Thursday, February 13, 2014

Accompany Me on a Pilgrimage to Discover a Medieval Saint ...

by Anne O'Brien

Saint Thomas de Cantilupe

This is Hereford Cathedral, less than twenty miles from where I live in the Welsh Marches, and home to the famous Mappa Mundi and Chained Library.  But it is also home to St Thomas de Cantilupe, a medieval saint of some renown although little known today.

Thomas de Cantilupe, from a noble Anglo-Norman family, was born in 1218 with important connections: son of William de Cantilupe, Seneschal to King John, and a nephew of Walter de Cantilupe, Bishop of Worcester.  He was born in Hambleden in Buckinghamshire and was educated in Paris and Orleans.  He became a teacher of canon law at Oxford and Chancellor of the University.

This is the family coat of arms, interestingly with three reversed leopard heads.

A clever academic, Thomas's abilities were soon recognised and he was appointed Chancellor of England under Edward I.  In 1275 he became Bishop of Hereford and was well known for his holy life and devotion to his diocese.

More interestingly perhaps, he had red hair and an equally hot temper which led him into a notable number of conflicts.

Obviously Cantilupe was a fiery individual. This is the seal of Thomas de Cantilupe as Bishop.

Thomas had a 'great conflict' in 1290 with Gilbert de Clare, seventh earl of Gloucester and a powerful marcher lord, about hunting rights in Malvern and a ditch that Gilbert had dug, that was settled by costly litigation.  An equally fractious argument arose between the Bishop and the Archbishop of Canterbury, John Peckham, over land rights in the Hereford diocese. The disagreements culminated in Peckham excommunicating Cantilupe, who immediately headed to Rome to pursue the matter with the Pope.

Sadly, Thomas never returned to Hereford but died of fever on 25 August 1282 in Ferento, near Orvieto, in Italy, on 25 August 1282.  his flesh was interred in the church of Santo Severo, near Orvieto; the heart was conveyed to the monastic church of Ashridge in Buckinghamshire, and the bones were brought to his own cathedral at Hereford. As they were being conveyed into the church, it is said that the Earl of Gloucester approached and touched the casket which contained the bones, whereupon they 'bled-a-fresh'. The Earl was struck with guilt and made full restitution to the Church of all the lands which Bishop Cantilupe had rightly claimed from him.

Thomas's bones, buried in Hereford, had a somewhat peripatetic history until ending up where they are now.  Here are the remains of Thomas's tomb in Hereford Cathedral.

Part of the evidence used to secure Thomas's canonisation was the supposed resurrection of William Cragh, a Welsh rebel, who was hanged in 1290, eight years after Cantilupe's death. A papal inquiry was convened in London in 1307 to determine whether or not Cantilupe had died excommunicate; if he had, then he could not be canonised. Forty-four witnesses were called and various letters produced, before the commissioners of the inquiry concluded that Cantilupe had been absolved in Rome before his death, so in April 1320, Cantilupe was canonised by Pope John XXII, after a papal investigation lasting almost 13 years. His feast day was fixed on 2 October. This delightful little representation of the saint shows him with his cat - a charmingly domestic scene (but I'm not sure how authentic it is).

Thomas de Cantilupe proved to be an energetic worker of miracles.

On Easter Monday 1287, a series of miracles began, which lasted well into the 14th century. When reviewed by Commissioners in 1307,  over 400 miracles had been recorded – second only to Thomas Becket in Canterbury, and yet we barely know his name today. Offerings at the shrine of St. Thomas were so substantial that they helped re-build parts of the cathedral – notably the central tower.

As a result of his growing importance, in 1349, his remains were once more moved to a new shrine in the Lady Chapel in the presence of King Edward III, and new effigies of bishops were provided either side of processional aisles, to guide pilgrims on their way to make their petitions to where the bones of Thomas were guarded by 14 Knights Templar figures.

Here are three, all of them defaced over the years.

In the late 14th century, the cult of St. Thomas declined and, as with many such shrines in the late 1540s in the English Reformation, the shrine itself was destroyed, the ornaments and relics dispersed, although his bones seem to have been preserved by local Catholics at Belmont Abbey until the 17th Century. However, devotion to St. Thomas continued, and there is evidence of his relics being used in a procession in Hereford in 1610 to ward off plague.

The tomb we see today, magnificently restored as it might have been seen when pilgrims flocked to pray here, is empty.  But who knows?  If a pilgrim prays hard enough for a miracle, even today it might just happen, courtesy of the Blessed Saint Thomas de Cantilupe.



  1. If I remember rightly, this tomb features quite heavily in one of Phil Rickman's Merrily Watkins series of novels, although I can't remember which one! They're all good though... Lovely to find out more about the man and the tomb - thank you.

  2. Hi, dreaminginstitches. Cantilupe's tomb is central to the plot in Phil Rickman's Midwinter of the Spirit. And I agree. All his Merrily Watkins novels are excellent.

  3. Fun and interesting post, Anne. I’m curious as to why the leopards would be upside-down – any guesses? Was it just whimsy?

  4. Oh I did enjoy reading this Anne - I know a little bit about Thomas Cantilupe (I usually pop into the cathedral when I'm in Hereford) but you've filled the gaps for me. And I love the picture of him with his cat. By the way, is that lovely textile telling the story of his life still hanging on the wall nearby?

  5. Hi Cynthia. I don't know why. They are certainly eye-catching. I think some heraldic googling is called for here.

  6. There's a hint of lilies sticking out of those leopard heads - leopards and lilies, eh? When did those become the royal device?

    There's something gruesome about the way his remains were pulled apart - and he wasn't even a saint yet! Sorry, but he sounds like a rather dull man what with petty fights over land and a job at te university. Not even a martyrdom to make him interesting. ;-) There must be an interesting story behind that first "miracle" - do we ave the details?