Lives of the Saints

Our Models and Protectors

April 19

Saint Elphege

Archbishop of Canterbury, Martyr

Saint Elphege
Saint Elphege

Saint Elphege was born in the year 954, of a noble Saxon family. He became a monk in the monastery of Deerhurst, near Tewkesbury, England, and afterwards lived as a hermit near Bath, where he founded a community under the rule of Saint Benedict and became its first abbot.

At thirty years of age he was chosen Bishop of Winchester, and twenty-two years later became Archbishop of Canterbury. In 1011, when the Danes landed in Kent and took the city of Canterbury, putting all to fire and sword, Saint Elphege was captured and carried off in the expectation of a large ransom. He was, however, unwilling that his ruined church and people should be put to such expense, and was therefore kept in prison at Greenwich for seven months.

While he was thus confined, some friends came and urged him to impose a tax upon his tenants to raise the sum demanded for his ransom. What reward can I hope for, said he, if I spend upon myself what belongs to the poor? Better give to the poor what is ours, than take from them the little which is their own. He continued to refuse to exact a ransom, and the enraged Danes finally fell upon him in a fury, beat him with the blunt sides of their weapons, and bruised him with stones. One whom the Saint had baptized shortly before, put an end to his sufferings by the blow of an axe. He died on Easter Saturday, April 19, 1012; his last words were a prayer for his murderers.

His body was first buried in Saint Paul's, London, but was afterwards translated to Canterbury by King Canute. A church dedicated to Saint Elphege still stands upon the place of his martyrdom at Greenwich.

Reflection. Those who are in high position should consider themselves as stewards rather than masters of the wealth or power entrusted to them for the benefit of the poor and weak. Saint Elphege died rather than extort his ransom from the poor tenants of the Church lands.

Little Pictorial Lives of the Saints, a compilation based on Butler's Lives of the Saints and other sources by John Gilmary Shea (Benziger Brothers: New York, 1894)