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St Edmund of Abingdon

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St Edmund of Abingdon

Died 1240

Biography

(see long history)

Edmund of Abingdon, the future scholar, archbishop and saint, was born in about 1175, probably in West St Helen Street, where his father, Reginald, had property. Reginald may have been a lay official in the Abbey. Edmund attended the grammar school near to St Mary’s in Oxford, and after further study in Paris became a teacher of the liberal arts in Oxford. After some years he returned to Paris for advanced study in theology. He was back in Oxford by about 1214, not (as is often said) the first doctor of theology in the still new university, but probably the first to have an international scholarly reputation.

In 1222, Edmund’s career changed direction. He left Oxford for Salisbury, where he was given charge of the cathedral treasury, responsible for vestments and ceremonial equipment. However, his high status was shown by the grant of the lucrative prebend of Calne for his maintenance. The Bishop of Salisbury, Richard Poer, was a close associate of the highly controversial Archbishop Stephen Langton, and the move put Edmund clearly into Langton’s circle and in line for further promotion. He is reported as having travelled extensively, especially in the politically troubled west of England, as a preacher.

Langton died in 1228 and his immediate successor in 1233. It was a time of internal warfare. King Henry III and his advisors were at odds with a party among the English barons, who were in armed revolt. Their main complaint was the influence of the king’s minister, Peter des Roches. The king, or des Roches, successively nominated three candidates for the archbishopric, but the pope refused to accept any of them. He imposed Edmund, with the brief to act as a peacemaker.

Even before he had been consecrated, Edmund and his bishops were active in the Welsh border country where the fighting was most intense, negotiating local truces and seeing that they were kept. At a session of the king’s council, Edmund spoke vigorously against des Roches, and ordered the king, on pain of excommunication, to sack him, which was done. Edmund then presided over ceremonies of peace and reconciliation between the king and his barons. This ending of a civil war must stand as the greatest achievement of Edmund’s career.

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Matthew Paris: Edmund forcing Henry III and Gilbert Marshall to be friends (Wikimedia Commons)

 

In October 1240, Edmund set off for a routine visit to Rome. He fell ill and died close to the Cistercian abbey of Pontigny in Burgundy. Miracles were reported to have taken place around his corpse. This was kept by the Cistercians, who started a campaign to have him declared a saint so that they could benefit from pilgrimages and relics. There was widespread political support both in France and in England. Some of the usual formalities were dispensed with, and he was duly canonised in the remarkably short time of six years. The stories that circulated describing him as unusually austere and saintly in life have been taken by hagiographers at face value ever since, but in fact were part of the canonisation campaign and must be read with caution.

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      Shrine of St Edmund in the Abbey of Pontigny    (Photo courtesy of Terryl N. Kinder)

 

 

Edmund is known in England as St Edmund of Abingdon, and in France as St Edme. His attributes in French art often include infants; he was revered as miraculously bringing still-born babies to life just long enough for them to be baptised. His remains are still at Pontigny, in an ornate shrine held by angels above the main altar.

 

See Glossary for explanations of technical terms.

© AAAHS and contributors 2014

(see short history)

It is hard to write a serious biography of Edmund of Abingdon since he has two distinct personalities. On the one hand, he was an Abingdon man of the thirteenth century who made a reputation as a scholar and rose to become an active and effective archbishop of Canterbury. On the other, he was a typical medieval ascetic who lived an exemplary life of charity and humility, and was canonised for it remarkably soon after his death. Similar difficulties are raised by a long series of English bishops and archbishops who were canonised, or became the objects of unofficial veneration, in the centuries that followed the sensational success of the cult of St Thomas of Canterbury.[1] Like them, Edmund has two narratives which are largely contradictory and must be related separately.

Edmund was born about 1175 in Abingdon. His father, Reginald, seems to have owned some property in West St Helen Street, and rights in the town ditch which ran just behind it. Reginald was described as ‘dives’, or ‘rich man’, but the surname of ‘Rich’ that is often applied to Edmund seems to have been an invention of the seventeenth century. In his time, he was always ‘Edmund of Abingdon’, and his brother Robert was ‘Robert of Abingdon’. Edmund’s mother, Mabel, was buried at St Nicolas, which makes it seem likely that the family had been connected with the abbey in some capacity. There does seem to have been piety in the family; most or all of the children made their careers in religion, whether regular or secular.[2]

Edmund, together with his brother Robert, studied at Oxford and in Paris. Oxford was still raw as a university, a kind of out-station or feeder for the University of Paris, and they both went on there for advanced study in the arts. The dating is unclear, but it seems that by 1195 Edmund had returned to Oxford to teach in the arts faculty. Some years later, following a fairly common academic career path, he returned to Paris to study theology. There was a period of a few years when Oxford University was in abeyance because of a dispute with the town, and it was probably when it started up again in 1214 that Edmund incepted – that is, was qualified to teach – in theology.[3]

It was probably during his stays in Paris that Edmund became known to two men who would have a major influence on his later career. One was Stephen Langton, one of the greatest scholars of his age, who was teaching theology there until 1205, when he became a very distinguished archbishop of Canterbury. The other was Stephen’s younger brother, Simon Langton.[4]

Edmund seems to have been highly regarded as a scholar, and was involved in bringing the study of Aristotle to Oxford. Unfortunately, his known works are few and not particularly noteworthy.[5] It may be that much of his output has been lost, or that he was appreciated more as a teacher or as a preacher than as a writer.

Until 1222, Edmund taught at Oxford, but in that year his career changed track. He moved to Salisbury, where he became treasurer of the cathedral. That does not mean that he looked after the money; he was responsible for the contents of the cathedral treasury – the vestments, the bells and miscellaneous ceremonial articles, as well as the supply of wax candles and the like. For his maintenance, he got the prebend of Calne in Wiltshire, which was the richest bar one in the diocese. The treasury job needed his presence at Salisbury for only three months in the year. He had a residence at Calne, but had no responsibility there for the cure of souls.[6]

There was a cathedral school at Salisbury, but it seems unlikely that the move was connected with it.[7] In view of what would follow, the move seems to have been a deliberate career shift from academia into politics. The bishop of Salisbury, Richard Poer, was a politically active bishop who had been a pupil of, and remained close to, Archbishop Stephen Langton.[8]  He also would probably have known Edmund from their Paris days. Edmund was clearly moving into the Langton circle and being groomed for high office. In 1227, Pope Honorius ordered the preaching throughout England of a new crusade he was sponsoring. Edmund was one of the preachers selected, no doubt with Langton’s approval. He travelled widely round the west of England, getting himself known, and winning a reputation that may well have reached as far as Rome.[9]

The political situation at the time was tense.  The young king, Henry III (born 1207), reigned over an England that was deeply split between two parties. There were the Poitevins, although they mostly didn’t come from Poitou, who were the French landowners displaced when Henry’s father, King John, had lost Normandy and most of his French territories in 1204. Their priority was to set up expeditions to France and get their estates back again. They were opposed by the so-called Northerners, though they mostly came from the West of England, who weren’t interested in France but were keen to continue with the conquest of Wales and of Ireland. The leader of the Poitevins, Peter des Roches, very influential with the king, had become a hate figure to the English barons. Des Roches was bishop of Winchester, and by an odd quirk, his line of episcopal authority went straight to the pope himself. He was not subject to Archbishop Langton.[10] Langton, in his role as archbishop and peacemaker, was engaged in savage political infighting against des Roches.[11]

In 1223, des Roches was forced out of his central position.[12] He and his allies were replaced by a triumvirate backed by Langton, consisting of a lay minister, Hubert de Burgh, and two bishops, one of whom was Bishop Poer, the bishop of Salisbury. Salisbury, to which Edmund had just moved, was now more than ever a centre of political activity.[13] Before Langton died in 1228, he had the satisfaction of seeing des Roches leaving England to go on crusade. 

However, des Roches had not given up. When in 1231 he returned to England, he very quickly recovered his old position, dominating the young king as he had his father. Hubert de Burgh found himself chained up in a dungeon, while his estates and those of his supporters went to des Roches and his foreigner friends, or into preparations for further continental wars.[14] The English barons, the Northerners, were pushed to the brink of revolt and eventually over it, into open civil war, with castles besieged and guerrilla bands harrying the countryside. The leaders of the revolt were the members of the Marshall family, earls of Pembroke, marcher lords whose interests were in Wales and Ireland, not in France, and who had a very large affinity they could call on.[15]

That was the situation which was developing in 1231, when the archbishop who had briefly replaced Langton, Richard Grant, died. It was nominally for the monks of Canterbury to propose a replacement. Their emissaries arrived in Rome with the name of the king’s candidate, Ralph Nevill, bishop of Chichester.

Pope Gregory now had as his advisor on English affairs Simon Langton, brother of the dead Stephen Langton, a distinguished churchman in his own right, who had been his brother’s archdeacon and effectively his deputy at Canterbury.[16] Simon Langton advised the pope to reject Nevill. The monks were sent away and told to think again. They offered their own prior, who went to Rome but was ignominiously sent back. Their third choice was a scholar, Master John Blunt, who had been an Oxford contemporary of Edmund’s. He was turned down on the pretext of a minor infringement of the rules. Gregory finally told the monks in so many words to go back home and elect Edmund, which they did.[17]

Edmund saw himself, as Stephen Langton had done before him, as a peacemaker. Even before he had been consecrated, he and his bishops were riding about the marches, the Welsh border country, negotiating local truces among the warring barons, and monitoring that they were kept.[18] We may think in modern terms of churchmen wielding soft power, but in the thirteenth century there was nothing soft about the threat of excommunication. Once the fighting had died down, the serious politics could begin. At a council meeting in early 1234, Edmund took the lead in the attack on des Roches and his faction. He made a set-piece speech against des Roches personally which was nothing short of vicious. Des Roches had been responsible for every ill that had befallen the country in the thirty years from the loss of Normandy onwards. He was a foreigner who hated England and had always worked against its interests. He had alienated loyal Englishmen, like the Marshalls, from their king, and had engineered the recent crisis for his own profit. He was milking the state, holding offices but never rendering accounts. Edmund ordered the king, on pain of excommunication, to sack des Roches from his council.[19] The king obeyed.

What followed was a campaign of reconciliation and remaking of friendships. Gilbert Marshall exchanged the kiss of peace with the king, and Edmund restocked his hunting park with animals from one of des Roche’s estates.[20]

The remainder of Edmund’s tenure at Canterbury was more peaceful. However, a major conflict broke out between him and the Canterbury monks. It was an anomaly by the thirteenth century that the cathedral was staffed by monks under the authority of their prior rather than by canons depending on the archdeacon.  Edmund tried to set up a new institution at Maidstone as a sort of administrative centre for the archbishopric, which the monks reasonably feared would detract from their prerogatives. They appealed to the king, who blocked the initiative.[21]

In the autumn of 1240 Edmund left England for a routine triennial visit to Rome, where among other matters he expected to settle the dispute with the Canterbury monks and to stay for a council that the Pope had called for the following spring. His route took him through Burgundy. He got as far as the Cistercian abbey of Pontigny, stayed there for a few days, but decided to abandon the journey and turn back. Probably he was already ill. He and his party got to a place called Soisy, just outside Provins, about fifty miles north of Pontigny, and there he died. [22] And it was at that point that he started on his second, posthumous, career as a candidate for canonisation and then as a saint.

He was eviscerated and embalmed, in the expectation that his remains would be taken back to England for burial. But this was not to be. When the news reached back to Pontigny, the Cistercian monks, among whom he had briefly stayed, thought fast. The Cistercians were going through a bad patch, with financial problems among others.[23] The abbey had been host to Thomas à Becket, whose canonisation and cult had marvellously enriched Canterbury. Stephen Langton, when in exile because of the hostility of des Roches and King John, had been welcomed there. But they had derived no benefit from either. Perhaps now was the time to cash in. They trooped off to Provins to bring the deceased Edmund back to Pontigny in a solemn procession. [24] The progress was marked by a series of miracles, formally recorded by a team of notaries who just happened to be at hand. The miracles continued when the remains reached the monastery, where, it conveniently transpired, Edmund before his death had expressed a wish to be buried.

The effort to get Edmund canonised now began in earnest, urged on the pope by the Cistercian chapter-general.[25] The background information was provided by Eustace of Faversham, who had been Edmund’s chaplain and was with him when he died. He wrote up Edmund’s life to put it into strict conformity with that of Thomas à Becket. Nobody doubted that Thomas was a saint, so why shouldn’t Edmund be? So, for instance, the routine journey through France in the direction of Rome was turned into the aimless wanderings of an exile, and the routine frictions in the life of an archbishop became pitiless persecution that the saintly archbishop couldn’t possibly cope with.[26] It was probably also Eustace who organised the file of attestations from English churchmen and scholars to the saintly life Edmund had led: his austerities, wearing hairshirts, sleeping on the floor instead of in his bed, giving away more than he had to the poor. Most of these attestations made identical points in the same order, suggesting the writers were working from a standard questionnaire that had been circulated.[27]

It was thus Eustace of Faversham who invented the St Edmund of all later hagiography. Edmund’s biographer, C H Lawrence, refers to Eustace as having perpetrated “what at first sight appears to be a literary fraud”.[28] His motives are plain: he had been a Benedictine monk of Canterbury but had taken Edmund’s side in the great quarrel. With Edmund dead, he had nowhere to go. His action enabled him to transfer into the Cistercian order and be accepted at Pontigny. It was he who organised the building of the increasingly elaborate shrines to which Edmund’s body was transferred as the influx of pilgrims enriched the monastery. Some of the Cistercians, unable to accept this departure from their tradition of austere simplicity, left or were expelled, and Eustace ended as the monastery’s prior.

Formal enquiries into Edmund’s claim to sainthood were launched by Pope Innocent IV in 1244, both in France and in England. The procedure for canonisation was rigorous and bureaucratic, and in spite of Eustace’s efforts, the documents that were produced to prove Edmund’s sanctity did not meet the criteria; they were mostly stereotyped hagiographic legends. The papal curia threw them out, but it was not really free in the matter. There was a great pressure group for canonisation, spearheaded by the men who, like Eustace and like another later bishop-saint, Richard Wyche, had been members of Edmund’s immediate entourage, and by the Cistercians led by their cardinal-protector, John of Toledo, who in spite of his name was English.[29] 

There was powerful support in England from Richard of Cornwall, brother of Henry III, who had been a political ally of Edmund against des Roches.[30] What was probably decisive was that the King of France, Louis IX, and the intensely pious queen-mother, Blanche of Castile, were close to the Cistercians.[31] Blanche was a cousin of Richard of Cornwall, and was reputed to encourage her son to acts of piety; like Edmund, Louis would be canonised after his death. The prominence given to Edmund’s mother Mabel in Eustace’s biographical writings, where even from the grave she exhorted Edmund to theological learning and personal saintliness, must be seen as a sideways compliment to Blanche and an appeal for her support. [32]

Innocent IV was just then in serious trouble. The papacy was in deadly conflict with the Holy Roman Empire over which should have ‘the plenitude of power’.  It was currently the emperor, Frederick II, who had the upper hand.  The papacy had had to abandon Rome and was operating in Lyon, not at that time in the French king’s territory but near enough to be under his protection, and Innocent could not afford to alienate him.[33] The inevitable decision finally came in December 1246, just over six years after Edmund’s death and barely three since the proceedings had got under way.[34]

Edmund became known in England as St Edmund of Abingdon, and in France as St Edme, this being a local version of his English name. It is interesting that his cult developed quite differently in the two countries.

In England, Edmund was honoured less for his miracles than for the blameless sanctity of his life as recounted by Eustace. The story was very soon taken up by others, including the widely-read chronicler Matthew Paris, and quickly spread.[35]  St Edmund Hall in Oxford was in existence by the early fourteenth century, claiming that the saint had once lived in a house on its site. Abingdon became one of the high places of his cult. Edmund, Earl of Cornwall, whose father had supported the canonisation and who had been named after the saint, built a chapel on the site of his family house; he gave it into the keeping of the Abbey with an endowment for two priests, and several miracles were reported from there. The other high place was the Priory of Catesby, where Edmund had placed his two sisters. He had bequeathed to it his cloak and cape, and an engraved silver tablet. These were venerated as relics, and performed miraculous cures, but they seem to have disappeared by the time the nunnery was dissolved in 1536.[36]

But in France the cult took a very different turn.  From the first, Edmund’s sainthood had been demonstrated by the miracles accomplished by his remains and relics at Pontigny.  A high proportion of these were resurrections. Dead or stillborn babies were brought back to life just long enough to be validly baptised, and that came to be for many centuries Edmund’s main function in France as a saint.[37] Edmund’s remains are preserved at Pontigny to this day, in an elaborate shrine supported by four angels above the main altar.

Remarkably many relics still exist. The fibula of his left leg is at St Edmund’s College in Ware, an upper arm bone at Westminster Cathedral and an ‘incorrupt arm’ in Mystic, Connecticut.[38] Some articles of his clothing are preserved in the treasury of the cathedral of Sens in France, though others were appropriated by a dishonest nineteenth-century curé of Pontigny and cut up into small pieces which he sold to pilgrims.[39]

There is a Society of St Edmund based in Vermont, USA. Its members – all male – take monastic-style vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, and work for spiritual renewal and social justice in many countries.[40]

There are thus two narratives of Edmund of Abingdon, largely inconsistent with each other. One, centring on the politician and archbishop, may be regarded as factually and historically correct. The other, of the self-effacing ascetic quickly recognised as a saint, is a story of a different kind, and has inspired generations of believers to implore favours or devote themselves to good works. On either version, Abingdon may be proud to have been his birthplace.

See Glossary for explanations of technical terms.

© AAAHS and contributors 2017

 

 

 

[1] Katherine Harvey, ‘‘Perfect Bishop, Perfect Man? Masculinity, Restraint and the Episcopal Body in the Life of St Richard of Chichester’, Southern History, 35 (2013), 1-22. Harvey lists St Hugh of LIncoln, 1186-1200; St Edmund, 1233-40; St Richard Wych, bp of Chichester, 1244-53; St Thomas Cantilupe, bp of Hereford, 1275-1282, and mentions the veneration of Robert Grosseteste of LIncoln, 1235-53; William Bitton of Wells, 1267-74, and Robert Winchilsea of Canterbury, 1293-1313.

[2] C H Lawrence, ‘The biographies of St Edmund of Abingdon; a critical study and edition’, (D.Phil thesis, Oxford, 1955), pp. vi, 430, 433.

[3] Lawrence, Thesis, pp. vii-viii, 111-126; C H Lawrence (ed), The Life of St Edmund by Matthew Paris (Oxford, 1996), pp. 12-27.

[4] C H Lawrence, St Edmund,of Abingdon: a study in hagiography and history (Oxford, 1960), p. 122; Lawrence, Life, pp. 23, 24; Christopher Holdsworth, ‘Langton, Stephen (c.1150–1228)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/16044, accessed 23 Dec 2013]; Fred A. Cazel, Jr, ‘Langton, Simon (d. 1248)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/16043, accessed 23 Dec 2013]

[5] Lawrence, St Edmund, pp. 120-2; Lawrence, Life, pp. 28-36.

[6] Lawrence, Thesis, pp.  130-2; Lawrence, Life, pp.38-9.

[7] Lawrence, Life, pp. 40-1

[8] Philippa Hoskin, ‘Poor, Richard (d. 1237)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2009 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/22525, accessed 23 Dec 2013]

[9] Lawrence, Life, p. 42.

[10] Vincent, Peter des Roches, an alien in English politics 1205-1237 (Cambridge, 1996), passim;  Nicholas Vincent, ‘Roches, Peter des (d. 1238)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/22014, accessed 23 Dec 2013]

[11] Vincent, Peter des Roches, p, 207.

[12] Vincent, Peter des Roches, pp. 184-228, especially pp. 214-5.

[13] Hoskin, ‘Poor, Richard (d. 1237)’.

[14] Vincent, Peter des Roches, pp. 259-309.

[15] Vincent, Peter des Roches, pp. 363-428.

[16] Cazel, Jr, ‘Langton, Simon (d. 1248)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

[17] Lawrence, Life, pp. 43-7.

[18] Lawrence, Life, pp. 50-2.

[19] Vincent, Peter des Roches, pp. 429-465 esp. 429-30.

[20] Vincent, Peter des Roches, p. 469.

[21] Lawrence, St Edmund, pp. 164-8.

[22] Lawrence, Life, pp. 87-9.

[23] Daniel S. Buczek, ‘”Pro defendendis ordinis”: The French Cistercians and their enemies’ in Anon (ed) Studies in medieval Cistercian history, (Spencer, Mass, 1971), pp 88-109.

[24] Benoit, ‘Autour des tombeaux’, p. 35.

[25] Lawrence, Life, p. 91. 

[26] Lawrence, St Edmund, pp.179-81; Lawrence, Life, pp. 169-176.

[27] Lawrence, Life, p. 94.

[28] Lawrence, St Edmund, p. 180.

[29] C. H. Lawrence, ‘Wyche, Richard of [St Richard of Chichester] (d. 1253)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/23522, accessed 2 June 2014]; C. H. Lawrence, ‘Toledo, John of (d. 1275)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/66136, accessed 23 Dec 2013].

[30] Lawrence, Life, p. 97; C H Lawrence, The English Church and the papacy in the Middle Ages (London, 1965), pp. 155-6.

[31] J B Mahn, L’ordre cistercien et son gouvernement (Paris, 1945), p. 242.

[32] Lawrence, Life, pp. 6, 21, 140.

[33] Barber, The Two Cities, p. 110.

[34] Lawrence, Life, pp. 97-9.

[35] Lawrence, Life, pp. 118-67; C. Horstmann (ed), The South English Legendary (Early English Texts Society, Vol 87, 1887), pp. 431-449.

[36] A.B. Emden, An Oxford Hall in Medieval Times, being the early history of St Edmund’s Hall (Oxford, 1927), pp. 81-104)

[37] Jean-Luc Benoit,  Saint Edme et Pontigny: histoire et légende d’un saint anglais en Bourgogne (Pontigny, 1996), p. 25 ; Figs 23, 49.

[38] Rachel Everett, personal communication; http://www.stedmundscollege.org/About/History-of-St-Edmunds/History-of-the-Pugin-Chapel (accessed 26 Jan 2017); http://www.endersisland.com/about (accessed 26 Jan 2017)

[39] Benoit, Saint Edme et Pontigny, pp 31-2.

[40] http://www.sse.org/ accessed 22 April 2014.

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