Faricius was one of the two greatest abbots of Abingdon Abbey. Aethelwold, a century and a half before him, was the other.
Faricius was an Italian from Arezzo in Tuscany. Nothing is known of his early career, but before the end of the eleventh century he was a monk at the abbey of Malmesbury, already with a reputation for learning and, especially, for his medical skills.
At this time, Abingdon Abbey was in difficulty. King William Rufus had despoiled it and left it for three years without an abbot. Many of its estates had been taken and sold off. Its buildings were so dilapidated that the monks had to sleep in the church. But in 1100, William Rufus died and was succeeded by his brother Henry I. Henry allowed Faricius to be appointed abbot.
As a medical man, Faricius treated the king and many of the most prominent people of his time, and also their wives and mistresses. He was especially good at helping women in childbirth. Thus, when he set about restoring the Abbey’s lost properties, which he did in a very aggressive manner, he tended to find favour with the king and in the law courts. He was even given estates by grateful patients. The Abbey’s finances were transformed. Faricius started a great building programme; in his time, the nave of the church was completed and the crossing, which would support the central tower, was built up to window level. He rebuilt the domestic ranges, and added private quarters for himself as abbot. Manuscripts were produced, saints’ relics and liturgical utensils and vestments acquired, and the Abbey became once more a place of splendour.
When there was a vacancy in the archbishopric of Canterbury, Henry wanted to appoint Faricius, but was prevented by the opposition of his minister, Roger of Salisbury, who seems to have feared that Faricius’s autocratic nature would be a cause of trouble. There was certainly a development of discontent in the monastery, and some of the monks complained to the king about a reduction of their cheese ration. Roger headed a high level investigation which found against Faricius and the cheese ration was restored. Faricius died soon after, in 1117.
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There are two abbots who made outstanding contributions to the development of Abingdon Abbey. Faricius was one; the other was Aethelwold, a century and a half earlier.
Faricius was a Tuscan, a native of Arrezo. He first comes to notice towards the end of the eleventh century as a monk at the abbey of Malmesbury. He was a man of many talents. He had written a biography of St Aldhelm, who had been abbot of the monastery and was buried there. He held the office of cellarer, which, according to the Rule of St Benedict, included the duty of caring for the sick; and he was developing a widespread reputation as a physician.
It was a time when Abingdon Abbey was in difficulty. King William Rufus saw religious institutions as sources of wealth to be plundered and asset-stripped. He had left the Abbey without an abbot for three years and installed a certain Modbert to administer it on his behalf. The Abbey’s estates had been diminished so that only eighteen ploughs remained when there had been eighty. There had been fifty monks: now there were only thirty-two. Food was short, and the living quarters were so dilapidated that the monks all slept in the church.
In 1100, William died in a hunting accident and was succeeded by Henry I, who was concerned to show himself as more tender to the church than his brother had been. One night, a young monk of Abingdon praying near the altar had a vision of a beautiful woman who instructed him that the prior of the monastery should go to the king and tell him that she – the Virgin Mary – wanted Faricius as abbot. This was done, and the king agreed. It may be that the support of Archbishop Anselm, who had been in exile under William and had now returned, had a greater influence on the king than that of the Virgin. Modbert was transferred to another abbey. Faricius was appointed in November 1100 and arrived in Abingdon in the following year. A Benedictine abbot at his installation was supposed to remove his shoes before entering the church. Faricius removed his on arrival at the Ock Bridge, and walked the rest of the way barefoot. It was a meaningful gesture. Whatever duties awaited him, he would go to extremes in carrying them out.
Faricius’s success as abbot was largely due to his closeness to King Henry, just as Aethelwold’s had depended on his relationship with King Edgar. Faricius as a physician treated the king, the queen, and many among the feudal nobility. He was especially sought after to help women in childbirth, a skill of great interest to the king who had a large number of mistresses and at least twenty-two natural children who could in time be enfeoffed or bestowed in marriage to cement political alliances. The Abbey’s lost estates, and even some which had only doubtfully ever belonged to it, were recovered with the help of the king, the queen and the king’s courts. The claims of the men in possession were overruled; Faricius showed himself rigorous and inflexible in any matter concerning the property or privileges of the Abbey. Further estates were acquired as the gifts of grateful patients. The twenty-eight monks whom he had found at his arrival increased to eighty. He brought in scribes and started a programme of production of liturgical and theological books as well as copies of medical treatises. Saints’ and apostles’ relics were collected in large numbers.
The main contribution of Faricius to the Abbey was in building. He continued construction of the Abbey church, and by the time of his death the nave was complete with several chapels. There were two small towers and the crossing, where the great tower was to be, was finished to window level. The church was splendidly equipped with gold and silver vessels and a great seven-branched candlestick, and it was embellished with elaborate tapestries; officiants were clad in rich vestments, especially at festivals. The domestic buildings of Aethelwold’s time were rebuilt from the foundations and new structures added; these included extensive private quarters for the abbot and his guests.
But Faricius didn’t have everything his own way. When Anselm died in 1109, there was a period of five years when the archbishopric of Canterbury was vacant. Faricius was the preferred candidate of the monks of Canterbury, who had a theoretical right of election, and of the king, but he was opposed by various bishops including, notably, Bishop Roger of Salisbury, the king’s chief minister. Various reasons for their opposition were raised: Faricius was a foreigner, not fully competent in the language (i.e. in Norman-French, although this is hardly likely to have been the case), and his medical activities had brought him into excessive familiarity with women. More to the point was that his uncompromising nature would lead to quarrels and lawsuits. What this probably came down to was that Roger’s position would be intolerable if he were to have a man of Faricius’s stamp as his ecclesiastical superior. The man who was finally elected, Ralph d’Escures, Bishop of Rochester, was understood as a compromise candidate.
Faricius was abbot at a time when the nature of Benedictine abbacy was changing. Abbots were becoming more conscious of their dignity and were putting a greater social distance than before between themselves and the monks over whom they ruled. Faricius was autocratic, and it seems from the wording of the documents that he maintained control of the Abbey’s money, much of which, of course, had come to him personally in payment for his medical services. It was said that Faricius had ten or twelve of the monks dine at his table each day. Was this seen as a charitable action on his part, or as insufferable condescension? A dispute developed, which is reported in the Abbey chronicles as about the cheese ration allowed to the monks; but it is unlikely to have been quite so trivial. The king named a remarkably high-ranking investigating commission which consisted of the new archbishop, the chief minister Roger of Salisbury, and Hugh of Buckland, the sheriff of Berkshire. The finding was against Faricius, who had to agree to double the ration and to guarantee that the extra would not be diverted to his own table.
Faricius was taken ill on 2 February 1117, and died three weeks later.
© AAAHS and contributors 2014
 There are excellent general accounts of Faricius in Mieneke Cox, The Story of Abingdon Part 1 (Abingdon, 1986), pp.177-185, and in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/9157 (accessed 05 March 2014)
 John Hudson, Historia ecclesie Abbendonensis: the history of the Church of Abingdon (2 v., Oxford, 2002-2007), Vol. ii, xlv, xlvi, li
 Hudson, Historia, ii, xlv, 61
 Hudson, Historia, ii, xlv, xlvi
 Hudson, Historia, ii, xlvii
 Hudson, Historia, ii, 65
 Hudson, Historia, ii, 73-213
 Hudson, Historia, ii, 73-213
 Hudson, Historia, ii, xlviii, 67-71; 221-5
 Hudson, Historia, ii, 339.
 Hudson, Historia, ii, 73, 215, 339
 Mieneke Cox, The Story of Abingdon Part 1 (Abingdon, 1986), p. 183; Hudson, Historia, ii, 67
 Hudson, Historia, ii, xlix-li, 71
 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abbots (accessed 5 March 2014); John Hudson, Land law and lordship in Anglo-Norman England (Oxford, 1997), pp. 230-4; M. Howell ‘Abbatial vacancies and the divided mensa in medieval England’, J Eccles Hist xxxiii (1982) 173-92.
 Hudson, Historia, ii, xlvii-xlviii, 333-5
 Hudson, Historia, ii, xlix, 224