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.
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.
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.
© AAAHS and contributors 2014