A medieval frontier town, Swansea is where the amazing journey of the Hanged Man begins…
This walk is one of 13 separate circular routes which together make up the St Thomas Way.
Place and History
Swansea doesn’t feel like a frontier city today.
It’s well into South Wales and not even close to the border with England. But, in medieval times, Swansea was the Wild West of Anglo-Norman rule in Wales; part of an area known as the March of Wales or Welsh Marches (‘borders’), which stretched all the way into Pembrokeshire. Swansea was the main town of the Marcher Lordship of Gower, held by the de Briouze family for much of the Middle Ages.
The power of the de Briouze family – Norman colonial rulers in this Welsh landscape – is still visible in Swansea today, even though much of the medieval town is now lost. The castle ruins in the city centre are actually those of the ‘New Castle’, begun under the lordship of William de Briouze II around 1284-90, to replace the earlier Norman motte and bailey castle founded c.1106.
Medieval Swansea was an important trading centre – a valuable asset for its Norman rulers.
The town had walls and gates to the north, west and south, sloping down to the river Tawe and its bustling harbour at the east. Swansea was particularly renowned for its leather trade. One of the witnesses to William Cragh’s hanging is Henry ‘Skinner’ – clearly someone who worked in this industry.
Tensions in this border region are reflected in Welsh poetry of the time. Verses celebrating a Welsh rebellion in 1215 describe Swansea as a ‘town of calm, broken towers’ and ask: ‘In Abertawe [Swansea], strong key of England, are not the women altogether widows?’
Learn much more about medieval Swansea at www.medievalswansea.ac.uk
The Hanged Man’s Journey
On a cold November morning in 1290, a troop of armed men left Swansea Castle and went out of the town through the West Gate…
They were escorting two men to their execution: the Welsh nobleman Trahaearn ap Hywel, and the local outlaw William ap Rhys, also known as William Cragh or ‘Scabby William’. Cragh had been involved in an attack on Oystermouth Castle, just along the coast from Swansea, allegedly killing 13 men.
William de Briouze, the Marcher Lord of Gower, had sentenced him to death by hanging.
The execution squad made their way across the boggy ground by the Washing Pool, just outside the West Gate, and then up the steep slope of Gibbet Hill (North Hill today, to the north-west of the city). In a particularly cruel act of vengeance by the Marcher Lord, Cragh’s relatives Griffith, Dafydd and Uthel were made to hang him themselves. Lord William de Briouze and his son, William Junior, watched from the first-floor hall of Swansea Castle.
But then something unexpected happened…
The crossbeam of the gallows broke! Trahearn and Cragh fell to the ground. The gibbet was fixed and they were hanged a second time. Trahearn’s dead body was lifted down. Cragh also seemed lifeless. Eyewitnesses to the hanging described his eyes bulging out and his tongue blackened and swollen to the size of a fist.
But the story didn’t end there.
According to nine eyewitnesses, interviewed later by inquisitors sent from the Pope, William Cragh came back to life.
What really happened that day in medieval Swansea? And was it a miracle?
St Thomas and Medieval Belief
Interviewed by papal inquisitors in 1307, William of Codineston, chaplain to the de Briouze family, adds a mysterious detail to the story of William Cragh’s hanging.
He tells of reports that the figure of a bishop, clothed in white garments, had supported Cragh’s feet as he hung from the gallows, lifting him up so that he would not die. Was this a vision of St Thomas, former Bishop of Hereford, and was this a miracle? If so, who was St Thomas, and what was he doing intervening in the hanging of a dangerous outlaw?
Thomas of Hereford – also known as Thomas de Cantilupe – was born into a powerful Anglo-Norman noble family in Buckinghamshire, around 1220. He had a distinguished career as an academic in Oxford (including a period as chancellor of the university), ecclesiastic (including his position as Bishop of Hereford from 1275) and advisor to King Edward I during the period of his military campaigns in Wales.
At first, the role of St Thomas in the apparent revival of William Cragh seems puzzling.
An Anglo-Norman saint gets in the way of the Marcher Lord’s enforcement of justice against a rebel Welshman – surely a rather inconvenient miracle?
Some of the witnesses to Cragh’s hanging definitely agreed. John of Baggeham, the steward of Lord William de Briouze, said that ‘it was a bad thing that a bad man was resuscitated’.
But, in the bigger picture, this miracle attributed to Thomas of Hereford helped to strengthen devotion to this new – Anglo-Norman – saint in medieval Wales. It’s often hard to separate medieval religion and politics. Lady Mary de Briouze’s devotion to St Thomas reflected her own allegiances as an Anglo-Norman noblewoman. And St Thomas’s growing popularity in medieval Wales certainly had its uses as a kind of Anglo-Norman ‘soft power’, reinforcing secular political authority in the region.
An unlikely place for a miracle?
In the busyness and ordinariness of this part of Swansea it’s hard to think of a miracle happening, or of being at the start of a pilgrim-like Way. There is no great feeling of holiness or mystery, no atmosphere of awe or wonder. Perhaps that is not so inappropriate when we remember William Cragh, the outlaw and man of violence, who seems an unlikely person to be saved from death through the prayers of a saint. Yet the divine is as much present and at work in the ordinary, the shabby and the rejected, as in tidy and presentable people and places – perhaps more so. Why not Swansea city centre? Why not William Cragh?
Open our eyes, Lord, to your presence in the ordinary and the unloved. May the beginning of the St Thomas Way be also the beginning of a new way of seeing you at work in the world. May we journey each day with eyes open to find you where we least expect it.
The natural landscape of Swansea was very different in medieval times.
Perhaps most strikingly, the River Tawe flowed along a different course, further west than today, along the land directly below the castle. The street below the castle, still called ‘The Strand’, really was a shoreline in the Middle Ages. Today’s Parc Tawe retail and leisure park would all have been under water. The south of the medieval town was surrounded by marshes, and a ferry crossed the Tawe on the route eastwards to Neath.
The river is still a big feature of the natural landscape in Swansea.
If you’re lucky, you may well glimpse a cormorant sitting on a boat or buoy. These mysterious birds were sometimes used in medieval literature as a symbol of the devil.
At 10.4 metres, Swansea bay has the second-highest tidal range in the world.
It’s a fantastic place to see all kinds of birds, from curlews and oystercatchers on the sand, to migrating visitors in April and September.
Specially-chosen music for this location from Hereford Cathedral and a medieval harbour soundscape.
Figure 1 Swansea c.1300 (City Witness Project)
Distance: Approx. 1.5 miles
Time: Approx. 1 hour
Access: Easy, mostly flat though slopes down to an up from The Strand, fully paved, suitable for wheelchairs and buggies.
- Start your walk in Castle Square. Walk towards the Castle ruins. Walk northwards up Castle Street, turning right into Worcester Place. On the corner here was the location of the earlier Norman Old Castle.
- At the top of Worcester Place, turn right into Welcome Lane. The medieval East Gate was located at the intersection of Welcome Lane and The Strand.
- Turn right along The Strand.
- Turn right into Green Dragon Lane. Turn right up Wind Street. The upper section of Wind Street was the marketplace for the Anglo-Norman town.
- Turn left into St Mary Street. Turn right into Princess Way. You will pass the (heavily restored) remains of the medieval St David’s Hospital on your right, now the Cross Keys pub. Turn left at the mini roundabout, following the northern edge of St Mary’s churchyard.
- Finish at the corner of the Quadrant shopping centre – the location of the medieval town’s west wall.