FITZRALPH, RICHARD (Medieval Ireland)

Richard (Ar[d]machanus) FitzRalph, theologian, Archbishop of Armagh, was born shortly before 1300 into a prosperous Anglo-Norman family in Dundalk, County Louth, and died at the papal court in Avignon around November 10 to 20, 1360. From approximately 1315 he studied arts and theology at Oxford, graduating with an M.A. in 1325 and a D. Theol. in 1331. 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.

FitzRalph 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. FitzRalph owed early ecclesiastical preferment to Grandisson’s support and acquired a number of benefices in the diocese of Exeter and, possibly, also a canonry in Armagh.

In 1332, FitzRalph was elected chancellor of the university of Oxford, and his term of office was overshadowed by strife between the student population and the townspeople as well as between the northern and southern nations within the university community. This resulted in the "Stamford Schism" and the brief establishment of an alternative university at Stamford in Lincolnshire. The matter was brought before the pope in Avignon, where FitzRalph represented the university. This was the first of four lengthy visits to Avignon, where papal patronage and curial contacts were to play an important part in his subsequent career. At Avignon he gained a high reputation as a preacher, and on December 17, 1335, he became dean of Lichfield by papal provision.

FitzRalph’s second and longest stay in Avignon, 1337-1344, occasioned the work that guaranteed his subsequent renown in ecclesiastical circles. His Summa de Quaestionibus Armenorum arose out of lengthy debates with representatives of the orthodox churches, who were seeking papal support against the Turkish threat. Here FitzRalph discussed questions of papal primacy and ecclesiastical authority that were taken up by participants at the councils of Basle (1431-1438) and Ferrara-Florence (1439-1440), then striving to unite the oriental churches with Rome. The Summa documents FitzRalph’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.

On the death of Archbishop David Mag Oireachtaigh in 1346, the cathedral chapter of Armagh immediately elected FitzRalph as successor, and he received papal confirmation on July 31, 1346. Early in 1347, he did homage to King Edward III and received the temporalities of his see before being consecrated bishop by Grandisson in Exeter cathedral on July 8, 1347. He traveled to Ireland early in 1348, where his first recorded sermon was preached in Dundalk on April 24, 1348. In his early sermons in Ireland FitzRalph invited comparison between Christ’s coming to the Jews and the archbishop’s return as pastor to his own people, the citizens of Dundalk and Drogheda. He was pastoral minded, concerned with reform and visitation, and defended vigorously the primatial rights of his see against the archbishop of Dublin, but he spent much of his episcopate outside Ireland. During his longest sojourn in Avignon as dean of Lichfield he had acquired the status of an "Irish expert" at the curia, and he returned there again in 1349 on diocesan business. Preaching 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.

FitzRalph promoted interest in the cult of St. Patrick, above all by giving publicity to the pilgrimage of the Hungarian knight, George Grissaphan, to St. Patrick’s Purgatory in Lough Derg (County Donegal, Diocese of Clogher). The visions allegedly experienced there, Visiones Georgii, had a wide continental circulation in Latin and in several vernaculars. Propaganda for St. Patrick’s Purgatory was disseminated from Avignon, presumably with the help of FitzRalph’s nephew and representative there, Richard Radulphi, and pilgrims were attracted from all over Europe.

FitzRalph’s attitude to the friars, whom he had initially respected, altered radically on becoming archbishop. Now he identified the cause of tension between the two nations with the ubiquitous presence of the friars in confessional and pulpit, where he regarded them as a disruption of parochial authority. He began to examine the biblical and legal foundations, and consequent justification, of their professsion and made the first clear statement of his criticism while preaching before Pope Clement VI on July 5, 1350. He subsequently developed his arguments on the poverty question, which he published in the treatise De Pauperie Salvatoris (On the Poverty of the Savior). With this text he returned to London on routine business in the summer of 1356, where its circulation caused the mendicant controversy to become acute. FitzRalph’s friend, Richard Kilvington, dean of St Paul’s cathedral, allowed the archbishop to defend himself in a series of sermons preached during the winter and spring of 1356-1357 at St Paul’s Cross, the most prominent pulpit in London.

These represent the basis of his case laid before Pope Innocent VI in Avignon on November 8, 1357. Here he also dealt with his critics in the eighth book of De Pauperie Salvatoris, while the case between him and the friars dragged on inconclusively. After FitzRalph’s death in November 1360, followed by that of several other participants a year later, the matter passed into oblivion.

FitzRalph’s papers were preserved, presumably initially by Kilvington, and in approximately 1370 his remains were returned to Ireland. They were interred in the church of St. Nicholas, Dundalk, where the local cult of "St. Richard of Dundalk" led to calls for his canonization. With the support of several Irish bishops, a commission was convened in Rome to investigate the matter. The examination of his writings exposed similarities to the teachings of John Wyclif with regard to dominion and scriptural proof. The friars pointed to their enemy as the source of Wycliffite heresy, while Lollard sources referred to him as noster sanctus Armachanus (our holy Armachanus), with appropriate damage to FitzRalph’s postumus reputation at the papal curia.

Next post:

Previous post: