Saint Edmund Rich of Canterbury, Archbishop

November 16

Today is the feast day of Saint Edmund Rich of Canterbury.  Ora pro nobis.

Saint Edmund Rich was born on 20 November, c. 1180, at Abingdon, six miles from Oxford. He died 16 November, 1240, at Soissy, France. His early history is somewhat uncertain. His parents, Reinald (Reginald) and Mabel Rich, were remarkable for piety. It is said that his mother constantly wore hair-cloth, and attended almost every night at Matins in the abbey church. His father, even during the lifetime of his mother, entered the monastery of Eynsham in Oxfordshire. Edmund had two sisters and at least one brother. The two sisters became nuns at Catesby.

From his earliest years he was taught by his mother to practise acts of penance, such as fasting on Saturdays on bread and water, and wearing a hair shirt.   The Child Christ once appeared to him while he was walking alone in the fields. In memory of what passed between him and Christ on that occasion, he used every night to sign his forehead with the words “Jesus of Nazareth”, a custom he recommended to others. Anxious to preserve purity of mind and body, Edmund made a vow of chastity, and as a pledge thereof he procured two rings. (2)

Edmund and his brother Robert were sent to be educated in Paris, then closely connected with Oxford. But their mother either could not or would not provide them with much money, so they had to beg their way from place to place.  The next few years of Edmund’s life were spent in Paris and Oxford in study and in teaching. The Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris had recently been completed in the magnificence of the new pointed style, and serves as a link between the Paris of St. Edmund and the Paris of today. Of the Oxford of his day, we are still reminded amid many changes by the castle, the town walls, the tower of St. Michael, the small crypt of St. Peter’s in the East, and Christ Church Cathedral – then St. Frideswide’s Priory.

In Paris, Edmund once played the part of Joseph to a fair siren, and behaved with less than his usual chivalry. A certain young girl, who had taken a shine to him, invited the Abingdonian to a private assignation, but Edmund invited the University authorities, who proceeded to lay bare the back of the frail maiden and the offending Eve was whipped out of her! Edmund practised austere self-discipline, wore garments of rope-cloth and horse-hair, and showed himself careless about teacher’s fees both in Paris and Oxford. He was devoted to his pupils, nursing them in sickness and selling the treasures of his library to give to needy scholars. (3)

Notwithstanding the gentleness of his disposition, he firmly defended the rights of Church and State against the exactions and usurpations of Henry III. He visited Rome in 1237 to plead his cause in person. This fearless policy brought him into conflict, not only with the king and his party, but also with the monks of Rochester and Canterbury. Determined opposition met him from all sides, and constant appeals were carried to Rome over his head. In consequence, a papal legate was sent to England, but Henry adroitly managed the legate’s authority to nullify Edmund’s power. Unable to force the king to give over the control of vacant benefices, and determined not to countenance evil and injustice, Edmund saw he could not longer remain in England.

In 1240 he retired to the Cistercian Abbey of Pontigny. Here he lived like a simple religious till the summer heat drove him to Soissy, where he died. Within six years he was canonized, and numerous miracles have been wrought at his shrine. Notwithstanding the devastation that from time to time has overtaken Pontigny, the body of St. Edmund is still venerated in its abbey church. Important relics of the saint are preserved at Westminster Cathedral; St. Edmund’s College, Ware; Portsmouth Cathedral, and Erdington Abbey. The ancient proper Mass of St. Edmund, taken from the Sarum Missal, is used in the Diocese of Portsmouth, of which St. Edmund is patron. In September, 1874, 350 English pilgrims visited St. Edmund’s shrine. The community, known as Fathers of St. Edmund, were forced to leave their home at Pontigny, by the Associations law. (2)

Among St. Edmund’s writings must be mentioned his ‘Constitutions’, which give an interesting account of his reforms and aims, and throw light on the manners of that age. He also wrote Speculum Ecclesiae, or the ‘Mirror of the Church’. A black letter quarto of Latin sermons, undated, c.1521, with nice woodcuts, contains ‘A Myrour of the Chyrche made by Saynt Austyn of Abyndon’. St. Austin is a slip for St. Edmund of Abingdon. This, and other editions, indicate the hold that the Abingdon preacher had taken on the minds of Englishmen. In the English envoy of the printer it professes to be ‘rudely endited’, ‘that ye reders leve not the fruytfull sentence of within for the curious fable of without.’

In memory of St. Edmund of Abingdon, Prince Edmund, Earl of Cornwall, founded, in 1288, St. Edmund’s Chapel in the parish of St. Helen’s in Abingdon, near the saint’s reputed birthplace. It was swept away at the reformation but is still remembered in the name of ‘St. Edmund’s Lane’ where it stood. (3)

Image: Nuremberg chronicles – Edmund, Archbishop of Canterbury (4)

Research by REGINA Staff


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