27 June 2016

Richard FitzRalph, the saintly Dean
of Lichfield and Archbishop of Armagh

Lichfield Cathedral … Richard FitzRalph was Dean of Lichfield from 1335 to 1346 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

During the intercessions at the Choral Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, yesterday [26 June 2016] the saints who were commemorated included Richard FitzRalph (1300-1360), who is commemorated in the Calendar in the Book of Common Prayer in the Church of Ireland and in Exciting Holiness in the Church of England on this day [27 June].

Richard FitzRalph, who was Chancellor of the University of Oxford, Dean of Lichfield, and Archbishop of Armagh, was one of the leading theologians of the 14th century. Although he is often remembered for his conflict with the Franciscan friars in his diocese, he was a leading philosopher in his day.

This Dundalk-born theologian played an important role in dialogue with the Armenian Church and was one of the first Western scholars to seek to understand the Quran. In the aftermath of the Crusades, he one of the early pioneers of Muslim-Christian dialogue.

Richard FitzRalph was born ca 1299 or 1300 into a prosperous Anglo-Norman burgess family in Dundalk, Co Louth, then the northern-most outpost of the Pale. His contemporaries referred to him to as Hibernicus.

Balliol College, Oxford … Richard FitzRalph was a Fellow of Balliol College when he received his MA in 1325 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

When he was about 15, he went to Oxford to study arts and theology, and he was a Fellow of Balliol College when he received his MA in 1325.

At Oxford, FitzRalph acquired skills in logic and metaphysics, impressive knowledge of the Bible, and a high level of competence as a theologian and preacher. From this period date his Quaestio biblica and his Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, which survives in revised form. He was the most important secular theologian to lecture on the Sentences in the later 1320s and was prepared to present both sides of an argument without taking a personal decision.

In 1326, he was presented as Rector of Athboy in the Diocese of Meath, by King Edward II. But he seems to have remained in Oxford, and he was at University College (then University Hall), Oxford, where he received a doctorate in theology in 1331. Soon after, he became Vice-Chancellor of the University – an almost unparalleled achievement for someone still in his early 30s and for an Irishman.

Around this time, Richard gained the patronage of John Grandisson, Bishop of Exeter (1327-1369), and spent a year at the University of Paris as mentor of Grandisson’s nephew, John de Northwode. Richard owed his early Church appointments to Grandisson’s support and acquired a number of benefices in the Diocese of Exeter, and, possibly, also a canonry in Armagh.

While he was Chancellor of Oxford University, Richard FitzRalph became involved in a major conflict between ‘town and gown’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In 1332, Richard was appointed Chancellor of the University of Oxford by the Bishop of Lincoln. However, his time in office was overshadowed by strife between town and gown or the students and the people of Oxford, as well as between the northern and southern nations within the university community.

These conflicts resulted in the ‘Stamford Schism’ and the brief establishment of an alternative university at Stamford in Lincolnshire. The dispute was brought before the Pope in Avignon, where Richard represented the university. This was the first of his four lengthy visits to Avignon, where papal patronage and contacts in the Curia would play an important part in his later career.

On his first visit to Avignon, only five years after concluding his lectures on the Sentences, Richard was consulted as one of the 18 leading theologians of Europe by Pope Benedict XII to correct the views of his predecessor, John XXII, on the beatific vision.

The Cathedral Close, Lichfield …Richard FitzRalph was installed as dean in 1336 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

While he was at Avignon, Richard earned his reputation as a preacher, and on 17 December 1335 he was appointed Dean of Lichfield on the nomination of Pope Benedict XII.

Richard was appointed Dean of Lichfield – “notwithstanding that he has canonries and prebends [in the collegiate churches] of Crediton [in Devon] and Bosham [in Sussex], and has had provision made for him of the Chancellorship of Lincoln and the canonries and prebends of Armagh and Exeter, all of which he is to resign.” One position that is often ascribed to him but that he did not hold was Archdeacon of Chester.

Richard’s first step as Dean of Lichfield was to present himself to the Bishop of Lichfield, who received him as a guest in Brewood Manor on 12 April 1336. The bishop instituted him to the deanery on the following day, and he was installed in Lichfield Cathedral on 20 April 1336.

At his installation, he pledged: ‘I, Richard, Dean of the Church of Lichfield, will keep the continuous residence that is required in the said Church, according to the manner and custom of the same.’

Lichfield Cathedral … in 1337, Richard FitzRalph engaged William de Ramessey in a new project of rebuilding and restoration (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

At first, he was an active and engaging Dean of Lichfield. Two days after his installation, Richard presided at a special meeting of the chapter of Lichfield Cathedral. On 26 June 1336, Dean Richard was asked by the chapter to investigate irregularities in the church in Cannock. In May 1337, he engaged William de Ramessey in a new project of rebuilding and restoration of the cathedral.

However, Richard left Lichfield for the Papal Court in 1337. The chapter members seem to have expected that this would be short visit and that the dean would soon return to Lichfield, for they agreed to pay his expenses while he was away and forwarded regular payments. Instead, this became his second and longest visit to Avignon, and he remained there until 1344.

The dean was not a good correspondent, and his prolonged absence seriously hampered the business of the Chapter in Lichfield, including a case involving the Prior and the monks of Coventry.

On the other hand, a long drawn-out suit in the Papal Court between the Cathedrals of Lichfield and Coventry was decided in favour of Lichfield Cathedral in the winter of 1339-1340, presumably due to the dean’s intervention in Avignon.

During this visit to Avignon, Richard wrote the work that earned his reputation as a theologian. His Summa de Quaestionibus Armenorum arose from lengthy debates with representatives of the Orthodox Churches, who were seeking papal support against a Turkish threat.

In Avignon, Richard also discussed the questions of papal primacy and ecclesiastical authority that were later debated at the councils of Basle (1431-1438) and Ferrara-Florence (1439-1440). His Summa documents Richard’s approach to the Bible and his emphasis on scriptural proof, sola scriptura. It also reveals the beginning of his preoccupation with dominion and its dependency on grace, which was further developed by John Wyclif.

Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield … Dean Richard FitzRalph preached three sermons here in 1345-1346 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Eventually, Richard returned to Lichfield, although there is no notice of this in the Chapter Acts Book, as Henry Savage (1854-1939), Dean of Lichfield (1909-1939), noted in a public lecture on Saint Chad’s Day 1928.

He was in Lichfield in 1345-1346, and during those years he preached a series of sermons in Lichfield and the neighbourhood, between Lady Day, 25 March 1345, and Advent Sunday, 3 December 1346.

These include sermons in Cannock on 21 May 1346 and in the Chapel of Saint Nicholas in Lichfield the next day, 22 May 1346. Dean Savage asks whether this was a chapel in the cathedral or in the Franciscan Friary in Lichfield, but points out that “there is no evidence on this point.”

His other 15 local sermons include nine preached in Lichfield Cathedral, one in the chapel and two in the graveyard of Saint John’s Hospital, two at Brewood, and one at Burton on Palm Sunday 1346. All were preached ‘in the vulgar tongue.’

Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh … Richard FitzRaph was appointed Archbishop of Armagh in 1346 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

With the death of Archbishop David Mag Oireachtaigh in 1346, the cathedral chapter of Armagh immediately elected Richard FitzRalph as his successor, and he received papal confirmation on 31 July 1346. In this appointment he was following in the steps of Stephen de Segrave, who was Dean of Lichfield when he was appointed Archbishop of Armagh in 1324 by Pope John XXII.

Richard remained in England, possibly in Lichfield, for a year. Early in 1347, he did homage to King Edward III and received the temporalities of his see before being consecrated bishop by his former patron, Bishop John Grandisson, in Exeter Cathedral on 8 July 1347.

He travelled to Ireland early in 1348, where his first recorded sermon was preached in Dundalk on 24 April 1348.

Back in Ireland, his early sermons invited comparison between Christ’s coming to the Jews and the archbishop’s return to his own people in Dundalk and Drogheda.

Richard kept a careful account of his sermons. The shorter sermons were summarised, while the longer, more theological sermons were written in full. He also sent many of his priests to study at Oxford to further their learning.

The texts show he was preoccupied with social problems in Ireland – 29 sermons were preached in Dundalk, Drogheda, Dublin and various places in the Diocese of Meath to the clergy, whom he criticised for their laxity of vocation, merchants, whom he attacked for wasteful extravagances and underhanded trading practises, and the general population, among whom he was very popular as a preacher.

At a time of often hostile racial relations between the colonists and natives, he took an honourable stand in denouncing discrimination against the Gaelic Irish. At times severe, this was balanced by his very fair and serious approach as pastor of his people, whether they were English, Anglo-Irish or Gaelic.

He was pastorally minded, concerned with reform and visitation, and vigorously defended his rights as Primate of All Ireland against the claims of the Archbishop of Dublin. He promoted interest in the cult of Saint Patrick, above all by promoting the pilgrimage of the Hungarian knight, George Grissaphan, to Saint Patrick’s Purgatory in Lough Derg.

Inside Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

However, he spent much of his episcopate outside Ireland. He was on a third visit to Avignon from 1349 to 1351, having been sent there by King Edward III as his representative in 1349. When he preached in Avignon in August 1349, he painted a dramatic picture of Irish society, maintaining that violence was conditioned by the cultural clash between the two nations and lamenting the Irish reputation for theft and dishonesty.

Richard’s attitude to the friars, whom he had initially respected, altered radically when he became Archbishop of Armagh. He identified the cause of tension between the two nations with the presence of the friars in confessional and pulpit, and he accused them of disrupting parochial authority. In Avignon, he also took part in the negotiations between the Armenian Apostolic Church and Pope Clement VI.

He began to examine the biblical and legal foundations, and consequent justification, of their profession and made the first clear statement of his criticism while preaching before Pope Clement VI on 5 July 1350.

He returned to his diocese in 1351, and his report on the Black Death is the earliest evidence of its arrival in Ireland. On his return, he threw himself into his work with vigour. In Dundalk, he became involved in a personal and bitter attack on the orders of mendicant friars. He sought to withdraw their privileges in regard to confession, preaching and other acts as they were undermining his secular clergy in their parishes.

He preached in several places, including Dundalk and Louth in the Diocese of Armagh and Athboy, Kells and Trim in the Diocese of Meath, and in 1355 he carried out an archiepiscopal visitation of the Diocese of Meath.

Later, he developed his arguments on the poverty question in his treatise De Pauperie Salvatoris (On the Poverty of the Saviour). When he was in London on routine business in 1356, he circulated this next, and so made the mendicant controversy more acute.

Richard’s friend, Richard Kilvington, Dean of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, allowed the archbishop to defend himself in a series of sermons preached during the winter and spring of 1356-1357 at Saint Paul’s Cross, the most prominent pulpit in London. The sermons led to a case being brought against Richard to Pope Innocent VI in Avignon on 8 November 1357. There he also dealt with his critics in the eighth book of De Pauperie Salvatoris.

Richard paid a fourth visit to Avignon in 1357 to discuss his dispute with the friars with Pope Innocent VI. He died at the papal court in Avignon around 10 to 20 November 1360.

The dispute between Richard and the friars had dragged on inconclusively, and the case passed into oblivion after his death.

Ten years after his death, his body was recovered in 1370 by Stephen de Valle, Bishop of Meath, and was brought back to Dundalk. He was buried in the Church of Saint Nicholas. It is said that pilgrims who visited his tomb in Dundalk

Many a mile did walk
but had never seen so good a man
as Richard of Dundalk.

Saint Nicholas Church, Dundalk … Richard FitzRalph was buried here in 1370, and was soon venerated as a saint (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The local cult of Saint Richard of Dundalk led to calls for his canonisation, and with the support of several Irish bishops, a commission was convened in Rome at the end of the 14th century to examine the matter.

Richard’s papers were preserved, presumably initially by Dean Kilvington. Along with William Ockham, Thomas Bradwardine, and Adam Wodeham, Richard FitzRalph became one of the four most frequently cited theologians from these islands.

However, his writings were reflected in some of the teachings of John Wyclif on dominion and scriptural proof. The friars pointed to their enemy as the source of Wyclif’s thinking, while Lollard sources referred to him as noster sanctus Armachanus (our Armagh saint). These reactions damaged Richard’s posthumous reputation at the Papal Curia.

His memory was venerated in Dundalk for several centuries and miracles were reported in connection to him. His Defensio Curatorum was printed several times in the late 15th century, and through the works of Archbishop James Ussher, Luke Wadding and other Irish theologians, the memory of Richard FitzRalph was kept alive in the first half of the 17th century.

One topic in which he had an influence is his teaching on dominium or lordship. In his treatise De pauperie Salvatoris (1356), Richard argued that grace alone entitled a person to lordship over temporal things. Some centuries later Lutheran thinkers held that rights, and hence the authority of secular rulers, were dependent on God’s grace. So, if a ruler was a heretic or a sinner, his laws could not be binding in conscience – only a righteous ruler could be a just legislator. An unrighteous ruler could be deposed, and the ‘unrighteous’ included unbelievers.

In his On the Civil Power, Francisco de Vitoria (ca 1485-1546) asked whether non-Christians have legitimate sovereigns in view of the Spanish discovery of the ‘New World’. He states: ‘Richard FitzRalph, Archbishop of Armagh, a man of otherwise blameless character and intelligence, certainly argues in his De pauperitate Saluatoris that not merely unbelief but any mortal sin impedes any kind of power or dominion (dominium or jurisdiction, either public or private; in the mistaken belief that the true title and foundation of all power is grace.’

Vitoria fought against the notion of dominium through grace since, as a consequence, Christians would be entitled to take the lands, wealth and property from the native Americans, because Christians could and should exercise dominium over all unbelievers and over the whole world. This, of course, would render natural rights, or those which belong to human beings precisely because they are human, null and void. It was natural law theory that enabled de Vitoria to mount an impressive argument against this position.

His study of the Quran was marked by scholarly care and scrupulous attention to the text, and he formed an idea of the Islamic Christ as “a pure and blessed one” - a concept that must compel Christians to accept Muslims as partners in dialogue rather than enemies in the world.

Collect (Among the Cloud of Irish Witnesses, George Otto Simms and Brian Mayne, 1994):

Holy and merciful God,
you gave Richard FitzRalph not only gifts of piety and learning
but also such compassion for those were suffering and in need
that he strove to care for them:
Enable the members of your church after his example
to seek holiness in life and integrity of intellect
with a like concern for the helpless;
for the sake of Jesus Christ, our Lord.

The Deanery in the Cathedral Close, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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