Ælfheah, or Alphege (954 –1012), was the first Archbishop of Canterbury to be martyred. He became a monk at Deerhurst at a young age, and then moved to Bath where he embraced the solitary life of an anchorite. His holiness and asceticism resulted in his election as Abbot of Bath Abbey, and he came to the attention of St Dunstan, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was instrumental in the election of Ælfheah as Bishop of Winchester in 984.
While at Winchester he devoted his energies to the construction of a gigantic organ, which reported requiredly upwards of twenty-four men for its operation, and which could be heard from over a mile away. Ælfheah was a builder and restorer of churches, and was also assiduous in the promotion of the cult of Anglo-Saxon saints, especially those of two bishops of Winchester, St Swithun and St Æthelwold.
He was actively involved in the conversion to Christianity of Olaf Tryggvason, one of the leaders of a series of Viking raids in 994, who agreed to desist from further attacks in return for danegeld. In 1006 he succeeded Ælfric as Archbishop of Canterbury, bringing the head of St Swithun with him in a gesture which reflected his policy of promoting devotion to the saints of Anglo-Saxon England.
Once in office he pursued this policy still further, advancing the cult of St Dunstan – his former mentor and a predecessor at Canterbury – and commissioning Adelard to write Dunstan’s Life. He also helped secure the acknowledgment of the saintly status of St Wulfsige of Sherborne by the Witenagemot.
The year 1011 witnessed further Viking invasions, and in September the Danes laid siege to Canterbury. Together with the Bishop of Rochester (Godwine) and the Abbess of St Mildrith’s (Leofrun), Ælfheah was captured and held in prison for seven months.
Refusing to permit the payment of a ransom in exchange for his liberty, Ælfheah was killed by a mob of drunken Viking soldiers, though whether he was a martyr in the strictest sense of the term is questionable inasmuch as the immediate motive for his murder was his refusal to allow himself to be ransomed rather than his Christian faith per se.
He was initially laid to rest at St Paul’s Cathedral, but in 1023 King Canute (a Dane) arranged for the translation of his body to Canterbury. After the Conquest in 1066, Norman bishops, including Lanfranc (the first Norman Archbishop of Canterbury) were somewhat antipathetic to Anglo-Saxon saints, including those venerated at Canterbury (not least because the cult of pre-Conquest saints could be seen as a political statement).
However, after Pope Gregory VII had canonized Ælfheah in 1078, Lanfranc enthusiastically recognized him as a saint (even going so far as to commission a monk to write a Vita), and Ælfheah (under the Norman rendering of his name, Alphege) became the only pre-Conquest Anglo-Saxon Archbishop of Canterbury (not counting Augustine, who was in any case a Roman) whose name was retained in Canterbury’s calendar of saints.
His remains were placed around the high altar of Canterbury together with those of St Dunstan, and St Thomas Becket is said to have prayed there to St Ælfheah before his own martyrdom.