Written by Vladimir Moss



     Aethelred “the Unready” was the son of King Edgar the Peaceable; he came to the throne on the murder of his half-brother, St. Edward the Martyr in 979; which murder had taken place through the intrigues of his mother, Edgar’s second wife, Queen Aelfthryth. Quite apart from his brother’s murder, Aethelred’s earlier life did not portend well for the future. During his baptism by St. Dunstan, archbishop of Canterbury, writes Harriet O’Brien “as Aethelred was being plunged into the font, William [of Malmesbury] confides, the infant prince ‘interrupted the sacrament by opening his bowels, at which Dunstan was much concerned – “By God and His Mother,” he said, “he will be a wastrel when he is a man”.’ The Archbishop later presided at Aethelred’s coronation. When Dunstan placed the crown on the child’s head William notes that he ‘could not restrain himself, and poured out in a loud voice the spirit of the prophecy with which his own heart was full. “Inasmuch,” he said, “as you aimed at the throne through the death of your own brother, now hear the word of the Lord. Thus saith the Lord God: the sin of your shameful mother and the sin of the men who shared in her wicked plot shall not be blotted out except by the shedding of much blood of your miserable subjects, and there shall come upon the people of England such evils as they have not suffered from the time when they came to England until then”.’ Sure enough, writes William…, in the third year of Aethelred’s reign ‘there came to Southampton, a harbour near Winchester, seven ships full of pirates…’

     “The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles actually maintain that this raid took place just a year after Aethelred’s coronation at Kingston. And that not only was Southampton attacked by northern raiders (and most of the town dwellers killed or taken prisoner) but that Thanet in Kent was also ravaged, and Cheshire, too. So began the troubles that were to continue for the entire duration of Aethelred’s reign…”

     And yet, writes Levi Roach, “Aethelred’s early years on the throne passed remarkably quietly. His mother Aelfthryth, Bishop Aethelwold of Winchester, the leading reformer of previous years, and Aelfhere of Mercia, the kingdom’s senior ealdorman (the equivalent of a continental count or duke, or a later English earl), led a de facto regency in his name. The deaths of the last two in 983 (Aelfhere) and 984 (Aethelwold) brought this to an end. With Aethelwold’s passing, in particular, matters came to a head, and over the next nine years Aethelred’s mother disappears entirely from the record. Whether her departure from court was enforced is unknown, but either way the consequences of this sudden change are clear: new figures (particularly laymen) rose to favour and were able to use their new-found prominence to take lands and rights from the church. This was a move against the politics of Aethelred’s previous guardians and against the legacy of his father. Of the four churches known to have suffered in these years, three were prominent centres of reform (Glastonbury, Abingdon and the Old Minster at Winchester, the latter two of which had been reformed by Bishop Aethelwold), while the fourth was Rochester, the bishopric of Aelfstan, an associate of Aethelwold and appointee of Edgar. It is clear that the young monarch was striking out on his own, defining himself against what had come before…”  

     “Subsequent chroniclers,” writes Harriet O’Brien, “scathingly depict Aethelred II as a foolishly incompetent ruler, so ill-judged in his choice of tactical advisers for the nation’s defence that he earned the epithet Unraed, meaning ‘bad counsel’. Since the name Aethelred literally translates as ‘noble counsel’, Aethelred Unraed was a neat pun. But it was not to stand the test of time: long after Aethelred’s death, and after the Norman Conquest, Anglo-Saxon ceased to be fully understood and Unraed was transliterated into ‘Unready’. The slip was not entirely inapposite…”

     The tragedy of King Aethelred’s reign was that his virtues – the purity (so far as we know) of his private life, his protection (generally) of the Church, his support for the missionary effort to Scandinavia, and the justice of his code of laws – were overshadowed by his failure in respect of two of the basic duties of a king: even-handed justice in peace, and courageous leadership in war. The very fact that he came to the throne through the murder of his brother, too young though he himself was to have actively connived at it, was felt to cast a shadow of injustice and illegitimacy over his reign. This feeling was strengthened by his rapacious attitude towards the Church (of which he repented in his charter of 993), his adoption of the disastrous course of buying off the enemy (although it was in fact Archbishop Sigeric who first suggested it), his complaisant attitude towards the traitors Aelfric and Eadric, and his brutal injustice to his loyal Danish subjects in the St. Brice’s Day massacre. These failures were not entirely his fault: it may have been as much his subjects’ fickleness that led to his nervousness and injustice as his injustice that led to their disgust and fickleness. Nevertheless, his incapacity was one of the causes of the breakdown of that “symphony” between Church, State and people that allowed the pagan Cnut to triumph in 1016.

     “Much that has brought the condemnation of historians on King Aethelred,” writes Sir Frank Stenton, “may well be due in the last resort to the circumstances under which he became king. Throughout his reign he behaved like a man who is never sure of himself. His ineffectiveness in war, which is very remarkable in a king of his line, his acts of spasmodic violence, and the air of mistrust which overhangs his relations with his nobles, are signs of a trouble which lies deeper than mere incapacity for government. They suggest the reaction of a weak king to the consciousness that he had come to power through what his subjects regarded as the worst crime committed among the English peoples since their first coming to Britain.”

     It was only after St. Dunstan’s death in 988 that, as he had himself prophesied, the deluge really came. “From the highest peace,” wrote Osbern of Canterbury, “things were changed to insupportable war; from immense joy to indigence in all things. Finally the air itself was altered: heaven did not support the earth, nor the earth what was sown in it. The incursions of enemies left ugly marks everywhere: cities were destroyed, churches ravaged, and priests of the Lord swept off the face of the earth.”

     “When Saint Dunstan was translated to heaven” wrote Edmer of Canterbury, “immediately, as he had foretold, England was laid open to the incursion of foreign foes. The indolence of the king became known round about and the greed of those outside her borders, aiming rather at the wealth than the lives of the English, invaded the country by sea at one point after another and laid waste at first the villages and cities near the coast, then those further inland and in the end the whole province, driving the inhabitants in wretchedness from their homes. The king instead of meeting them in arms panic-stricken shamelessly offered them money suing for peace; whereupon they accepted the price [the Danegeld] and retired to their homes, only to return in still greater numbers and still more ruthless, from renewed invasion to receive increased rewards. In this way they obtained now ten thousand pounds of silver, then sixteen thousand, then twenty-four thousand, then thirty thousand, this King Aethelred lavishing all these sums upon them and grinding down the whole kingdom with crushing exactions.”

     There were some lights in the prevailing darkness. Thus at Watchet in Somerset in 988, and again at Maldon in Essex in 991, the English acquitted themselves well. At Maldon, Alderman Brihtnoth of Essex, who had defended the monasteries in King Edward’s reign, was killed after a heroic resistance, and his body was recovered by the monks of Ely, whose benefactor he had been, and buried in a splendid shrine in the monastery.

     The Danish raiders were given protection in Normandy, a new state of Viking origin that had adopted French culture. This protection annoyed the English and tensions between the two states were high. However, in 991 Pope John XV brokered a treaty between King Aethelred and Duke Richard I. In 1002 relations were further strengthened by the marriage between Aethelred and Emma, daughter of Richard I and sister of Richard II. Thus began the fateful relationship between Normandy and England, culminating in the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. For the marriage “entitled Aethelred to hospitality in Normandy when at last the Danes had conquered England. His sons by the marriage were educated in the duchy, and it was with a sense of obligation towards the Norman court that the elder of them [Edward] ultimately returned to England as king…” 

     In 993 the Vikings burned Romsey Abbey and drove out the nuns. However, Abbess Aelwina was warned in a vision of the impending disaster, and so was able to carry the abbey’s valuables to safety. The monastery subsequently boasted one of the great lights of English monasticism, St. Aethelflaed (Ethelfleda), who became abbess in 1003.


     In 994 came a famous victory, not so much of physical as of spiritual arms – the conversion of the famous warrior and Norwegian king, Olaf Tryggvason.

     On the feast of the Nativity of the Mother of God (September 8) in that year, “came Olaf [of Norway] and Swein [of Denmark] to London with ninety-four ships, and kept up an increasing attack on the city, and they purposed, moreover, to set it on fire. But there they suffered greater loss and injury than they ever thought any garrison could inflict on them. But in this the holy Mother of God manifested her clemency to the garrison and delivered them from their foes. They went away, doing as much harm as any host was capable of doing in burning, harrying, and slaughter, both along the coast and in Essex, Kent, Sussex and Hampshire. Finally, they obtained horses and rode far and wide wherever they pleased, and continued to do unspeakable damage. Then the king and the councillors agreed to send to them, offering tribute and supplies, if they would desist from their harassment. This they agreed to, and the whole host came to Southampton, and there they took up winter quarters, and were provisioned from the whole kingdom of Wessex and paid sixteen thousand pounds. Then the king sent Bishop Aelfheah [of Winchester, the future hieromartyr archbishop of Canterbury] and Alderman Aethelweard to look for King Olaf, while hostages were sent to the ships; and Olaf was conducted with great ceremony to the king at Andover. The king stood sponsor for him at confirmation, and gave him royal gifts; and Olaf then promised, and also kept his word, that he would never again come to England with warlike intent.”

     How did this dramatic Saul-like conversion come about? It seems that during the campaign of that year Olaf came to the Scilly Isles, where, according to The Epitome of the Sagas of the Kings of Norway, “lived a great friend of God, a hermit, famed for his excellent learning and various knowledge. Olaf was eager to test this, and dressed one of his retainers like a king, so that under the name of the king he might seek (the hermit’s) advice. Now this was the answer he received: ‘You are no king, and my counsel to you is that you should be loyal to your king.’ When Olaf heard this answer, he was yet more eager to see him, because he no longer doubted that he was a true prophet, and in the course of his talk with him, and of the good man’s exhortation, (the hermit) addressed him thus with words of holy wisdom and divine foreknowledge: ‘You will be,’ he said, ‘a famous king, and do famous deeds. You will bring many peoples to faith and baptism, thereby profiting yourself and many others. And, so that you may have no doubts concerning this answer of mine, you shall have this for a sign. On the way to your ship you will fall into an ambush, and a battle will take place, and you will lose part of your company and you yourself will receive a wound, and through this wound you will be at the point of death, and be borne to the ship on a shield. Yet within seven days you will be whole from this wound, and soon you will receive baptism.’”

     The thirteenth-century Icelandic historian Snorri Sturlason describes the sequel: “Olaf went down to his ships and there he met foes who tried to slay him and his men. But the meeting ended as the hermit had told him, so that Olaf was borne wounded out to this ship and likewise was he well after seven nights. Then it seemed clear to Olaf that this man had told him the truth and that he was a true prophet from whom he had this foretelling. Olaf then went again to find the man, spoke much with him and asked carefully whence he had this wisdom by which he foretold the future. The hermit said that the God of Christian men let him know all he wished, and then he told Olaf of many great works of God and after all these words Olaf agreed to be baptized, and so it came about that Olaf and all his followers were baptized. He stayed there very long and learned the right faith and took with him from there priests and other learned men.”

     Olaf became a zealous Christian whose conversion marked the beginning of the Christianization of his native Norway. For on his return to Norway he brought with him, according to the Epitome, “Bishop Sigurth [St. Sigfrid, enlightener of Sweden], who had been consecrated to preach the name of God among the nations, and other learned men, Thangbrand the Priest, Thormod and certain deacons besides. In order to preach Christianity he began by summoning an assembly at Most in Harthaland, and it was easy to carry it through, both because God aided him, and because the tyranny of Hakon the Bad had been hateful to the people. Then they received the Faith, and Olaf the kingdom. He was twenty-seven years old when he came to Norway and during the five years in which he bore the name of king in Norway he converted five lands, Norway, Iceland, the Shetlands, the Orkneys and, fifthly, the Faroes. He first built churches on his own chief estates, and put down heathendom and sacrificial feasts, and, to please the people, he introduced in their place certain solemn feasts, Christmas and Easter, bear-drinking at Johnsmas and an autumn ale-drinking at Michaelmas.”

     Olaf disappeared in a sea-battle against Swein of Denmark, Olaf of Sweden and Eric, son of Hakon the Bad. “There is no certain knowledge,” says the Epitome, “of King Olaf’s death. This much was seen, that, when the battle was to a great extent subsided, he was standing still alive on the raised deck of the long Serpent (a ship with thirty-two rooms), but when Eric was about to climb up into the prow to fetch him down, a light, as if it had been lightning, flashed upon him, and when the light passed the King himself was gone. Some men will tell that he escaped in a boat, saying that he had been seen since then in a certain monastery in Palestine.”

     According to Snorri’s Saga of Olaf Tryggvason, Olaf died many years later in the reign of Edward the Confessor. Now Edward greatly admired Olaf. So when he heard the news of his death, he read to his whole court the story of the battle on the Serpent, Olaf’s escape to Jerusalem and his settling in a Syrian monastery.


     In spite of the incursions of the Vikings, the life of the Old English kingdom continued in many ways almost unchanged. In 995, pagan Vikings invaded again from Scandinavia, and the relics of St. Cuthbert had to be moved again. Bishop Aldhum and the monks removed them first south to Ripon, and then north again to a place to the east of Durham. On the way, however, the cart carrying the relics stuck fast and refused to move. 

     “After three days of fasting and prayer,” writes C.J. Stranks, “St. Cuthbert revealed to the monks that he wished his shrine to be in the Dunholme. That was all very well, but where was the Dunholme? Nobody knew, until some of them happened to hear two dairy-maids talking about a lost cow which one of them said was in the Dunholme. They found the place to be a rocky tongue of land formed by a loop of the river Wear, a magnificent and impregnable site, covered with trees and brushwood except for a small plot in the middle. They had found the spot which was to be St. Cuthbert’s final resting place. 

     “There, on the lofty place above the river, the monks made a rough shelter of boughs to protect the coffin while they put up a stronger wooden building which became known as the white church, but even this was not intended to be permanent. It lasted three years and during that time the whole population of the countryside joined in building a massive stone cathedral, to be a place of honour worthy of so great a saint and his incorrupt body. Pilgrims poured in to venerate the marvel of a corpse which had defied decay for nearly three hundred years [and would continue to do so for several centuries more]…”

     It was in this period that Abbot Aelfric of Cerne Abbas in Dorset, the second most important writer in English Orthodoxy after the Venerable Bede, produced his sermons and lives of the saints in the English vernacular. The writings of Archbishop Wulfstan of York are also important, especially his Epistle of the Wolf to the English. And it was in this period that several great saints reached their maturity, such as St. Wulfhilda of Barking (+September 9, 1000), St. Wulfsige of Sherborne (+January 8, 1002) and St. Aelfheah of Canterbury (+April 19, 1012), of whom more anon.

     But the constant incursions were sapping the wealth and, more important, the morale of the English. And the situation was not helped by an act of political treachery by King Aethelred that has gone down in history as “the St. Brice’s Day Massacre”. Every year between 997 and 1001 the Danes had invaded, and on November 13, 1002, the king “ordered that all the Danish men in England were to be killed” on the grounds, as his counsellors told him, “the Danes would faithlessly take his life, and then all his councillors, and possess his kingdom afterwards”. It is unlikely that this meant literally all the Danes in England, for in the Danelaw of Eastern England they were far too strong. It may have meant certain mercenaries who had entered the king’s service since 994 and had defected, leading to accusations of conspiracy. However, many were killed in towns such as Oxford, Gloucester and London, including the sister of King Swein of Denmark, then living as a hostage in England. Not surprisingly, her brother invaded the following year, determined on revenge… 

     Nor did Aethelred show significant remorse. Thus the massacre in Oxford was justified by the king two years later as follows: “Since a decree was sent out by me with the counsel of my leading men and magnates, to the effect that all the Danes who had sprung up in this island, sprouting like cockle amongst the wheat, were to be destroyed by a most just extermination, and thus this decree was to be put into effect even as far as death, those Danes who dwelt in the afore-mentioned town [Oxford], striving to escape death, entered this sanctuary of Christ [St. Frideswide’s church], having broken by force the doors and bolts, and resolved to make refuge and defence for themselves therein against the people of the town and suburbs; but when all the people in pursuit strove, forced by necessity, to drive them out, and could not, they set fire to the planks and burnt, as it seems, this church with its ornaments and books. Afterwards, with God’s aid, it was renewed by me.

     In 1003 and again in 1004 King Swein invaded England. However, he was defeated by the English under Ulfkell Snilling outside Thetford, and in 2005 withdrew to Denmark. In 1006 he returned and extracted 36,000 pounds in tribute from the demoralized English.

     “Two years passed before England was attacked again. Each of them was marked by an important measure of state. In 1007, after an abeyance of nearly thirty years, the Mercian ealdormanry was revived and given to a thegn named Eadric Streona, whose origins are obscure, and were certainly far from eminent. His later conduct has given him an evil reputation, but his appointment was an intelligent attempt to provide for a better defence of central England by placing the whole of it under a single command. In 1008 the government undertook the formidable task of creating a new fleet of warships, furnished with armour for their crews. The preparations were organized on a national scale, and the fleet had been brought into existence by the early part of 1009. In anticipation of a Danish attack it was stationed off Sandwich, but before the Danes appeared a charge of treason was brought against one of its commanders. Before his trial the accused commander – a thegn of Sussex named Wulfnoth – seduced the crews of twenty ships from their allegiance, and took to piracy along the south coast. His accuser, who was a brother of Eadric Streona, followed him with eighty ships, but a storm drove them all on shore, they were afterwards burned by Wulfnoth’s men. With a fleet thus weakened the king and his council declined to risk a general engagement; the ships which remained to them were brought into harbour at London, and 1 August the enemy occupied the deserted anchorage off Sandwich…” 


     At this critical stage there appeared on the scene one of the greatest but least well-known of Englishmen – St. Aelfheah of Canterbury. A severe ascetic and clairvoyant wonderworker who was also a very compassionate pastor, he had been ordained by St. Dunstan to the see of Winchester at the very young age of thirty in response to a vision from the holy Apostle Andrew. In 1006 he was elected as archbishop of Canterbury. On his return from Rome, where he received the pallium, the new archbishop joined the king and his councillors to pass laws strengthening ecclesiastical discipline and penalizing traitors, with the death penalty introduced for those who would plot against the king’s life. And in 1008, as we have seen, the day of St. Edward’s martyrdom was proclaimed to be a feastday – another clear warning to potential traitors and king-killers.

     However, the sad story continued, with indecision, incompetence and treachery the order of the day. Thus in 1009, “when the enemy was in the east, then our levies were mustered in the west; and when they were in the south, then our levies were in the north. Then all the councillors were summoned to the king, for a plan for the defence of the realm had to be devised then and there. But whatever course of action was decided upon it was not followed even for a single month. In the end there was no leader who was willing to raise levies, but each fled as quickly as he could; nor even in the end would one shire help another.” 

     The elaborate plan of national self-defence worked out by King Alfred was in danger of collapsing, while the peaceful union between the English and the Danes who had settled in England, which had been the foundation-stone of English policy for over a century, looked as if it were degenerating into civil war…

     In the autumn of 1011 the Danes besieged Canterbury and sacked it. They were helped, on the one hand, by Abbot Aelfmar of Canterbury, who, though he owed his life to St. Aelfheah, now turned against him and his fellow citizens; and, on the other, by Alderman Eadric Streona of Mercia. Eadric had come to be involved in the sack of Canterbury through his brother, a proud and cruel man who slandered the nobility of Canterbury in the king's presence and then violently burned their inheritance. But they rose up and killed him, burning down his house. Eadric demanded vengeance from the king for his brother's death; but the king refused, saying that his brother had been justly punished. Then Eadric, determined to avenge his brother, collected an army of ten thousand well-armed men. Realizing, however, that these forces were insufficient, he came to an agreement with the Danes whereby, in exchange for their help, they would retain the north of England in the case of victory while he held the south.

     Meanwhile, St. Aelfheah had been preaching, redeeming captives, feeding the hungry and even converting many of the invaders. This was another reason why the Danes were eager to unite with Eadric against the men of Canterbury. And as they approached the city from Sandwich, the people fled to the cathedral, convinced that they were safe there. 

     The nobility, meanwhile, urged St. Aelfheah to flee. But he refused, saying that he had no intention of being a hireling. Then he gathered the people together and exhorted them to have courage and patience, setting before them the triumphs of the martyrs. Finally, having blessed them and communicated them in the Holy Mysteries, he dismissed them in peace, commending them all to the protection of God.

     The enemy came and laid siege to the city. On the twentieth day, the saint sent to the Danes, exhorting them to desist from their purpose and warning them that when a father wishes to beat his sons, he afterwards throws the stick into the fire. In a similar way God would punish the Danes even after using them to chastize the English.

     But the English traitors under Eadric were only the more incited to cruelty by the sight of their fellow countrymen's distress. They set fire to the houses, and soon, fanned by a strong south wind, the fire spread everywhere. Torn between whether to stay on the ramparts and defend the city, or rush down to their houses, the citizens finally chose the latter course. And soon they were dragging beloved wives and children out of the burning houses - only to see them immediately cut down by the swords of the enemy. For now that the ramparts were unguarded they were able (with Abbot Aelfmar's help) to enter unhindered, with such a terrible clamour of trumpets and voices that it seemed as if the city were being shaken to its foundations. 

     "No-one who was not a spectator of that calamity," writes the saint's biographer, Osbern of Canterbury, "would know how to describe the reality of it, and the wretchedness of its confusion of evils. Some had their throats cut, others perished in the flames, still more were thrown over the walls. Others, shameful to relate, were hung up by their private parts and expired thus. Ladies more distinguished than others by their nobility were dragged through the streets of the city because they could not produce treasures which they did not possess. Finally they were thrown into the flames and died. The cruelty was especially savage against those under age; while babes were ripped out of their mother's womb or pierced through with spears or crushed to pieces under waggon wheels...

     "The venerable prelate, unable to bear so many deaths among his spiritual children, suddenly, while he was surrounded by a crowd of weeping monks in the church of the Saviour, slipped out of the hands of those restraining him, rushed to a place full of corpses, hurled himself amidst a dense mass of the enemy and with groans cried out:

     "'Have pity, have pity! And if you recognize yourselves to be men, put an end to your persecution of the innocent! Instead of these, take me, who, to increase the Christian people, despoiled you of many a soldier, and who, with unrestrained lips, always condemned the crimes of your impiety!'"

     Innumerable hands seized him, stopped his mouth, bound his hands, scratched his face with their nails, punched and kicked him in the sides. The man of God uttered not a sound, but his lips moved as if he were speaking to God. Then he was forced to witness death after death in front of his very eyes so that he might suffer every torment, whether in his own person or in the persons of those whom he mourned.

     Then the Danes came to the cathedral church of the Saviour. They set fire to it, and soon molten lead from the roof was seeping into the building. Covering their heads with their palls, the weeping monks ran out of all the doors of the building, only to be cut down by the swords of the soldiers waiting outside.

     Out of the eight thousand inhabitants of Canterbury, only four monks and some eight hundred others survived the sack. The survivors, after suffering blows and wounds, were either judged worthy of being ransomed - these included Bishop Godwin of Rochester, Abbess Leofrun of St. Mildred's and all the clergy except Abbot Aelfmar of St. Augustine's monastery (not the traitor) - or were sold into slavery.

     The archbishop had seen his people slaughtered, the city burned down and the cathedral church of Christ the Saviour profaned and devastated. Now he was bound and dragged through the north gate of the city. There lay the survivors with stocks on their feet and under military guard. On seeing him, they all groaned and wept and raised their hands to heaven in prayer. But then, as the saint stood strengthening their shattered souls in prayer, he was given a ferocious blow between the shoulders, so that his shoulder was cut open and blood poured over his whole body. Even the Danes were horrified. Then he was led from the city to the ships, from the ships to the prison, from the prison to the judge, and finally back to the prison, which was dark, narrow and full of frogs. There he remained under a guard of twelve soldiers for another seven months. The Danes offered him freedom in exchange for money from the Church's patrimony; but he refused. And so, as Pascha of the year 1012 approached, the saint was still in prison, celebrating the Passion of Christ as he was able, in humility and contrition of heart.

     "Then was he a captive," wrote the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, "who had been the head of England and of Christendom. There could misery be seen where often bliss was seen before, in that unhappy city, whence Christianity came first to us, and both spiritual and earthly bliss..."

     Meanwhile, the wrath of God was falling upon the Danes. Two thousand of their soldiers fell ill of a terrible internal malady and died shortly after; while many others, similarly struck, awaited death. The Christians advised them to recognize their crime against Christ, to confess, weep and make amends to the archbishop. But they did not accept this advice, attributing their misfortunes to the instability of Chance rather than the will of God. But death reigned over all those who had planned to kill the archbishop: great numbers of them were attacked, tormented and wasted away by a terrible pain in the bowels. Meanwhile, a great fear of death overcame the living. Finally they ran to the captive saint, bewailed their sins with tears, and besought him to pray to God on their behalf.

     It was Holy Thursday, the day on which the Lord gave His Most Pure Body and Blood to His disciples. St. Aelfheah was brought out of prison and honourably seated in the magistrate's chair. He told the Danes that their terrible cruelty did not merit them a pardon, but that he was determined to imitate the example of his Lord, Who gave holy bread even to the man who betrayed Him and forgave those who crucified Him. 

     "Therefore," he said, "forgetting the burning of the city, the injuries which have been inflicted upon myself, your past impiety, and the slaughter of the innocents, I shall intercede for my torturers as He interceded with the Father for those who crucified Him. So take this bread - it will immediately heal you. Only, when you have eaten and obtained health in accordance with your desire, give solemn thanks to the Saviour, or you will remain more guilty of blasphemy."

     Then he blessed bread and gave to them. They were all healed. From Holy Thursday to Holy Saturday no-one died. 

     Seeing this, the leaders of the Danes sent four of their military commanders to the saint. They thanked him, but then said that they would give him life and liberty in exchange for a ransom of sixty talents of silver weighing fifty pounds, together with his services in persuading the king to pay another two hundred talents as the price of a truce between the two nations. The saint refused, saying that the embassy was illegal and their demands impossible. They were mistaken if they thought he would rob the Church or betray the honour of his king and country to satisfy their avarice.

     "It is not done,” he said, “for a Christian to hand over Christian flesh to be devoured by pagan teeth."

     The Danes came to him a second time, asking him - in a gentler manner this time - to affix his seal to an order authorizing the despoliation of the estates of the Church, in exchange for which he would be redeemed. Again the saint refused, citing the example of the holy Martyr Laurence of Rome, who, on being entrusted with the treasures of the Church, gave them away to the poor lest they should fall into the hands of the persecutors. 

     "If St. Laurence gave what was not theirs to the poor, how can I take what is theirs from the poor?

     Then they raged terribly, gnashing on him with their teeth, and decided to carry out the sentence that had been passed on him. New tortures were applied; but he remained immovable. 

     Then, in the night of Friday of Bright Week, the devil devised a different and subtler means of breaking the saint's resistance. Having caused the guards to fall into a light sleep, he appeared to him in the form of an angel of light, declaring that for the sake of the common good he was going to lead the saint out of the squalor of the prison.

     "Fear not the stigma of cowardice," he said; "you are not more sublime than Peter, nor stronger than Paul. The one was delivered from prison by an angel, and the other was let down in a basket. Christ Himself slipped out of the hands of those who were going to stone Him, and commanded His disciples to flee in time of persecution."

     Deceived by these words, the saint followed the deceiver out of the prison. But when they had crossed several water-logged fields in the thick darkness, the devil suddenly disappeared. Realizing his error, the saint groaned and threw himself down in the middle of the marshes, crying with tears to the Lord: "O Giver of life, O only Guide of the race of Adam, why hast Thou deprived me of Thy grace in my old age when Thou never didst leave me in the prime of life? Thou hast mercifully preserved me for so long, and dost Thou now cast me away in the extremity of life? O Thou Who art all I desire, all that I long to enjoy, what use is it to have triumphed in battle throughout the long day, but at the end of it to be conquered and deprived of the fruits of victory? Or what praise is it to have embarked on the voyage and escaped shipwreck in the middle of the sea, only to suffer the shipwreck of unexpected death on the shore? How many times have I found Thee to be my Saviour in the shipwrecks of life! Now, I beseech Thee, send me consolation in this snare of the devil, a helper in troubles and tribulations."

     "At evening shall weeping find lodging, but in the morning rejoicing" (Psalm 29.5). And "the angel of the Lord shall encamp round about them that fear Him, and will deliver them" (Psalm 33.7). Thus it was for the man of God. For as dawn arose, a young man adorned in golden splendour stood before him, and asked him where he was fleeing to. The bishop replied that he was not fleeing, but had obeyed the voice of a Divine command. 

     "That was no Divine command," said the angel, "but a device of the devil. He did not wish so much to lead you out of prison as to seduce you once outside. Return, therefore, to your place, where a crown is laid up for you in heaven. Tomorrow the Father will honour you, and you will be eternally in the greatest honour in the heavens with His Son."

     The saint therefore returned to the place of contest and joyfully awaited the hour in which he would receive his crown from God… The hour drew near, and a crowd of turbulent men burst into the prison, seized him, showered him with many blows, breaking his skull. Finally they thrust him into the place where all the refuse was thrown out and burned. 

     Most of the night had passed and the Saturday after Pascha, April 19, 1012, was beginning to dawn. Suddenly St. Dunstan appeared to the man of God, his face and vestments shining gloriously, amidst sweet-smelling fragrance and the mellifluous chants of the saints. Stretching out his hands to St. Aelfheah, he announced to him his forthcoming death and the reward of eternal life laid up for him. Then his bonds were loosed, his wounds closed and his whole body was restored to perfect health.

     On seeing these things, the guards were terrified. They told their fellows, who came rushing up to see the manifestation of God's grace. Then the leaders of the Danish army, seeing their men deserting in droves to the man of God, hastily passed the sentence of death upon him, lest they should lose more through him than through a multitude of external enemies. The saint was bound and led to the place of judgement under a large armed guard. A great crowd of the faithful followed him, weeping and mourning. But he besought them not to hinder his struggle against the prince of this world, but to help him by their prayers.

     He was only an arrow's flight away when a vast murmur went through the whole council:

     "Give us gold, bishop, or today you will be a spectacle to the world."

     The bishop was silent for a while from exhaustion, and stood still, supported reverently by the hands of his own people. Then, having recovered his breath, he replied:

     “I offer you the gold of Divine wisdom. Abandon the vanity which you love, and devote your zeal to the one living, true and eternal God. But if you obstinately despise the counsel of God which is announced to you through me, you will suffer a worse fate than the death of Sodom."

    At that, the mob, unable to withstand the force of his words and foaming with rage, jumped up from their seats. However, Thurkill, one of the Danish leaders, on seeing the wicked men gathering their weapons to kill the saint, ran up and said:

     "Do not do this, I beg you. I will give to all of you with a willing heart gold and silver and all that I have here or can get by any means, except only my ship, on condition that you do not sin against the Lord's Anointed."

     Later, Thurkill, who had interceded for St. Aelfheah, together with forty-five of his ships transferred his allegiance from the Danes to the English and became a Christian. But the unbridled anger of his comrades, harder than iron or stone, was not softened by such gentle words. They knocked the saint down with the backs of their battle-axes, and then stoned him with the heads of oxen and showers of stones and blocks of woods. 

     But he, bending his right knee on the earth, prayed thus:

     "O Lord Jesus, Only-begotten Son of the Most High Father, Who camest into the world through the womb of an incorrupt Virgin to save sinners, receive me in peace and have mercy on these men."

     Then, falling to the earth and rising again, he said:

     "O Good Shepherd, O only Shepherd, look with compassion on the sons of the Church, whom I, dying, commend to Thee."

     Then a man named Thrum, whom the saint himself had received from the font of Holy Baptism, seeing him in agony and on the edge of death, took his axe and clove his head through. Immediately one of the Danish leaders was crippled in his limbs, and realized that he had sinned against Christ's elect. 

     St. Aelfheah was martyred at Greenwich, to the east of London, on the south bank of the river Thames. And the leaders of the Danes now threw his body into the river. But then a crowd of people who had been taught by him took arms, determined to die rather than to allow the body through which they had received the mystery of Holy Baptism to be submerged in water. And so they guarded it, allowing it neither to be submerged nor to be buried. Then representatives of both parties met to resolve the dispute, and an agreement was reached. The Danes said:

     "Look at this branch cut off from an ash-tree with neither sap nor bark. If we smear this with his blood and find it flowering in the morning, then we shall agree that we have killed a holy and righteous man, and you can bury him with honour. But if the wood remains dry, then we shall say that you have erred in your love for him and the decision about what to do with the body will be ours."

     The next morning the dry wood was putting forth leaves. Seeing this, the Danes rushed to the holy body, embraced it with tears and groans, and then, taking it upon their shoulders, brought it to the tree in triumph. Here innumerable miracles took place: the sick were healed, the blind were given their sight, the deaf their hearing, the dumb their tongues. Then at the place of martyrdom a church was built (its Anglican successor still stands), and a multitude of leading Danes were baptized and received into the bosom of the Holy Church. Finally, Bishops Aednoth and Aelfhun and the citizens of London received his holy body, and brought it to London with all reverence, and buried it in St. Paul's church, where miracles continued to the martyr's glory.


     In 1013, the Danes under King Swein again invaded England, and the whole country north of Watling Street surrendered to him. London, however, under the leadership of King Aethelred and Earl Thurkill, held out against him for some time. But when Swein turned northwards again, the whole nation accepted him as their undisputed king, and even the Londoners were forced to submit, while the king, the royal family and Bishop Aelfhun of London went into exile in Normandy. 

     At this critical juncture, still more critical than that which faced King Alfred in the winter of 877-878, an English saint again came to the rescue of the Christian people - this time, the holy Martyr-King Edmund.

     Since the year 999, the incorrupt body of St. Edmund had been in the care of a monk named Aethelwine. In 1010, relates Abbot Sampson, when the Danes were ravaging East Anglia, St. Edmund's earthly kingdom, the saint appeared to Aethelwine and ordered him to place his body in a casket, put it on a cart and convey it to London. But the clerics were to remain in their places.

     At dusk one day, as Aethelwine was proceeding to London, he came to the house of a priest named Edbriht, and asked hospitality for himself and his holy charge. The priest at first refused to give shelter to strangers; but eventually, after people protested, he allowed the monk to sleep in the open air on his land, while not allowing him into his house. So Aethelwine slept under the cart on which the martyr's body lay.

     That night, however, a column of light was seen stretching up from the cart to heaven, and during the fourth watch of the night, the cart began to make a noise as if its wheels were turning. Startled by the noise, Aethelwine woke up and understood that the saint wished to move from there. Soon he was on his way, and when he was already some distance from the house, he looked back and saw that it was on fire - a just retribution for the priest's inhumanity.

     Later that day, Aethelwine came to the crossing of the river Stratford, three miles from London, and wished to cross over. But part of the bridge had subsided into the river, and the whole structure was unsafe. The Danes threatened from the rear, and there was no other crossing; so Aethelwine resorted to prayer. Suddenly the cart began to move of its own will. The right wheel rolled over what remained of the bridge, while the left wheel passed through the air above the water as if it were dry land. Those who saw the miracle from the other side of the river praised God, and as the holy body approached the outskirts of London a great crowd of monks, clerics and nobles came to meet it. Taking it upon their shoulders, they moved towards the church of St. Paul, singing praises and rejoicing greatly.

     Between the Aldgate and the church of St. Paul eighteen people were cured of various maladies through the prayers of the saint. A woman who was confined to her bed with paralysis heard the clamour accompanying the passing of the saint and asked her servants what it signified. 

     "Don't you know," they said, "St. Edmund, the king of the East Angles, who was innocently killed for Christ by the unfaithful and impious pagans, has come into this city and has given health to many?" 

     "Woe is me!" she cried, "that God has not counted me worthy to obtain mercy in his presence. For if I could just touch the edge of his bier, I am confident that I would be immediately healed of my infirmity."

     So saying, she suddenly stood on her feet completely healed - the nineteenth cure to the glory of the saint that day. Realizing what had happened, she rushed into the crowd and with tears pressed her lips to the saint's bier.

     Now the procession came to the church of St. Gregory, near St. Paul's. The holy body was let down and all the people prostrated in prayer to the saint. At this point a Dane who was curious to know what was happening came on the scene. Seeing the others prostrate in prayer, he proudly remained upright, and, drawing aside the veil which covered the body, he peered inside. Suddenly he was struck with blindness. Then, realizing his sin, he confessed it, promised amendment of life and faithfulness to God and St. Edmund, and implored forgiveness. All those present joined their prayer to his, and lo! his sight was restored. Then he took off his golden armlets and offered them to the saint. Moreover, he was as good as his word and led a pious life thereafter.

     For almost three years the fame of the martyr spread far and wide through the miracles of healing, both bodily and spiritual, wrought through the intercession of the saint in London.

     Then St. Edmund appeared in a vision to Aethelwine and ordered him to bring his body back to Bury St. Edmunds. Immediately the monk went to Bishop Alfhun with a request to leave, explaining that he had come to London rather as a pilgrim than as a permanent resident. The bishop acceded to his request, though reluctantly. But when Aethelwine, had gone, he hastened with three clerics to the church of St. Gregory. There they tried to lift the holy body in its reliquary onto their shoulders. But to no avail: the weight was insupportable. Four more men joined them, then twelve, then twenty-four. But after much sweat and labour they had not succeeded in moving the reliquary a single inch. Then the bishop with his men felt ashamed, realizing that their devotion, though pious, was contrary to the will of God and St. Edmund. When Aethelwine came up, however, and prayed in the presence of the saint, he was able with three of his companions to life the reliquary as though it weighed nothing.

     So he set out on his journey, but not unnoticed as before. For a great crowd of clergy and people followed him in great sorrow as far as the Stratford bridge, and beyond it all the villages along the route poured out to meet the saint with great joy. Bridges were repaired and roads cleared. And, as in London, many miracles took place. Near Stapleford, the lord of the village gave hospitality to the saint and was cured of a chronic illness; whereupon he donated a manor to the saint in perpetuity. Finally, the holy treasure was received by the clerics of Bury St. Edmunds and placed with all devotion in its former resting-place. There, for centuries to come, miracles did not cease for those who sought with faith.

     In 1014 the Danish King Swein came to Bury St. Edmunds, demanding tribute and threatening that if it was not paid he would burn the town with the townsfolk, destroy the church of the saint from its foundations and torture the clerics in various ways. But the townsfolk refused, trusting in the protection of St. Edmund. Nor did the tax-collectors dare to use force against them, for they had heard how the saint protected his own. So they hastened to the king and informed him of the rebellion against his authority. Meanwhile, not only the townsfolk of Bury St. Edmunds but also people from all over East Anglia hastened to the church of the saint to beseech him by prayers, fasting and almsgiving to free the land from the yoke that had been imposed upon it for ten years or more. Moreover, they asked Monk Aethelwine to make a special intercession for them at the shrine of the saint, that he would in his accustomed manner reveal a means of salvation for them through a nocturnal visitation.

     That night, therefore, St. Edmund appeared to Aethelwine in his sleep, with joyful countenance and in shining white garments, and said: "Go to King Swein and tell him this from me: 'Why do you vex my little flock by imposing on them a yoke that no other king has imposed upon them? Tribute has never been demanded of, nor paid by, them at any time since my repose. Therefore correct this unjust sentence, lest, when you wish to, you will be unable to. For if you do not obey my admonition, you will soon know that you displease both God and myself; for you will discover that East Anglia has me as her protector.'"

     So Aethelwine obediently sought out King Swein at Gainsborough, and humbly doing obeisance, delivered the saint's message, mixing soft words with the harsh. But the king refused to listen, ordered the monk out of his sight, and showered the saint with abuse, saying that he had no holiness. Seeing that the king had no fear of God nor reverence for the saint, Aethelwine sadly turned back. Near Lincoln he was given hospitality for the night; and as he was sleeping peacefully, St. Edmund appeared to him and said:

     "Why are you fearful and sad? Have you forgotten my words and incurred the risk of falling into despair? Rise immediately and continue your journey; for before you will have reached its end, news about King Swein will delight you and all your compatriots."

     Strengthened by this revelation, Aethelwine rose and set off on his way before dawn. As he was travelling he heard the sound of Danish horsemen behind him. One came up, greeted him, and said:

     "By your leave, are you the priest whom I saw the day before yesterday delivering the orders of a certain king to King Swein?"

     "I am."

     "Alas, alas," he said, "how weighty was your threat! How true your prophecy! For the death of King Swein has left England glad and Denmark in mourning. The night after you left, the king went to bed happy and fearing nothing. The whole palace was sleeping soundly. Suddenly the king was woken up by an unknown soldier standing before him, a man of wondrous beauty and brandishing arms. Addressing the king by his own name, he said: 'Do you want tribute from St. Edmund's land, O king? Get up - here it is.' He got up but fell back on his bed, terrified at the sight of the arms, and began to cry out. Then the soldier went up to him, thrust him through with his lance and left. Hearing his cry: 'Help! Help! St. Edmund has come to kill me!', his men came rushing in and found him dead, covered in his own blood."

     Marianus relates that at that moment in Essex, a pious man named Wulfmar who had been ill for three days with a disease that deprived him of the use of his tongue and of all his limbs, suddenly sat up on his bed in the presence of his parents and neighbours, and said:

     "On this night and at this hour King Swein has been killed, pierced through with the lance of St. Edmund."

     Saying this, he fell back on his bed and died. 

     When Aethelwine heard this news, he judged the time opportune to publish what he had previously covered in silence. The story then spread like wildfire throughout the province, inciting all the English to refuse to pay tribute. King Swein perished on the feast of the Meeting of the Lord (Candlemas, as it is called in the West), February 2, 1014, and his body was placed in salt and shipped back to Denmark. 


     After the death of Swein, the Danish fleet chose his son, Cnut, as their king. But the English councillors, records the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, “both spiritual and secular, advised that King Aethelred should be sent for, saying that no lord was dearer to them than their rightful lord, if only he would govern his kingdom more justly than in the past. Then the king sent his son Edward hither with his messengers, with greetings to all the people, and said that he would be a gracious lord to them, and would put right all the things they hated, and would forgive everything that had been said or done against him, on condition that they all unanimously and without treachery returned to their allegiance. Then a complete and friendly agreement was reached and ratified by both sides with word and pledge, and they declared every Danish king outlawed from England for ever. Then during Lent of that year [1014] King Aethelred came home to his own people and was received with joy by them all.”

     “Embedded here in the prose of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle,” writes David Starkey, “is the text, probably even the actual words, of a formal written agreement between the king and his people. It is the Anglo-Saxon Magna Carta. The circumstances in 1014, moreover, were very similar to those 200 years later. A political crisis and a foreign pretender brought the king, more or less naked, to the negotiating table. The throne would be his, but on conditions. The king agrees, since he has no choice. The terms and his consent to them are made public and the whole enshrined in a written document. The result is the first constitutional settlement in English history and it began a tradition which descends through Magna Carta, the Petition of Right and the Reform Acts, down to the present.”  Starkey also says that this agreement demonstrated the political maturity of the English people. 

     From an Orthodox point of view, however, it would be better to characterize it as the beginning of the end of the English Orthodox Autocracy through a descent into constitutionalism... 

     Nevertheless, if this moment of national reconciliation between king and people had been sustained, all might still have gone well. For in April, 1014 the young Cnut returned to Denmark, and did not return until August, 1015. However, the same story of almost unbelievable treachery repeated itself, and in 1015 Alderman Eadric deserted to Cnut with forty ships, as did Thorkell the Tall with nine ships. Then, in 1016, Cnut crossed the Thames at Cricklade, turned back to subdue the north and then marched on London for what promised to be the final death-blow. 

     But King Aethelred was spared this final humiliation: “he departed this life on St. George’s day [April 23], after a life of much hardship and many difficulties. Then, after his death, all the councillors of England chose Edmund [Ironside, his eldest son] as king, and he defended his kingdom valiantly during his lifetime.” 


[1]O’Brien, Queen Emma and the Vikings, London: Bloomsbury, 2006, pp. 53-54.

[2] Roach, “Ready to Rule”, History Today, May, 2017, pp. 26-28.

[3]O’Brien, op. cit., p. 34.

[4] Roach, op. cit., p. 29.

[5]Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England, Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1971, p. 374.

[6]Osbern, Vita Dunstani.

[7]Edmer, Historia Novorum in Anglia, translated by Geoffrey Bosanquet, London: Cresset Press, p. 4.

[8]Stenton, op. cit., p. 379.

[9]A fourteenth-century chronicle in H. Liveing, Records of Romsey Abbey, 1906; Rev. David Shearlock, Romsey Abbey, p. 7.

[10]Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, E, 994.

[11]M. Ashdown, English and Norse Documents, Cambridge, 1930.

[12]Heimskringla, VII, 31. The existence of this hermit is an interesting witness to the continuing vitality of Celtic Christianity in Cornwall and the Scilly Isles, which remained Celtic in their language and culture for centuries after their absorption into the English kingdom in Athelstan’s time. If the hermit may be identified with the St. Lide (or Elidius) whose feast appears on a medieval calendar from Tavistock, then he may have been a bishop (David Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1978, p. 246). But the fact that Olaf was only baptized by him and not confirmed – he was confirmed, as we have seen, by St. Aelfheah at Andover – seems to indicate that the hermit was not a bishop. For in the Western Church only bishops could perform the sacrament of confirmation (the equivalent of chrismation).

[13]C, 286, translated in Ashdown, op. cit. The Russian historian E.E. Golubinsky (History of the Russian Church, 1880) maintained, on the basis of this Saga, that Olaf was baptized in Byzantium and thenpersuaded St. Vladimir the Great Prince of Kiev to accept Christianity. See V.Z., ‘O tom, gde i kogda krestilsa sviatoj-knyaz’ Vladimir i o vremeni kreschenia Rusi’, Vestnik Russkogo Khristianskogo Dvizhenia, 1988, I, no. 152, p. 13.

[14]Stranks, The Life and Death of St. Cuthbert, London: SPCK, 1964, pp. 32-33.

[15]See Carmen Acevedo Butcher, God of Mercy: Aelfric’s Sermons and Theology, Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 2006.

[16] Roach, op. cit., p. 30.

[17]Stenton, op. cit., p. 380. In 2008 archaeologists discovered the remains of between 34 and 38 slaughtered Danes. Roach writes: “Recent excavations in Oxford and Dorset have uncovered the bodies of a number of men of probable Scandinavian origin who had been violently executed and, though much uncertainty remains, a case can be made for associating them with this event” (op. cit., p. 30).


[19]Stenton, op. cit., p. 382.

[20] The following account is taken mainly from his Vita by Osbern of Canterbury, in H. Wharton, Anglia Sacra, 1691, II, pp. 122-147.

[21]Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, E, 979.

[22]Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, E, 1012.

[23]Thietmar of Merseburg, Chronicle, viii, chs. 42, 43.

[24]Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, E, 1013.

[25]This account is drawn from Nova Legenda Anglie, appendix II, pp. 595-602.

[26]Nova Legenda Anglie, p. 602. According to the Benedictine Breviary (October 13, supplement), the future King Edward the Confessor, then a boy of twelve, also knew by revelation of Swein’s death at this time.

[27]Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, E, 1014.

[28]Starkey, The Monarchy of England, London: Chatto & Windus, 2004, p. 83.

[29]Starkey, in the second of his series of programmes entitled “Monarchy” and broadcast on October 25, 2004 on Channel 4 TV.

[30]Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, F, 1016.

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