Episode 334 – “Elf-Tall”

Day 10 and we’re finally testing NEGATIVE for Covid.

Out we go!

Not far from us, close to where the Cutty Sark is displayed and just down the street from the Greenwich Market, is St. Alfege Church, on a site that has been a church for more than a thousand years.

We visited to listen to a free lunch-hour piano and voice recital by students from Trinity Laban Music Conservatory, and ended up with much more.

Anglicans don’t have saints, but churches predating the English Reformation were Roman Catholic, and often had saints’ names. Most simply kept the name, hence places like St. Paul’s Cathedral, St. Swithin’s, and St. Alfege. When new churches were built, it was easier for the community to simply keep the name of the previous church that existed on that site.

Alfege, which in Old English would have been Ælfhēah, meaning “elf-tall”, was the Archbishop of Canterbury at the turn of the first millennium. In 1011 AD, he was taken hostage by Danish Vikings after they burnt down his cathedral during their siege of Canterbury. He was brought to Greenwich, where the Danes hoped to ransom him for 3000 gold marks – a fortune at that time. Legend has it that Alfege was held for 7 months and refused to either pay himself or be ransomed to prevent the people of Greenwich from becoming so impoverished that they would fall prey to starvation. In anger and frustration, after one of their feasts, the drunken Vikings decided to kill Alfege by tying him up and “stoning” him with ox bones. Whether the final axe blow that killed him was delivered in anger or in mercy by a Dane who had converted to Christianity is a matter of conjecture. In either case, Alfege died.

He was canonized by Pope Gregory VII in 1078. Apparently Thomas Becket prayed to St. Alfege as he himself was being killed a century later.

The stained glass window (below) dedicated to St. Alfege shows both an ox skull and an axe. History is weird and horrible.

The first church was built sometime after Alfege’s martyrdom. The second was built in the 13th century; its roof collapsed in 1710 during a storm, and since its foundations had been weakened by all the burials in and around it, an entire new church – except for the mediaeval tower – was built. The tower had to wait a few more years. Budget problems happened in the 18th century too. Since then, the church was again partially rebuilt between 1946 and 1953, to repair damage done in WWII in 1941, but the repairs remained true to the 1710 construction.

The architect was Nicholas Hawksmoor, a pupil of Christopher Wren, who went on to build several other London Churches. The current steeple dates to 1730 and a different architect.

One of the interior features I found most interesting was the trompe l’oeil painting all around the stained glass window behind the altar.

A lot of that “carved wood” is not carved wood at all. The original artist was Sir James Thornhill, the same person who created the Painted Hall at the Royal Naval College. It was restored in 1950.

The church is interesting for more than just its age, architecture, and namesake: this site, in the previous building, is where Henry VIII was baptized in 1491! I have to keep reminding myself that while the current English monarchs use Buckingham Palace, in earlier times both the Tower of London and Greenwich Palace (the Palace of Placentia) were the major royal residences in London. Construction on Buckingham Palace wasn’t even started until 1703.

St. Alfege is also where Henry VIII’s daughter Mary married.

Somewhere under the east end of the church, Thomas Tallis, the “father of English church music” is buried. During his lifetime he played the organ here for Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary, and Elizabeth I. Even though he died in 1585, his music is still played and sung by the choir. A section of his 16th century organ keyboard is on display in the church.

The current organ. That’s the royal crest in the centre – the same design as the flag that was draped over Queen Elizabeth’s coffin.

St. Alfege is where General James Wolfe’s remains are buried, too. I guess that’s our “Canadian connection”.

Have you ever heard of a Dinwiddy?

At the front of the church are two huge wooden plaques with the names of benefactors dating back to 1613, showing the donor’s name, amount given, and use to which the money was put (almshouses, schools, homes for unmarried mothers and widows, mariners pensions, etc, or sometimes simply “to the poor”). Many of the buildings that were funded still exist. The biggest donation was £600 in 1613 by the Rt. Hon. Henry Howard. In 2015 money (according to the church’s brochure) that was the equivalent of £32M/$36 million USD/$48 million CAD.

There was something else we’ve never seen before: “Peal Boards”. Can you imagine 3 hours of 10 bells chiming over 5000 times? Wow!!

The crypt under the raised church building, erected in the 1700’s, was originally intended as a public space, but quickly turned into a burial place. It houses 60 vaults and over 1000 coffins, although none are more recent than 1859, for reasons shown below.

So, ABC. Another blasted church. I know lots of folks feel as if when they’ve seen one they’ve seen them all, or that they’re repetitive and boring. I find them endlessly fascinating and a treasure trove of history. To each his own, of course, but I’m quite pleased to have added another church to our list.

POSTSCRIPT: En route home we detoured through the Greenwich Market to revisit The Fudge Patch, where the handmade fudge using hempseed milk is some of the dreamiest and most delicious we’ve had.

In addition to LOTS of free samples, The Fudge Patch offers a deal: 3 slabs of fudge for £11 instead of £4.50 each. We came home with chocolate orange, salted caramel, and coconut vanilla. Yummmmmm.
The personable young co-owner pointed out that he’d been “a bit lazy” when slicing the chocolate orange flavour – to my total advantage.


  1. Happy you and Ted have finally tested “out of the house’! You do realize that you are “running out of time” to share Greenwich with us all…

    Always fun to read what you two have been up to – churches or fudge shops!!!! Glad we are back to normal!
    Sending Sunday hugs – just a few days early!

    Liked by 1 person

    • We are DEFINITELY running out of time, and trying to frantically prioritize what we do in our last week here. Naturally, rain is predicted, after being sunny the whole time that we were shut in. Sigh.


      • Well m, I sure hope the weather is good enough for you to get out and enjoy your final week in Britain. What a bummer this has been. But, honestly, I think it would have been worse to have been quarantined in one small room on the ship!!!!!!

        HAVE FUN….

        Liked by 1 person

  2. ROSE:

    Thank you for the wonderful description of St. Alfege. I confess that I am in the category of wandering into a church and take a quick look around to see what captures my eye without learning about the rich history of the particular church. I find every detail that you shared enlightening. And I am sure there are more layers of the onion! It’s strange what interests individuals. For me, Dinwiddy must be a really important inventor of whom I had never heard. I am no firearm expert, but the slide action had to be a critical innovation. I know of no other action that allows a gun to have a magazine of multiple bullets or shells and ejects a spent round and chambers the next. Without that, guns would be single shot, or have multiple chambers like a double barrel shotgun. No automatic weapons. What an advance! And the peal board. Can you imagine a bell choir with 5000 bells?

    Glad you negative and back on the road! Thanks for another great blog.


    Sent from my iPhone



    • Thanks Al! I’m sure that I’ve heard, or maybe read about in a mystery novel, a Dinwiddy… so that plaque caught my attention right away! (Plus, it’s just an unusual name). Churches always surprise me, especially since I generally have little patience for organized religion – yet I am drawn to churches, mosques, and temples wherever we travel. Hmm.


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