Richard of Chichester: ascetic, vegetarian, and patron saint

[This story was published on December 15 in the Observer series. Read the original story at chichester.co.uk/news/richard-of-chichester-ascetic-vegetarian-and-patron-saint-1-7734846.]

13th century wall painting of Saint Richard of Chichester
13th century wall painting of Saint Richard of Chichester

Visitors to (and inhabitants of) Chichester may have walked past the statue of Saint Richard without reading the plaque on the ground near his feet. I know I’ve missed it several times before.

It reads: “This statue of St Richard was a gift from the Friends of Chichester Cathedral to mark the millenium. It was sculpted by Philip Jackson and dedicated by the Rt Revd Eric Kemp, bishop of Chichester, on Thursday 15th June 2000”.

The statue of Richard of Chichester outside of the cathedral Richard of Chichester was born in 1197, more than 800 years ago – so who is the man who has left such a lasting impact on our city?

Also known as Richard de Wych, Saint Richard, patron saint of Sussex, was bishop of Chichester from 1244 until 1253, the year of his death. Richard was an ascetic, favouring a hair shirt and refusing to eat off of silver. Having been a vegetarian since his days as a student at the University of Oxford, Richard refused to eat animal flesh, preferring to keep his diet simple. It is said that Richard cultivated figs in his spare time.

His journey to becoming established as the bishop of Chichester was a troubed one. After he was elected in 1244, Henry III and part of the chapter refused to accept him as the bishop. The king favoured Robert Passelewe, who was one of his noted servants and therefore a natural favourite.

Passelewe had served as bishop of Chichester from only April 18 to June 3 1244, when his election was quashed. Archbishop Boniface of Savoy had prevented Passelewe’s consecretation, believing the newly elected Chichester bishop was ignorant of theology. Archbishop Boniface refused to confirm Passelewe and Henry III refused to accept Richard as the new bishop of Chichester, so both sides appealed to the pope, Innocent IV. Although the king confiscated the see’s properties and revenues, eventually Archibishop Boniface and Richard won out.

The statue of Richard of Chichester outside of the cathedral

The pope confirmed Richard’s election, which did not go down too well with the king, who refused to restore the see’s properties for two years. Henry III only complied after he was threated with excommunication.That did not mean that the king would happily accept Richard as the new bishop of Chichester – Henry III forbade anyone from housing or feeding Richard, meaning that Richard went to live with the parish priest of Tarring, his friend Simon.Dedicated to his role as bishop, Richard visited his entire diocese on foot.

The Crusades were raging in the Middle East at this point in history, and Henry III was hoping to gain more support for the movement. To support this new effort, Richard was appointed by the pope to preach in favour of Western Christendom’s attempts to establish Christian control over ‘holy places’ in Palestine. Richard’s preaching tour ended in Dover, where the bishop, who had been in failing health, passed away. During the reign of Henry VIII, his dedicated shrine in Chichester Cathedral was plundered by order of Thomas Cromwell in 1538. It was believed that miracles were wrought at his tomb, located in the cathedral. which served as a place of pilgrimage for a long time. Richard of Chichester was canonized in 1262.

View of Chichester Cathedral behind the statue of Saint Richard

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