Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Edmund (1170?-1240)

EDMUND (RICH), Saint (1170?–1240), archbishop of Canterbury, was born on St. Edmund's day (20 Nov.), probably between 1170 and 1175. No exact dates can be assigned until his appointment to Canterbury. He read lectures in arts for six years, and among his pupils during this time was Walter Gray, afterwards archbishop of York, who was appointed chancellor 2 Oct. 1205. From this it is evident that he was teaching in Oxford before 1205; and if Gray was attending his classes about 1200, he can hardly have been born later than 1175. As, however, Walter Gray was rejected by the monks of his cathedral ‘propter illiteraturam,’ it is just possible that he may have attended St. Edmund's lectures at a later period (Vita Bertrandi, ap. Martène, cc. 2, 16; Epp. Archiep. Ebor. et Univ. Oxon.; Rot. de Fin. p. 368; Dixon, Lives of Archbishops).

Edmund was born at Abingdon. His father's name was Edward or Reinald Rich; his mother's Mabel. Reinald Rich withdrew to the monastery of Evesham, or more probably to Ensham, near Oxford, before his wife's death, but apparently not till some years after Edmund's birth; for Edmund seems to have been the eldest of a family which consisted of at least three brothers and two sisters (Vita Bertrandi, cc. 1, 7). The care of the children devolved upon Mabel. It was in imitation of her practice that Edmund all his life wore sackcloth next his skin, and pressed it closer to his flesh with one of the two iron plates his mother used to wear, and dying left to him and his brother Robert. As a child Mabel would entice her son to fast on Fridays, by the promise of little gifts suited to his age; and it was she who taught him to refuse all food on Sundays and festivals till he had sung the psalter from beginning to end.

The early years of Edmund's life were probably spent at Abingdon and Oxford (cf. Chron. of Lan. p. 36), and it is perhaps in the fields near Oxford that we must localise the beautiful legend which tells how on one of his lonely walks Christ appeared to him in the likeness of a little child, and expressed his surprise at not being recognised. It was seemingly in memory of this vision that, as Bertrand tells us, he was wont to write ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ on his forehead every night before going to sleep—a practice which he recommended to his biographer (Vita Bertr. c. 6).

The two brothers were probably still boys when their mother sent them to study at Paris (?1185–1190). Though in easy circumstances herself, Mabel would only give them a little money to take with them. She used to send them fresh linen every year, and for Edmund, ‘her favourite,’ a sackcloth garment too. While on a visit to his mother he seems to have suffered from a violent headache, and, in order to cure it, was shorn like a monk. As her end drew near Mabel sent for Edmund to receive her last blessing. She entrusted his sisters to his care; nor was his tender conscience satisfied before he had formed at Catesby in Northamptonshire a monastery where they would be received out of christian charity alone, and without any regard for the dower they brought with them.

Edmund must have been studying at Oxford about this time as well as at Paris, for it was by the advice of an Oxford ‘priest of great name’ that he vowed his special service to the Virgin; and it was at Oxford that, in the middle of the thirteenth century, the Lanercost chronicler saw that famous statue of the ‘glorious Virgin’ on whose finger the future saint, while still ‘puerulus intendens grammaticalibus Oxoniæ,’ had placed his betrothal ring (Chron. of Lan. p. 36; Vita Bertr. c. 10; cf. Ep. Univ. Oxon.)

As Edmund drew towards manhood his austerities grew more rigid. The details of the novel tortures of knotted rope-cloth and horsehair thongs that he devised may be read in his contemporary biographers, to whom they seemed a marvel of self-discipline. From the time he began to teach in the schools, so his most intimate friends declared soon after his death, he rarely if ever lay down upon his bed. He snatched a scanty sleep without undressing, and spent the rest of the night in meditation and prayer. For thirty years, said Bishop Jocelin of Bath, perhaps referring to a later period of his life, he had taken rest sitting or on his knees at prayer (Epp. Oxon. Jocel. Ricard).

After the usual course of study he was called upon to teach (? c. 1195–1200). His life for the next six years seems to have been divided between Paris and Oxford. Though he refused to take deacon's or priest's orders, he was constant in his attendance at early mass. He even built a little chapel in the Oxford parish where he lived, and induced his pupils to imitate his own example in the matter of punctual attendance (Vita Bertr.; Ep. Oxon.) His austerity towards himself was balanced by extreme tenderness towards others. He would carelessly throw the fees his pupils brought him into the window, and cover them up with a little dust, saying as he did so, ‘Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.’ For five weeks, on one occasion, he watched by the bedside of a sick scholar, performing the most menial offices at night, but never intermitting his usual lecture on the morrow. His friends fabled that he had once transferred the ailment of another pupil to himself.

After six years of secular teaching a vision turned his attention to theology. He dreamt that his mother appeared to him as he was teaching geometry or arithmetic to his class, and, drawing three circles emblematic of the three Persons of the Trinity, told him that these were to be the object of his study henceforward. Edmund devoted himself to theology; returned to Paris and entered upon a new course of life. Every midnight the bells of St. Mederic's Church called him out to matins, after which he would remain weeping and praying before the Virgin's altar till the day broke and it was time for him to attend the schools. He sold the little library he possessed—consisting only of the psalter, the Pentateuch, the twelve (minor) prophets, and the decretals—that he might give their price to his needy fellow-scholars at Paris. Walter Gray hearing that he did not possess a copy of the Bible offered to send him one at his own expense, but Edmund refused lest the burden of its production should be laid upon some needy monastery. The last year before he undertook the office of reader in theology was spent with the Austin canons of Merton, whom his example roused to a more fervid sense of their religious duties (Vita Bertr. c. 16; Ep. Rob. Abb. Meritonæ).

A very few years sufficed to make St. Edmund a master of theology (Vita Bertr. c. 16). His new career as a teacher of divinity probably began between 1205 and 1210. He soon won fame as a public preacher of extraordinary eloquence. His exhaustion often caused him to fall asleep in his chair of office. On one occasion he dealt so subtly offhand with an intricate theological question that he could only explain his own eloquence by the theory of a special inspiration: the Holy Spirit had come in the form of a dove. On another occasion a Cistercian abbot brought seven of his pupils to hear Edmund's lecture, which so moved the strangers that they renounced the world. One of these seven was Stephen de Lexington, afterwards abbot of Clairvaux (1243). Among his penitents was William Longsword, the Earl of Salisbury, and natural son of Henry II.

After many years spent in expounding the ‘Lord's law,’ Edmund recognised the vanity of scholastic success, and gave up his chair (Vita Edm. ap. MS. Gale I. i. f. iiib). He was appointed treasurer of Salisbury Cathedral at some period between 15 Aug. 1219 and 18 Aug. 1222. His income, owing to his liberality, only lasted him for half the year; for the remaining six months he had to find a home with his friend, Stephen of Lexington, now abbot of Stanley in Wiltshire. He held the prebend of Calne, and he was staying at this place in 1233 when the messengers from Rome brought the news of his appointment to Canterbury.

In the intervening years (1222–33) Edmund had been employed in the work of public preaching. At the pope's bidding (probably in 1227) he had preached the crusade over a great part of England. He is mentioned at Oxford, Worcester, Gloucester, and Leominster, and it was probably his success in this work that marked him out for promotion. At all events it was at the instance of Gregory IX that he was elected to Canterbury, to which office, despite his own reluctance, he was consecrated 2 April 1234.

Hubert de Burgh [q. v.], who had kept Henry III in constitutional paths, had recently been confined in Devizes (c. November 1232), and Richard, earl marshal, was now recognised as the head of the national party, on whose behalf Edmund exercised his influence even before his consecration. In conjunction with the earl, in the name of his fellow-bishops, he had solemnly exhorted the king to take warning by his father, John. This was at Westminster (2 Feb. 1234). Two months later (9 April) the barons and the bishops, headed by the newly consecrated primate, appeared before the king once more. Edmund was the spokesman of his party; if the king would not dismiss his favourites, he was ready to excommunicate the royal person. The threat was effective. Peter des Roches, Peter de Rievaulx, and the Poitevins had to leave the court. About Easter the archbishop was negotiating a peace with Llewellyn of Wales.

Meanwhile the earl marshal had been enticed into Wales and slain in the king's name, if not with the king's consent. Edmund took up this matter also. At Gloucester he induced Henry to accept the homage of the dead noble's brother and heir, Gilbert (28 May), and on Whitsunday at Worcester he had the letters by which Earl Richard had been inveigled to his fate read before the king and the whole assembly of bishops and barons. Henry had to admit the evidence of his own seal, but pleaded ignorance of the contents of the despatch, upon which the archbishop bade him interrogate his own conscience: for all who had had a share in this fraud were as guilty of the earl's death as though they had slain him with their own hands. The accused counsellors were summoned, but, not daring to appear, sought refuge in churches and elsewhere. It was now Edmund's influence that procured them a safe-conduct to the court, and it was under his protection that (14 July) Peter de Rievaulx appeared before the king and his justices. For a moment even the archbishop refused to be his surety, and the disgraced minister was committed to the Tower weeping; but on Saturday Edmund's heart relented, and the prisoner was suffered to go to Winchester. Edmund acted a similar part with reference to the late justiciar, Stephen de Segrave, and indeed is called by Matthew Paris ‘pacis mediator hujus discidii’ (Matt. Paris, iii. 244, 272–3, 290, 293–4, &c.; Rymer, p. 213). Edmund seems to have sided with the popular party at the Westminster council of 1237 (13 Jan.), and to have insisted on the exclusion of foreigners from the king's council as a condition of the thirtieth granted.

Edmund was now to come forward as the champion of the national church against the claims of Rome. In 1237 (c. 29 June) he rebuked the king for having invited the legate Cardinal Otho to England, and in the autumn (19–20 Nov.) he was present at the great ecclesiastical council of St. Paul's, on which occasion consistency would certainly have demanded that he should support the legate in his attempt to limit the abuse of pluralities (see Vita Bertr. c. 25; but cf. Hook, iii. 194, &c.). This council is rendered remarkable by being the occasion of a dispute between Edmund and his old pupil, the Archbishop of York, as regards the right of precedence (Matt. Paris, iii. 395, 416, &c.).

Four weeks later (c. 17 Dec.) Edmund left England for Rome. Since his elevation he had been forced into many disputes. In 1235 he had refused to consecrate Richard de Wendene, whom the monks of Rochester had elected their bishop, and the disappointed electors appealed to the pope. He had quarrelled with his own monks of Canterbury as to the place where he should consecrate Robert Grosseteste, bishop of Lincoln. A lawsuit with the Earl of Arundel as to the right of hunting in the archiepiscopal forests had been decided against him. The monks of his own priory of Christ Church had fallen into vices of which the chronicler refuses even to speak. Added to this he was at feud with the king. This, however, did not prevent Henry from charging him to inform the pope as to the details of the clandestine marriage between Simon de Montfort and his own sister Eleanor, who, on the death of her first husband, had taken the vow of chastity before the archbishop himself. This combination of causes took Edmund to Rome that he might plead his case in person. His biographers note it as a special mark of the divine favour towards so holy a man that on one occasion, by refusing an invitation to the pope's table, he avoided being witness of a shocking murder that was then perpetrated under the very eyes of Gregory. Judgment seems to have been delivered against him on every count (20 March), and he returned home about August, though only to find himself engaged in a fresh quarrel with his monks, whom before long he was forced to excommunicate. Once more they appealed to Rome, and refused to pay any attention to his interdict. A little later he excommunicated the prior of Christ Church, seemingly because he had abetted the king in the infringements of Magna Charta.

In the spring of 1240 Edmund was present when the prelates refused the pope a fifth for his war against the Emperor Frederic, and a little later he bade a tearful farewell to Earl Richard of Cornwall as the latter was starting on his crusade. His differences with the king were by this time so great that he was obliged to abandon the church of secular canons he was just beginning to build at Maidstone (1239). It was in vain that he wrote letters to the pope, claiming the right to appoint successors to vacant sees if the king should not fill them up within six months after the death of the previous occupant. In Gregory IX he had not a pontiff who would play an Alexander to his Becket. At last, foiled in all his efforts, he gave way to the papal exactions instead of continuing to resist the king's. His courage broke down beneath the strain, and, in the hope of winning his cause against his monks, he paid down a fifth of his revenue (eight hundred marks) to the pope's agents. The other English prelates followed his example. A little later came the demand that three hundred English benefices should be forthwith assigned to as many Romans. This attack on his church's rights the archbishop could no longer endure. His eyes naturally turned towards Pontigny, the refuge of his great predecessors, St. Thomas and Stephen Langton. There he came in the summer of 1240 begging to be received as a simple monk. The heat drove him from Pontigny to Soisy, whither he now went, promising to return on St. Edmund's day. At Soisy his illness grew worse. His strength gradually left him; but even as the very end drew on he refused to undress or lie upon his bed. The last days of his life were spent with his head resting on his hand or sitting fully dressed upon his couch. After receiving the holy communion he broke out into a homely English proverb: ‘Folks say game [sport] goeth into the womb [belly]; but I say now game goeth into the heart.’ The features of his physicians told him that his last hour was near; but he uttered no moan, nor did his wits wander. At last, on 16 Nov. 1240, just as the day was breaking, he died. His body was carried to Pontigny for burial.

Numerous miracles were reported to mark his final resting-place, and a demand soon rose for his canonisation. This demand was opposed by Henry III and Boniface of Canterbury, but was urgently supported by Louis IX and his wife. Commission after commission was appointed to investigate the authenticity of the wonders ascribed to the dead archbishop. The inquisition in England was conducted by Richard de la Wich, bishop of Chichester, Robert Bacon, and the prior of Esseby, of whom the two former were his pupils or fellow-teachers; the soul of the French commission was the Archbishop of Armagh, who claimed that Edmund had cured him of an illness when the most skilled physicians of Paris had failed. The matter was taken up by Cardinal John of St. Laurence in Luciana, who sent Stephen of Lexington on a final mission to England and France to bring the recipients of Edmund's favour before the court in person. The evidence was then admitted to be incontrovertible, or the opposition had slackened, and the decree for canonisation was issued at Lyons (11 Jan. 1247, 28 Feb. 1248). Six years later Henry III and his queen were both worshipping at the shrine of the persecuted archbishop in Pontigny (December 1254).

Edmund's is one of the most attractive of mediæval characters, not so much in its political as its private aspect. As an archbishop he preserved all the virtues of his private life. He would spend the ‘amercements’ of his archiepiscopal manors in providing dowers for the portionless daughters of his tenants, holding it, we are told, a good thing for the young to marry. Once he restored a fine of 80l. to the daughters of an offending knight. His bailiffs had seized a heriot from a poor widow, who came to him complaining of her hard lot. Addressing her in her native English he told her he was powerless to alter the law of the land, to which he as well as she was subject; but, turning to his companions, he expressed his own conviction in French or Latin that this custom was one of the devil's making and not of God's: the heriot was then restored nominally as a loan, but really as a present. His horror of bribery was so intense that he refused to accept any gifts whatever. ‘Prendre’ and ‘pendre,’ he said, differed by but one letter. He was a careful steward of the archiepiscopal estates, which came to him weighted with a debt of seven thousand marks and almost bankrupt; but he would not be a niggard host. On his journeys he would turn aside to hear the confession of any chance traveller however humble, and though he would not listen to idle songs himself he never refused the minstrel a place at his table. After his elevation he increased his old austerities, but was more particular as regards the neatness of his exterior clothing. He would not, however, wear purple and fine linen like other prelates; a cheap tunic of white or grey was all he needed. Nor did he ape the usual pride of bishops in those days. ‘The primate of all England,’ says his biographer, ‘did not blush to take off his own shoes or to bear the cross from chapel to study with his own hands.’ But that which most impressed the imagination of his own generation was his absolute purity. ‘If,’ he once said when certain people reproached him for over-intimacy with a lady friend—‘if all my sins of this nature were written on my forehead, I should have no need to shun the gaze of man.’

It seems that Edmund lectured both at Paris and Oxford in the ‘trivium’ and the ‘quadrivium.’ Logic and dialectics are specially mentioned. According to Wood he was the first to read Aristotle's ‘Elenchus’ at the latter university. But of this there seems no good proof; nor is Wood's reference to Bacon's ‘Compendium’ accurate. In later years, of course, Edmund lectured on divinity. His most famous pupils, besides Walter Gray, were Richard, bishop of Bangor, and Sewal Bovill, afterwards dean and archbishop of York. According to Matthew Paris, Bovill was Edmund's favourite scholar, and strove to model his life on the example of his great teacher, though he never died the martyr's death which his master foretold would be his lot. There seems, however, to be no authority for making Grosseteste or the Dominicans, Robert Bacon and Richard of Dunstable, his pupils. The story that Roger Bacon was his pupil seems to originate with Bale. One of his principal clerks, his ‘special counsellor’ and chancellor, was Richard de la Wich, afterwards bishop of Chichester, from whom and from Robert Bacon Matthew Paris gathered the materials for Edmund's life (Vita Bertr. cc. 23, 51–4, &c.; Chron. of Lanercost, pp. 36–7; Trivet, sub ann. 1240; Epp. Universit. Oxon. Rob. Sarisb., Ric. de Wicho, Ric. Bangor. &c. ap. Martène).

Edmund's writings include ‘Speculum Ecclesiæ’ (Bodley MS. Laud 111, f. 31, &c., printed in ‘Bibliotheca Patrolog. Mag.’ vol. xiii., and at London in 1521). Other writings attributed to him are a French treatise to be found in Digby MS. 20 (Bodley), which extends over several leaves of very close writing. According to Tanner (from Bale) it was turned into Latin by William Beufu, a Carmelite of Northampton. The same writer also enumerates a French prayer, ‘Oratio’ (cf. MS. Omn. Anim. Oxon. No. 11), ‘Orationes Decem’ (Latin), and ‘Speculum Contemplationis,’ with other fragments or translations from his larger work. His constitutions are printed in Lyndwood (Oxford, 1679). Of Richard's two sisters, Margaret, the prioress of Catesby, died in 1257; and if the entry is not wrong, the other, Alice, also prioress of Catesby, died in the same year (Matt. Paris, v. 621, 642).

[Matthew Paris, Robert Bacon, and Robert Rich (according to Surius) all wrote lives of St. Edmund. So far as can be ascertained the first two are now lost. There remains, however, a contemporary biography ascribed to Bertrand of Pontigny, who is said to have written it in 1247 A.D. This is printed by Martène and Durand in the Thesaurus Anecdotorum, iii. 1774–1826, and is followed by a collection of contemporary letters relating to St. Edmund's canonisation (pp. 1831–1871). These appear to have been collected by Albert, archbishop of Armagh, and afterwards of Livonia. Surius (ed. 1575, Paris) gives a life which is, to all appearance, a condensed and ‘improved’ edition of the one mentioned above. Cotton MS. Julius D., ff. 123–57, contains another life of St. Edmund, written in a thirteenth-century hand. This, according to Hardy (Cat. of MSS. iii. 87), appears to be only an enlarged form (probably the original one) of Cotton Cleopatra B. i. 2, ff. 21–32, which is expressly ascribed to Robert Rich. This MS., from Hardy's account, is to a large extent one with the Vita Bertrandi, but it evidently contains much that the Vita Bertrandi omits. Another important MS. life is in Lambeth Library, No. 135, with which Cotton Vitellius, xii. 9, ff. 280–90, seems to correspond. The Bodleian MS. Fell i. iv. 1–44, contains a life apparently condensed from Bertrand's, but with unimportant additions (cf. Hardy's Catalogue, iii. 87–96). Vincent of Beauvais seems to have used the Vita Bertrandi for his account of St. Edmund in the Speculum Historiale, lib. xxxi. cc. 67–88. See Hook's Lives of the Archbishops of Canterbury, iii.; Trivet's Annals, ed. Hog (Engl. Hist. Soc.); Chron. of Lanercost, ed. J. Stevenson, Edinburgh, 1839 (Maitland Club); Matt. Paris (Rolls Ser.), ed. Luard, vols. iii. iv. v.; Gervase of Canterbury (Rolls Ser.), ed. Stubbs, vol. ii.; Annals of Tewkesbury, Burton, Winchester, Waverley, Dunstable, Bermondsey, and Worcester in Annales Monastici (Rolls Series), ed. Luard.]

T. A. A.