Blanche Parry

Story of our own Saint' (Thomas Cantilupe)

This month our local historian Ruth E. Richardson tells a miraculous tale...

A piercing scream made Robert Russell jerk his cart to a stop as he looked round distractedly. Then he paled as his wife rushed forward to gather up their baby son from under the cart wheels. 'He's dead...he's dead...you've driven over his head...oh my baby...my baby' she cried. Helplessly, Robert followed her indoors where she tenderly insisted on putting the child in his cot. As the little boy's colour was draining away, their neighbours thought this pointless. Child deaths were common but such accidents were still very hard to bear. 'We can appeal to Bishop Thomas' Robert said, wanting to do something rather than nothing ... and this is what they did.

They measured the boy with string then used it as a wick in a candle. When hard enough Robert rode as fast as he could to Hereford Cathedral where the canons carefully placed it in front of the tomb of the old Bishop, dead these 20 years. Robert believed that his fervent prayers would continue to be heard until the candle burnt down ... and it worked! In 1307 the Pope's Commissioners examined the lively boy, recording his recovery had only left him with a narrow, peaked head. This case was one of hundreds investigated to provide evidence for the canonization of Thomas Cantilupe, Bishop of Hereford 1275-1282.

Thomas, an aristocrat, was destined for the Church. Family connections meant he could study in the Archbishop of Canterbury's household, and in Oxford and Paris. He lectured on canon law and became Chancellor of Oxford University. Later, in King Henry III's reign, with support from Simon de Montfort and the barons, he became Chancellor of England. He was a respected Councillor for King Edward I. Nevertheless, Thomas remained devout, wearing a hair shirt, under his gorgeous clothes, the lice bites reminding him of Christ's sufferings. Unusually, he refused to be bribed.

Thomas' time as bishop was eventful. His claim of hunting rights against the Earl of Gloucester, led to the re–use of the prehistoric Shire Ditch (the Red Earl's Dyke) as the boundary between their lands along the Malvern Hills. He dealt with the cattle–rustling Lord Clifford by beating him with a rod while forcing him to walk bare–foot to the Cathedral's High Altar. Thomas' disputes with the Cathedral clerics and the new Archbishop of Canterbury resulted in his journeying to Rome. He died, aged about 64 years, on his way home. His body was boiled to preserve it, with his heart being sent to Ashbridge Monastery in Buckinghamshire. His boiled bones, now yellowish–brown, were entombed in Hereford Cathedral. On canonization, in 1320, they were placed in the new tomb destroyed in the Dissolution of the Monasteries. However, some bones survived for in 1610 they were carried through Hereford to try to avert the plague. His skull is now preserved in Downside Abbey, with bones at Stonyhurst or Holywell in Flint, and in Belmont Abbey. The Bishops of Hereford use St. Thomas' coat-of-arms and his Feast Day is on the 2nd October.

The Shrine of St. Thomas is his first tomb and can still be seen in Hereford Cathedral. It so impressed King Edward I on his 1287 visit that he twice sent falcons to be cured at the Saint's tomb.

©Ruth E. Richardson 2013

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