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The Life of St Richard

by Lorna Still

Statue of St Richard outside Chichester Cathedral. Reproduced with the permission of Chichester Cathedral.

Written by Lorna Still, Volunteer at The Novium Museum

Caption - Statue of St Richard outside Chichester Cathedral. Reproduced with the permission of Chichester Cathedral.


June 16th is Sussex Day, a day for celebrating the rich culture and heritage of Sussex. This date was chosen because it is also the day when St Richard of Chichester's body was moved to a shrine behind the high altar in the Cathedral in 1276.

Richard was born in around 1197 in Wych (now Droitwich) near Worcester. His parents were landowning farmers, but they died before Richard's older brother came of age. Mismanagement by the guardians meant Richard had to leave his studies to help his brother restore the family fortune. He succeeded so well that his brother offered the estate to him, but Richard wanted to return to Oxford and was a distinguished scholar, moving on to study in Paris and Bologna. He returned to Oxford as Chancellor of the University in 1235.

 His tutor and friend at Oxford, the saintly Edmund of Abingdon, had been appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, and he asked the able Richard to become his Chancellor. Edmund was involved in disputes with both the Pope and King Henry III and eventually went into voluntary exile in France, accompanied by Richard, who was with him when he died. Richard actively supported his friend's canonisation, which occurred six years later. Richard went to Orleans to study and was ordained a priest.

The new Archbishop of Canterbury was Boniface of Savoy. He was more worldly than Edmund, but also a reformer, and he asked Richard to return as his Chancellor.

When the Bishop of Chichester died in 1244, the Canons elected Robert Passelew, a favourite of Henry III, to succeed him. However, many Bishops objected, considering him unsuitable, and Boniface recommended Richard, who was duly elected instead. King Henry was furious and refused to accept the appointment, forbidding anyone to help him. The Pope supported Richard's claim and consecrated him at Lyons, but Henry would not restore the episcopal estates to him until the Pope threatened him with excommunication two years later.

During that time, Richard was penniless and could not enter his Cathedral. He was able to preach and travel on foot round Sussex, because some areas were under the jurisdiction of the Archbishop of Canterbury. A priest named Simon of Tarring (now part of Worthing) took him in, and it is said Richard cultivated figs in the garden there.

When Henry restored the estates of the bishopric, Richard continued to live frugally. He never ate meat, would not eat off silver and wore a hair shirt under his clothes. He also set about reforming the behaviour of his clergy, while strongly defending their rights. He overruled Henry III on many occasions, for example, defrocking a priest who had seduced a nun, even though Henry had petitioned in his favour.

Richard instituted yearly offerings from the parishes to pay for the upkeep of the Cathedral, which were later known as 'St Richard's Pence'. There had been two fires in the twelfth century and, although the Cathedral had been reconsecrated in 1199, rebuilding and enlargement continued in Richard's time. He began work on the chapels in the north and south aisles, and he dedicated the first chapel to his friend St Edmund.

In 1253, the Pope asked Richard to go on a preaching tour to rekindle enthusiasm for the Crusades. He travelled along the coast and on into Kent, but it took a severe toll on his health. He dedicated a chapel to St Edmund in a cemetery for the poor in Dover, but collapsed the next morning. He died at a hospice called Maison Dieu on April 3rd 1253, aged about 56. His friends, Simon of Tarring and biographer Friar Ralph Bocking, were by his side. Richard's heart was buried in the chapel he had just dedicated to St Edmund, and his body was taken to Chichester, followed by a huge crowd of mourners, rich and poor alike. He was buried in St Edmund's chapel in the Cathedral, as he had wished.

The story of St Richard's shrine continues next week.

Chichester Cathedral is open daily with free entry