St Richard of Droitwich
In 1197 Saint Richard was born in Droitwich (then called Wyche). The house in which he was born is reputedly the old Manor House of Wyche, now known as the Raven Hotel. He became known by his place of birth, Richard de la Wyche.
Richard’s parents died, leaving him in the care of guardians. The inheritance was mismanaged and the farm fell to ruin. Richard left his studies and travelled home to help restore the property. Gradually the farm was saved and returned to prosperity. He returned to Oxford to resume his studies. His tutor and great friend at Oxford was Edmund Rich, later Archbishop of Canterbury.
In 1221 Richard went to study in Paris, then he went to Bologna, Italy to study Canon Law. Here he acquired a wealth of knowledge and so pleased his professor that he offered his daughter to Richard in marriage. Richard refused and returned to Oxford in 1235 where he was made Chancellor of the University. A year later, Edmund Rich was made Archbishop of Canterbury and appointed Richard as Chancellor of the Province of Canterbury.
On the marriage of King Henry III to Eleanor of Provence in 1235-1236, many kinsmen of the new queen came to England and received high promotion both in church and state. Edmund in feeble health fled for Rome but only got to the Cistercian Monastery of Pontigny, near Paris. Attended by Richard he died on 16th November 1240. Edmund’s body was buried in the Great White Church, Pontigny.
Richard went to study Theology with the Dominicans at Orleans. He became learned in the scriptures and after two years was ordained by the Bishop of Orleans and returned to England as a parish priest in Kent. The new Archbishop of Canterbury was Boniface of Savoy, uncle to the Queen, who was rushed into Archbishopric in 1245. He acted with much insolence and cruelty to his clergy. However, he could still appreciate Richard’s character and in 1245 persuaded him to become his Chancellor.
In 1244, Ralph Neville, Bishop of Chichester died and the Canons hoping to please the King elected Passelew as the new Bishop. The Bishops were indignant at Passelew’s election and Boniface summoned a synod of the Province. Robert Passelew had his position cancelled and Richard was unanimously voted the new Bishop of Chichester.
When the King heard of Richard’s election he was furious and refused to give up properties and revenues of the Bishopric. Richard went to Lyons and was consecrated by pope Innocent IV who supported his claim. He then returned to England with letters from the Pope but only received abuse from the King. Richard became a wanderer in his own diocese. He was dependent upon the charity and hospitality of the people and clergy who chose to help him He repaid them by showing them how they could farm their lands to a greater advantage. Not only were his properties and manors denied him but the King issued an edict forbidding anyone to help him. Several times Richard went to court to persuade the King to restore the property of the See. Each time he was turned away. Pope Innocent IV still supported Richard and finally ordered the King to accept the new Bishop under threat of excommunication. The King agreed.
In 1247 Richard went to his cathedral at Chichester. He was Bishop for only eight years.
Between 1247-1249 Richard came to Droitwich. When he arrived he was met with disastrous news. The Great Pit had failed. The brine springs ceased to flow. The salt making industry would have to come to an end, many would lose their jobs and the town was faced with ruin.
The superstitious townspeople and the salters thought that the trouble was due to their failing to perform the heathen dances of the Wiccans. They resorted to dancing in their efforts to restore the flow. In the midst of this “Saracen worship” we read that Richard arrives and leads them first to the cleansing of the pit. Then his Episcopal blessing is given. One of the old salters called Morcar is believed to have cried out “Come and see, the brine is flowing, she
has begun to flow.” Whilst Sir Hugh Fromere, Lord of Crowle and senior bailiff exclaims, “My Lord, you have saved the town, this day will never be forgotten in Droitwich.”
In 1253 Richard set off from Chichester along the coast to preach. The winter took severe toll of his health and he was ill by the time he reached Dover. He lodged at Maison Dieu, a religious hospice. The Master and Brethren of the hospice asked him to consecrate the chapel in honour of St. Edmund in the cemetery for the poor. This he gladly did on 30th March 1253.
Saint Edmund’s Chapel, Dover, is the only Building still standing consecrated by an English canonised saint to the honour of an English saint.
Emaciated and frail, Richard lived for another three days and died on 3rd April 1253. He was about 56 years old. Richard’s body was embalmed and the viscera (bowels) are said to be buried in St. Edmunds Chapel. His body was taken to Chichester and buried in the cathedral near to the altar of St. Edmund. 22nd January 1262 - Pope Urban IV declared Richard a Saint. 6th June 1276 - a festival was held in the presence of King Edward I where Richard’s remains were transferred to a silver-gilt and
jewelled shrine behind the high altar. His head was kept separately in St. Mary Magdalene Chapel. Like almost every shrine in England, that of St. Richard was destroyed by Henry VIII’s order in 1538. An altar was placed on the site of the shrine in 1930.
A chapel in the Church of St. Andrew Droitwich was dedicated to his memory. On the 3rd April, the day of his death, a public holiday was kept. The brine pit was decked with greenery and tapestry and dancing took place.
The story of St. Richard de Wyche is told in mosaic panels in The Church of the Sacred Heart in Droitwich Spa. The magnificent mosaics were designed by Gabriel Pippet and are composed of ‘tessarae’ – coloured pieces of Venetian glass.
St. Richard’s Prayer
Thanks be to Thee
My Lord Jesus Christ
For all the benefits
Which Thou hast given me –
For all the pains & insults
Thou hast borne for me.
O most merciful Redeemer,
Friend and Brother,
May I know Thee more clearly
Love Thee more dearly –
And follow Thee more nearly
This prayer was composed and used by St. Richard, Bishop of Chichester 1245-1253