The Unlucky Victory Pilgrimage Of Archbishop Ælfsige of Canterbury


A clergyman named Ælfsige succeeded Archbishop Odo as the leader of the archbishopric of Canterbury around 958 in Anglo-Saxon England. For a medieval man-of-the-cloth, it must have been a dream come true. Yet, before he could truly take up his duties, he needed to receive his pallium, a lamb’s wool vestment granted to archbishops from the pope in Rome. Historically, archbishops in England obtained their palliums in various ways. The first archbishops of Canterbury in the 7th century simply had their palliums shipped from Rome to Britain. In the 8th century, however, the archbishops of Canterbury began either traveling to Rome or sending representatives to collect their palliums. By the 10th century in which Ælfsige lived, the norm had become for the archbishops to personally venture to Rome to receive their palliums from the pope. Following this tradition, Archbishop Ælfsige of Canterbury sailed across the English Channel in 959 and traveled through France, eventually reaching the Alps.

With Italy and Rome just on the other side of the mountains, Archbishop Ælfsige eagerly began his trek across the Alps. Yet, his journey had a tragic and anticlimactic end. As the monk, Florence of Worcester (d. 1118), bluntly put it in his chronicle, “Ælfsige, archbishop of Canterbury, on his journey to Rome to obtain the pallium was frozen to death in the ice and snow whilst crossing the Alps” (Chronicle of Florence of Worcester, AD 959). When news reached Canterbury that their brand-new archbishop was dead, debates promptly broke out over who would be the next ruler of the diocese. The most prominent candidates were Byrhthelm (bishop of Wells) and Dunstan (bishop of Worcester and London). Ultimately, the latter clergyman’s faction won the day, and Saint Dunstan became the Archbishop of Canterbury. Unlike his predecessor, Archbishop Dunstan of Canterbury successfully reached Rome around 960 and received his pallium from Pope John XII (r. 955-964).

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Alpine Pass in the Winter with monks, painted by Carl Blechen (1798–1840), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).


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