Saint of the Day – 16 November – Saint Edmund Rich of Abingdon (1175-1240) Archbishop of Canterbury, Confessor, Apostle of Prayer and Charity, Mystic, Doctor of Divinity/Theology, eloquent Preacher, Ascetic, highly regarded Professor lecturer, Reformer, Writer, peacemaker, social activist and negotiator. Born, it is thought, on 20 November c. 1175 at St Edmund’s Lane, Abingdon, Berkshire (now Oxfordshire), England and died on 16 November 1240 at Soisy-Bouy, Seine-et-Marne, France. Patronages – Abingdon, Oxfordshire, Roman Catholic Diocese of Portsmouth; St Edmund’s College, Cambridge; St Edmund Hall, Oxford, St Edmund’s College, Ware.
Of English birth, he became a respected lecturer in mathematics, dialectics and theology at the Universities of Paris and Oxford, promoting the study of Aristotle. Having already an unsought reputation as an ascetic, he was ordained a priest, took a doctorate in divinity and soon became known, not only for his lectures on theology but as a popular preacher, spending long years travelling within England, and engaging, in 1227 preaching the sixth crusade. Obliged to accept an appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury by Pope Gregory IX, he combined a gentle personal temperament with a strong public stature and severity towards King Henry III in defence of Magna Carta and in general of good civil and Church government and justice. He also worked for strict observance in monastic life and negotiated peace with Llywelyn the Great. His policies earned him hostility and jealousy from the king and opposition from several monasteries and from the clergy of Canterbury Cathedral. He died in France at the beginning of a journey to Rome in 1240.
St Edmund was born circa 1174, possibly on 20 November (the feast of St Edmund the Martyr), in Abingdon in Berkshire (now Oxfordshire), 7 miles south of Oxford, England. He was the oldest of four children.
“Rich” was an epithet sometimes given to his wealthy merchant father, Reynold. It was never applied to Edmund or his siblings in their lifetimes. His father retired, with his wife’s consent, to the monastery at Eynsham Abbey, leaving in her hands the education of their family. Her name was Mabel, she was a devout woman who lived an ascetic life and encouraged her children to do the same. Both her daughters took the veil.
Edmund may have been educated at the monastic school in Abingdon. He developed a taste for religious learning, saw visions while still at school and at the age of twelve took a vow of perpetual chastity in the Virgin’s church at Oxford. His early studies were in England but he completed his higher learning in France, at the University of Paris. He became a teacher about 1200, or a little earlier. For six years he lectured on mathematics and dialectics, apparently dividing his time between Oxford and Paris and helped introduce the study of Aristotle.
Edmund became one of Oxford’s first lecturers with a Master of Arts but was not Oxford’s first Doctor of Divinity. Long hours at night spent in prayer had the result that he often “nodded off” during his lectures. There is a long-established tradition that he utilised his lecture-fees to build the Lady Chapel of St Peter’s in the East at Oxford. The site where he lived and taught was formed into a mediaeval academic hall in his name and later incorporated as the college of St Edmund Hall.
His mother’s influence then led to his taking up the study of theology. Though for some time Edmund resisted the change, he finally entered upon his new career between 1205 and 1210. He spent a year in retirement with the Augustinian canons of Merton Priory, received ordination, took a doctorate in divinity and soon became known as a lecturer on theology and as an extemporaneous preacher. In this capacity he gained some reputation for eloquence. He spent the fees which he received in charity and refused to spend upon himself the revenues which he derived from several benefices. He often retired for solitude to Reading Abbey and it is possible that he would have become a monk if that profession had afforded more scope for his gifts as a preacher and expositor.
His spiritual fervour, eloquent and effective preaching led to miracles and conversions. He constantly encouraged the faithful to pray. “A hundred thousand people are deceived by multiplying prayers,” he said once. “I would rather say five words devoutly with my heart, than 5,000 which my soul does not relish with affection and intelligence.”
He was known for his great self-discipline – under his clothes, he wore a sackcloth pressed close to his skin by metal plates and he slept only a few hours at night in order to spend time in prayer and meditation. On one occasion, he was observed levitating, consumed in prayer.
In 1233 he was named the 46th Archbishop of Canterbury against his wishes. He advised King Henry III and presided at the king’s confirmation of the Magna Carta in 1237. Edmund was at the centre of relations between Rome and England and spoke truth to power on both sides. He admonished the king for having favourites in his court and travelled to Rome to urge reforms in the Church.
Because he was so truthful and did not vary from what he saw as just and right, many people found him inconvenient. Political movements forced Edmund’s resignation in 1240 and he moved to France and became a monk. He died later that year and miracles at his grave were reported soon after his burial. His relics rest in the reliquary chapel in the Basilica.
In less than a year after Edmund’s death, miracles were wrought at his grave. Despite Henry’s opposition, he was Canonised only 6 years after his death, on 16 December 1246 by Pope Innocent IV. A few years later, the first chapel dedicated to him, St Edmund’s Chapel, was consecrated in Dover, by his friend St Richard of Chichester (c 1197-1253), making it the only chapel dedicated to one English saint by another.
Edmund’s body was never translated to Canterbury, because the Benedictine community there resented what they regarded as Edmund’s attacks on their independence. After his death he was taken back to Pontigny Abbey, where his main relics are now found in a baroque reliquary tomb dating to the 17th century.
An arm is enshrined in the Chapel of Our Lady of the Assumption at St Edmund’s Retreat on Enders Island off the coast of Mystic, Connecticut. The retreat is operated by the Society of the Fathers and Brothers of St Edmund.
In 1853, the fibula of the Edmund’s left leg was presented to St Edmund’s College, Ware,by Cardinal Wiseman. Many local cures of serious illnesses were attributed to the intercession of St Edmund, one of the earliest of these was of a student who nearly died after a fall in 1871. His complete healing led to the accomplishment of a vow to extend the beautiful Pugin chapel with a side chapel to honour the saint.
St Edmund’s silk chasuble, which Edmund had with him at his death, remains in a local church, with a stole and maniple. His works, Speculum Ecclesiae (Mirror of the Church)
and Provincial Constitution, are still relevant today. He holds the sad honour, of being the last Archbishop of Canterbury, to be Canonised. The Society of St Edmund, formed in his honour in France in the 1840s, operates from the US – you can read about them here: http://www.sse.org/history.html.