Book of Saints and Heroes - Andrew Lang

Richard the Bishop

In the early years of the thirteenth century when King John was on the throne, two little boys and their sister were living in a neglected manor house on the borders of a Worcestershire forest. Their parents were dead, and their guardians were too busy with their own affairs to fulfil the trust committed to them by Richard de Wyche the elder, so the lands were allowed to go to rack and ruin. After heavy rains the water was left to settle in the hollows on the waste lands till the low lying meadows became a marsh, and the woods were never thinned out or the brushwood cut down, and at last it was almost impossible to force your way through them.

Little, however, did the children care for all this. The old servants saw that the fires in the great hall were large and that they had plenty to eat and drink, and as far as we can tell there was no one else to look after them. But they were free to do as they liked all the day long, and what more does any child want?

Still their ideas of amusement were different. The elder boy and girl roamed about when the sun was shining and played at being knights and robbers. When they could persuade Richard to play too, then they had 'a lady in distress' as well, but in general they were obliged to leave him perched up on the seat of the tiny window with his eyes glued to a book taken out of his father's library. For Richard had managed to learn to read. Most likely the priest had taught him.

'A dull boy,' his guardians declared, on the few occasions that they happened to see him. 'He will make a rare parish priest some day, when his brother is gaining his spurs in the wars. It is lucky that he  is the eldest.' But his brother knew very well that it was Richard who faced the wild bull which he  was afraid of, and had borne the brunt of the farmer's wrath when Henry's dogs had trampled down his field of young wheat; and whatever plans Henry formed, it was Richard of whom he asked counsel, though it never occurred to him to wonder what Richard was thinking of, when he wandered about their mother's garden of tangled roses or stared with unseeing eyes at the water-lilies in the marsh pools.

Yet Richard had his dreams as well as his brother, and they were just as dear to his heart. He longed to go to the University of Oxford, of which he had heard marvellous tales from the sons of the knights and gentlemen who were his neighbours. There he could sit on the banks of the Cherwell or the Isis and read the books whose very names were now barely known to him, and talk with scholars who had travelled into distant lands, perhaps into Italy itself. Ah, what would he not give to go there too! But then his brother would come up and ask whether Richard thought that such a field should be ploughed and sown with corn, or such a piece of marshy ground would, if drained, bring forth a good crop, for by this time the boys had grown up and the elder was not to be a soldier for some years yet. Still, after all, the true farmer was not Henry but Richard, for it was he who read in the old Latin authors, such as Virgil or Colomella, descriptions of how lands should be properly farmed, and it was Richard who learned what trees should be cut down and what prices to ask for the wood from the owners of the salt works round about—the word 'wych' meaning 'salt.' And for a while Richard put the thought of Oxford steadily out of his mind, and helped his brother so well and cleverly that at last Henry, grateful for the flourishing condition of his lands, offered to make them all over to Richard. At the same time a bride was proposed for him, the daughter of a nobleman who had heard how good and honourable the young man was.

But neither of these proposals tempted Richard. He had worked hard for years, not only to bring the estates into a condition of prosperity, but to teach his brother how to keep them so. Now he might follow his own wish, which was to prepare himself to enter the priesthood.

By this time, to the relief of all men, John was dead and his son Henry III had succeeded him. The English barons had not forgotten the struggle with the king which had ended with their obtaining Magna Charta, nor their invitation to Prince Louis of France to invade England. There was plenty of trouble still in store for everyone; yet things were better than they were, Louis had gone back to his own country and the barons hoped that the young king would be easily bent to their will.

Richard was about twenty-three when he rode up to Oxford to attend the lectures of the famous Robert Grosstęte, afterwards Bishop of Lincoln, and the first English Cardinal. But the town the young man had dreamed of was very different from the beautiful city that we know. It was surrounded with walls and fortified with towers; the houses in which the undergraduates lived—for there were as yet no colleges—were mostly built of wood and thatched. The river Isis spread itself wide over the plain, breaking up into numerous channels, and its islands were covered with buildings, while on the hills around were dense forests. But there was the great Abbey of St. Frideswide, where Wolsey was afterwards to build the College of Christ Church, and the clang of the bells in St. Mary's tower told the students that there was a chance of fighting in the narrow streets, which no one, of course, would desire to miss; and seeming to rise straight out of the water was the Abbey of Oseney, in a year or two to be rivalled by schools belonging to the Order of St. Dominic, while Franciscan brothers crowded the streets. If Oxford can be noisy now when undergraduates are excited, it was a thousand times worse then when there were few, if any, rules they were bound to obey, and the town was swarming with a crowd of lively young men, eager to seize an excuse for brawling; and if now and then a life was lost in a scuffle—well, it did not much signify and there were plenty of people to shelter the murderer!

When Richard first went up to Oxford he supposed himself to be a rich man, but very soon he learned that the bag of money which was his share of the family estates had been made away with by the priest to whom he had entrusted it for safe keeping. During the years in which he was studying, Richard was naturally prevented from earning his living, and he was obliged to accept a small sum from his brother to keep him from starving. Lodgings were dear in Oxford and the room Richard dwelt in was shared with two very poor students. Indeed the whole three owned only one gown, so that they had to take it in turns to wear it for lectures.

In spite of all this they never lost heart. Each morning, as soon as it was light enough to see to read, they sprang out of bed and forgot that they were cold and hungry in the delight of study or striving to understand some obscure philosophy before the lucky one who had the gown that day went off to his lectures. They ate as seldom as they could and as little—just a little bread and soup and wine, to which meat or fish was added on feast days. Richard, at any rate, was cheerful and happy during the six or seven years he remained there, and would never ask for pensions or places as was the way of most of his friends.

After he had taken his degree he went over to Paris, like most young men of his day, and when he had qualified there as a teacher he came back to Oxford to seek for some pupils, for in those times every student was allowed to choose his own master. He was one morning at a dinner given by a youth to celebrate his success in his examination, when a servant who was waiting told Richard that some one desired to speak with him at the door.

'Let us have him in and give him a cup of wine,' cried the host, jumping up and leaving the room as he spoke; but the man, who was on horseback, refused, saying that his message was for Richard alone. Fearing ill news of his brother or sister, Richard hastened out, but found no one at the door and the street was empty. Much astonished he returned to the banqueting-room, exclaiming:

'There is nobody there; it must be—' when he stopped, surprised at the look on the faces of all present.

'What is the matter?' he asked, and the host answered:

'Look, Richard! Scarcely had you left us when this stone fell from the roof, and had you been here you would of a surety been crushed.'

Then Richard knew it was an angel who had brought him the message and that his life had been preserved for him to do God's work.

Soon after this happened Richard's dream was fulfilled, and he set out for Italy in order to study the canon law, or law of the church, at Bologna. To a man who had only beheld the plains of Northern France and the woods and fields of the Midlands of England, the sight of the Alps must have been almost terrifying. In those days, and indeed nearly as late as the nineteenth century, mountains and waterfalls were considered ugly and ungainly objects, and no one would have thought of going to visit them for pleasure. No doubt Richard was no different from the rest of the world, and most likely he breathed a sigh of relief when he found himself past those awful precipices, and safe among the walled cities of Lombardy. At any rate it would be long before he need cross those fearful passes again, he thought, for he had been told the course of study at the University of Bologna lasted for seven years.

Large as Oxford had seemed to the country-bred Richard, Bologna was about three times the size and counted ten thousand students alone; and if Oxford had appeared noisy with its perpetual fights between the students and the townspeople—'Town and Gown' they were called then, as now—Bologna was a hundred times worse, for the city was the headquarters of the league which supported the power of the pope against the emperor. When Richard arrived there, the town was in an unusual state of excitement, as if it were preparing itself for a war with the Emperor Frederick II. Some of the high brick towers, from which you can see miles over the country, were rising fast, and the streets were full of chattering people who never seemed to go to bed, but asked each other the news all night under the arcades. It was in vain that John of Vicenza, the Dominican friar, bore the cross through the streets and summoned the citizens to follow him and to make peace with their enemies. The peace, indeed, was made, and solemn vows taken, but they were broken again almost as soon as sworn.

Yet through all the noise and the tumult and party cries, Richard and his fellow-students continued to read, and the Englishman soon forgot the din of men and clash of arms in the interest of his books. Probably he was older than the others; certainly he studied harder than most, for when his master became too ill to teach, he handed over his pupils to Richard, now a doctor in law, and offered him besides his daughter in marriage. Then Richard had to tell him that grateful as he was for his kindness he hoped to become a priest, and was intending shortly to return home and take orders in the English Church.

Richard must have been about thirty-eight when he returned to Oxford and was made Chancellor of the University, with the power of conferring degrees on the undergraduates. He had a great deal of work to do, from looking after each student as far as he could, to advising about every deed and contract that affected the University. Luckily for him, the bishop who ruled over Oxford at the time was his old friend Robert Grosstęte, Bishop of Lincoln, and when they met it was easier for Richard to talk over anything that puzzled or worried him than it would have been with a stranger. These conversations caused the bishop to think so highly of his old pupil that when the Chancellor of Lincoln died he wrote at once to beg Richard to accept the vacant place. But it was too late, for Richard had just been appointed Chancellor of Canterbury by the Archbishop.

If pope and emperor were fighting with each other in Italy, Church and State were disputing with each other at home, and neither side could depend upon King Henry, who was swayed first by this person and then by that. At length Archbishop Edmund decided that he must go to Rome to ask counsel of the pope, and in his absence the whole of his work was done by Richard. When the papal legate informed the archbishop after his return that his journey had been in vain and that he could not receive the help on which he had counted, the poor man's health gave way and he retired with Richard to the French Abbey of Pontigny, where he shortly afterwards died.

Notwithstanding the loss of his friend, Richard appears to have been happy enough at Pontigny. It was a Cistercian monastery and the Cistercians were always great farmers, so once again Richard spent his time going from field to field, watching the progress of the crops and making sure that the corn and hay were dry before they were placed in the barns. Then some of the farms were situated beyond a walk and the monks were forced to ride to visit them, and how pleasant it was to feel a horse beneath you after so many years! Too  pleasant, perhaps, for we next find Richard in a Dominican convent at Orleans, teaching and preaching and studying the holy books. Here he was at peace, and unless he was sent on some special mission he need never go beyond the beautiful garden, with its masses of red and white roses kept for the altar of the church. And here, after his years of preparation, he was ordained a priest at last by William de Bussi, Bishop of Orleans.

The work of a parish priest must have seemed strange to him, but he had the gift of making friends with his people, who, on their side, talked to him freely of their troubles. He enjoyed the quiet life and hoped he might end his days in the little place, but in this he was mistaken, for in 1244 he was appointed to the Bishopric of Chichester.

Now at that time the struggle in the church which had driven Archbishop Edmund from his See still continued. The king declared that it was his  right to make the bishops, whereas the chapters (consisting of the deans and canons of the cathedral) declared that the right of election rested with them. The fight was long and hard, and the existence of every bishop was nothing but weariness and anxiety. Richard fared no better than the rest; the king's officers seized all his fees, and he was obliged to go to Lyons, where a Council of Bishops was then sitting, and ask Pope Innocent IV what he was to do. Should he resign his See, as personally he would have wished, or should he hold on to it and take the consequences?

The pope's answer was to consecrate Richard himself, and to inform King Henry that he had done so.

Then, armed with the letter of appointment bearing the pope's seal, Richard returned to England, visiting on the way the grave of Archbishop Edmund at Pontigny.

'The king has taken possession of all your lands and of all your revenues,' this was the news which greeted him when once more he was on English soil. In vain he hastened to the palace and showed the parchment, sealed with the seal of the pope, to the king. Henry would listen to nothing, and after pouring forth a torrent of angry words bade Richard begone. So he went out from the palace gates, a bishop without a See and without money, and was glad to accept a home with Simon the Priest, in a little village on the Sussex coast. Here he passed his time in a manner after his own heart, for greatness had no charms for him. The hours that were not spent in visiting the poor or in prayer were taken up in gardening, and he was pleased to find that his old skill in budding roses or in grafting young trees had not been forgotten.

St. Richard de Wyche


But after waiting a few months to see if the king would change his mind and allow him to enter Chichester, and finding that things remained as before, Richard determined to fulfil the duties of his office in another manner. Like Cuthbert of old he might have been met on the wild downs, going to preach in some lonely cottage or scrambling over the rocks by the sea to a tiny village, hidden in a cove. When he was going far he borrowed a horse, and glad enough were the farmers to lend it to him. At other times he walked, but in one way or another every corner of his diocese became known to him—every corner, that is, except Chichester and the houses of great men. Yet he was always gay and pleasant, and if his face looked sad it was only when he had returned from one of the fruitless visits to the Court, which he thought himself bound to make.

It seems strange that the pope allowed the bishop, whom he himself had consecrated, to be treated in such a manner; but he was greatly absorbed in his struggle with the emperor, and England was very far away. At length, however, he had leisure to consider the reports that were sent to him, which were confirmed by travellers, as to the mode in which Richard was served, and his anger was roused. He sent strict orders to two of the bishops that they were to present themselves instantly before the king and to inform him that, unless he immediately gave up all the lands and moneys belonging to Chichester and allowed Richard to take his rightful place, the whole of England would at once be laid under an interdict, as it had been in the days of John, his father, and that meant that no priest was permitted to baptize or to bury or to perform the ceremony of marriage. Under this threat Henry gave way, and after two years of exile Richard sat on his cathedral throne, and from a penniless missionary now became a great lord.

Unlike some men who know how to be poor, but do not know how to be rich, Richard filled the duties of his new position as well as he had done those of his old one. He was hospitable to all comers, and gave dinners to the nobles and high-born travellers passing through Chichester on their way to Court, for he felt that it was not only the poor who had claims on him. But at his own table his food was hardly different from what it had been in the house of Simon the Priest, and his dress was the white tunic worn by his chaplains, with a cape over his shoulders.

He was eager to question any new comer as to what was happening in the world outside, and the condition of farming—for he never forgot his own experiences—and his eyes would twinkle with pleasure at a lively story or a merry retort, while if anything was said that seemed worth remembering he wrote it down himself in a book; and when his guests had gone to bed in their cold, draughty rooms, where the wind whistled even through the silk hangings, he would spend hours on his knees, praying for himself and his people also.

But gentle though Richard was, he always found courage enough to reprove evil-doers, and to insist that, as far as possible, wrong should be set right. Injuries to himself personally he not only forgave but apparently forgot, and never lost a chance of repaying them with kindness. But injuries to others he dealt with in a wholly different way. Once in the town of Lewes, a thief who had stolen some goods belonging to the shop-keepers took refuge in the church, where, by all the laws of the time, he should have been safe till he could have a fair trial. The shop-keepers, however, were too angry to think or care for the law, and, dragging him out, hung him on the nearest tree. The news speedily reached the ears of the bishop, who at once rode to Lewes in wrath to punish the offenders, and this was his sentence:

'You have torn that man from the steps of the altar, where he had sought sanctuary as was his right; you have hanged him without a trial, thus breaking the law yourselves a second time; and you have buried him in unconsecrated ground, thus taking for granted he was guilty without giving him a chance of defending himself. Therefore you, who have done these things with your own hands, will dig up the body and carry it between you to the church whence you took him, living. And you, who stood by, and never lifted a voice or a hand to prevent this wickedness, you will walk in your shirts with ropes round your necks through the streets of Lewes. Ah! I know what you would say,' he added quickly, as one of the richest of the citizens stepped forward as if to speak; 'you would offer me a large bribe to let the matter rest and be forgotten, but learn that I am not one of those whose conscience is in the market,' and he turned away indignantly, leaving orders with his steward to see that his judgment was carried out.

There was no part of the country under Richard's charge that he did not visit and inquire into. In this manner he found out many things which he was able to remedy. As bishop he was responsible for the state of the prisons in his diocese, for the carrying out of the law, and for showing mercy where mercy could be shown. For the threats of those in power he cared nothing at all, and here is an example.

A priest who had for kinsfolk some of the greatest nobles in the kingdom had committed a grievous sin, and Richard sternly told him he was unfit to perform the duties of his holy office and bade him resign his benefice. An outcry was raised through the land, and Richard was beset with petitions from the king and queen, the man's relations, and even the bishops, to pardon the priest, and to allow them to pay a fine to absolve him. But their prayers were useless. 'The sin was the same whoever the sinner might be,' said Richard, 'and the penalty was the same also, whether the priest's birth were high or low.' Then at last came a bishop who earnestly entreated, with tears and prayers, that the man might be pardoned. To him Richard made answer:

'You ask me, to whom power has been given to judge evil-doers, to forgive the sin of this priest. Well, the power that has been given to me I now give to you. Pardon him if you will, but remember, that if you do, your soul will answer for it in the Day of Judgment. Are you ready to accept the responsibility?'

The pleader was silent and his soul answered for him.

The last work of Richard's life was to go through his diocese, preaching a crusade at the command of the pope. It does not seem as if the bishop approved of the undertaking, but he thought it his duty to obey commands of Innocent IV, and after a sermon, preached in Chichester Cathedral on the necessity of taking the cross, went about among the fishing-villages of the coast, trying to stir the hearts of men. Here he had some success, but he found a very different state of matters when he was summoned to London in order to attend a Parliament and preach before the citizens in the Abbey. His words fell on stony ground indeed. English churchmen as well as London merchants and powerful nobles were all irritated at the interference of the pope with the affairs of England, his demands for money, and his giving away of English bishoprics to foreigners. The barons, besides, were always at war with the king about some question or other, and did not mean to quit the kingdom and leave him to do as he pleased. So all the bishop's efforts were a failure, and the following year it was still worse, for it fell to him to read from the pulpit a letter from the pope granting the king certain taxes on church property. This produced an outburst of anger from the listening audience, and Robert Grosstęte, Bishop of Lincoln, was the first to declare that whatever the pope might write, the consent of the English Church should never be given.

Richard was hardly surprised. He voted in Parliament according to his conscience, and then returned to his labours among his people.

He was at Dover, consecrating a small church to the memory of his friend, Archbishop Edmund, when his final illness came upon him. It was a labour of love amidst all his disappointments, and he felt it was the last office he should perform. The following day he suddenly fainted and was carried to his bed, from which as soon as he became conscious again he gave directions about his funeral and made his will, which is still to be seen. His books he left to various monasteries; little gifts to his servants and old friends, a small dowry to his niece, and money for the building fund of Chichester Cathedral.

According to his wish he was buried near St. Edmund's altar, but about ten years later his body was removed into the south transept, where it now rests.