Project Canterbury

The Little Lives of the Saints

Told by Percy Dearmer

Illustrated by Charles Robinson.

London: Wells Gardner, Darton & Co., 1904.

St. Alphege, Archbishop of Canterbury, 1012.

April 19th.

YOUNG Squire Alphege's mother wept much when her son left her to become a monk. For she was a widow; and now her only child was giving up his home, and all his father's estate, to go right away out of the world!

However, his mind was quite made up. Pleasures and honours must be forsaken, and all the jolly, free life in the woods: not even a mother's tears could stand in the way of the call which he was sure God had given him. It is often like that: the son goes out to begin life, brave and hopeful; the mother remains lonely at home, and her heart aches for the laughter that is no more heard about her table.

Deerhurst, in Gloucestershire, was the monastery to which he went; and there he found the first great surprise of his life. He had expected to be surrounded by self-denying monks, ever so much better than himself. But he found, instead, a careless, selfish set of men, who had forgotten the vows they had made, and thought only of being comfortable. It was a great temptation for a lad to fall into their easy ways; but he set himself quietly to keep the rules of the order; and he practised so much self-denial that after a while the other monks began to feel ashamed. One by one, they altered their way of life, till they all came to keep the rules as faithfully as Alphege himself. People soon discovered how good he was; and, when he was still quite a young man, he was made Abbot of Bath.

Very soon the great St. Dunstan heard about Alphege; and before the young abbot was out of his thirtieth year, he took him from the monastery, and made him Bishop of Winchester.

For twenty-two years Bishop Alphege laboured at his new work; and, so well did he care for the poor, that we are told there were no beggars in the Diocese of Winchester all the time he was there. Then he became head of the Church of England, as Archbishop of Canterbury, in the year 1006.

Now, at this time, England was in great distress owing to the ravages of the Danes. Ethelred the Unready was on the throne; and ever since he became king the fierce, long-haired Vikings had poured again into our unhappy country. First they came over in their pirate ships, but, by the time Alphege was Archbishop, they were established all over the land. They marched from one place to another, because Ethelred was too weak to withstand them; and, wherever they went, they plundered and killed, leaving nothing behind them but starving people and blazing cottages. They were mighty men, with shirts of mail, and iron caps on their heads; but the most terrible of all their weapons was the great two-handed axe, which had a blade a foot long and a handle nearly as tall as a man.

At last the Danes laid siege to Canterbury, where Alphege was. When the English thanes knew that the pirates were coming, they came to the Archbishop, and begged him to escape, while there was yet time, to a place of safety. But Alphege replied in the words of the Gospel, "The hireling fleeth, because he is an hireling, and careth not for the sheep. The good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep." So he stayed on with his flock; and all through the dreadful siege he tended the sick and wounded, encouraged the people, and gave them the Holy Communion in their cathedral. For some time the besieged held out, till a wicked priest, whose life Alphege had once saved, betrayed the city to the Danes. The enemy rushed in through the gate, burnt the cathedral, sacked the houses, and took many prisoners, among them the King's Steward, the Abbess of St. Mildred's, and the Bishop of Rochester. As the Danes were slaughtering the poorer folk, Alphege came out and stood before them:

"Spare these innocent people!" he cried. "If you want to wreak your vengeance, spend it upon me. It is I who have reproached you for your cruelties, I who have fed and clothed and ransomed your victims. Take me!"

They made him a prisoner, and took him away with them to their ships. There for seven long months they kept him in chains, hoping to get a large ransom for his release. They refused to let him go free unless they were paid three thousand pounds, which was an enormous sum in those days. But Alphege knew that the poor English people had been already ruined by the Danes, and that many would be starved to death if they were taxed to raise so much money. So he sent word that not a penny was to be paid for his release. The greedy Danes became more and more angry as they found that they could make no money out of so great a prize as a real live Archbishop.

Yet some of these rough warriors were touched by his patience and gentleness. One of their leaders, Thurkill, was already almost persuaded to be a Christian (a Christian he did become afterwards); and a soldier named Thrim was converted by the prisoner, and confirmed by him at Eastertide.

The day after Thrim's conversion, the Danish fleet, with the prisoner on board, was lying in the Thames. That day they kept one of their feasts. They had bought great stores of foreign wine with the tribute money that they had extorted from the English; and soon they became very drunk. Then some one cried out that they must have more money to buy more wine, and so they must get the ransom out of the Archbishop.

"The ransom! The ransom!" went the cry round the Northmen's galleys; and a crowd of tipsy Danes came to the ship where Alphege's prison was:--

"Give us the ransom!'' they shouted.

The Archbishop stood up quietly before them, the chains clanking on his wrists. "I will give you nothing," he said. "No one shall pay a farthing for my life. Here I am to answer for it. Do with me as you please."

Then they seized him and brought, him to the shore at Greenwich. One after another the ships had landed their drunken crews, till all the shore was covered with riotous soldiers and sailors. They dragged the Archbishop to their hustings, where they were wont to assemble, and cried out again for the ransom. Then the good Thurkill stood forth before them all, and offered gold and silver anything he had except his ship--if they would spare the holy man's life. But they would not hearken to him.

And now the hour of martyrdom had come for Alphege. Around him the Danes rushed and reeled in their many-coloured tunics. The massive gold bracelets jangled on their swarthy arms, their rough hair tumbled over their wild, bloodshot eyes, and mingled with their long beards. They took up the bones of the oxen on which they had feasted, and with these strange missiles they pelted the Archbishop, as he stood before them, praying for their forgiveness and for his own poor scattered flock. At last he fell to the earth, but the drunken murderers had not thrown well enough to kill him outright, and he lay writhing on the ground in mortal agony.

Then Thrim, the soldier whom he had confirmed the day before, cried that if he must die he should not die in misery, and, running forward from the crowd, clave the saint's head with his great battle-axe.

Thus died, in the fifty-ninth year of his age, St. Alphege, the Archbishop; a martyr, not indeed for the Church but for the people, because he would not save his life at their cost.

On the morrow, when the Danes had come to them. selves again, they seem to have been sorry for their act; for they allowed his body to be taken with all reverence to St. Paul's Cathedral, where it was buried. Afterwards, when King Ethelred was dead, and Canute, the Dane, became King of England, the saint's prayers were answered; for the king and all his people accepted the Christian faith. And Canute had the body of St. Alphege brought from St. Paul's to his own cathedral at Canterbury, where it was laid in a costly tomb.

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