St. Stephen’s Stories:
Richard of Caister & Margery Kempe

richard-the-good-vicar

15th century Pilgrim badge from the shrine of Richard of Caister at St. Stephen’s Norwich. Caister is shown preaching from his pulpit, framed by an ‘R’ shaped scroll (Museum of London)

In 1404, having been granted a large loan by its citizens, the grateful King Henry IV issued a charter giving Norwich the status of a County separate from Norfolk, to be ruled by its own Mayor and two Sheriffs.

In 1402 a new vicar had been appointed to St. Stephen’s.  Master Richard of Caister was highly respected for his God-fearing lifestyle and earnest preaching in English, applying the Word of God in practical ways to the everyday lives of all, regardless of wealth, education or social status.

In the early 15th century, Norwich was large, prosperous and actively Christian in outlook, following the Catholic traditions of the Cathedral and parish churches, but also ready to give safe haven to religious recluses, mystics, hermits and anchorites such as Mother Julian of Norwich.

Unlike the reclusive Julian, Margery Kempe of Lynn was illiterate and a married mother of 14 children with a deeply passionate faith in God.  This creature… thought she was bound to God and that she would be his servant.’  (The Book of Margery Kempe, Book 1, Chapter 2)

In about 1413, Margery was commanded by the Lord to go to St. Stephen’s in Norwich:                                                          

‘I bid you go to the Vicar of St. Stephen’s and say that I greet him warmly and that he is a high, chosen soul of mine, and tell him he greatly pleases me with his preaching’… Then  she made her way to Norwich, and came into his church…  She greeted the Vicar, asking him if she could – in the afternoon, when he had eaten –  speak with him for an hour or two of the love of God.  He, lifting up his hands and blessing himself, said, ‘Bless us! How could a woman occupy one or two hours with the love of our Lord?  I shan’t eat a thing till I find out what you can say of our Lord God in the space of an hour.* •

 

Having heard her testimony, the godly Richard was convinced that her faith was genuine and supported her for the rest of his life, caring little for public opinion or prejudice:

And when on one occasion she was admonished to appear before certain officers of the  bishop to answer certain charges that would be made against her through the agitation of envious people, the good vicar, preferring the love of God above any shame in this world, went with her to hear her examination, and delivered her from the malice of her enemies.  •                                                 (The Book of Margery Kempe, Book 1, chapter 17)

For many years Margery travelled widely on pilgrimage through England, Europe, even to the Holy Land.  Her occasional visits to Richard always brought encouragement, for here was a true man of God who listened to her, accepted her visions and shared in her faith:

 … Notwithstanding the protests and resentments of people against her, this holy man – whom God had exalted and through marvellous works had shown and proved to be holy –   always took her side and supported her against her enemies as much as he could.                            

 

  • All boxed quotations taken from The Book of Margery Kempe, Book 1 chapter 17

As vicar of St. Stephen’s for 18 years, Richard of Caister influenced the first mayors and sheriffs of Norwich during the early years of the city’s new status.  Respected by those in power, he was unusually sympathetic to women and cared deeply for the poor, always ready to listen, advise and offer practical support and guidance.  When he died in 1420, his Will left almost all of his wealth to those in need ‘since the goods of the Church according to the canons are the goods of the poor’. He was buried in the chancel of

St. Stephen’s.  Many felt drawn to pray there, several healing miracles were reported and his shrine became a popular pilgrimage destination for the local poor of East Anglia and even as far afield as Kent.

When she came into the churchyard of St. Stephen’s she cried, she roared, she wept, she fell down to the ground, so fervently did the fire of love burn in her heart. Afterwards she rose up again and went on weeping into the church and up to the high altar, and there she fell down with violent sobbings, weepings and loud cries beside the grave of the good Vicar, all ravished with spiritual comfort in the goodness of our Lord... And her devotion was all the more increased, in that she saw our Lord work such special grace for such a creature as she had been conversant with in his lifetime. She had such holy thoughts and such holy memories that she could not control her weeping nor her crying. And therefore people were astonished at her...
(The Book of Margery Kempe)

Revelation 3:20

Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.

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