Peter Gay's Bourgeoisie


Elizabeth: The Young Gloriana

Direct Testimony, 1307

Founding Ambiguities

Getting Business Going

Greatness Recollected


Impresario of Art

James Madison

Pazzi v Medici

Paris 1919



Tsushima and Tsar Nicholas

A. N. Wilson's Victorians

Direct Testimony, 1307

It was only after his new project was well under way that historian Robert Bartlett learned that he was not the only scholar exploring the strange case of William Cragh. At the beginning of the Notes section of The Hanged Man (Princeton, 2004), he notes four other recent publications that mine the same story. I would gather from the titles, however, that it is his book that will most interest the general reader.

The most remarkable thing about The Hanged Man: A Story of Miracle, Memory, and Colonialism in the Middle Ages is the prospect that it opens up of many similar stories, as fresh as yesterday, pouring out of the Middle Ages. Mr Bartlett's source material is a document that has been resting in the Vatican Library since the fourteenth century. It must be one of very, very many, for it bundles up the materials that the Pope and his curia examined when they were considering the canonization of a bishop. For his book, Mr Bartlett has drawn upon a small portion of this bundle, to wit, the direct testimony (in response to carefully formulated interrogation) of nine witnesses to a miracle, a miracle alleged to have been worked by the holiness of one Thomas Cantilupe, the bishop of Hereford from 1275 to 1282. The ecclesiastical procedures were conducted at London and Hereford in 1307. Thomas was eventually canonized in 1320.

The miracle in question occurred, Mr Bartlett surmises, at the end of 1290. William Cragh, the hanged man of the title, was executed for brigandage; his body having been carried to the house of a merchant, en route to the graveyard, the wife of the baron who had condemned him prayed to Thomas Cantilupe for the restoration of William's life. Her prayer was answered. William Cragh himself would be one of the nine witnesses attesting to his own miraculous resuscitation. So would the baron's wife, her stepson, her chaplain, the captain of the execution squad, and four bystanders. (The baron himself would die very early in 1291.) Their testimony, given in English and Welsh but recorded in Latin, affords a striking view of medieval sensibilities offered directly by actual people, unmediated by art and uncorrupted by idle talk. Little inconsistencies in their testimony provide Mr Bartlett with fine opportunities for teasing out meaning, and add a pleasurable sense of the detective mystery.

The Hanged Man sets forth three stories - that of the miracle itself, that of the political background, and that of the canonization procedure - in twelve chapters that focus on aspects of medieval consciousness. In the chapter headed "Time and Space," for example, we discover that only one of the nine witnesses could have been right about when the miracle actually occurred - the range was from fifteen to eighteen years before the interrogation - and that there was almost complete disagreement about how long it took the victim to get back on his feet after regaining his life. Most witnesses were not quite sure of their own ages. Distances were measured not only in miles but in crossbow shots and walking time. The chapter on "Colonial Wales" covers the English conquest of Wales by battle and by colonization. William Cragh, more of a freedom fighter than a brigand, had repeatedly skirmished with the occupying forces, embodied here by the English magnate and scion of a Conquest family, William de Briouze.

The story of the Briouze/Braose family is an eventful one. At the beginning of the thirteenth century, an earlier William de Braose gained the favor of fickle King John, who rewarded him with the lordship of Gower (among many other goodies), but when William fell out with the king - it's not known why - he had to flee the country, while his wife and son were locked up and starved to death in prison. The son had already had a son of his own, happily for the family, and the line continued; eventually, the Braoses got most of their land back. There is no reason to think that a drink and a chat with any of these Braose men would be time well spent; they wouldn't have been Marcher lords if they hadn't been more than a little brutal. The William de Braose who testified to the miracle - not, you'll note the son of the lady who prayed for William Cragh but her stepson - seems to have considered the saint's intercession a most regrettable interference.

The saint's story is particularly interesting, and I wish Mr Bartlett had devoted more space to it. The first thing that the canonization commissioners wanted to know, before opening their enquiry, was whether Thomas Cantilupe had in fact been excommunicate when died. Mr Bartlett tells us only that the Bishop of Hereford had been excommunicated by the Archbishop of Canterbury (one John Pecham), and that he went to Rome to clear his name. Wanting to know more, I turned to Sir Maurice Powicke's contribution to the Oxford History of England, The Thirteenth Century (Oxford, 1953, 1962), and there I learned that the dust-up was (predictably) all about power and personality. Pecham was a Franciscan, and remained a friar all his life, unostentatious and not particularly refined, while Thomas, the son of Henry III's household steward, was "an austere and cultivated aristocrat, lavish and courtly." (Interestingly, both studied at Paris while Thomas Aquinas was active there.) The men could not see eye to eye about jurisdictional issues, and the Archbishop was hotheaded.

Thomas died at Orvieto. Had he been appealing his excommunication to the Pope in 1307, he would have expired in the environs of Avignon, for by then the French pope, Clement V, had made the fateful move that would lead to schism and so open the door to Protestant revolt. Perhaps Thomas would have found the South of France more congenial than Italy, and he wouldn't have died. And perhaps he would never have become a saint, if his former chaplain, and successor at Hereford, Richard Swinfield, had left his remains in Italy. I don't know what kind of suspense Mr Bartlett thought he had built up by reserving this detail for disclosure in his penultimate chapter, but it was Swinfeld's 'translation' of Thomas's bones, from Orvieto to Hereford Cathedral, that all but assured his sainthood. Mr Bartlett writes,

The translation (ritual relocation) of a body was an ancient and traditional method of marking the sanctity of the individual concerned. Indeed, for many centuries, before the popes asserted their own monopoly of the power to canonize, translation was the virtual equivalent of canonization. Naturally, there would be other reasons for moving bodies and tombs, but a grand ceremonial relocation of the type undertaken by Swinfield at the high point of the Christian year suggested that the bones being elevated were those of a saint. That this is how the ceremony was understood is clear from the response of the local people who found healing at the tomb. ...

In the following years Cantilupe's new tomb became the focus of a pilgrim cult, with hundreds of visitors from an ever widening area. By the early 1290s offerings at the shrine brought in over 200 per annum, the equivalent of a baronial income, while the wax tapers placed there were so numerous that the dean and treasurer of the cathedral became embroiled in a dispute over who should have them.

Which brings us to the one woman in the proceedings, Lady Mary de Braose. The commissioners did not ask her age, but we know that she outlived her stepson, who died at the age of 65, by a few months. This would be in 1326, a very tumultuous year in England, as the perpetual crisis of Edward II's reign drew to its grim termination. Lady Mary never went back to Gower after the death of her husband, but settled at a dower estate in Sussex. She appeared before the commission in London, where she happened to be for other reasons, possibly a lawsuit that she and her stepson were waging against one another. A woman of means, she appears to have indulged in what was practically an indoor sport at the start of the fourteenth century, real estate litigation. (Our legal system still suffers the deformations of justice caused by those aristocratic tournaments.) She was evidently a strong-minded woman; after all, her response to news that William Cragh had been hanged at her husband's bidding was to drop to her knees and pray that Thomas Cantilupe would, in effect, defy her husband's will. Why did she? What was the brigand to her? We don't know. She wasn't asked. Marvelous as it is to have the commission's records, we must resign ourselves to the limitations of its outlook. As Mr Bartlett notes,

It is clearly significant that it was a lady who interceded for the condemned Welshman, for intercession was a traditional role of highborn women in the medieval period. They were pictured as more approachable than their stern husband, and entreaties and requests might be made to and through them.

But there is no evidence that Lady Mary had even met William Cragh before his 'death.' The commissioners, in any case, had fixed upon the effectiveness of her invocation of Thomas Cantilupe, not in the motivation behind it. There may have been, moreover, no question to ask, because it might have been utterly straightforward that a lady in her chamber should take pity on an unlucky firebrand and recommend him to the mercies of a new and local saint. Many of the distinctions that we have learned to read into our actions appear to have been unconscious seven hundred years ago, latent perhaps but undetected.

The Hanged Man is a short book that could, I think, have benefited from ampler background detail, but it is a marvel of scholarly interpretation for the general reader. The stories of William Cragh's hanging and Thomas Cantilupe's canonization, throw dozens of small windows open on the real world of a vanished age, and through them, with Mr Bartlett's ingenious but unostentatious help, we can see details that will enrich every historical imagination. (June 2004)

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