|The relic of St Edmund of Abingdon at |
Edmund Rich (1175 – 1240) was the son of a successful merchant from the town of Abingdon (now in Oxfordshire). The family’s epithet, Rich, suggests Edmund was accustomed to a comfortable life, and it is known that his father’s wealth guaranteed him a good education. Having said that, Edmund’s mother, Mabel, was a devout woman, who encouraged her children to detach themselves from worldly possessions. She also desired that the family lived an ascetic life, and made Edmund wear sackcloth as a boy. He was also taught to fast on Fridays, and even on Sundays – though this latter fast could be broken after the whole Divine Office had been sung!
As young men both Edmund and his brother, Robert, were sent to Paris for their higher education. It was a tough time for both boys, as Mabel refused to fund their living costs, preferring that her sons learnt to live as mendicants! Whilst at university, both in Paris and Oxford, Edmund continued to live according to the ascetic ideals of his childhood. He was also very careful to avoid being led astray by the temptations of student life and guarded his chastity with some zeal – even to the point of having one poor girl, who had become besotted with him, and who tried to enter his chambers for immoral purposes, flogged by the authorities! Having said that, as a lecturer, Edmund could be exceedingly kind and compassionate towards his own struggling students, even selling his books to buy food and clothes for those who were in need.
Edmund’s academic career really took off back home in Oxford, where he lectured in philosophy and mathematics -- he is the first known holder of a Master of Arts from the great university. He was also in the vanguard when it came to reacquainting Europe with the learning of ancient Greece. Eventually, Edmund decided to seek ordination and concentrate his studies within the discipline of theology, which inevitably saw him move away from a strictly secular form of academic research. As a result, he gained a Doctorate in Divinity and became a well-known preacher and pastor – and was enthusiastic in using the pulpit as a means of reforming the lives of his students, as well as the great and the good of Oxford.
By the early 1220s, Edmund’s fame as a preacher had spread throughout England, and he engaged much of his time travelling and preaching from town to town, in the manner of the friars -- his mother would have been pleased by this! After a successful time spent promoting the Crusades, as well as having been appointed to some of England's great ecclesiastical offices, such as Treasurer of Salisbury Cathedral, Edmund was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury by Pope Gregory IX in 1233, choosing the motto "Caclum dives ingredi" ("To enter Heaven rich") -- a wonderful play on words!
During his time as Primate of All England, Edmund continued to live the ascetic life, and his reforming zeal remained unhindered. He had no qualms about excommunicating the powerful, such as Simon de Montford, or about rebuking the King, Henry III. At the same time, the saintly Archbishop was a fervent promoter of peace and reconciliation. He always managed to maintain a certain amount of good will towards those with whom he had serious disagreements. He also personally visited Prince Llywelyn the Great of Wales so as to negotiate a successful peace between the principality and the English Crown.
He also stood up to the dubious excesses of Rome, and defended the rights of the English Church against corrupt tax-gathers from sent from the Pope. He wrote a famous work, called the Constitutions, in which he sought to reform the Church and provide moral guidelines for those in holy orders. As with many reformers in the Church’s history, though, Edmund encountered bitter opposition from within the clergy. The clerics and monks of England rebelled against the Constitutions, and were supported in their complaints by the Pope -- who had himself been the target of Edmund's admonishments!
The struggle with Gregory IX's papacy and his own English priests led Edmund to abandon his position as Primate of All England, and he effectively retired -- exiling himself to the Cistercian Abbey at Pontigny after bowing to humiliating taxes and handing over a fifth of his revenue to the Pope. Like other great archbishops of Canterbury, Edmund’s final years were spent in monastic seclusion in France. (Both St Thomas Becket and Cardinal Stephen Langton retired to the same monastery.)
Edmund Rich died on 16 November 1240, whilst living with the Augustinian Canons at Soisy-Bouy. He was canonised by Pope Innocent IV only a few years after his death – his Cause being enthusiastically supported by the French King St Louis IX.
In more recent times, St Edmund's College, Ware, was placed under Edmund’s patronage, as were the Dioceses of Westminster and Portsmouth. There remain two great relics of St Edmund in England, both composing of his intact left and right fibulae. One is venerated at his shrine in St Edmund's Ware, whilst the other can be found in his shrine at Westminster Cathedral (which is directly underneath the High Altar). This relic rests close to the tombs of Cardinal Wiseman, who composed the anthem O Beate mi Edmunde in his honour and had the saint's relic enshrined, and Cardinal Manning, who led a pilgrimage to St Edmund’s Ware in 1873.
On his feast day, St Edmund's relic in Westminster Cathedral is usually brought out for veneration -- the picture above shows the relic as it appeared (placed in the Vaughan Chantry, a chapel dedicated to Edmund's predecessor, St Thomas Becket) back in 2010 (when this now edited post was first published.)
The Anthem to St Edmund
O Beate mi Edmunde,
O Beate mi Edmunde,
Sic pro me ad Filium Dei,
Cum Maria preces funde,
Cum Maria preces funde,
Ut per vos sim placens Ei
O my beloved Edmund,
in union with Mary, pour out your prayers for me
to the Son of God, so that through them,
we may always be found pleasing to Him