Richard of Chichester was born in Burford, England, in 1197. His parents died when he was very young. His oldest brother was heir to the estates but he was not old enough to inherit, so the lands were subject to a feudal wardship. When his brother was old enough he took possession of his lands but was required to pay a medieval form of death tax that left the family so impoverished that Richard had to work for him on the farm. His brother also made Richard heir to the estate. Friends tried to arrange a match with a certain noble lady. He refused the suggestion that his brother might marry her instead. He gave his portion of the estate back to his brother. He wanted a life of study and the church.
He graduated from the University of Oxford. He then began to teach at the university. He then moved on to teach in Paris, and then Bologna, where he distinguished himself by his knowledge of canon law. He returned to England in 1235, after being elected as Oxford’s chancellor.
His former tutor, Edmund of Abingdon, had become archbishop of Canterbury. Richard shared Edmund’s ideals of clerical reform and supported papal rights even against the king. In 1237, Archbishop Edmund appointed Richard chancellor of the diocese of Canterbury. Richard joined the archbishop during his exile at Pontigny and was with him when the archbishop died in 1240. Richard then decided to become a priest and studied theology for two years with the Dominicans at Orléans. When he returned to England, he became the parish priest at Charing and at Deal, but soon was reappointed chancellor of Canterbury by the new archbishop Boniface of Savoy.
In 1244 Richard was elected Bishop of Chichester. Henry III and part of the chapter refused to accept him. The King wanted Robert Passelewe. Archbishop Boniface refused to confirm Passelew, so both sides appealed to the pope. The king confiscated the diocese’s properties and income, but Innocent IV confirmed Richard’s election and consecrated him bishop at Lyons in March 1245. Richard then returned to Chichester, but the king refused to restore the diocese’s properties for two years. Then he only did so after being threatened with ex-communication. Henry III forbade anyone to house or feed Richard. At first, Richard lived at Tarring in the house of his friend Simon, the parish priest of Tarring. He visited his entire diocese by walking and cultivating figs in his spare time.
After the full rights of the see and its revenues were returned to him in 1246, the new bishop showed much eagerness to reform the manners and morals of his clergy. He also introduced greater order and reverence into the services of the Church. Richard overruled Henry on several occasions. Richard defrocked a priest who had seduced a nun out of her convent and refused a petition from the king who supported the priest.
Richard protected the clergy from abuse. The townsmen of Lewes violated the right of the sanctuary by seizing a criminal in church and lynching him. Richard made them exhume the body and give it a proper burial in consecrated ground. He also imposed severe penance on knights who attacked priests.
Richard produced written statutes for the organization of his diocese and the conduct of its clergy. Many of the clergy still secretly married but were not recognized by canon law. A vow of chastity was required of candidates for ordination. Rectors were expected to live in their parishes, to be hospitable and charitable and tithes were to be paid on all annual crops. Anyone who did not pay their tithe would not be granted penance until they did. Vicars were to be priests and have only one freehold to live on, they were not allowed to have another parish held under an assumed name.
Deacons were not to be allowed to receive confessions or provide penances, or baptize except in the absence of a priest. Children had to be confirmed within a year of baptism. The Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer were to be learned in their native language. Priests were to celebrate mass in clean robes, to use a silver or golden chalice; thoroughly clean corporals and at least two consecrated palls were to be placed on the altar. The cross was to be planted in front of the celebrant. The bread was to be of the purest wheat flour, the wine mixed with water. The elements were not to be kept more than seven days; when carried to a sick person to be enclosed in a pyx, and the priest to be preceded by a cross; a candle, holy water, and bell. Gambling at baptisms and marriages was strictly forbidden.
Archdeacons were to administer justice for their proper fees, not demanding more either for rushing or delaying the business. They were to visit the churches regularly, to see that the services duly ministered. Vessels and vestments should be in proper order, the canon of the mass correctly observed and distinctly read, as also the hours. Priests who clipped or slurred the words by rushing were to be suspended.
The clergy should wear their proper dress and not imitate what the lay people wore. They were not allowed to wear their hair long or have romantic entanglements. The names of excommunicated persons are to be read out four times a year in the parish churches.
A copy of these statutes was to be kept by every priest in the diocese.
Richard’s life displayed rigid frugality and temperance. Richard was an ascetic who wore a hair-shirt and refused to eat off silver. He kept his diet simple and was rigorously a vegetarian since his days at Oxford.
Richard was merciless to lenders, corrupt clergy, and priests who mumbled the Mass. He was also a stickler for the clerical privilege. Richard showed favor to the Dominicans, a house of this order at Orléans who sheltered him during his stay in France, and by his preaching a crusade. After dedicating St Edmund’s Chapel at Dover, he died April 3, 1253, at age 56.
Richard is widely remembered for this popular prayer:
Thanks be to Thee, my Lord Jesus Christ
For all the benefits Thou hast given me,
For all the pains and insults Thou hast borne for me.
O most merciful Redeemer, friend, and brother,
May I know Thee more clearly,
Love Thee more dearly,
Follow Thee more nearly.
Richard is supposed to have recited the prayer on his deathbed, surrounded by the clergy of the diocese.