Alphege (Elphege, AElfheah) was born about 953, during the second major period of Viking raids against England. He became first a monk and then a hermit, and then was appointed Abbot of Bath. In 984 he became Bishop of Westminster. In 994 King Ethelred the Unready sent him to parley with the Danish invaders Anlaf and Swein. The Anglo-Saxons paid tribute, but Anlaf became a Christian and swore never to invade England again. He never did. In that same year Alphege brought the newly baptized King Olaf Tryggvason of Norway to a peaceful meeting with King Ethelred, and to his confirmation at Andover. (Remark: "Unready" does not mean that the king was often unprepared; it means that he was headstrong and stubborn, and would not accept "rede," meaning counsel or advice.)
In 1005 Alphege became Archbishop of Canterbury. In 1011 the Danes overran much of southern England. The payment of the tribute agreed on (the Danegeld) did not stop them, and in September they captured Canterbury and held Alphege and other prominent persons for ransom. The others were duly paid for and released, but the price demanded for Alphege was a fantastically high: 3,000 pounds (worth of course, far more than modern pounds). Alphege, knowing the poverty of his people, refused to pay or let anyone else pay for him. The infuriated Danes, at the end of a drunken feast, brought him out and repeated their demands. When he again refused, they threw various objects at him (large bones from the feast, for example) and finally an axeman delivered the death-blow. Their chief, Thorkell the Tall, tried to save him, offering all his possessions except his ship for the Archbishop's life. Through his death, Alphege became a national hero.
When the Dane Cnut (Canute) became King of England in 1016, he adopted a policy of conciliation, and in 1023 he brought the body of Alphege from London to Canterbury, where Alphege was long remembered as a martyr— who died, not precisely for professing the Christian faith, but for exercising the Christian virtue of justice. In art, Alphege is shown with an axe, the instrument of his death, or as a shepherd defending his flock from wolves.
written by James Kiefer
O loving God, whose martyr bishop Alphege of Canterbury suffered violent death when he refused to permit a ransom to be extorted from his people: Grant that all pastors of your flock may pattern themselves on the Good Shepherd, who laid down his life for the sheep; and who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.