Hereford’s magnificent cathedral is the culmination of the St Thomas Way, and was journey’s end for William Cragh and thousands of other medieval pilgrims.
This walk is one of 13 separate circular routes which together make up the St Thomas Way.
Place and History
The shrine of Thomas, Bishop of Hereford and Saint of the Marches, stands in the north transept of Hereford Cathedral.
If you have travelled the whole of the St Thomas Way, this is your destination, following in the footsteps of thousands of medieval pilgrims.
Even before his canonisation in 1320, the tomb of Thomas of Hereford had drawn thousands of pilgrims, who came to pray and in many cases reported miracles.
Surviving documents give a insight into the expense and care lavished on the saint’s shrine. A receipt from a London goldsmith shows that he was paid for £10 for making ornaments, and one Adam of Corfe was paid £40 for Purbeck marble. The shrine was badly damaged in the Reformation, but is now once again a focal point for prayer and contemplation, with the recently-added upper section (feretory) depicting the Virgin and Child holding the Mappa Mundi.
Though the Cathedral has a pre-Conquest history, it was rebuilt in Norman or Romanesque style from 1107-48.
Later, the cult of St Thomas itself had a significant impact on the cathedral architecture, with income from pilgrims and their gifts leading to major programmes of building work in the later thirteenth century. In July 1307, the inquisitors sent by the Pope to investigate Thomas canonisation heard from a witness called Hugh the barber, who told them that the many gifts given by pilgrims had funded the refurbishment of the church and the construction of a beautiful new bell tower.
St Thomas was a man of learning, having previously been a scholar at several universities and Chancellor of Oxford. Coming to Hereford as bishop, he joined a community where learning and culture were highly valued: it is likely that a school existed at the cathedral by the 1190s, its collection of books later growing into the famous chained library (seventeenth century). Many famous intellectuals and writers of the Middle Ages were associated with the cathedral, including Gerald of Wales and Walter Map. The most striking and famous expression of learning and knowledge at the medieval cathedral is the renowned Mappa Mundi (world map), now entered in the UNESCO Memory of the World register. Dating to around 1300, the Mappa Mundi depicts a world encompassed by God’s providential plan, with the Garden of Eden at the top (the east) and Jerusalem at the centre.
Today Hereford Cathedral is a living place of worship, which also welcomes visitors of all faiths and none for quiet reflection and contemplation.
The Hanged Man’s Journey
In late 1290, or possibly early 1291 (the medieval witnesses don’t agree), William Cragh arrived here at Hereford Cathedral, completing his pilgrimage to the shrine of St Thomas of Hereford.
He travelled with Lord William de Briouze – the Anglo-Norman lord who had ordered his execution – and his wife, Lady Mary. He wore the noose he had been hanged with around his neck, and carried a wax votive model of a hanged man and gallows. He had walked all the way, as a sign of humility and penitence. As he and his fellow pilgrims understood it, Cragh had died and been brought back to life by St Thomas, and they were here in Hereford to give thanks.
Years later, in 1307, the team of investigators sent by the Pope interviewed witnesses to Cragh’s hanging and recovery.
They asked what had happened to Cragh after his pilgrimage to Hereford. Lady Mary de Briouze replied that Cragh had planned to go to the Holy Land, but she had never seen him again. Cragh’s professed desire to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem may just have been a ruse to throw his Anglo-Norman masters off his case: it’s more likely that he returned to Swansea and kept a low profile, with several witnesses believing him to have died when, to their surprise, he appeared before the inquisitors in 1307. But he may have held a genuine desire to travel to the Holy Land, perhaps inspired by his brief experience of pilgrimage on the road to Hereford – and perhaps even by a glimpse of the Mappa Mundi, which may have been in the cathedral around this time.
The Hereford Mappa Mundi depicts a world shaped by patterns of pilgrimage and journeying.
Jerusalem, the place of Christ’s death and resurrection, is at the very centre of the world, with the Garden of Eden – now an inaccessible island – at the far east (top). The map is inscribed with routes and journeys, from the crossing of the Red Sea (top right-hand corner), to the campaigns of Alexander the Great and medieval pilgrim routes. The British Isles, at the bottom left-hand corner, are at the very edge of this vast, intriguing world, traversed with journeys and stories from centuries of human culture.
St Thomas and Medieval Belief
The bones of Thomas of Hereford were moved to a new tomb in the North Transept of Hereford Cathedral on 3 April, 1287, a few days before Easter.
This was the work of Richard Swinfield, Thomas’s successor as bishop, who became an enthusiastic champion of his case for canonisation. A week before this, Robert of Hereford, an ironmonger, had brought his wife Edith to the cathedral. Edith had been behaving strangely – Robert blamed alcoholism, but it may have been post-natal depression or another form of mental illness – and had attacked her husband, shouted at the neighbours, blasphemed, and even bitten her mother’s nose. Edith spent a week at various locations in the cathedral, before being moved to the Chapel of the Virgin at the east end – where Thomas’s bones still lay. On 28 March, she claimed to have received a vision of St Thomas, and was well again.
In the following years, thousands of medieval pilgrims visited the shrine of St Thomas, and many received what they understood to be miraculous healing. But not all of the miracles of St Thomas associated with Hereford Cathedral itself involve pilgrims and cures. There are stranger stories in the medieval records, too.
One early morning, around 1290, the service of Matins had concluded in the cathedral, but one of the canons remained sitting in the choir stalls. Another canon approached and asked why he was sitting there. But the strange canon was silent and did not utter a sound – he was, in fact, a demon in disguise. Realising this, the terrified canon commanded the demon in the name of Jesus Christ and Saint Thomas to remain where it sat. He fetched help, and the demon was put in chains, brought before the shrine of St Thomas, and defeated.
A place that finally became home to a saint
The sad truth is that St Thomas of Hereford, Thomas de Cantilupe, avoided Hereford. The cathedral proved a place of disputes and tensions and conflict for him, and the record shows that he spent little time at his palace. He took his work in his diocese very seriously and was thought of as a model bishop in an age when many neglected their duties shamefully. Yet the cathedral city proved uncomfortable for him and he preferred to be elsewhere.
For all that, he brought great blessing to Hereford after his death, once it became his final resting place. At his shrine, in the cathedral where he had been uncomfortable, he blessed; the place that seemed not to be home was the place where he was welcomed home; in the city where he was pained, he now healed.
Lord, life can be uncomfortable; sometimes I feel far from home. Help me to bless when I feel like cursing and to love when I feel like hating. Help me to see that I make my true home everywhere I bless, love and heal the lives of those around me in your name.
Hereford Mappa Mundi: Mapping the Natural World
For centuries, people have tried to make sense of the natural world through maps. The Mappa Mundi at Hereford Cathedral offers modern visitors an insight into the way the natural world was imagined and mediated through a rich tradition of stories and beliefs. The Mappa Mundi does not resemble a modern map of the world, and was never intended for navigational purposes.
Sometimes realities of natural world are re-made according to tales and traditions
For example, the creators of the Hereford Mappa Mundi chose to colour the Red Sea with red and used monsters on the edges of the maps to represent the unknown.
But the Mappa also depicts some of the practical functions and uses of natural landscape. For example, rivers are very prominent on the Mappa as they were very important, representing trade, communications, and travel.
Medieval ‘journeys’: Labyrinths
The Mappa Mundi shows the legendary labyrinth on the island of Crete – where Theseus reputedly fought the Minotaur. However, there has been a long history of labyrinths in Christian worship, appearing on the walls and floors of churches and Cathedrals throughout Europe from around 1000AD. Although the precise function of the labyrinth in medieval Christian ritual is unknown, they are thought to have been used as an alternative to pilgrimage to the Holy Land. This was the inspiration for a new labyrinth cut into the grass in Hereford, on the Bishops Meadow, which you will find and explore on the Hereford walking route.
Specially-chosen music for this location from Hereford Cathedral, a medieval ecclesiastical soundscape, and present-day ambient sound from inside Hereford Cathedral.
Distance: Approx. 2 miles
Time: Approx. 1.5 hours
Access: Easy, mostly paved paths through town and parkland; suitable for wheelchairs and buggies
- Start your walk by exploring Hereford Cathedral. Inside the cathedral, in the north transept, visitors will find the shrine of St Thomas of Hereford and the world-famous Mappa Mundi. As you leave the cathedral, head around to the north side via Cathedral Close onto Church Street. From Church Street, carefully cross the road at East Street and enter into Capuchin Lane directly opposite. This leads out to the High Street.
- Turn right onto the High Street. The High Street is understood to follow the route of the old Roman Road, which connected the settlement to the city of Chester in the north. The area known as ‘High Town’ dates back to the Saxon period, when Hereford was part of Mercia.
- As High Street turns into St Peters Street, you will see the Black and White House, also known as The Old House, a timber-framed house dating from the seventeenth century. The Old House now hosts The Black and White House Museum, which offers an insight into life in the city during Jacobean times. Next to The Black and White House Museum is the life-sized bronze Hereford bull statue. After visiting the museum, turn left up the High Street.
- To your right you will see All Saints Church, which dates back to the fourteenth century. At the church, turn left onto Broad Street, and then right onto West Street. At the corner of West Street and Victoria Street, turn left and walk along the green. To your left you will see the remains of the medieval city walls.
- Turn left onto St Nicholas Street, once the site of the medieval Friars Gate. Turn right onto Bridge Street and cross the River Wye at the Wye Bridge.
- To your left is a view of Hereford Cathedral. From the Wye Bridge turn left onto Wye View Villas and follow the footpath running parallel to the river into Bishops Meadow Recreation Ground (level access down the slope can be found to the right). As you pass through the park you will see a Labyrinth in the grass and various memorials.
- Turn left onto Victoria Bridge. Here you can either take the steps to your left or continue forward and take the level access route just after the steps on the left.
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