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A Miracle at Sea

William of Malmesbury
The Saxon Abbot Aelfsige was close to Edward the Confessor and Harold. William the Conqueror sent him to negotiate with the Danish King shortly after the Conquest. This is one of his famous miracles which 12th century Anglo-Saxon monk William of Malmesbury relates in his Chronicle on the History of Early England.
Aelfsige was named Abbot of Ramsey in 1080 and held that office there until his death in 1087.

William, who became King of England after being Duke of Normandy, showed high spirit when facing up to all others. He was afraid only of Canute, King of the Danes, who made him bridle his ambition and moderate his hauteur. On other occasions he displayed undue arrogance, but when he was courting the favor of the Danes by embassies or presents, his cares melted into negotiating for peace.


Abbot & ambassador, Aelfsige was known & admired by both Saxons & Normans

It was the Saxons, clerks or laymen, who he often chose to undertake this burden of such embassies, for William was happier to expose foreigners to danger than his own people. Besides, it was easier for the Saxons to do business with the Danes because their languages were mutually intelligible. Indeed, during the long Danish sojourn in England in the old days, the two had almost been welded into a common culture.

So it was that William was particularly alarmed by a well-founded rumor that Canute was about to arrive on the scene to do battle. He sent off to Denmark the Abbot Aelfsige, a man of known eloquence and no small piety.

He was to put Canute off somehow if the story was true. If not, he was to report back. The ambassador took his instructions to heart, and, protected by the aid of the Mother of God, to whom he was especially devoted, had fair winds to take him over the sea.

In Denmark it was demonstrated how effective his eloquence was. Alone and a foreigner, he managed by the power of persuasive words to "loose the girdle" of  Canute, who was ready to go to battle and, indeed, on the very point of departure.

But I cannot believe that Holy Mary did not give her help. With her shield ever protecting him, he was able to carry out his plan and come back home unharmed. However,the Devil did not allow the Virgin's servant a return as fortunate as his journey out, and tried in mid-ocean to spread a pall over the monk's happiness.

The miracle at sea

They set out to sea in fair weather and were cheerfully building on their success, when suddenly the winds turned treacherous and everything changed. The day grew dim, night came on fast, all the elements conspired to pour out their fury.

The sailors threw everything they had into the furious waters, but all went for nothing. Despairing of what man could do, they turned to prayer. Everything thought and known to be sacred was invoked.

The Abbot in particular called aloud on Holy Mary, "my helper, my protector, my patron." Those bowels of mercy could not be inactive for long. She who comes speedily to all who call on her did not delay.

mmiracle at sea

A man appears on the waves & instructs Aelfrid to celebrate the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady

Torn between hope and fear, he saw walking on the water a man who looked from his dress and visage to be a bishop. As Aelfsige gazed in wonder, he came nearer and said: "If you wish to be freed from danger, vow to Holy Mary that you will celebrate her conception every year."

Aelfsige asked for the day and the rite, and the man answered: "December 8. The ceremony should be same as the Nativity, but with the word Nativity changed to 'Conception.'" The Abbot's heart leapt for joy and he gladly assented. The other thereupon vanished.

Fair weather immediately returned. The adverse winds became obedient once more, and after some days brought the ship gently over subservient waves to the coast of England.

Everywhere he could, and specifically in the Monastery of Ramsey where he then dwelt, Aelfsige taught the observance of that controversial Feast practiced by the Anglo-Saxons.

Aelfsige's miracle story spread throughout the 12th century and beyond and helped much to promote the celebration of the holy feast in England.

immaculate conception medieval

A medieval depiction of Our Lady flanked by the 16 emblems
of her Immaculate Conception, each with an inscribed scroll
honoring one of her titles

Adapted from The Miracles of the Blessed Virgin Mary by William of Malmesbury,
Trans. by R.M. Thomson and M. Winterbottom, Boydell Press: 2017, pp 50-51

Posted January 16, 2021

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