Born in Dundalk around 1300 to an Anglo-Norman family, Richard FitzRalph was educated in Oxford and became chancellor of the University in 1332. His tenure was turbulent and lasted only two years, directly leading to his first visit to Avignon. His contribution to debates there on the beatific vision made him a prominent figure in the papal court. A successful ecclesiastical career both in England and in Ireland followed.
He became archbishop of Armagh in 1347. He was known for great preaching ability and care of his flock. His sermons that survive show keen awareness of social tensions and economic problems. His major focus was on two issues: the war (overt and covert) between the English and Irish elements, and the general prevalence of theft and dishonesty. He denounced the tendency to view theft against “the other side” as a minor issue and defended the cause of the weak (Walsh, p. 258):
[FitzRalph] singled out two faults for special denunciation, and it would appear that he had identified them in the course of a year’s close scrutiny of his flock and its mores — firstly, the civil war ‘inter Anglicos et Hibernicos’ and secondly, general theft and dishonesty. In the former case he pointed out to his hearers, most of whom we can presume were ‘Anglici’, that both rival communities in Ireland were under the impression that it was lawful not merely to rob and plunder those of the opposing community, but also to kill them, and he issued a stem warning that to kill was always gravely sinful except in self-defence. Only an officer of the law, acting in accordance with the prescriptions of that law, had such power.
He also became involved in the matter he is best known for: opposition to the mendicant orders on the question of evangelical poverty and his defence of the rights of the secular clergy against the friars. His arguments against the friars influenced John Wycliffe and were invoked by the Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh James Ussher in the seventeenth century to show the corruption of the later Irish monasteries.
This question drew him back to the curia, where he died still debating this question at Avignon in 1360. One of his sermons “Defensio Curatorum Adversus Fratres Mendicantes” which he gave before the Pope and Cardinals at Avignon in 1357 was “the most widely read and circulated single sermon of the later Middle Ages” (Riley). His major work, De Pauperie Salvatoris, argues against the mendicant friars as inconsistent, since they vow poverty yet hold onto their wealth. To set up this argument he explores issues like the lordship of man, the relationship of original lordship to possession and use, the nature of civil authority and other issues (14th Century Oxford Theology Online)
His bones are said to have been brought to Dundalk by Stephen de Valle, Bishop of Meath, in 1370. He is also said to have translated the Bible into Irish, and by some writers has been ranked amongst the earliest British reformers.
Featured Image: MS Ludwig XVI – a German manuscript which includes Fitzralph’s “Defensio” © 2015 The J. Paul Getty Trust. All rights reserved.
Katherine Walsh (1981), Richard FitzRalph in Oxford, Avignon and Armagh
Bridget Riley, “Let no-one seduce you with empty words” (blogpost)
Parker Library on the Web: De pauperie Saluatoris by Richard FitzRalph, digitised (all rights reserved)