Monday, 3 October 2011

Leopards, Lilies and Knights Templar

Hereford's famous Mappa Mundi can be seen at the centre
of this painted scene on  the front apex of the canopy  created for
what remains of the shrine of St Thomas.
’Tis the Feast of Thomas Cantilupe, otherwise known as St Thomas of Hereford,  whose shrine was one of the most popular places of pilgrimage in England during the Middle Ages,  with over 400 miracles recorded: only St Thomas a Becket at Canterbury had more. It is claimed that he healed lepers, made the blind see, the dumb speak – and even restored the dead to life, including a Welsh rebel who was hanged eight years after the saint’s death

Like his more famous namesake, this Thomas was also Chancellor of England for a time, and was forced to live abroad when he fell out with the king, but later he returned and become Bishop of Hereford. According to the cathedral’s website Thomas Cantilupe had red hair, was very feisty, and was well known for his holy life and devotion to his diocese. He may also (though the cathedral website does not mention this) have links with the mysterious Knights Templars.

The shrine with its new gilded
 Born in 1218, he studied in Oxford and Paris, was Chancellor at Oxford University, was then appointed Chancellor to Henry III in 1265, but lost his position when Simon de Montfort was killed  because, apparently, he supported the Earl’s rebellion against the king.

Thomas travelled abroad for a while, but on his return once again took up the post of Chancellor at Oxford University, before being enthroned as Bishop of Hereford in 1275. He became known for his care of the poor, and was an advisor to Edward I.  He  wasn’t afraid to stand up for the rights of the church, or the people, and in 1290 this led to his ‘great conflict’ with Gilbert de Clare, 7th Earl of Gloucester and 6th Earl of Hertford over hunting rights in Malvern, where Gilbert dug a ditch to prevent access. In addition he is said to have forced Lord Clifford to walk barefoot through the cathedral, and then beat him, in penance for assaulting tenants and raiding cattle.

Far more serious was Thomas Cantilupe’s quarrel with John Pecham, Archbishop of Canterbury, which led to his excommunication. The Hereford Cathedral website says the argument was over land rights in the diocese, but it is difficult to understand how that could have escalated to the stage where such an extreme step was taken, especially as there seems to be no accusation of heresy or wrong-doing on Thomas’s part. Perhaps it was a personality clash which got out of hand – or perhaps, as some websites claim, there was a connection with the Knights Templar.

It has been suggested that Thomas was a Grand Provincial Master of the Order, and that the sculpted knights around the stone base of his shrine are Templars. Conspiracy theories about the Templars crop up all over the place, but personally I think one 13th century knight looks much like any other, especially when their faces and shield designs have been erased, presumably during the Reformation, and there seems to be no evidence to prove the identity of these figures.
This applique and embroidered panel shows Thomas' journey to Italy,
his illness, death, and the creation of his shrine at Hereford.
I had the camera on the wrong setting, so the picture is blurred.
Whatever the truth, Thomas was determined to gain absolution and clear his name, so in 1282 he met Pope Martin IV in Italy, where he fell ill and died. His bones were taken back to Hereford, and tales quickly spread of miracles occurring at his tomb. However, the road to sainthood was not easy: in addition to the usual processes a  Papal inquiry was convened in London 1307 to ascertain whether Thomas had received the absolution he sought – if he had not, he could not be canonised. It took the commissioners 13 years to find in his favour, and Pope John XXII finally declared him a saint in 1320.

Is this a Templar? A  knights
on the side of Thomas' tomb.
During the Reformation his shrine was destroyed and the relics dispersed, but the stone base was left and recently craftsmen have produced a beautiful gilded canopy to cover it, and there are candles for modern pilgrims to light, and space for them to sit in quiet reflection.

In addition the story of Thomas is portrayed in two embroidered  fabric panels which hang by the restored shrine, and he left a lasting memorial because his family’s coat of arms – three upside-down leopard heads with heraldic lilies in their mouths – was adopted by the Bishops of Hereford and is still in use today.

You could celebrate by treating yourself to a bunch of lilies... or plant lily bulbs ready for next year... or create your own story in fabric and thread... and, of course, you could sample festive fare with a medieval flavor – gingerbread and wine perhaps?

You’ll find the Hereford Cathedral website at, and there are some details about Thomas Cantilupe’s alleged Templar connections at .
Leopards and lilies... Thomas Cantilupe's
family coat-of-arms is now an emblem for the
Bishops of Hereford.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thank you for commenting on my blog. I love to hear from readers.