Encyclopedia Britannica – Saint Edmund Rich

[Saint Edmund Rich]Article

(died 1240), English saint and archbishop of Canterbury, was born at Abingdon, near Oxford, about 1175. His father was a merchant of that town who retired, with his wife’s consent, to the monastery of Eynsham, 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; three of her sons served the church in different capacities. Edmund, her first-born, began his education in a grammar school at Oxford. Of weak health and a contemplative disposition, he showed, from his earliest years, a remarkable taste for learning and religious exercises. He 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. Later he was sent, with his brother Robert, to study the liberal arts at Paris. His mother’s death and family affairs recalled him for a time to England; but he afterwards graduated at Paris. For six years he lectured in the liberal arts, partly in Paris and partly in Oxford; his career as an Oxford teacher commenced before 1205, and is noteworthy for the fact that he was the first who lectured there on Aristotle. He then returned to Paris for a course of theological studies, and rapidly made himself proficient in that branch of learning.

After spending a year in retirement with the Augustinian canons of Merton (Surrey) he became a theological lecturer in Oxford. In this capacity he gained some reputation, and it is related that his audience were often moved to tears by his 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 not infrequently retired for solitude to Reading Abbey; it is probable that he would have become a monk if that profession had afforded more scope for his gifts as a preacher and expositor. As his fame increased he became alarmed by the temptations which it threw in his way. He ceased to lecture in Oxford, and about 1222 accepted, at the invitation of Bishop Richard Poore, the treasurership of Salisbury cathedral. Little is known of his life for the next ten years. But he attracted the notice of the Roman court, and was appointed in 1227 to preach the Crusade in England; he formed a friendship with Ella, countess of Salisbury, and her husband, William Longsword, and he won general admiration by his works of charity and the austerity of his life.

In 1233 he was elected archbishop of Canterbury at the express suggestion of Gregory IX, after the monks of Canterbury had in vain suggested three other candidates for the pope’s approval. Edmund at once leaped into prominence by the outspoken manner in which he rebuked the king for following the advice of foreign favourites. In common with the baronial opposition he treated Henry III as responsible for the tragic fate of Richard Marshal, earl of Pembroke, and threatened the king with excommunication. The king bowed before the storm, dismissed the foreign counsellors, made peace with Marshal’s adherents, and was publicly reconciled with the barons. But the new ministers were as unpopular as the old; nor was the archbishop allowed that political influence which he claimed in virtue of his office. It was with the object of emancipating himself from Edmund’s control that the king asked the pope to send him a legate (1236). On the arrival of Cardinal Otho (1237) the archbishop found himself thwarted and insulted at every point. The marriage between Simon de Montfort and the Princess Eleanor, which Edmund had pronounced invalid, was ratified at Rome upon appeal. The king and legate upheld the monks of Canterbury in their opposition to the archbishop’s authority. On all public occasions the legate took precedence of the archbishop. By the advice of his suffragans Edmund laid a protest before the king, and excommunicated in general terms all who had infringed the liberties of Canterbury. These measures led to no result; nor could the pope be moved to reverse the legate’s decisions. Edmund complained that the discipline of the national church was ruined by this conflict of powers, and began to meditate retiring. He was confirmed in this intention by the papal encroachments of the year 1240, when the English clergy were required to pay a subsidy of a fifth for the war against Frederick II, and simultaneously three hundred Romans were “provided” with English benefices in return for their political services to the Holy See. Edmund withdrew to Pontigny in the summer of 1240. A little later the state of his health compelled him to seek the cooler air of Soissy (near Provins). Here he died on the 16th of November 1240.

His canonization was at once demanded by his admirers, and only delayed (till 1247) through the opposition of Henry III. The honour was well deserved. He is one of the most saintly and attractive figures in the history of the English church. It was his misfortune to be placed at the head of the national hierarchy in a crisis for which he had not been prepared by practical training or experience. As archbishop he showed no great capacity or force of character; but the purity of his motives and the loftiness of his ideals commanded universal respect.

MLA Citation

  • Henry William Carless Davis. “Saint Edmund Rich”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911. CatholicSaints.Info. 10 March 2013. Web. 14 November 2018. <>