Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Ælfric (d.1005)

ÆLFRIC (d. 1005), archbishop of Canterbury, was a monk of Abingdon. He has been identified by Sir F. Madden, in his preface to the ‘Historia Anglorum’ of Matthew Paris, with the Ælfric who appears in the ‘Vitæ Abbatum’ as the eleventh abbot of St. Albans. The account given by Paris of the life of this abbot does not fit in with the life of the archbishop. Paris says that he was the uterine brother of Leofric, the son of an ealdorman of Kent, that Leofric was abbot of St. Albans, and was elected to Canterbury, but that he declared that his brother Ælfric was more worthy of the honour. Leofric is, however, represented as becoming archbishop, and Ælfric as succeeding him in the abbey. This Ælfric must have been past his youth when he took the monastic vows, for he is said to have been the ‘chancellor’ of Æthelred before he became a monk. He bought Kingsbury and some other lands for his abbey. He composed and set to music a life of St. Alban, which was widely used on the day of that saint. He lived over the year 1045, the time when England was expecting invasion from Magnus, king of Norway and Denmark. In prospect of this danger the abbot walled up the bones of St. Alban. He pretended, however, to send these precious relics to the abbey of Ely for safe keeping in that almost inaccessible island. The biographer records a discreditable tale of deceit practised by both fraternities towards each other. Each claimed to have the genuine relics, and a bitter quarrel ensued. Ælfric died in the midst of this dispute, which was the consequence of his own double dealing. Such is the life given by Matthew Paris. It is wholly incomprehensible. There never was an archbishop of Canterbury named Leofric, and, during the lifetime of this abbot Ælfric, an Ælfric was archbishop of that see. The succession of the abbots as given by Paris from Ælfric the seventh to Ælfric the eleventh abbot is evidently untrustworthy. Sir F. Madden has pointed out that in this case the author seems to have found out that he was mistaken, for in the autograph copy of the ‘Vitæ Abbatum’ (Nero, D. i. fo. 32) he has added a marginal note stating that, on the refusal of Leofric, his brother accepted the archbishopric. He therefore considers that there is little reason to doubt that Ælfric was the tenth abbot, and that on his elevation to the episcopate he was succeeded as abbot by his brother Leofric. The archbishop's bequest to St. Albans and his appointment of Leofric as his executor are certainly in favour of this view. It should, however, be remarked that, while he mentions his sisters and their children in his will, he does not speak of the abbot Leofric as his brother. If Sir F. Madden's view is correct, the life contained in the ‘Vitæ Abbatum’ must be given up. It is possible that in the life of this abbot, and in that of the seventh abbot also called Ælfric, who may perhaps be the archbishop, the biographer has mixed up the Ælfric who was archbishop, the Ælfric who in 1050 was elected to that see but was rejected, and some third Ælfric who died abbot of his house. A letter prefixed to the glossary of Ælfric the grammarian might well have been addressed to an abbot of St. Albans of the date assigned by Paris to Ælfric the tenth abbot.

Accepting, however, Sir F. Madden's explanation, we find that Ælfric was installed abbot by Oswald, bishop of Worcester and archbishop of York. He is said to have been made bishop of Ramsbury and Wilton in succession to Sigeric, who was translated to Canterbury in 990. Ælfric signs as bishop of Wilton in 994. He was elected archbishop in 995, and died in 1005. In close connection with his death the ‘Chronicle’ mentions the consecration of Brihtwold at Ramsbury. It is therefore probable that neither Ælfric nor Brihtwold succeeded to Ramsbury immediately on the translation of their predecessors, and that both Sigeric, for a while at least, and Ælfric after him held that see along with the archbishopric. A letter (Harpsfeld. Hist. Eccl. p. 198) which speaks of Ælfric as though he were not a bishop at all at the date of his election to Canterbury is probably spurious, yet it may, as Dr. Stubbs suggests, have a substratum of truth as pointing to the fact that he was not consecrated to the see of Ramsbury until shortly before the death of Archbishop Sigeric and his own translation. It has, however, been held that he was, as bishop of Ramsbury, one of the leaders of the fleet which, in 992, was gathered together at London. But the bishop who had this command was more probably Ælfstan of London (961–995). An imperfect interpolation in the least trustworthy version of the ‘Chronicle’ records that, when Ælfric was made archbishop, he expelled the clerks from his cathedral church and put monks in their place. As the account is not contemporary, and was evidently written for the purpose of glorifying the monks, it deserves little credit. Florence ascribes the expulsion of the clerks to Archbishop Sigeric. William of Malmesbury refers to the story in the ‘Chronicle,’ and throws doubt upon it. There seems no means of ascertaining the truth about this matter. Perhaps the whole story is a fable. Ælfric is said to have been consecrated in 996, the year after his election to Canterbury. As there is no reason to doubt that he was bishop of Ramsbury before he was made archbishop, this notice of his consecration probably refers to the gift of the pall. The author of the ‘Life of Dunstan’ who calls himself B., in dedicating his work to the archbishop, speaks of his remarkable ability. Ælfric died in November 1005, and was buried at Abingdon. In the reign of Cnut his body was translated to Canterbury. His will is extant. By it he left his books, and land at Kingsbury and other places, to St. Albans, and also gave land to Abingdon. He left to the king his best ship and armour of defence for sixty men, and gave a ship to the people of Kent, and another to the people of Wiltshire, the shires of his two dioceses. He appointed Leofric, abbot of St. Albans, one of his executors. The ships left to Kent and Wiltshire were intended to lighten the burdens of the people by paying for them a portion of the ship-tax which each shire was bound to furnish in kind.

[A.S. Chron.; Florence of Worcester; Chron. Monast. de Abingdon, Rolls Ser.; Chron. Monast. S. Albani, Gesta Abbatum, ed. Riley, Rolls Ser.; M. Paris, Hist. Anglorum, i., ed. Madden, Rolls Ser.; Eadmer de Vita S. Oswaldi; Wharton's Anglia Sacra, ii. 201; Vita Dunstani auctore B., Memorials of St. Dunstan, Rolls Ser.; Migne, Patrol. cxxxix.; Codex Dipl. iii. 278, 280, 283, 351; Stubbs, Registrum Sacrum Anglic.]

W. H.