FitzRalph, Richard (c.1300–1360), archbishop, theologian, and scholar, was born about 1300 in Dundalk (Co. Louth), possibly a little earlier. Details of his family background and early education are obscure. He was born into the Anglo-Norman Rauf family, which was related to the Dowdall (Douedale) and Brisbon families of Dundalk. By 1325 he had changed his name from ‘Rauf’ to ‘filius Radulphi’, by which, in its English version FitzRalph, he has become known. He kept in contact with his family in Dundalk, especially John Rauf, and Walter Douedall, who later acted for him in Avignon.
He was educated, probably by Franciscans, in his home town. At that time there was no university in Ireland, and he went to Balliol College, Oxford, c.1315. He spent the next twenty years or so in Oxford, incepted as doctor of theology in 1331, and became regent master in the faculty of theology (1331–2). In 1332 he completed his Commentary on the Sentences. While studying in England he made a number of influential acquaintances, among whom were John Grandisson, bishop of Exeter 1328–69, Thomas Bradwardine, archbishop of Canterbury 1349, Richard de Bury, bishop of Durham 1333–45, and Richard Kilwington, later dean of St Paul's, who years later invited him to preach at his cathedral and who is likely to have collected his papers in Avignon after his death.
Appointed tutor to the Grandissons’ nephew, John de Northwode, he spent 1329–30 in Paris with him. He was elected chancellor of Oxford University and confirmed in office by the bishop of Lincoln (30 May 1332). He held that office till 1334. During his term of office the university was shaken by the so-called ‘Stamford schism’, when a group of disaffected masters and students decamped to found a rival institution in Stamford, Lincolnshire. Short-lived, it was suppressed with the aid of the crown in 1335. He was nominated chancellor of Lincoln in 1334, but there is no record of his having taken up the position, because of opposition to his appointment from the dean and chapter.
He spent the years 1334–5 at the papal court in Avignon, the first of four visits. After this first visit, most of the sermons he preached in England were in the vernacular on all but the most formal occasions. Thanks to the influence of Grandisson and Bradwardine, on 17 December 1335 FitzRalph was nominated dean of Lichfield, and installed 21 April 1336. While dean he attended to reconstruction work on his cathedral, though absent for a great deal of his time (1337–44) in Avignon as a litigant and advisor on Irish affairs, and heightened his profile there by preaching in the presence of both Benedict XII (1334–42) and his successor Clement VI (1342–52), to whom he submitted his Summa de quaestionibus Armenorum, written c.1340–1344. The Summa is an important work, in nineteen books, arising from the church's desire to reconcile the Armenian church with Roman catholicism. John Wyclif acknowledges his use of it. Of particular interest, since his episcopal register has not survived, is a revealing autobiographical prayer, probably composed after 1357 and towards the end of his life, which was attached to the Summa as chapter 35 of book XIX. During this visit, too, he successfully petitioned Clement VI to provide his nephews with benefices: a position in the diocese of Meath for Richard Radulphi, a canonry in Ossory for Edmund Radulphi, and a canonry for John Brisbon in St Patrick's cathedral, Dublin (all granted, 8 May 1344).
On 16 May 1346 Archbishop David Mág Oireachtaig (qv) (David O'Hiraghty) of Armagh died and FitzRalph, the unanimous choice of the chapter of the diocese, was told of Clement VI's confirmation of the election in a letter dated 30 July 1346. This letter revoked the pope's earlier decision to cancel the election as invalid because he had reserved the appointment to the see of Armagh to himself. Consecrated archbishop by his patron bishop Grandisson in Exeter cathedral on 8 July 1347, he gained experience by acting as assistant bishop to Grandisson, and went to his own diocese of Armagh in the following year. Soon after his election, FitzRalph and Archbishop Ralph Ó Ceallaigh (qv) of Cashel were commissioned by the pope to investigate charges made by Bishop Richard Ledrede (qv) against Alexander Bicknor (qv), archbishop of Dublin, concerning the archbishop's alleged sheltering of heretics in his diocese and other more personal violations. Between then and his death FitzRalph spent two further periods at the curia, from 1349 to 1351 and from 1357 to 1360, this time in defiance of orders from Edward III for him not to travel, issued on 31 March and 7 April 1357.
Keenly sensitive to the dignity of his position, he contended with Archbishop Bicknor, archbishop of Dublin, over the primatial title of Ireland. At first Edward III supported FitzRalph's claim, and then, after Bicknor's death in 1349, he revoked on 20 November of that year his permission for FitzRalph to have his primatial cross carried before him in Dublin. However, in the same year the king gave FitzRalph permission to travel to Avignon, with royal guarantee of protection, to seek to have the requirements for the jubilee indulgence altered so that the faithful would not have to make the hazardous journey to Rome in 1350 during the Black Death. The petition was not granted.
From about 1350 till his death in 1360 he became deeply involved in the long-lasting dispute with the friars, then over a century old. FitzRalph took the controversy to a new level, so much so that his writings and sermons on the topic established him as the foremost spokesman, known as ‘Armachanus’, on the side of the secular clergy. He wrote and preached against the privileges of the friars, especially the Franciscans, whom he attacked for their alleged hypocrisy over their vow of absolute poverty. Once a friend of the friars, he delivered his first major anti-mendicant sermon before Clement VI in full consistory in Avignon on 5 July 1350. His change of heart was probably due to the dire state of the finances of his diocese, as the friars in his view were appropriating moneys due to the diocese, arising from their administration of financially beneficial duties such as burying the wealthy dead. His vehemence probably cost him further advancement. The high respect later accorded him by Lollards, who referred to him as ‘Sanctus Ricardus’, also affected his reputation in orthodox quarters.
He also dealt with many other topics in his sermons, and left ninety-odd sermons preached, in Latin and the vernacular, over the years 1335–57, and recorded in summary form (in the first portion of the collection) or in full (in the second portion) in what has become known as his ‘sermon diary’. No version in English survives. It is an invaluable record because of the meticulous way he nearly always records the date, language, biblical citation, and place of delivery, and title at the time of delivery (dean elect, archbishop, etc.). Much travelled, he delivered sermons in Ireland (mainly in English areas, with one exception: Coleraine, 8 September 1351), in England, and in Avignon. In his sermons delivered in Ireland he denounced marcher law and the killing of Gaelic Irishmen by his Anglo-Irish compatriots.
He left Avignon in 1351 to return to his diocese. During this period he received at his manor in Dromiskin, Co. Louth, the Hungarian knight George Grissaphan, both before and after his celebrated visit in 1353 to St Patrick's Purgatory in Lough Derg, which was in the diocese of Clogher and province of Armagh. In 1356 he circulated the controversial dialogue De pauperie Salvatoris (in seven books, written c.1350–56), concerning mendicant privileges, especially those enjoyed by the Franciscans, based on his own understanding of lordship and grace: absence of grace merits deprivation of office. Thus, in his view, the delinquency of the friars merited the abolition of their orders. This treatise was in Latin, but to publicise his campaign he distilled its anti-mendicant arguments into a short series of sermons, preached in the vernacular, but surviving in Latin, in London (December 1356–March 1357), some at St Paul's cross, probably at the invitation of his friend, Kilwington.
He returned to Avignon in summer 1357, against the king's orders, and there delivered his most famous and influential proposicio, known as the Defensio curatorum, a defence of the secular clergy against the alleged abuses of the friars, especially as regards the privileges of confession and burial, on Wednesday 8 November 1357 before Innocent VI and his cardinals. It is an uncompromising text. For instance, he states that poverty is an effect of sin. The friars objected to the charges made in the Defensio, and FitzRalph in his turn replied to their charges against him in the Quia in proposicione nuper facta.
He was vain, mercurial, and energetic, a fine theologian, a great biblical scholar, and a brilliant preacher. He shared characteristics with his model St Thomas Becket, on whom he preached. Although he is mentioned neither by Geoffrey Chaucer nor by William Langland, the two major contemporary English writers who exploited anti-mendicant material in their writings, the details of the criticism they display point to his substantial influence.
He died in Avignon in November 1360. Ten years later, Stephen Wall (d. 1379), bishop of Meath, oversaw the return of the body to be buried in the church of St Nicholas, Dundalk. There has been no trace of his tomb since the seventeenth century. The church, now considerably altered, contains a chapel dedicated to St Richard of Dundalk. There is an illustration of him in a manuscript made for Adam Easton (d. 1397), the English Benedictine monk and scholar, about twenty years after his death, which depicts him on the left side of the folio as an archbishop, with representatives of the four mendicant orders being assaulted by devils on the other side (Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, MS 180, f. 1).
The Summa de quaestionibus Armenorum and the Defensio curatorum had wide circulation in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Some of his writings are in print. In 1511 Je(h)an Petit, bookseller to the University of Paris, printed an edition of the Summa de questionibus Armenorum, together with a poor edition of the four ‘London sermons’. The Defensio curatorum was first published in Louvain in 1475, with many later printings in various locations. The English secular priest John Trevisa (1326–1402) made an English translation of the Defensio in the 1390s, which was first printed in the fifteenth century. Annotated editions of the Defensio and of the four ‘London sermons’ are in progress.
Katherine Walsh lists the manuscripts of FitzRalph's writings in her classic biography, to which may be added the accurate and substantial annotated summary of the Defensio curatorum in the Actes and monuments of John Foxe (1516–87).