March 12, 951: Death of Ælfheah "the Bald", bishop of Winchester 934-951

One of the most significant events of late Anglo-Saxon history was the monastic reform movement, in which a triumvirate of saints did the tenth-century equivalent of dragging England kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century. St Æthelwold, bishop of Winchester 963-84, St Dunstan, archbishop of Canterbury 959-88, and St Oswald, archbishop of York 971-992, reformed English religious observances, enjoining a stricter observance of the rule of St Benedict in religious houses, in line with similar reforms on the Continent.

While this might look remarkably uninteresting at first glance, there were political repercussions as well. Both Dunstan and Æthelwold were close and valued advisers to King Edgar (959-75), and when Æthelwold brought regular monks to replace the secular canons at the Old Minster at Winchester in 964 he was backed up by an agent of the king, Wulfstan of Dalham, who used "royal authority" to get rid of the canons -- one suspects that force might have been employed if "authority" proved insufficient. On Edgar's death in 975 there was a backlash of nobles taking lands granted to the church, which was once seen as an "anti-monastic reaction", but is now generally taken to be nobles simply reclaiming what they thought was theirs, regardless of what Edgar or the bishops might have thought.

All this leads to curiosity about Ælfheah (pronounced something like ALF-hay-ach, but with only two syllables; later Normans would mangle the name as Alphege), bishop of Winchester from 934 to 951, and who ordained Dunstan and Æthelwold on the same day. The earliest life of St Æthelwold notes that Ælfheah predicted on that day that his pupils would become bishops of Canterbury and Winchester, but since it was written after all three men were dead this would be an easy detail to add retrospectively. The earliest life of St Dunstan adds that Ælfheah was nicknamed "the bald", perhaps for a monastic tonsure. After his death on March 12, 951 there is some evidence of a local saint's cult in Winchester, but it did not catch on.