The Execution of Ælfheah of Canterbury

Ælfheah was born in 954 in either Gloucestershire or Somerset, England. It is thought that Ælfheah was born into Anglo-Saxon nobility. Early in his life Ælfheah entered the Benedictine Monastery of Deerhurst in Gloucestershire as a monk, but shortly thereafter he transferred to Bath Abbey where he became an anchorite. As an anchorite, Ælfheah would have entered into a strict religious life in which he would take last rites and then be enclosed into a solitary room. This room would often be attached to the parish church with a small window allowing for a servant or another monk to bring food and water to him. During his time as an anchorite, Ælfheah would have devoted his time to prayer and meditation. 

It is unknown how long Ælfheah led his life as an anchorite before he was actually promoted within Bath Abbey to an Episcopate. He was then elected as Abbot of Bath Abbey sometime in the late 970s or early 980s and appointed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dunstan. During his time as abbot, Ælfheah enacted stricter rules for the monks within the abbey; making sure that they followed the Rule of Saint Benedict which was written 400 years prior. These rules included a structure for the Benedictine way of life in a monastery with special attention paid to obedience, the role of the abbot, silence, humility, and even sleep, among others. 

During this early period of Ælfheah’s appointment as Abbot of Bath Abbey, a new king came to power in England, Æthelred the Unready. Æthelred became king in 978 at only 10 years old after the death of his father, Edward the Martyr. During his reign, Æthelred the Unready dealt with several threats to the English kingdom including a war with the Danes which would last several decades and an increase in viking invasions throughout the 980s and 990s. 

In 984, Ælfheah was appointed as the Bishop of Winchester by Archbishop Dunstan, who had now become one of the young king’s key advisors and counselors. During his time as the Bishop of Winchester, Ælfheah oversaw the construction of a large organ within the cathedral which supposedly could be heard up to a mile away and was so large that it took over twenty men to play it. Unfortunately, the organ does not survive today. Ælfheah also expanded the churches within his district and promoted the cult of Saint Swithin, who had been the Bishop of Winchester over a century before. 

During the 980s and 990s, new viking invasions began in England. However, in 991 the young King Æthelred agreed to pay a sum to the viking invaders in order for the invasions to stop. This was only successful for a short amount of time as invasions resumed again just three years later. One of Ælfheah’s most notable, and later relevant, accomplishments during his bishopric was the negotiation of a peace treaty with the vikings after a majorly damaging viking invasion in 994 in which they attempted to burn the city of London to the ground, luckily unsuccessfully. The viking King of Norway at this time was Olaf Tryggvason who actually participated in the raid of 994. It is thought that after this raid, as one of the most notable religious figures in England at the time, Ælfheah provided guidance to King Æthelred in regard to a peace treaty with the vikings, more specifically with Olaf Tryggvason. 

After the peace treaty, it is thought that Olaf Tryggvason, King of Norway, actually converted to, or at least confirmed, his belief in Christianity with the aid of Ælfheah’s influence. When he returned to Norway, he began to impose Christianity on the areas under his control in Norway, largely communities along the coast. It is also thought that Olaf took Christianity via missionaries to the Shetland, Faroe, and Orkney islands, as well as to Iceland and Greenland. While Olaf did seem to stick to his word in terms of not raiding England after the peace treaty, other vikings did continue to invade. 

In 1006, Ælfheah was promoted to be Archbishop of Canterbury. The following year he journeyed to Rome in order to meet with the pope, at the time Pope John XVIII. During Ælfheah’s journey, he was actually robbed by a gang of highwaymen but luckily escaped with his life. 

While Ælfheah did several notable things during his tenure as Archbishop of Canterbury, this blog is dedicated to Medieval Murder and so we will skip these things and move on to his death just four years later in 1011. In around 1011, the viking raiders largely made up of Danish and Swedish vikings invaded England led by Thorkell the Tall. However, this time they focused their attack on Canterbury after having successfully sacked many English cities up the coast. The raiders were described as “an immense raiding army” by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and was made up of men who were coming from a career of violence and robbery. The invasion lasted almost a month as they laid siege to Canterbury from around the 3rd to the 29th of September 1011. 

Unfortunately, after a stong defense by the citizens of Canterbury, the city was sacked by the vikings. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle “In this year, between the Nativity of St. Mary and Michaelmas, they beset Canterbury, and entered therein through treachery; for Elfmar delivered the city to them, whose life Archbishop Elfeah formerly saved.” Once the vikings entered the city they “seized Archbishop Elfeah, and Elfward the king’s steward, and Abbess Leofruna, and Bishop Godwin; and Abbot Elfmar they suffered to go away. And they took therein all the men, and husbands, and wives; and it was impossible for any man to say how many they were; and in the city they continued afterwards as long as they would. And, when they had surveyed all the city, they then returned to their ships, and led the archbishop with them.” Once they had captured everyone who they deemed of importance and plundered everything of value, the vikings burned Canterbury Cathedral. 

Ælfheah was kept hostage by the vikings for seven months during which time he refused to allow a ransom be paid for his release. As the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states 

“Then on the Saturday was the army much stirred against the bishop; because he would not promise them any fee, and forbade that any man should give anything for him. They were also much drunken; for there was wine brought them from the south. Then took they the bishop, and led him to their hustings, on the eve of the Sunday after Easter, which was the thirteenth before the calends of May; and there they then shamefully killed him. They overwhelmed him with bones and horns of oxen; and one of them smote him with an axe-iron on the head; so that he sunk downwards with the blow; and his holy blood fell on the earth, whilst his sacred soul was sent to the realm of God.” 

“The corpse in the morning was carried to London; and the bishops, Ednoth and Elfhun, and the citizens, received him with all honour, and buried him in St. Paul’s minster; where God now showeth this holy martyr’s miracles. When the tribute was paid, and the peace-oaths were sworn, then dispersed the army as widely as it was before collected. Then submitted to the king five and forty of the ships of the enemy; and promised him, that they would defend this land, and he should feed and clothe them.” 

Ælfheah was the first Archbishop of Canterbury to be murdered. The leader of the viking raiders that killed Ælfheah, Thorkell the Tall, supposedly attempted to stop the angry mob from killing Ælfheah. He was so disgusted and appalled that they would kill the Archbishop that he then joined forces with King Æthelred. 

Ælfheah of Canterbury was venerated as a saint fifty years later and is now known as Saint Ælfheah of Canterbury, one of the martyred saints.


The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

“About Anchorites.” Hermits and Anchorites of England. University of Exeter. 2010. 

Cavendish, Richard. “Archbishop Aelfheah of Canterbury Murdered by Vikings.” History Today 62, no. 4 (2012): 9.

The Rule of Saint Benedict. Translated by Leonard Joseph Doyle. United States: Liturgical Press, 2001.

“Olaf Tryggvason.” Britannica. Williams, Ann. Æthelred the Unready: the ill-counselled king. United Kingdom: Bloomsbury Academic, 2003.

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