archbishop of Canterbury is probably not the easiest job in the world.  You might have a nice palace in London and an entourage of officials around you but there is no doubt lots of travelling, meetings to have and near constant flak from big business, the media, government and the population at large.  Be less racist, obsess less about money, respect traditional values, look after the poor and the needy… perhaps even finding time to inspire and lead the millions of followers around the world.

However, one word that you wouldn’t think would sum up the job description would be dangerous.  In times gone by though a number of Archbishops of Canterbury have met a rather grisly end, most famously of course when King Henry II asked “Who would rid me of this troublesome Priest” which saw Thomas Becket murdered horribly in Canterbury Cathedral though the King himself insisted that he didn’t want anything of the sort, perhaps he only wanted him to take up baking or singing.  Ironically, shortly before his murder, Thomas prayed to Saint Æthelred, who long ago had held the same position.



Saint Aelfheah, often portrayed with an axe.

Centuries earlier though when Æthelred the Unready (or the ‘Ill Advised’) became King of England in 978 at the age of ten and new Viking raids on his country began in the 980s. The young king’s principal adviser was Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury, a former Abbot of Glastonbury. Another leading counsellor was a protege of Dunstan’s named Ælfheah (or Alfege or Alphage), who may have been a monk at Glastonbury at some point and later Abbot of Bath Abbey.

If ever there is a cautionary tale about a good deed coming back to get you then the plight of Ælfheah is one on numerous levels.  Not too much is reliably known about Ælfheah, but in 984AD he was appointed Bishop of Winchester, where he completed the rebuilding of the cathedral and continued his predecessor’s furthering of the cult of St Swithun. In the 990s he seems to have been involved in making a peace treaty with the splendidly named Viking leader Olaf Tryggvason, but this failed to stop further Viking attacks.


A Viking Rune Stone in Sweden commemorating the Danegeld that had been recently won in England. Photo by Berig.

A Viking Rune Stone in Sweden commemorating the Danegeld that had been recently won in England. Photo by Berig.

There was a large Viking raid in 994 and it seems that Ælfheah seems to have been involved in making a peace treaty with the splendidly named Viking leader Olaf Tryggvason.  Of course peace with the Vikings usually meant paying them off with vasts amount of money or Danegeld.  One bright spot though was that Ælfheah convinced Olaf to become a Christian and officiated at his conversion.  The fact that Olaf was now no longer a heathen, coupled with the fact that it was agreed by the Danes that the raiding should stop would no doubt leave the very pious and honourable Ælfheah to believe that a period of stability might be enjoyed.

In 1006 Ælfheah was consecrated Archbishop of Canterbury. He took St Swithun’s head to Canterbury with him and also encouraged the cult of St Dunstan there. On the 8th September 1011 an army of dastardly Vikings set siege to the city of Canterbury. After two weeks, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, they were treacherously let into the city by a man called Ælfmaer whose life Ælfheah had previously saved.

The Vikings ransacked Canterbury and took Ælfheah prisoner, demanding a payment to go away. The money took time to raise but was eventually handed over to them though it didn’t stop the Vikings plundering, destroying and murdering throughout East Anglia and the counties south and east of London.

The Vikings returned to their ships at Greenwich but took the archbishop there with them and then belatedly demanded an additional ransom to let him go.  However Ælfheah was a genuine man of God and he made it known that his people had suffered enough and were far too poor to pay yet another sum of money to the invaders.

This irked the Vikings tremendously and they dithered over what to do next all the way through the following year to Easter in April 1012.  Ironically, the conversion of these particular Vikings by Ælfheah was to lead to his demise as a large feast was held.  The Vikings got drunk and had Ælfheah brought back to them where things got out of control and they pelted him with ox bones so that ‘his holy blood fell on the ground and his holy soul was sent forth to God’s kingdom’.


It is said that one of the Vikings who was sympathetic to Ælfheah, a man known as Thorkell The Tall who was a famous Viking Lord and warrior, took pity on the Archbishop and finished him off with a merciful blow from his axe.  Thorkell was so disgusted by the savagery of the events and no doubt sensed that things were spiralling out of control that he would switch sides and defect to King Æthelred.

The body of Ælfheah was taken to London and buried in the church of St Paul’s, but Cnut of Denmark became King of England in 1016 and in 1023 in a shrewd piece of public relations he had the archbishop’s body returned to Canterbury and respectfully re-interred on the north side of the high altar, not far from St Dunstan, in a ceremony attended by Cnut’s queen Emma of Normandy (Æthelred the Unready’s widow) and many bishops and earls. The fundamental theme was the reconciliation of Englishman and Dane.


The final resting place of Saint Æthelred in Canterbury Cathedral

The final resting place of Saint Ælfheah in Canterbury Cathedral


Ælfheah was considered a saint and martyr, portrayed in art with an axe. A church was quickly built and dedicated to him (as St Alfege) at Greenwich, reputedly on the spot where he was killed. Stylishly rebuilt by Nicholas Hawksmoor in the 1700s after the old building collapsed, it was restored after severe 1941 bomb damage. Those buried there include the Tudor composer Thomas Tallis and General James Wolfe of Quebec fame.   St Ælfheah is remembered on the 19th April on the feast day of St. Alphege.


It might be of interest that you can have a rather splendid tour of Greenwich with me by clicking here. 🙂

About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including several #1 sellers. I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. I run my private tours company with one tour stated by the leading travel website as being with the #1 authentic London Experience. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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18 Responses to The Terrible Tale of Ælfheah – Archbishop of Canterbury

  1. mlbradford says:

    V interesting Post – currently studying English religious history, and this was a nice addition to my Reader – thanks
    I invite u to my celebration:

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thankyou, I’m glad you enjoyed it. I always find Anglo Saxon era history and religious history is often overlooked in comparison to the tumultuous Tudor and even Norman periods.

      I will definitely check your post out. I’m on a train with dodgy internet today but will do so in the morning 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Mel & Suan says:

    In Medieval days it seemed the bishops and archbishops held more like political-religious offices. On the one hand there were the royalty and nobility, while the other one might meet with mauruding hordes like the Vikings…True dedication to their chosen cause was probably the only solace

    Liked by 1 person

    • They sure seemed to be stuck between a rock and hard place. Lots of power but ultimately the king was king and to any other power or invader they were a symbol of the enemy to be killed.

      They were also a bit what I would call Un-Christian too sometimes and too a very hard line on punishments and executions with less emphasis on forgiveness.

      This man however did seem to be genuinely ‘Holy’ and dedicated.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Mel & Suan says:

        And speaking of Kings and bishops, we are engaged in a debate on Serfdom. Do you have any resource on the extent freemen existed up to the time of the plagues?

        Liked by 1 person

        • Hmmm, that topic has somehow evaded my 4 years of blogging! I’ve written on the evolution of human rights but mostly about Lords, Barons and MPs but it is actually on my to-do list! Interestingly most people had more rights in Anglo-Saxon times, the conquering Normans were very regressive and local Lords pretty much treated Serfs as slaves. To be an actual freeman but not a nobleman was quite rare.

          Wat Tyler led the famous Peasants Revolt into London in 1381 and against all the odds compelled the King to change things…. well it was that or likely lose his life! Typically treacherous as that King was, as soon as the ring-leaders left the city, he changed his mind, revoked his decisions and had all the leaders of the revolt executed!

          The Black Death really was the key to changing things for ordinary people as Britain is said to have had the highest % of fatalities due to its cities (even then, God help us now!!) There simply weren’t enough peasants left to do do everything and the Lords could not afford to lose workers by imprisoning or killing them and so realising that they labours were now a valuable commodity, the peasants finally managed to begin improving their position.

          For an only slightly related post you might like

          Liked by 1 person

          • Mel & Suan says:

            Indeed, we look forward to your posts and research into this intriguing topical area. Agree the black death was a critical element in the change. In fact, we recall that in the late 1300s, the Norman Kings were still engaged in the Hundred Years’ war in France. Hence that must had also been a strain on finance and manpower. Some say that was the impetus towards a wage economy. Did not realize the black death had a larger impact on Britain. Wow, will have to read that up!


  3. Very interesting, sorry I’m so late reading your latest posts.

    Liked by 1 person

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