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Saints holy, human, and abrasive

18 October 2019

As Hereford Cathedral celebrates 700 years of its local saint, Amy Scott Robinson considers the stories related of God’s holy common people


St Thomas of Cantilupe, Bishop of Hereford, 1275-1282, depicted in the stained glass at St Michael and All Angels, Herefordshire

St Thomas of Cantilupe, Bishop of Hereford, 1275-1282, depicted in the stained glass at St Michael and All Angels, Herefordshire

THE end of October and the beginning of November have long been associated with retelling the stories of the saints. An ancient triduum of remembrance — All Hallows’ Eve, All Souls’, and All Saints’ — is part of the rhythm of the church year. Although it has been low on the radar at times, telling saintly stories has recently made a comeback in the form of alternative Hallowe’en parties for children; but is there anything in it for the rest of us?

Remembering the lives of holy men and women has been a part of Christian practice for as long as Christianity has existed. From the examples of faith listed in Hebrews 11 and named as “so great a cloud of witnesses”, the Early Church told and retold the stories of its exemplary members. It is likely that the very earliest martyrs were remembered on their death days by those who knew and loved them first, and then passed into tradition as their stories were told to new church members, and as more martyrs were added every year. The day on which a martyr died for Christ was celebrated as a birthday into eternal life, and to communicate on that day was to share the same eternal food with them.

These practices went on until the tenth century, each community remembering its own martyrs and holy examples, while a few had stories impressive or important enough to be written down and circulated more widely. Bishops investigated claims of martyrdom locally and decided whether to allow veneration of a new saint. It was not until 993 that Pope John XV became the first pope to canonise a saint — a bishop, Ulrich — and not until 1170 that canonisation became solely the prerogative of the Pope in the Western Church.

At the Reformation, the Church of England inherited a glorious smorgasbord of saintly stories. Some are still known by their traditional title of “Saint”, while other more recent examples are remembered reverently without that attribution. Some are borrowed from other traditions.

Most are listed in church calendars, but some are celebrated despite their absence from the most official lists. Between them, they have given names to churches, inspired worshipping communities, and attracted pilgrims for centuries. But how do we remember and celebrate stories that are such a diverse mixture of ancient and modern, truth and fable, exemplary and questionable?


GIVEN that early saints’ stories were an oral tradition in a mostly pre-literate society, it is not surprising to find plenty of crossover between hagiographies and folk tales and superstitions of the time. The oldest stories are gloriously confused with traditional tales, popular tropes, and local cults; and what appear to be copycat saints pop up locally in imitation of the more widely known stories.

Even these, though, are hard to pin down, because the hagiographies of much older saints may have been written down only at the same time as more contemporary ones. St Kevin, for example, an Irish saint famous for allowing a blackbird to nest in his outstretched hand while praying, lived in the sixth century (and through it: he was said to have lived to the age of 120), but his life is recorded among the late-medieval manuscripts of a Franciscan convent. The existing retelling of his story, therefore, may be contemporaneous with Francis himself. Who can easily say whether, or how far, the life of one nature-loving ascetic inspired the other?

JAMES CHEGWIDDENThe Dean of Hereford, the Very Revd Michael Tavinor, at the shrine of St Thomas of Cantilupe, at the conclusion of evensong for the feast of the saint at the cathedral, last month. Relics placed at the shrine for the service were the skull, on loan from Downside Abbey, and the tibia, on loan from Stonyhurst College  

The layers of these stories can be difficult to peel back. St Cecilia was a Christian who was martyred in the third century, although evidence of her cult and legend started to emerge only at least 100 years later, and the final addition of her incorrupt body became part of her story only at the beginning of the ninth century. She is the patron saint of music and of blindness, neither of which play a particular part in the earliest stories about her life: the connection with music was made only in the 15th century.

Her appearance as the heroine of The Second Nun’s Tale in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales may have bolstered her popularity, although Chaucer was only embroidering details of her existing Passion story, which was included in The Golden Legend, an anthology of hagiographies by Jacobus de Varagine in 1260.

St Cecilia’s refusal to die — surviving attempts at suffocation and burning before continuing to preach for three days after being partially beheaded — together with her incorrupt body, centuries later, fitted in with a medieval fascination with the body and holiness. This is mirrored in texts such as the Middle English Croxton Play of the Sacrament, in which a transubstantiated communion host is “tortured” and can bleed and speak but not be destroyed.

Whether writers such as Chaucer and de Varagine were attracted to her story because of those details already in it, or were tempted to exaggerate or add some of those details because of the existing trend, is a question for more serious textual analysis than St Cecilia’s Day concertgoers generally care for.

St Cecilia’s later connection with blindness may be connected with her name, which sounds close to caecus, the Latin for “blind”. There is a similar question mark over St Christopher, another early martyr, who, although still a saint, has now been removed from the Roman Catholic calendar. Did his name, which means “carrier of Christ”, give rise to the famous legend about his carrying a child over a river and finding that the boy was Jesus? On the other hand, could that ancient legend have come first, and given an unnamed martyr the name of Christopher?

Unpicking these questions became the work of the Society of Bollandists in the early 17th century. According to Kathleen Jones (The Saints of the Anglican Calendar), this group of scholarly Jesuits categorised hagiographies according to three levels of probability: vita fide for the most faithful accounts; vita suspecta for the clearly embroidered versions; and finally, for the absolutely bizarre, vita plena fabulorum.


ALL THIS makes the forthcoming celebration of 700 years since the canonisation of St Thomas Cantilupe fascinating to any hagiographile. Cantilupe (also known as Thomas of Hereford) was appointed Bishop of Hereford in 1275, but was excommunicated by the Archbishop of Canterbury, John Peckham, after disputes over land. This meant that his posthumous miracles and subsequent canonisation in 1320 were scrutinised particularly carefully, a process that took 38 years and was, the Dean of Hereford, the Very Revd Michael Tavinor, says, “the most detailed and documented of any saint”.

Commissioners from London built up a dossier of more than 450 attested miracles — second only to the other Thomas, Thomas Becket. This extraordinary collection provides a slice of medieval medical and social history which was even explored in the British Medical Journal in 1987, when J. H. Ross and Meryl Jancey studied accounts with enough detail to attempt diagnosis as well as some explanations of the spontaneous cures that were claimed.

Cantilupe was a “white martyr”, meaning that he lived an ascetic life, and was persecuted, but not violently killed: he died in Italy, where he was seeking absolution and a reversal of his excommunication from the Pope. He modelled his own life on that of Becket, whom he greatly admired; so it is unsurprising that his cult reflects that of the Canterbury saint: some of the miracles, despite their careful validation, are “almost carbon copies”, Dean Tavinor says.

The two Thomases appear depicted together in many examples of stained glass and iconography. The difference, however, is that, while Becket’s political quarrels with King Henry II can be told as a stand-off between Church and State, Cantilupe’s falling out with an Archbishop calls for rather more explanation.


IN LIFE, Dean Tavinor admits, Cantilupe was probably “respected rather than loved”. A hugely disciplined red-haired ascetic, Cantilupe was “feisty”, but had “a dark side, as they all did in those days: he was anti-Semitic and misogynist, quite usual for those times”.

Is it not rather difficult, in that case, to tell and celebrate the story of such an abrasive individual? Hereford Cathedral, as part of the observance of the 700th anniversary of his canonisation, invited the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams to preach, modelling a reconciliation between the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury and the 105th Bishop of Hereford.

Celebrating saints of their time, Dean Tavinor says, is “all to do with how we forgive the past, just as we’re modelling the reconciliation between Canterbury and Hereford: we are, as it were, redeeming it. Our tagline today is ‘Inclusive church, welcoming all’. We can’t expunge the past, but we can model a better way today.”

Durham Cathedral may have had a similar idea in mind in 2017, when it hosted an exhibition, “Saintly Sisters”, celebrating female Anglo-Saxon saints.The cathedral still has a line of black marble beyond which women were once not allowed to cross on account of St Cuthbert’s alleged dislike of them. Just as one saint’s story had been used as a reason for segregation, so others’ could be used to heal the rift.


THE anniversary has presented an opportunity for ecumenism: on the exact anniversary of Cantilupe’s canonisation (17 April 2020), there will be a Roman Catholic mass said in the cathedral by the Archbishop of Cardiff, the Most Revd George Stack, and an invitation is extended to the Roman Catholic community to worship in the cathedral. Relics of the saint have been borrowed from Stonyhurst and Downside Abbey, to be cared for near their original resting-place, in Hereford, for the rest of the year.

“I know it’s not very Church of England,” Dean Tavinor says, “but I think it’s important, because it’s celebrating the saints’ bodies, that they were flesh and blood like us. Reuniting the tomb with parts of his human body, I think, is incarnational.”

Relics and tombs certainly root any saint’s story, however fabulorum plena, in history. Just as we might gaze at an Egyptian mummy, reminding ourselves that this was once a living person who walked and thought and ate, so the reverently preserved bones of a saint mark the beginning of a long development of story. It began with a real person, a product of his or her time and place in history, fondly remembered and admired for good reason. The saints are, as Gregory Dix put it, plebs sancta Dei: God’s holy commoners — frail and human, but ahead of us on the road, and carving out a way we all might choose to go.


Amy Scott Robinson is the author of this year’s Advent book for the Bible Reading Fellowship, Image of the Invisible, and of the Gladstone the Gargoyle trilogy (Palm Tree Press, Kevin Mayhew).

Details of Hereford Cathedral’s year-long programme of events and services celebrating the 700th anniversary of the canonisation of St Thomas Cantilupe can be found at www.herefordcathedral.org/news/700-years-of-st-thomas-cantilupe.

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