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St. Edmund Rich
of Abingdon,
Archbishop of Canterbury


Edmund 'Rich' was born in Abingdon on 20th November, the feast of St. Edmund, the King of East Anglia, about the year 1175. He was the son of a local merchant named Edward or Reynold Rich. Of his three brothers, Robert supposedly wrote one of his biographies. His two sisters, Margaret and Alice, became Prioresses of Catesby in Northamptonshire. Edmund's boyhood seems to have been spent in Abingdon and Oxford, and he was probably first educated at the abbey in the former town. His mother Mabel enticed him by little allurements to practice extreme asceticism like herself, to wear sackcloth, to fast on Friday, to refuse food on Sunday and other feast-days until he had sung the whole psalter. The family was apparently in easy circumstances, as the father's surname suggests (this is actually an epithet only and should therefore not really be applied to the children). However, Mabel's severe discipline did not make the home a comfortable one for her husband. To quote Hook's Lives: “We are not, however, surprised to find that the more self-indulgent old merchant preferred a monastery to such a home as that which Mabel latterly provided for him.” So the father withdrew to the greater comfort of the monastery of Eynsham, near Oxford.

Edmund and 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 that the lads had to beg their way from place to place. Mabel's girdle was regarded, many generations later, as a treasure to be bequeathed as an heirloom. 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.

Edmund taught, at first, in the secular learning of Oxford, particularly philosophy and mathematics; and was one of the pioneers in the revival of the study of Greek. Roger Bacon, the great scientist, speaks of him as “Edmund, the first in my time who read the Elements - of Aristotle - at Oxford.” Later on, Edmund joined the Austin Canons of Merton College and abandoned the vanity of secular studies for theology. He at once became famous as a preacher. Among his penitents was William Longsword, Earl of Salisbury, the illegitimate son of King Henry II. Oxford had fallen on evil days owing to the tyranny of King John and the turbulence of the students and townsmen. Its existence as a seat of learning was threatened by the migrations of students to other places. St. Edmund, along with the Oxford friars, took a great part in restoring its high character for learning and conduct.

In 1222, Edmund left Oxford to become Treasurer of Salisbury Cathedral and Prebend of Calne. During the eleven years that he held this post, he must have taken a share in the work of building the most graceful of all English Cathedrals. At this time, he was engaged in preaching the Crusade all over England, with marked success. In 1233, he received, at Calne, the news that he had been appointed Archbishop of Canterbury by the Pope, to whom a disputed election had been referred. In the words of Capgrave, "The Pope cassed the eleccion. Thanne were the munkis at her liberte to have a new eleccion; and thei chose Maister Edmund Abyngdon, a holy man, which was thanne tresorer of Salisbury."

Prince Edward, afterwards the great King Edward I, was confirmed by him, and perhaps, in later life, derived from him something of his crusading zeal and his popular sympathies. As Archbishop, Edmund supported the Baronian Party which aimed at securing national independence and freedom from the domination of Henry III's foreign favourites; and rebuked the King for the murder of the Earl Marshal. He excommunicated the infamous Simon de Montfort for his clandestine marriage with Eleanor, the King's sister. He was the champion of the English Church against the tax-gatherers of Rome and endeavoured to suppress many corrupt practices in the Church. To this end, his Constitutions were issued in 1236. However, the resentment he incurred, partiocularly from his own monks, led him to visit Rome in order to lay his difficulties before the Pope in person, but he failed to secure any support from Gregory IX. 

He finally broke down under the stress of all these struggles and, feeling his position to be intolerable, he followed his great predecessors, Thomas A'Becket and Stephen Langton, in retiring from his troubled life to an exile of despair at Pontigny, and lived in seclusion as a simple monk. As a boy, he had seen visions in the fields of Abingdon and Oxford. The end of his life at Pontigny and Soisy was also vision-haunted. Death came to him at Soisy, on 16th November 1240, and his body was carried back to Pontigny, where his shrine may be seen today, behind the High Altar of the Abbey there. Reported miracles and, still more, the memory of his pure and holy life, attracted many worshippers to the shrine and, at length, led to his canonization in 1247. This was hotly opposed, but finally allowed owing to the warm support of King Louis IX.

It was not St. Edmund's political capacity so much as the charm of his character that attracted the affection of his own and succeeding generations. He spent the 'amercements' of his see in providing dowries for his poorer tenants' daughters. He would tolerate neither bribery nor gifts, was a good steward of the estates of his office, and was hospitable in spite of his personal austerity. To the end, he wore a cheap tunic of grey or white in preference to purple and fine linen. The chronicler quaintly remarks that, when he was Primate of all England, he did not blush to take off his own shoes.

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.

Edited from J. Townsend's 'A History of  Abingdon' (1910). 

    © Nash Ford Publishing 2001. All Rights Reserved.