The small city of Hereford became one of England’s most important pilgrim sites due to the many miracles attributed to a local saint. Ian Bass explains what they reveal about life in the Middle Ages.
The scene is Hereford Cathedral in the spring of 1287. It is Holy Thursday and a great multitude has gathered there for the celebrations of Holy Week. In the presence of this crowd, the Bishop of Hereford, Richard de Swinfield, translates the bones of his predecessor, Thomas de Cantilupe, moving them from underneath the unassuming grave slab in the Chapel of the Virgin at the east end of the cathedral to a new bespoke tomb in the north transept. It was here, on this day, at the site of Bishop Thomas’ new tomb that a miraculous event took place. John de Massington, one of Bishop Swinfield’s foresters, had been afflicted with blindness for two years. He invoked the aid of the dead bishop and now, at Thomas’ new tomb, he was cured. It was the first of many such miracles. By the end of the day the congregation had witnessed four more people cured of blindness. By the end of the Easter celebrations a total of 19 miracles had been witnessed. A healing cult, which would go on to attract pilgrims from across England, Wales and Ireland, had begun. By the end of April 1287, 70 miracles had taken place at the shrine; by the end of the year around 160. At the end of the century they numbered around 250.