The church is built on the site where St Alfege (pronounced ‘Alfidge’) was martyred by the Danes in 1012 AD. In the floor of the church in front of the altar, you can see his memorial, inscribed with the words: ‘He who dies for justice, dies for Christ’.
At the time of St Alfege’s capture, England was in a state of chaos. The Danes had raided Canterbury, massacred many of the inhabitants and burnt down the cathedral. St Alfege, Archbishop of Canterbury, was taken to Greenwich by boat and held as a hostage for at least six months while the Danes attempted to ransom him for 3,000 gold marks, a huge sum of money.
St Alfege refused to be ransomed, knowing it could mean starvation for many of his people. After a feast, his captors finally lost patience with him, and killed him in a traditional Viking way by tying him up and hurling ox bones at him. According to one version, a Dane who had been converted to Christianity finished him off with a blow to the head from his axe as an act of mercy.
The body of St Alege was initially taken to St Paul’s Cathedral in London. Eleven years later, in 1023, it was moved by King Canute to Canterbury Cathedral, in a gesture of goodwill towards the English population. Before the martyrdom of another archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, in 1170, the most important shrines in the cathedral were those of St Dunstan and St Alfege, on either side of the high altar.
In April 2012, a few months before the London Olympics, we celebrated the millennium of the martyrdom of St Alfege. The highlight was a special church service with Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, also attended by the Bishop of Bergen in Norway. Dr John Sabapathy, a lecturer in medieval history, gave a fascinating lecture on St Alfege earlier that year, which examined the different accounts of his life in detail.
St Alfege is mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, but most of what we know about his life is taken from Osbern’s Life of St Alfege. It has many of the features of a hagiography, with its emphasis on miracles, but that does not mean that many of the more mundane events included did not happen.
This extract, from a translation into modern English by Frances Shaw, describes what happened to St Alfege after he was taken prisoner: “He was led, a hostage for Christ, from the city to the Danish fleet and from the fleet to the jail, and from the jail to the court. I speak now of the jail, which the ghastliness of the gloom made foul, the cramped space made foul, the noise of the frogs made foul.
“There they kept this man of God incarcerated under guard for seven months, as they thought he would rob the Church of its wealth and give it to them for his freedom. But Alfege clearly never thought of this at all, for it seemed madness for him to enjoy this mortal life, yet be cut off from the eternal presence of God.
“Therefore he endured all things most patiently, he celebrated Christ’s sufferings as far as he could in that place, and he gave thanks to God with a contrite heart.”
St Oscar Romero
Oscar Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador was canonised (recognised as a saint) by Pope Francis on Sunday 14 October 2018. Romero loved and defended the poor of his country and spoke out against the poverty and injustice they faced. For this he was assassinated as he celebrated mass on 24 March 1980.
His status as a martyr, someone who dies for their faith, was confirmed in 2015. He now joins the ranks of Archbishop saints and martyrs included Thomas Becket and our own patron saint, Alfege. St Alfege died in 1012, choosing death rather than forcing further poverty and exploitation on his people.