Representing Medieval London – essay 2

Pete Scully, MA English

April 2005


What are the implications of the Ælfheah incident upon Anglo-Saxon London?



Just before Thomas à Becket was murdered in his own cathedral at Canterbury, he offered prayer to another martyr and former archbishop whose life had also been brutally cut short whilst still in office. As four knights, who believed they were executing the will of King Henry II, proceeded to attack the primate in the north-east transept, Becket knelt and not only “commended his cause to God and the Blessed Virgin”, but also and importantly to “the martyr Alphege”, whose remains were buried somewhere at Christ Church[1]. The fate of this saint is recorded within dramatic entries of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which describe his kidnapping by marauding Danes and bloody martyrdom in 1012, as well as the reaction of the townsfolk of London to his death. The Chronicle goes on to describe the subsequent translation of his remains from London back to Canterbury over a decade later, in a conciliatory gesture by King Cnut, himself a Dane. London at the time was a burgeoning commercial city whose political importance was on the rise, but which, despite the mighty St. Paul’s, was not renowned as a religious centre, even dismissed as “saintless” by Hermann of Bury [2]. Despite having actually been killed in Greenwich, archbishop Alphege, or Ælfheah as the Chronicle names him, essentially became the first London martyr, so what effect can the obtaining and subsequent removal of his body have had on the saintless Londoners? Within this essay I will explore whether this incident affected the way in which both Londoners and Anglo-Saxon England regarded London. I will examine how the early city is presented in the Chronicle, looking at its relationship not only with Canterbury but also with Rome. Furthermore I will look at the importance placed upon saintly remains and holy relics as markers of spiritual legitimacy for ambitious medieval cities. I will begin however by turning to the saint in question and the incident which made him famous.

The life of Saint Ælfheah or Alphege (also called Alphage, Elphege and Alfege by various churches around the London area that bear his dedication today) is described in Jacobus de Voragine’s major piece of hagiography The Golden Legend (Aurea Legenda). He is said to have been of noble birth, but went on to become Abbot of Bath and Bishop of Winchester, eventually rising to the highest office in the English church, succeeding archbishop Dunstan. After six years, during the reign of King Æthelred the Unready, de Voragine remarks that there came “a wicked tyrant out of Denmark into this land, whose name was Erdrithe, with a great multitude of Danes,” who were bent on destruction and robbery. This Erdrithe targeted Canterbury, and “did much wickedness to the people, and burnt and destroyed all that he might find,” before the local men finally slew him. In an act of vengeance, Erdrithe’s brother Prince Thurkill descended upon Canterbury in a fit of murder and violence, before archbishop Alphege pleaded with them to stop. Thurkill took Alphege as his hostage, imprisoning him in Greenwich, where he endured great torture. Amidst this dark torment he beheld a vision of Saint Dunstan, his predecessor:


“And as they spake together his bonds brake, and all his wounds were made whole again through the mercy of our Lord Jesu Christ. And anon this miracle was known to the people and they went fast to see him.”


Alphege was then stoned and beheaded by “these wicked tyrants”, and his body brought to St. Paul’s in London for many years before being taken to his new shrine at Canterbury, where “our Lord showed daily many fair miracles for his holy martyr Saint Alphage.”[3]

De Voragine was writing in 1275, nearly three centuries after these events, and embellishes the story with miracles as is usual for a hagiographer. The story in The Golden Legend, possibly based on a Life by Osbern of Canterbury in the eleventh century Patrologia Latina[4], does not entirely concur with that found in The Chronicle, lacking some of the details of the kidnapping incident, such as the ransom episode. The entry for year 1011 in the Peterborough Manuscript (E) continues previous accounts of the ongoing onslaught of the Viking ‘raiding-armies’[5]. Having overrun much of southern and eastern England, they entered Canterbury after a siege through the betrayal of one Ælfmær, “whose life Archbishop Ælfheah had earlier saved”. The Chronicle notes that the raiders let this traitor free once they had kidnapped the Archbishop. Ælfheah was taken by boat and imprisoned – “he who was earlier head of the English race and of Christendom was a roped thing” – though it does not mention Greenwich by name as the place of his incarceration. It is very clear by the last line in the 1011 entry that he was quickly regarded as a martyr. McDougall notes that the Chronicle, as does the contemporary account by the German Thietmar of Merseburg, makes it clear that St. Ælfheah’s cult “was well established at the time of writing. The verb martyrian is used consistently to refer to the killing, in contrast with the more general verb ofslean used to describe the slaying of Edmund.”[6]

It is described that at Easter, 1012, the Vikings demanded a tribute of eight thousand pounds to be paid, but Ælfheah refused to be subject to bartering:


“Þa on þone Sæternesdæg wearð swiðe gestured se here ongean þone biscop, forþan þe he nolde heom nan feoh behaten & forbead þet man nan þing wið him syllan ne moste;”[7]


(“Then on the Saturday the raiding-army became much stirred up against the bishop, because he did not want to offer them any more money, and forbade that anything might be granted in return for him”[8])


It was this self-sacrifice and doggedness in the face of pagan aggression that defines Ælfheah’s martyr status, so it is fairly incredible that de Voragine left this out. The readiness to stand up to aggressors against huge odds is a characteristic that has been attractive to the British right up to Churchill. Ælfheah’s defiance must have inspired Christians, Englishmen and Londoners alike. The Danes, the Chronicle tells us, had on that day been drinking heavily on “win sudan” (“wine from the south”). This is likely to have formed part of a ritual feasting common to Germanic cultures, but more associated with paganism than Christianity, and therefore no longer desirable to Anglo-Saxons. The ritual aspect continues as Ælfheah is taken to their “hustings”:


“& hine þa þær oftorfodon mid banum & mid hryðera heafdum, & sloh hine þa an heora mid anre æxe yre on þet heafod þet he mid þam dynte niðer asah, & his halige blod on ða eorðan feoll, & his þa haligan sawle to Godes rice asende.”[9]


(“and then pelted him with bones and the heads of cattle; and one of them struck him on the head with the butt of an axe, so that with the blow he sank down and his holy blood fell on the earth, and sent forth his holy soul to God’s kingdom.”[10])


It appears that the Danes tortured the archbishop in a drunken rage, and they must have lost control because they obviously gave up on the idea of a lucrative ransom when they killed him. In fact, they may not have even meant for him to die, for if they used the butt of the axe they may have meant only to cause him more pain. This is in contradiction to the beheading implied by de Voragine. McDougall suggests that, being at a hustings (which was “the earliest recorded use of the Norse word húsþing in English”[11]), it was more than likely to be a judicial killing, citing Aggesen’s Lex Castrensis as “evidence to suggest that using a man as a target for a salvo of bones was recognized in Danish law as a legitimate form of execution”[12]. Nevertheless the Chronicle makes it clear that the tribute was eventually paid, and peace brokered, after the Danes gave up Ælfheah’s body to the bishops of London Eadnoth and Ælfhun, who along with “seo burhwaru” (“the inhabitants of the town”) carried the saint to his burial-place at St. Paul’s, “& þær nu God swutelað þæs halgan martires mihta”[13] (“and there now God reveals the martyr’s holy powers”[14]). London’s bishops made sure that their city, and not Canterbury, was at the centre of this martyr-cult.  

London is first mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in the year 456, in an episode following the Germanic invasion involving the mythical Hengest:


“Her Hengest & Æsc gefuhton wið Bryttas on þere stow þe is gecweden Crecganford & þer ofslogon .iiii. werad, & þa Bryttas forleton þa Kentland & mid mycclum ege flugon to Lundenbyrig.”[15]


(“Here Hengest and Æsc fought against the Britons at a place which is called Crayford, and there killed four troops; and the Britons then abandoned the land of Kent and in great terror fled to the stronghold of London.”[16])                            


Michael Swanton has translated ‘Londonbyrig’ as ‘the stronghold of London’, thus giving us the impression of a fortress, a place of shelter where native Britons can be safe from foreign attack. Having recently been an important centre of Roman Britain, London would have still enjoyed the luxury of stone defences. The Chronicle does not give us a very clear indication of Londenbyrig’s importance in the young Anglo-Saxon era, but it was important enough to be awarded the status of bishopric during the Augustinian conversion, as demonstrated by London’s second Chronicle appearance in 604, when Mellitus became the city’s bishop. We begin by then to get another impression of what sort of place London was; not just a military base but a place of religion, albeit inferior to the archbishopric at Canterbury, to which Mellitus was promoted in 616. In fact the entry for that year describes the inhabitants of London at that time as “heathen”[17]. Interestingly, in the Chronicle for these years London is named as “Lundenwic” and “Lundene”[18], so not holding any connotation that goes with byrig. For two more centuries there is no mention of London until 839, when the city witnessed “great slaughter”[19], presumably at the hands of Danes, whose attacks were recorded with more frequency around this time. The city even became a haven for the raiders in 872, when “the raiding-army went from Reading to London town, and took winter-quarters there.”[20] What Swanton calls ‘London town’ here appears as “Lundenbyrig” in the Peterborough MS, so his translation varies according to how he perceives the city at any given period. Right up until the Ælfheah incident, Swanton goes on to call it “London fort” (886, p81), “London town” (894, p86; 910, p97; 982, p114; 994, p127; 1009, p139) and “London stronghold” (896, p89). Thereafter it appears exclusively as “London”. He may have been making the distinction between London the fortified Roman city, occupied by Alfred in 886 when “all the English race turned to him”[21], and Lundenwic the merchant port, situated where the Aldwych district now lies, west of the old city. However his use of “London town” in instances when the MS refers to “Lundenbyrig” rather than “Lundenwic” (as in 994[22]) indicate that this term is more arbitrary.

Nevertheless, the impression that we are given over the next century or so of Danish incursions is increasingly that London was a focal point of conflict and siege, a frontier town between the Mercians, the West Saxons and the Danes. As a commercial site, Derek Keene describes tenth-century London as “relatively inactive… by comparison with the Anglo-Scandinavian towns of the north”[23]. The increasing tenacity and hardiness of Londoners themselves in withstanding Viking attacks appears to be related to divine protection. In 994 the invaders Olaf (Trygvasson, the first Christian Scandinavian, incidentally converted by Ælfheah) and Swein “suffered more harm and injury that they ever imagined any town-dwellers would do to them” [24], as the Chronicle notes with some pride, for London’s sacred guardian that day was the “holy Mother of God”. Similarly in 1016, during Cnut’s assaults, “the raiding-army immediately turned to London and besieged the town, and attacked it strongly both by water and by land, but the Almighty God rescued it.”[25] The Chronicle makes no reference, however, to the presence in London of St. Ælfheah’s remains at this time as making any difference.

A quick look at the index of Swanton’s edition of the Chronicle tells us that London appears fifty-three times. The city of Canterbury appears, in comparison, only twenty-two times, and Winchester – Alfred’s capital – appears forty-two times. Rome, on the other hand, receives over sixty mentions, underlining the importance and centrality of the eternal city and papal seat in Anglo-Saxon England. Nicholas Howe, in his essay ‘Rome: Capital of Anglo-Saxon England’, explains that part of the reason for this was that papal deaths had to be recorded “for reasons both religious and political”[26]. He does point out that in the Chronicle, as in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English Church and People, “the originary history of Anglo-Saxon England is traced to Rome.”[27] Thus England itself, rather than simply Christian England, is given Roman origins. England’s place in the world was defined by its relationship with Rome. Howe explains that Bede saw England “not as the centre of the world… but as set on the periphery of a Europe mapped from Rome.”[28] In this way, Rome serves as a capital in the modern sense if we understand that Anglo-Saxon England was a province of the Papal Empire. It was a fairly important province; English missionaries, based at the monastery founded by Boniface at Fulda, helped to establish Christianity in Germany[29]. This cultural sphere of influence can even be witnessed in the Danes who murdered Ælfheah; their “wine of the south” was presumably from the Mediterranean. This means that they shared something else in common with the Christians, other than being Germanic cousins: they looked to southern (ie, Roman) Europe for inspiration, albeit alcoholic. Rollason explains that the Christian Mediterranean “formed the Anglo-Saxon’s most fertile and most authoritative source of ideas and practices.”[30]

The Anglo-Saxons, in their veneration of saintly relics and remains, attempted to follow Roman practice when establishing burial sites as shrines. The importance the Christian world attached to these shrines cannot be measured. Association with saints was highly desirable: D.W. Rollason explains that “the saint, through the merits of his or her life (or death in the case of martyrs), had achieved an especially close relationship to God.”[31] Rome was the final resting place of many saints, largely former popes, but most importantly it was the site of the tombs of St. Peter and St. Paul. Not only were they the foundation stones of the Church, they were apostles close to Jesus. Their presence alone assured the supreme holy status of the city in which they had been martyred.

It is easy to see from this why Londoners would have been keen to keep the body of their first Christian martyr, murdered at the hands of pagan infidels, in London. But there are many other instances of ambitious cities becoming involved in the translation of saints in the name of self-promotion.    

Although it was originally forbidden under Roman law to move bodies once buried, translation of saintly remains certainly became more common. In a bid to concrete its position as the capital of Rome’s eastern empire, or ‘new Rome’ as Rollason suggests, Constantinople managed to obtain the relics of Andrew and Luke in 357.[32] Much later, the emerging mercantile republic of Venice managed to fulfil its religious aspirations by capturing the body of St. Mark. The story of his translation is told in lavish mosaics above the entrance to the Basilica San Marco in Venice. The Venetians believed that Mark had once sailed into their lagoon and prophesied that its inhabitants would one day found a great city. (Jumping on the bandwagon of a different legend, some Venetians later believed that their origins lay in the ruin of Troy and the flight of Aeneas[33]). Now Mark, as the writer of the second Gospel, ranked among the most important of saints, and was also a martyr, but he had died in Alexandria, which at the time of Venice’s ascendancy was, as it still is, in the hands of Islam. The mosaics at San Marco show how Venetian merchants stole the body, and evaded Muslim customs officials by wrapping it in pork. With St Mark safely in the hands of the wealthy republic, Venice could at least achieve some sort of spiritual parity with Rome, and there was surely an element of translatio imperii in their ambitions. What is more, well-known saints attract pilgrims, and pilgrimages bring in handy revenue, which is always desirable to aspiring mercantile cities. With this in mind, how important to London’s ambition was it that they have the body of a martyr saint within their bounds?

The Old English poem Durham pictures a city “breome geond Breotonrice” (“famous throughout Britain”, line 1)[34]. Though Durham is not mentioned by name, the city is identified by its river (the Wear) and its plenitude of saints and holy men. Among those named are the bodies of Bede, Bishop Aidan, Bishop Æthelwold, the head of Oswald “Engle leo” (“lion of the English”, line 12) and “ðe arfesta eadig Cudberch” (“the righteous blessed Cuthbert”, line 10), whose remains had been translated there from Lindisfarne. In its listing of saints alongside natural and man-made wonders, Durham, in the words of Seth Lerer, “attempts to catalogue the scope of human and divine creation”[35]. The poem makes it clear that the city of Durham puts the great London to shame. A look at an early eleventh century lists of saint’s resting places, the Secgan be þam Godes sanctum þe on Engla lande ærost reston shows Durham to hold Cuthbert and the head of Oswald, but none other is mentioned[36]. London, however, does have one saint: Erconwald – St. Erkenwald – but according to one account of his life, they were lucky to have him.

The Vita sancti Erkenwaldi summarizes the former seventh century bishop of London’s career with some brevity, preferring to focus on the events of his body after his life had actually ended[37]. Having founded monasteries at Chertsey and at Barking, where he died from an illness, there was inevitably disagreement. The Vita tells us that monks from Chertsey and canons from London descended upon Barking and all three parties argued about who had most rights over his remains, but eventually London cited the pope’s authority:


“Uerum si mos antiquitus seruatur institutus, in urbe qua presul ordinates est immo de urbe romulea destinatus deo iubente sepulchrum habebit.”


(“Instead, if the custom established in ancient times is to be observed, he will have his tomb, God grant it, in the city where he was ordained prelate and appointed to that office by Rome.”)[38]   


As the people of London attempted to carry the bishop’s body back with them, they were accosted by a terrific storm, and almost caught in a flood, much to the enjoyment of the following monks and nuns, who jeered and derided the Londoner’s attempts. However, they won through, and buried their saint at St. Paul’s, the cathedral Erkenwald had helped to found. His shrine was the focus of fairly regular pilgrimage, as the Miracula sancti Erkenwaldi attest.[39] Yet Erkenwald, however holy he may have been, was no martyr. The eleventh century arrival of St. Edmund, on the other hand, did bring an English martyr to London, if only for a short while. Hermann of Bury, in his account of St. Edmund’s miracles, told how the East-Anglian saint-king’s body was brought to London to shelter it from invading Northmen, congratulating Londoners (“barren as you are, you can be happy, you who have begotten no saints nor possess any”), and how bishop Ælfhun tried unsuccessfully to prevent the body from being returned to Bury.[40] With Ælfheah, that same bishop may have rejoiced that Londoners finally had a martyr to call their own, but that too was short-lived.

The Peterborough MS of the Chronicle tells us that in 1023 “Archbishop Æthelnoth conveyed the relics of St. Ælfheah, the archbishop, to Canterbury from London.”[41] The Worcester MS gives more details of this translation, informing us that King Cnut, the Dane who now ruled the country, “granted full leave to Archbishop Æthelnoth and Bishop Beorhtwine… that they might take up the archbishop St. Ælfheah from the burial-place.”[42] In what seems to be a gesture of apology for the impious acts of his countrymen a decade previously, Cnut organised a grand event in which a great many leading clergy and noblemen “conveyed his holy body by ship over the Thames to Southwark” (a likely indication that this was a time in which London bridge had fallen down), sending it on a journey which would end with St. Ælfheah’s interment at Christ Church, Canterbury. Indication of how Londoners may have felt about this is not given in the Chronicle, though the fact that Cnut accompanied the holy body no further than Southwark, preferring to send his wife and son, may be seen as a sign that he did not want Londoners to think he was slighting them with this translation. However it does show us that for all London’s political aspiration, it would always be beneath Canterbury, the cradle of English Christianity, in matters of religion.

So where did this leave Anglo-Saxon London? In the eleventh century, with the ascendancy of the Confessor’s Westminster, more and more political power was amassing there. Passing form Danish back to Anglo-Saxon and then into Norman hands, England itself was still not yet stable. It seems though that through reading Swanton’s translation of the Chronicle, the Ælfheah incident was a moment when London attempted to define itself not as town, fort or stronghold, but as London, for that is the only name he gives it after 1012. St. Alphege, perhaps rightly so, remained in Canterbury, although when Lanfranc rebuilt Christ Church in the 1070s he appears to have lost his tomb[43]; perhaps this is the real reason why London made no attempt to retrieve their first martyr saint.















[1] Robertson, James Craigie, ‘Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury’, p281

[2] Whatley, E. Gordon, ‘The Saint of London: the Life and Miracles of St. Erkenwald’, p58

[3] De Voragine, Jacobus, The Golden Legend, on

[4] McDougall, Ian, Serious Entertainments: a peculiar type of Viking atrocity, in Anglo-Saxon England 22 (1993), p205

[5] Swanton, Michael (ed), The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, pp141-142 (This translation used hereafter unless otherwise indicated)

[6] McDougall, p209

[7] Irvine, Susan (ed), The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: a collaborative edition, 7, MS E, (Brewer, Cambridge: 2004), p69

[8] Swanton, p142

[9] Irvine, p69

[10] Swanton, p142

[11] McDougall, p221

[12] McDougall, p221

[13] Irvine, p69

[14] Swanton, p143

[15] Irvine, pp16-17

[16] Swanton, p13

[17] Swanton, p23

[18] Irvine, p22

[19] Swanton, p65

[20] Swanton, p73

[21] Swanton, p81

[22] Irvine, p61; Swanton, p127

[23] Keene, Derek: London in the Early Middle Ages: 600 – 1300, in The London Journal 20:2 (1995), p9

[24] Swanton, p129

[25] Swanton, p150

[26] Howe, Nicholas: Rome: Capital of Anglo-Saxon England, in Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 34:1 (2004), p147

[27] Howe, p149

[28] Howe, p151

[29] Green, D.H.: Language and History in the Early Germanic World, (Cambridge: 1998), p342

[30] D.W. Rollason: Lists of saint’s resting-places in Anglo-Saxon England, in Anglo-Saxon England 7 (1978), p79

[31] Rollason, D.W.: Saints and Relics in Anglo-Saxon England, (Cambridge: 1989), p7

[32] Rollason, p10

[33] Fortini Brown, Patricia: Venice and Antiquity, (Yale UP, New Haven:1996)

[34] This edition and translation of Durham is from Lerer, Seth, Old English and its afterlife, pp20-21

[35] Lerer, p21

[36] Rollason: Lists of saint’s resting-places, p87

[37] Vita Sancti Erkenwaldi: in Whatley, pp86-97

[38] Whatley, pp90-91

[39] Miracula sancti Erkenwaldi: in Whatley, pp100-180

[40] Whatley, p58

[41] Swanton, p157

[42] Swanton, p156

[43] Cowdrey, H.E.J.: Lanfranc: Scholar, Monk and Archbishop, (Oxford, 2003), p106