EBK Home
  King Arthur
  Mail David


St. Thomas Cantilupe of Hereford

Born: 1218 at Hambledon. Buckinghamshire
Bishop of Hereford
Died: 23rd August 1282 at Ferento, Montefiascone, Italy

Thomas Cantilupe was the last Englishman canonized before the Reformation. He was of noble Anglo-Norman descent, the son of William, 2nd Baron Cantilupe and Seneschal to King John, and his wife Millicent de Gournay, widow of Amaury de Montfort, Count of Evreux. His father's brother, Walter, was Bishop of Worcester and, by him, young Thomas was educated. The future bishop and saint also studied in Oxford and Paris and, before he had passed middle age, he was known everywhere as one of the most remarkable band of scholar-ecclesiastics who did so much to redeem the name of the Church in the 13th century.

Thomas became Chancellor of Oxford University in 1262 and earned golden opinions by the firm, yet tactful, control ehich he succeeded in establishing over the hord of unruly students. In 1265, Simon de Montfort appointed him Chancellor of the Realm, but this position he naturally lost at the fall of the 'Righteous Earl'. The best testimony to the remarkable moral ascendancy which he had achieved is furnished by the fact that even King Henry III seems to have felt no enmity towards him. He thought, however, to travel abroad for a time, during which he lectured on theology. With the accession of Edward I, the evil days were past and, during the last ten years of his life, Thomas was counted among the most trusted advisors of the great king. When, in 1275, the Chapter of Hereford Cathedral elected him bishop of their diocese, he, at first, declined the honour and was, only with the utmost difficulty, induced to accept it. As this appointment took him far from London and the Royal Court, Thomas requested that Edward I "commit to him, until the heirs of Henry d'Earley, tenant in chief, come of age, the manor of Earley [Whiteknights] near Reading"" and it was here that he resided whenever attending the King.

It may well be that the kindly gentle scholar hated the prospect of life at Hereford among the rough and despotic barons of the Welsh Marches, the chief of whom was the hot-tempered, grasping and unstable Gilbert de Clare, the 'Red' Earl of Gloucester. But, in point of fact, Thomas proved a very firm opponent of feudal arrogance and Gilbert the Red found himself thoroughly worsted in an attempt to filch the Bishop's hunting rights in the Malvern Forest. Lord Clifford, an amiable person who amused himself with cattle rustling, fire raising and maltreating the Bishop's tenants, was even forced to do penance barefoot through the streets of Hereford to the high altar of the cathedral, where Bishop Cantilupe himself castigated him with a rod. It is no wonder that a man who thus stood up for the helpless was beloved by his flock, and their affection was not diminished by his hospitality and boundless charity.

In one respect, it might seem that this really Christian man fell short of his ideals, for he was an ecclesiastical pluralist of the first order: being, at once, Canon and Chantor of York, Archdeacon and Canon of Lichfield & Coventry, Canon of London, Canon of Hereford, Archdeacon of Stafford and rector of various rural parishes, including Sherborne St. John in Hampshire. However, it is likely that, as in the case of Bishop Walter de Merton who held the great seal immediately before Cantilupe, the King found such preferments to be an expedient means of paying him. And, despite the usual practice being to take each salary and ignore one's parochial responsibilities, Thomas is notable for having made sure that good curates always took his place, while still making visits himself whenever he could.

At the close of his life, Bishop Cantilupe was involved in a long and violent dispute with the Archbishop of Canterbury, John Peckham, who, despite Thomas' protests, insisted upon a visitation of the Hereford diocese, as his metropolitan right: a claim which the archdiocese was then vigorously prosecuting. At the height of his anger, Peckham solemnly excommunicated the refractory Bishop of Hereford who, at once, proceeded to Rome to lay his case before Pope Martin IV. There is reason to believe, however, that, as an excommunicated person, he could obtain from the Pope nothing more than "the promise of a quick despatch and removal of delays"; and that this broken man only received absolution in the hour of his death, which occurred near Orvieto on 23rd August 1282.

Richard Swinfield, his successor in the see of Hereford, who had accompanied Bishop Cantilupe to Italy as his chaplain, proceeded, probably at the prelate's own request, to separate the flesh of his body from the bones by boiling. The flesh was interred in the church of Santo Severo, near Orvieto; the heart was conveyed to the monastic church of Ashridge in Buckinghamshire, founded by Edmund, Earl of Cornwall; and the bones were brought to his own cathedral at Hereford. As they were being conveyed into the church, says the compiler of the Bishop's "Life and Gests," Gilbert Earl of Gloucester approached and touched the casket which contained them, whereupon they "bledafresh." The Earl was struck with compunction and made full restitution to the Church of all the lands which Bishop Cantilupe had rightly claimed from him.

Swinfield, who had been the constant companion of Cantilupe, and many of the contemporary chroniclers, bear witness to the purity and excellence of the Bishop's life and his tomb soon became distinguished by miracles. The first of these, according to the annalist of Worcester, occurred in April 1287. At the time, apparently, of the removal of his remains from the tomb in the Lady Chapel to the shrine which had been provided for them in the north transept. The number of marvels increased daily; for "superstition," in Fuller's words, "is always fondest of the youngest saint"; and, in 1289, Bishop Swinfield, who had brought Cantilupe's bones from Italy, wrote to the Pope requesting his canonization. Many difficulties, however, were interposed; and in spite of numerous letters from King Edward I and his son, Edward II, it was not until May 1320 that the bull of canonization was issued by Pope John XXII. It is possible that the excommunication of Cantilupe and his connection with the Knights Templars, of which Order he was Provincial Grand Master in England, were among the causes of the delay. The Templars were arrested throughout England in 1307; condemned in 1310; and, in 1312, the Order was finally dissolved in the Council of Vienne.

A book entitled "The Life and Gests of Saint Thomas Cantilupe," said to be compiled from evidences at Rome, collected before his canonization, was published at Ghent in 1674. "No fewer than four hundred and twenty-five miracles," says Fuller, "are registered, reported to be wrought at his tomb. . . . Yea, it is recorded in his legend, that by his prayers were raised from death to life three-score several persons, one-and-twenty lepers healed, and three-and-twenty blind and dumb men to have received their sight and speech."

The arms of Cantilupe-Gules, three leopards' heads jessant, with a fleur-de-lis issuing from the mouth, or- have since his canonization been assumed as those of the see of Hereford.

Edited from Richard John King's "Handbook to the Cathedrals of England: Western Division" (1867) and Edward Foord's "Hereford and Tintern" (1925)


    Nash Ford Publishing 2003. All Rights Reserved.