St Alphege's Church, Greenwich

Ælfheah, or Alphege, was Archbishop of Canterbury when he was captured by Danes in 1009 during the sacking of Canterbury. Three thousand pounds of silver were demanded for his release, and he was held for seven months while his captors awaited payment, imprisoning him at their camp at what is now Greenwich. Yet Alphege was the main obstacle to this huge sum being paid: he refused to be ransomed. So on 19 April 1012 at Greenwich, with patience wearing thin, they

‘…were very drunk, because there was wine brought from the south. Then they seized the bishop, led him to their hustings on the Saturday in the octave of Easter, and then pelted him there 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.’ (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle).

The spot on which he was pelted and bludgeoned is marked by a stone, around which a church was built. The current structure is a Hawksmoor design from the eighteenth century, of far grander materials and design than anything a Saxon bishop would have seen, yet it is a fitting tribute to a man who would not impoverish his own people for his own, personal freedom. Alphege must have also realised that paying off the Danes would only fund future expeditions and make man-trading appear even more profitable, enticing others to participate. Torkjell Høge, one of the Viking lords who arranged Alphege’s capture, was so appalled by the manner of his death and the bravery of his life, that he changed sides and served the English king (and hopefully repenting of his lifestyle hitherto!).

St Alphege’s church is tall, sophisticated and grand; it is remarkable to think that such a bloody and violent act should have occurred here a thousand years ago. Although the church is notable for many other reasons, both historical and artistic, it seems a fittingly noble memorial to a great man who died an ignominious death. A Christian may die in a ditch yet he will be received in the palace; pity him who dies in a palace only to be appointed to the pit.  

For whosoever will save his life, shall lose it: and whosoever shall lose his life for my sake, shall find it. Matthew 16:25, Geneva Bible