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St Richard - a short biography

The Church in Sussex gained strength from the ministries of saintly and resolute bishops who ensured our Church’s loyalty to the Pope and the Roman tradition. Two stand out: St Wilfred at Selsey – the fiery saint from the north, and our own St Richard of Wych, born around 1197, who became Bishop of Chichester in 1245 and whose name our parish is proud to bear.

St Richard was revered as a Bishop but held this important office for only 8 years. Across the south of England, from Kent – where he died in 1253 – to his city of Chichester – namesake churches celebrate his achievements.

“Outstanding pastor, teacher, reformer”

His biographer says he ruled the clergy “as a master does his pupils” - his own household “as a father does his sons” - the whole diocese “as a nurse does the infants in her care”.

A modern writer says of him “A man of strong character, a scholar, but sensible and practical as well, energetic, kind, modest about his own powers, cheerful and courageous. He loved people and was greatly beloved by them.”

Chichester Cathedral notes that: “in his lifetime, he was known as the laughing bishop.”

His early life – the impoverished student at Oxford

He was born Richard Backindine, probably in 1197 at Droitwich (hence the Wych in his formal name). His parents died early and he restored the family estate from dilapidation – showing early administrative and practical skills.

He refused to displace his elder, less talented brother and declined the prospect of a comfortable married life, preferring study at Oxford, where he and two companions endured acute poverty, living at times on bread and vegetable soup. It’s said they had only one tunic and hooded gown between them: and since the gown was compulsory at lectures, they attended by turns. Here he met the learned Edmund Rich of Abingdon, later to become St Edmund.

Richard excelled as a scholar –probably studying at Paris, then Bologna for canon law, returning to become Chancellor (administrator) of the University of Oxford 1235-37.

High Office and his first encounter with the King

Edmund became Archbishop of Canterbury and soon offered Richard the post of Chancellor of the diocese. He supported the Archbishop’s action in reforming the diocese and opposing the King’s attempts to control church estates.

Interlude as parish priest

When his friend Edmund died, Richard helped promote his canonisation and he was attracted to the newly formed Order of Friars Preacher, (Dominicans), studying theology at Orleans where he was ordained priest in 1243.

After a short period as parish priest in Kent, he was recalled to Canterbury as Chancellor again.

Elected Bishop – but the King opposes him

Richard was at the centre of controversy when he was chosen by colleagues as Bishop of Chichester – against the candidate appointed by the King. An act of regal spite ensued: the King refused to hand over the properties of the See. So Richard appealed to Pope Innocent IV, who consecrated him at Lyons on 5th March 1245 and sent him back to Chichester. Henry III was unmoved: he retained the Bishop’s palace and income and forbade anyone to give Richard shelter or food.

The mendicant Bishop

For two years Richard had to exist on gifts and hospitality on his journeys, from those who defied the King. In particular, the courageous Father Simon, parish priest of West Tarring, is said “to have sheltered Richard as if the bishop were his own father, and placed at his disposal his house and everything he owned”. In 1246 the Pope broke through the King’s intransigence, and, threatened with excommunication, Henry handed over the estates. But Richard’s austerity, generosity and almsgiving upset the stewards, unused to generous clerics. (He would surely have commended our present Livesimply! code)

A firm but caring Pastor

Richard was a holy and self-disciplined man who strengthened ecclesiastical life – creating a code for priests to follow, detailing the correct way to celebrate Divine services and administer the sacraments. He required the laity to memorize the Our Father, Hail Mary and Creed – many could not read.

In Chichester, Richard stimulated building progress on the Cathedral. He began the series of chapels along the north and south aisles of the nave, starting with the chapel of St Edmund, where Richard could expect to be buried.

Richard dies and achieves early sainthood

Richard was appointed by the Pope to preach the Seventh Crusade to recover the Holy places from the Saracens. This onerous assignment took him across the south of England.

In 1253, while travelling through Sussex and Kent, exhaustion born of his personal austerity and Spartan lifestyle took its toll. He consecrated a chapel in Dover, dedicated to his master St Edmund. He was taken ill and died four days later on 3rd April. His biographer says that on his deathbed “ he embraced the image of the Crucified....” he cried out the words of his now-famous prayer, beginning “I thank thee my Lord Jesus Christ for all the benefits which thou has granted to me, for all the pains and insults which thou hast suffered for me…..” His heart was buried in Dover, his body came back to Chichester. Canonisation followed in 1262 and on 16th June 1276, in the presence of King Edward I - son of the predatory Henry III, and the hierarchy, his body was moved to the shrine behind the high altar where it became a revered place of pilgrimage, second only to Canterbury.

A later Tudor defiled his resting place – Henry VIII had the shrine destroyed and the Saint’s bones were dispersed. However, the abbey of La Lucerne (Normandy) acquired a relic of St Richard in the Middle Ages (a piece of bone that has been identified as the lower part of the upper left arm). This was brought back to Chichester in 1991 and interred beneath the altar at the shrine of St Richard.

Honoured by the Cathedral shrine

Today, St Richard is commemorated, notably by an icon and by the fine statue of St Richard by Philip Jackson, which stands in welcome by the main entrance. These were commissioned by the Dean and Chapter, and donated by the Friends of the Cathedral for the Anniversary Year celebrations in 2002-3.

Every year, the Dean and Chapter generously invite the Catholics of Chichester to celebrate Mass in the Cathedral. The old conflicts have given way to a warm ecumenical spirit among our Christian communities.

Our parish church of St Richard’s has the privilege of bearing the name of the City’s patron saint. In 2008, for our Golden Jubilee, we will resume the task of making our church even more worthy of its role within the parish, city and the diocese.


(This short biography is drawn by permission from the Catholic Encyclopaedia (New Advent); Canon Michael Gudgeon’s account for Chichester Cathedral, quoting biographer Ralph Bocking; Richard Oliver, OSB). Images are reproduced by kind permission of the Dean and Chapter of Chichester Cathedral.