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A tale of two Thomases

30 October 2015

Nicholas Cranfield visits a saintly show in Hereford Cathedral

Dean & Chapter of Hereford

Martyred: detail of the Hereford reliquary of St Thomas Becket, Limoges, c.1200-10

Martyred: detail of the Hereford reliquary of St Thomas Becket, Limoges, c.1200-10

TWO days after I had joined 44 parishioners on our annual pilgrimage to the shrine of St Edward the Confessor (d. 1066) in Westminster Abbey, I found myself making a longer pilgrimage, to the earlier shrine of St Ethelbert of the East Saxons, who was treacherously murdered at Sutton Wells, near Hereford, on the orders of Offa II of Mercia, and was interred in the Saxon cathedral there (c.794).

From Blackheath to the heart of Westminster is little more than two-and-a-half hours’ walking, and takes in Deptford High Street, Rotherhithe, and reaches the Thames near Bermondsey Abbey. From there, all is plain sailing, dipping and diving through the tourists on the South Bank.

It took me rather longer to get to Hereford by way of Bristol and Newport. Thanks to the rail companies, I returned biblically by another way (Worcester, Birmingham, and Coventry).

As the Dean of Hereford, the Very Revd Michael Tavinor, points out, such pilgrimages, and the increasing willingness of cathedrals and collegiate churches to provide for them, and to refurbish lost and destroyed monuments in our own day, is somewhat at odds with the spirit of the Church of England even a generation or two ago, but now matches a real spiritual demand in our contemporary world.

Dean Tavinor reminded me of the furore in the 1920s when Lord Halifax had proposed re-erecting the shrine of St Thomas Becket at Canterbury. Whereas possibly only two cathedrals used candles at the end of the Second World War, now perhaps only two do not.

It occurs to me that this shift may not be matched by any teaching of the Catholic faith but, rather, may be an accommodation of the loss of knowledge for what makes for distinctiveness within the Christian tradition. How do Anglicans see relics that had once been venerated lavishly? Do we read indulgences as anything more than historical documents? Here we see exceptional examples of both.

The Dean is no stranger himself to this sea-change; he has published pilgrim guides to Tewkesbury, where he was Vicar before his present appointment, and to Hereford, and he is about to follow up his 2012 publication of Saints and Sinners of the Marches with Shrines of the Saints: In England and Wales (forthcoming).

Of Ethelbert’s shrine, there is no trace; but 13 panels in Byzantine style (Peter Murphy, 2007) now wrap around the central column of the Lady chapel in testimony to the cult on which the cathedral first grew, and of Ethelbert himself the excellent temporary exhibition is silent.

Rather, it focuses on the later age between two outstanding saintly bishops who defied authority: Thomas Becket (martyred 1170) and Thomas Cantilupe (died 1282, canonised 1320). There is evidence (from two unrelated drawings made by later antiquarians) that wall-paintings of both saints may have stood either side of the triptych containing the celebrated Mappa Mundi, which is aptly at the heart of this exhibition.

The 150-year period was characterised by the increasing authority of the Normans across England, and the need to maintain the safety of the Welsh Marches as well as investiture disputes between authorities, secular and ecclesiastical. It also marked a shift away from venerating Anglo-Saxon kings and founders to celebrating those who more peaceably withstood authority.

Becket’s story is well rehearsed and widely known, while that of the scholarly Cantilupe, who had been Chancellor of Oxford and later Lord Chancellor of England, and who was consecrated Bishop of Hereford on 8 September 1275, on his return from the Second Council of Lyons, is much less so.

Becket forfeited his life at the hands of Henry II. Dr Rosemary Firman, the cathedral’s Librarian, has been able to show one of only five surviving copies of The Life of Thomas Becket, written by his clerical assistant, William FitzStephen, who had witnessed the hiericide, alongside a brooch that contains part of the Archbishop’s skull (Stonyhurst College, Lancashire) and one of the many Limoges reliquaries made c.1200-10 which once had been on his titular altar in Hereford.

Cantilupe’s fortunes were somewhat different from those of his well-known namesake, but it is claimed that, by the end of the 13th century, Hereford was the second most visited pilgrim site in England after Canterbury itself.

Although he enjoyed the favour of Edward I, the Bishop was of a litigious disposition, and was roundly in dispute with the powerful Clare family, who were local landowners. His own Archbishop, John Peckham, excommunicated him in 1282, and thereby deprived him of exercising his orders.

Cantilupe appealed to the Pope to overturn this ban, and journeyed to Orvieto to meet the recently elevated Pope Martin IV there in August 1282, but died within weeks (on 25 August) at Ferento, Montefiascone.

His body was brought back to Hereford, where it was first buried in the Lady chapel, which rapidly became a place of special devotion. Bishop Swinfield used this early burst of enthusiasm for his deceased predecessor to provide an appropriate tomb for him in the newly completed north transept, where the architecture so richly evokes Westminster Abbey.

The recently refurbished tomb now has a decorative canopy (Peter Murphy, 2008), and houses a relic of that saint in a hanging glass pyx. Across the transept, the stern gaze of a later short-lived bishop, Theophilus Field, who died in June 1636, less than six months after his translation to Hereford, seems to be suspicious of such immodest ornamentation.

A papal inquiry met in London in April 1307 to determine that Cantilupe had not died excommunicate, to clear the path for his eventual canonisation, a cause that Richard Swinfield ardently promoted. But, by the time that Pope John XXII decreed that his name be added to the catalogue of saints (1320), the local cult had begun to die down.

The cathedral archives display not only the notarised copy of the papal bull by which Cantilupe was canonised, made in the presence of Adam Orleton, the new Bishop of Hereford (HCA 1445), but also one of the first indulgences to be offered by John Langton, the Bishop of Chichester, to grant a relaxation of 40 days’ penance for pilgrims to Hereford (HCA 1428).

Ian Bass, who now volunteers at the cathedral, has researched the cultus of English saints in the period 1170 to 1320, looking at both Becket and Cantilupe, and at the revival of the cult of Wulfstan at Worcester, and at the failure of some to be made saint in the period. Matthew Parris in his Latin biography of Stephen Langton, the Archbishop of Canterbury at Runnymede, reports a vision of his being taken through the heavens, accompanied by his chaplain and Richard Lionheart, thereby showing that Langton could not have been a saint, as he must have spent time in purgatory.

To prove sanctity, miracles have to be reported and authenticated, and Mr Bass highlighted an important manuscript in Exeter College, Oxford, on which he has worked extensively. Exeter College MS. 158 ff 48-59v gives a chronological account of 24 such miracles accorded to the saint, which were among the 400 or so reported to the commissioners in April 1307.

Another copy of this attestation appears in the Vatican Archives (MS. Vat. Lat. 4015 ff 188r- 203v), with a marginal sketch of a mitred bishop’s head which might just be a portrait of the bearded Cantilupe, as it much looks like a contemporary image in the stained glass of Credenhill church.

The commissioners then came to Hereford, where they found, among the 1500 votive candles, offerings laid at the tomb: 170 model ships, more than 100 silver images of people, 77 of animals, and 108 discarded crutches, as well as 97 blouses left by women who had been able to conceive, as well as numerous swords, lances, and arrows.

This panoply of gifts suggests that Cantilupe’s intercession was widely sought by the first local pilgrims, coming, it seems, largely from Swansea and neighbouring Worcester. The cathedral Chapter set about building an appropriate shrine for the newly canonised saint, and the archives show fascinating contracts and receipts (1320 and 1321) for goldsmiths, image-makers, and marble-dealers who were being brought in from London to work there. It was not completed until 1349.

Henry VIII denounced Becket as a lawbreaker and suppressed his cult by order in November 1538, two months after Becket’s shrine at Canterbury had been demolished. As Hereford was not a monastic foundation, its library remained reasonably intact, but its shrines did not, even though the printed 1541 breviary on display still lists Thomas Cantilupe’s name under 2 October (it omits Becket’s).

The pious salvaged what precious remains they could; the earlier tomb lost its effigy but was allowed to stand, presumably as it was known to have served only as a cenotaph once the shrine had been built, and the Limoges reliquary of Becket was later restored to the cathedral in 1831. The Dean has been able to borrow back the relic of Cantilupe’s tibia which is now kept at St Winifride’s Well, Holywell, in Flintshire, but not his skull, which was first taken abroad to an abbey near Hildesheim, and has been venerated at Downside Abbey since 1881.

This exhibition and the symposium held in connection with it show that the living witness of saints has always shaped the faith of those who come in their foot-steps to find the faith of those who have gone before.


“Glimpses of Glory: Shrines of the Saints, Yesterday and Today” is at Hereford Cathedral until 2 January 2016. www.herefordcathedral.org 

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