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Saint of the week

The scholar so committed to poverty he threw money out of the window

St Edmund Rich (November 16) had trouble, though, as Archbishop of Canterbury

By on Friday, 16 November 2012

St Edmund Rich served as treasurer of Salisbury Cathedral, above

St Edmund Rich served as treasurer of Salisbury Cathedral, above

Edmund Rich (c 1174-1240) was a holy scholar unexpectedly elected Archbishop of Canterbury in 1233.

The appointment, however, brought him only trouble and strife.

Edmund was born in Abingdon, the eldest of three brothers and two sisters. After their father died, they were brought up by their devout and ascetic mother, Mabel. Edmund, as her favourite, was required at all times to wear sackcloth, while on Sundays he was not permitted to eat until he had sung through the entire psalter. When, at 14, the boy was sent to study in Paris, Mabel kept him short of funds, but helpfully sent supplies of sackcloth. 

From around 1196 to 1202 Edmund taught in Oxford, counting Roger Bacon among his pupils. Dedicated to poverty, he would throw the fees of hard-up students out of the window. 

He also financed the building of a chapel for the Virgin Mary in Oxford, and put his father’s property at the disposal of a hospital.

Mabel’s death by no means curtailed her influence. Around 1202 she appeared in a dream to inform Edmund that he was wasting his time on secular studies, when he should be contemplating the Trinity. Edmund returned to Paris to read theology, which he subsequently taught in Oxford. In 1222, however, he assumed a more practical role as treasurer of Salisbury Cathedral. Four years later he was selected by Pope Honorius III to preach the crusade.

Such was Edmund’s reputation in Rome that Pope Gregory IX quashed the election of three candidates to the archbishopric of Canterbury before the canons accepted that they were supposed to choose the treasurer of Salisbury. As archbishop Edmund undoubtedly had the best intentions, alike in caring for his flock and reforming the Church. He was, however, too remote and unworldly a figure to be an efficient administrator. Although he started well, helping to make peace between Henry III and his barons, he soon became enmeshed in quarrels about the jurisdictions of royal and ecclesiastical courts.

Under pressure from the King he also opposed the marriage of Henry III’s sister Eleanor and Simon de Montfort, stating that Eleanor had taken a vow of chastity after the death of her first husband. Yet when, in 1238, he went to argue his case in Rome he found no support.

Back in England Edmund quarrelled with the monks of Christ Church, Canterbury, who objected to his scheme of establishing a college for his staff at Maidstone, and appeared indifferent to the archbishop’s sentence of excommunication.

So in the autumn of 1240 Edmund once more set out to plead his cause in Rome, only to die at Soisy in northern Burgundy. He was buried at nearby Pontigny, formerly a refuge for Thomas à Becket and Stephen Langton. Canonisation followed in 1246.