St. Alphege was Archbishop and “the First Martyr of Canterbury.” Born in approximately 953, at Weston, on the outskirts of Bath, Alphege became a monk at an early age and entered Deerhurst Monastery, near Tewkesbury in Gloucester. A few years later he requested, and was granted, permission to become an anchorite, and removed himself to a small hut near Bath, in Somerset. He became known for his piety and austerity and in 984 rose to become appointed by St. Dunstan as abbot at Bath Abbey, which was founded by St. Dunstan. Later in that same year, Alphege succeeded Ethelwold as Bishop of Winchester and was famous for his generous almsgiving. He presided as bishop for two decades and during that time, he was responsible for the construction of an organ in Winchester Cathedral that was said to be audible from over a mile away and took 24 men to operate. He enlarged the city’s Anglo-Saxon cathedral, despite repeated raids by Danish invaders. He was also a promoter of the cult of Swithun, former bishop and patron saint of Winchester Cathedral. Swithun’s relics were said to have accomplished many miracles.
When the Danes mounted a large-scale invasion of London and Wessex in 994, Alphege was sent by Ethelred the Unready to parley with the Danish cheiftains, Anlaf and Swein. A peace was agreed after a Danegeld, or tribute payment, was exacted from the Anglo-Saxons in the amount of sixteen thousand pounds (about 500 million pounds today). Alphege converted Anlaf to Christianity and Anlaf kept his promise never to come to England again “with warlike intent.” Soon after, as King Anlaf of Norway, he converted Norway, Iceland and Greenland to Christianity. In 1005, Alphege succeeded Aelfric as Archbishop of Canterbury. King Ethelred continued to prove unsuccesful in preventing further invasions by other Danish cheiftains and in 1011 the Danes invaded with a massive force. They overran much of southern England including London, and laid seige to Canterbury itself. The city was captured through the treachery of Aelfmaer, an Anglo-Saxon archdeacon. Canterbury was burned and most of its citizens slaughtered. Alphege was taken in chains with other worthy prisoners to be held for ransom.
After seven months, the ransom had been paid for all but Alphege. During this time, an epidemic broke out within the Danish army which was then wintering at Greenwich. Alphege was allowed to minister to the sick and even converted some to Christianity. However, Alphege refused to pay his enormous ransom of three thousand pounds, and forbade his people to do so for him. The Danes felt decieved and after a drunken feast, became enraged, disobeyed their leaders, and Alphege was stoned and beaten to death with the bones of an ox. The death-blow was dealt by an ax. Alphege became a national hero.
Alphege was buried in St. Paul’s in London and later transferred with much ceremony by King Canute, to Canterbury. He was buried to the left of the high altar and his resting place was venerated for generations. Later in the Middle Ages, his bones were spread to various churches throughout the kindom as sacred relics.
The establishment date of the church dedicated to Alphege at Solihull cannot be pinpointed exactly, but the earliest evidence of building probably dates from about 1190, during the lordship of the last of the de Lemesis, who were granted the lands about the time of Domesday Book, in 1086. It is very probable that there was already a holy well at that location on the “soly hill” or “miry hill,” and that the church appropriated an already sacred site. William de Odingsells, who had inherited the land, aquired a Royal Charter in 1242 to establish a weekly market and three-day fair on “the eve, the feast, and the morrow” of St. Alphege, the 18th, 19th and 20th of April. With this charter, Solihull was officially a thriving market town. Sir William’s son began the construction of the present church in about 1277 as part of a program of rebuilding and improvement. The fine chancel and chantry chapels were built at this time but rebuilding was slow and spread over several generations. It did not reach completion until 1535.
There are some unique features of the church which must not escape mention. Firstly, the Chantry Chapel of St. Alphege (The Upper Chapel) and the Crypt of All Souls (The Lower Chapel) are an extremely rare example of a two-story medieval chapel. The Upper Chapel is accessed by a short stone staircase from the main chancel, and looks out of beautiful stained glass windows into the chancel. It was dedicated in 1277 for masses to be sung for the souls of Sir William, his ancestors and descendants. It was endowed with land to support a priest to sing the masses in perpetuity. No doubt Sir William intended to be buried here in a tomb, but he died in Ireland in 1295 and was buried there. The Lower Chapel is a rare and unspoilt medieval crypt example. Little has changed since 1277 when it served as the chantry priest’s chamber and chapel. He was afforded a measure of security and comfort that many did not have. The ancient door could be secured by a draw-bar and shutter hinges still exist in the window jambs. In the west wall is a fireplace which is a very unusual feature indeed, in a church.
The most intersting and intriguing feature that I found, was in the wall next to the west door. The stones on either side of the door are extensively and heavily incised. They are known as arrow stones and the incision marks were made by the sharpening of arrows during the time of King Edward III. The king demanded the maintenance of a trained body of archers and in 1363 he commanded that every able-bodied man should practice at the butts on Sundays and holidays. All other sports were prohibited on pain of death. There was nothing more important than being trained and prepared for war. The longer marks were made by Broadheads while the round ones were made by Bodkins, which were types of arrowheads used with the longbows of the time. It is an amazing feeling to run your fingers over those arrow marks and envision the man who made them while he practised shooting at the targets on a Sunday. No doubt he would rather have been home resting. But he must obey his king and remain ready to fight against France when called. For the mid-14th century, what we know as the period of the One Hundred Years War, was tumultuous and unpredictable at best. St. Alphege, Solihull is little gem, crammed with history, and hidden away off the beaten path. It is a delightful surprise which seems a million miles and centuries away from the nearby urban and industrial sprawl of Birmingham, the 2nd largest city in England.
Solihull can be accessed from two major motorways, the M40 and M42 which pass through the town. Soliull is about 9 miles north of Birmingham and about 100 miles northwest of London.