Edmund of Abingdon

(c. 1175—1240) archbishop of Canterbury

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archbishop of Canterbury. The eldest son of Reginald Rich, a merchant who later became a monk, Edmund, who was notably devout all his life, was educated at Oxford University in grammar and then took the Arts course at Paris. He returned to Oxford and taught in the Arts faculty 1195–1201 at a time when the new logic was becoming known. He subsequently studied theology at Paris, where he probably wrote his Moralities on the Psalms. After living for a year with the Austin Canons at Merton (Surrey), he incepted in theology at Oxford in 1214. A pioneer of Scholasticism, he gave great importance both to the literal sense and historical context of the Bible, as well as to its spiritual sense, which was a vehicle for his theological thought. In 1222 he became Treasurer of Salisbury: he continued lecturing in the cathedral school and preached the Crusade; but his administrative duties were no sinecure as the cathedral was then being built. His almsgiving too was particularly generous: to recover he sometimes retired to Stanley (Wilts.), a Cistercian monastery whose abbot, Stephen of Lexington (a monk of Quarr), was a former pupil of his.

In 1233 he was appointed archbishop of Canterbury by the pope after three elections had been quashed. Although he found administration and politics distasteful, he became a notable and effective reforming bishop. He chose for his household men of outstanding talent, such as Richard of Chichester; he claimed and exercised the right of metropolitan visitation; when this was challenged he resorted to litigation, not least with his own monastic chapter at Canterbury. Although the presence of Cardinal Otto as papal legate diminished his exercise of metropolitan power, his relation to the legate was more friendly than is often supposed. He resisted royal interference and mismanagement; in 1234–6, mediating between king and barons, he united the Church in England in political action, and civil war was averted. Like other reforming bishops, he used the Friars as preachers.

He also resisted some papal appointments to English benefices, but this did not prevent him from invoking the pope's help in his disputes with the king. On his way to see him, Edmund died at Soissy on 16 November 1240. He was buried at Pontigny, in the abbey of the Cistercians, who, with the Friars, were his favourite Orders. His body was never translated to Canterbury, whose Benedictine community had resented Edmund's attacks on their independence. Bishops and abbots in France and England requested the papacy for his canonization.

The papal commission for inquiry into his Life and miracles included both Grosseteste (bishop of Lincoln 1235–53), and Alexander of Hales, the Franciscan theologian; further to their favourable report, Edmund was canonized in 1246. His body was translated in 1247 and again in 1249. For the first celebration of his feast, Henry III offered a chalice, a white samite vestment, and 20 marks for candles at his shrine. In 1254 he made the pilgrimage there. Although this was popular for a time, pilgrims dwindled by the end of the 13th century. But at Salisbury a collegiate church and an altar in the cathedral were dedicated to him, while his cult became, through the Sarum calendar, widespread in England, particularly at his birthplace Abingdon (Oxon.) and at Catesby (Northants.), where his sisters Margaret and Alice were nuns.


Subjects: Christianity.

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