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Saint Edmund Rich (St Edmund of Canterbury)

St Edmund was born at Abingdon circa 1170-1175. He was from a wealthy mercantile family and received his education at the universities of Oxford and Paris. He lectured in the faculty of arts at Oxford (1195-1201) and returned to Paris to study theology. His scholarship was combined with the gift of preaching and a reputation for holiness. He resided at the Augustinian priory at Merton, Surrey (1213-1214) and thereafter taught theology at Oxford. In 1222 he became Treasurer of Salisbury Cathedral and lectured in the school attached to it.

In 1233 he was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury by Pope Gregory IX after three other candidates had failed to receive papal approval. He was a reformer of the Church and gathered around him men of outstanding calibre, including St Richard of Chichester, who served as his Chancellor. However, his episcopate was marked by many difficulties: the threat of civil war in the territories bordering Wales (1234-1236); disputes with King Henry III concerning the rights of the Church in relation to the civil law; and a protracted argument with the monks of Canterbury Cathedral over his episcopal right of visitation. In the latter instance Archbishop Edmund took his case to Rome. His chief extant works are Moralities on the Psalms and Speculum Ecclesiae (The Mirror of the Holy Church) a treatise on contemplative prayer in the English medieval mystical tradition.

In the early autumn of 1240 he left England for a second visit to Rome. He reached Pontigny in Burgundy (eastern France), and thereafter the nearby house of the Augustinian Canons at Soissy, where he died on 16 November. On his deathbed he exclaimed that he had 'sought nothing else but God.' At his own request, his burial took place in the Cistercian Abbey of Pontigny, where his shrine is still venerated. Pontigny was the second foundation made from Citeaux (1114) and because its founder was an Englishman, St Stephen Harding, the abbey became a frequent place of refuge for his countrymen, including St Thomas of Canterbury (1164-1166). Until the Reformation Pontigny was an important place of devotion for English pilgrims.

St Edmund Rich (or 'of Abingdon' or 'of Canterbury') was canonised in 1246, and his feast is kept on the date of his death. Through the Sarum liturgical calendar St Edmund was a very popular saint in medieval England, and there was a chapel dedicated to him at the Cistercian Abbey of Catesby, Northamptonshire, where his younger sisters Alice and Margaret were nuns.

Bishop Bernard Ward, on appointment to the new Diocese of Brentwood in 1917, chose St Edmund as a secondary co-patron of his new see. Bishop Ward had been born and educated at St Edmund's College, Ware, and was duly a professor there and from 1893 to 1916 its President. He had a deep devotion to St Edmund, having first visited Pontigny in 1874 at the age of seventeen as part of a pilgrimage from St Edmund's College, and lies buried in the chapel dedicated to the saint (and containing a relic) in Pugin's fine church at St Edmund's. Writing of a pilgrimage made to Pontigny shortly before his death in January 1920, Bishop Ward gave the following description: 'Behind the high altar is another smaller altar, over which, raised high so as to be visible from the choir, is the gilt chasse containing the body of St Edmund ... The shrine as we now see it looks peaceful enough, and the body, clad in pontificals, may be viewed through square openings at the back, approached by a special staircase. ' During the French Wars of Religion the body of St Edmund was hidden in the monastery cellars. The present shrine dates from the eighteenth century and miraculously survived the Revolution. In the Diocese of Brentwood churches at Loughton and Great Wakering are dedicated to St Edmund Rich. The dedication at Loughton was specifically chosen (in 1928) as the first church in the new diocese to be named after one of its patrons and also as a tribute to the late Bishop Ward.

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