1902 Encyclopedia > St Edmund

St Edmund
(Edmund Rich)
English ecclesiastic

(c. 1190 - 1240)

ST EDMUND (c. 1190-1240). Edmund Rich, archbishop of Canterbury, was born about the close of the 12th century, at Abingdon, then the seat of a great Benedictine convent. He was one of six children. His father was a rich trader and man of the world, his mother a pious woman, who carried out remorselessly the ascetic conception of a religious life. She fasted much and slept little, wore a hair chemise and iron stays, and made her household so uncomfortable by her arrangements that her husband, with her consent, retired to a monastery at Eynesham, as likely to be a more enjoyable home. The story of Edmund's birth and early years is strewn with marvel and miracle. Trained by his mother, he caught her ascetic spirit, and became a willing imitator of her self-tormenting ways. At the age of twelve he was sent to a school at Oxford, where he studied diligently, but continued his ascetic exercises. Naturally susceptible in a high degree to the charm of beauty, he nevertheless vowed a vow of celibacy, and espoused himself to the Blessed Virgin Mary. At Oxford he was prostrated by a brain fever; his mother attended him, and by her desire he received the clerical tonsure. Shortly after, his father apparently being dead, he was sent to Paris to study at the university. He was called home to attend his mother on her death-bed; and during the next twelve months he lived in retirement in the convent of Merton, in Surrey. He then returned to Oxford, and at once took an honourable place among the teachers of the university, which he retained for some years. He is distinguished as one of the scholars who introduced the study of Aristotle ; and he heartily co-operated with those who were striving to recover for Oxford the popularity and prosperity as a place of study which it had recently lost, in consequence of a disturbance (1209) between town and gown, and the migration of students and masters in very large numbers. Edmund ultimately resolved to devote himself to theology, was ordained priest, and took his degree in divinity. " He is the first of our archbishops," says Dean Hook, " to whose name we find the title of S.T.P. attached—the first doctor of divinity." About 1222 he was appointed treasurer of Salisbury Cathedral, and in this office, which he held about eleven years, and to which the prebend of Calne was attached, he endeared himself alike to rich and poor. In 1227 Dr Edmund was one of the preachers of the sixth crusade. In 1233 he was elected to the vacant primacy. Three elections had previously been made by the chapter, which the Pope for various reasons had refused to confirm ; and this, the fourth, was made by the Pope's suggestion, a3 a compromise acceptable to " Pope, king, and monks," says Fuller, " three cords seldom twisted in the same cable." The pallium was sent to England without waiting for the decision of the chapter. The position of the primate was at that time one of peculiar difficulty, and it was with unfeigned reluctance that Edmund accepted it,—feeling, says Lingard, " that the timidity of his conscience would not suffer him to acquiesce in the dis-orders of the age, and that the gentleness of his temper did not fit him for the stern office of a reformer." The new archbishop attached himself and steadfastly adhered to the national party, whose great object was to insure the independence of the kingdom, the maintenance of the Great Charter, and the exclusion of foreigners from civil and ecclesiastical offices. Early in 1234, before his consecration, he convened a council at Westminster, by which a remon-strance was addressed to the king, requiring him, on pain of the censures of the church, to dismiss his foreign councillors, especially Peter des Boches, bishop of Winchester, through whose influence the strongholds of the kingdom were then in the hands of foreign mercenaries. The consecration of the archbishop was celebrated at Canterbury on the 2d April 1234, and the king was present with all his court. One week later the primate held a second council, and was commissioned by it to threaten the king with excommunication if he did not comply with the terms of the former council. This measure was effectual. The archbishop was then sent into Wales to negotiate a peace with the Prince Llewelyn. In May he held a council at Gloucester, and here was accomplished a temporary reconciliation between the king and the people. In January 1236 the primate had the costly privilege of a royal visit, Henry III. going to Canterbury to await the coming of his bride-elect, Eleanor of Provence; and on the 14 th the marriage ceremony was performed by the arch-bishop. A few days later he officiated at the coronation of the queen. But the hopeless divergence of aims between the king and the archbishop, and the inflexible courage and decision of the latter, induced Henry to apply secretly to the Pope, Gregory IX., to send a legate to reside in England, whose authority might nullify that of the arch-bishop. Meanwhile, the latter issued, in 1236, his constitu-tions, which are of no little interest on account of the indications they furnish of the state of the church and of general society. The picture is not a flattering one. In 1237 arrived the legate, Cardinal Otho, who at once won his way into the royal favour. In November he held a council at St Paul's, but failed to carry his main points against the opposition of the clergy. He stood high, however, with the king, and used or abused his prerogatives for effecting his own purposes. Archbishop Edmund now found himself in opposition to both the king and the Pope ; and his position was rendered still more difficult by his excommunication of Simon de Montf ort and his bride Eleanor, sister of the king, whose marriage after having taken a vow of perpetual widowhood he felt bound to condemn. In 1238, with a view to obtaining the support of the Pope for his project of monastic reform, Edmund went to Home. But in this mission he failed. Not only was his purpose frustrated, but he was treated with marked insult by the Pope; and he returned to England sad at heart and burdened with pecuniary difficulties. He soon found that he was reduced to a cipher; he saw the Papal exactions continually growing—" vexed," says Fuller, " at the polling and peeling of the English people "_—and saw that the legate's great object was to crush him. In 1240, therefore, he left England, and took up his abode at the abbey of Pontigny, in France, where Thomas Becket and Stephen Langton had previously found an asylum. At his landing he was met by the queen of France, who brought her sons, among them (St) Louis., to receive his blessing. His health was now broken down, and he " sighed out the remainder of his life " in quiet retirement, broken only by occasional preaching. Becoming weaker and weaker, he removed, for the sake of a better climate, to the priory of Soissy, and there he died, November 16, 1240. His tomb, within a year, began to be famous for miracles; and in 1246, after much resistance on the part of the Pope, the archbishop, the staunch foe of Papal extortions, was canonized. He left a work entitled Speculum Ecclesice, which he appears to have completed at Pontigny.

Two contemporary biographies of St Edmund are extant, one by his brother Robert Rich, the other by Bertrand, prior of Pontigny, the usual admixture of miraculous and incredible details being found in their accounts. (W. L. R. C.)

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