Hereford Cathedral

The current Hereford Cathedral, located at Hereford in England, United Kingdom, dates from 1079. Its most famous treasure is the Mappa Mundi, a medieval map of the world dating from the 13th century.

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Interior of Hereford Cathedral


The cathedral has a monarch (as well as St. Mary the Virgin) for its patron saint - Ethelbert, who was beheaded by Offa, King of Mercia in the year 792. Offa had consented to give his daughter to Ethelbert in marriage: why he changed his mind and deprived him of his head we don't know, although tradition is at no loss to supply him with an adequate motive. The execution, or murder, is said to have taken place at Sutton, four miles from Hereford, with Ethelbert's body brought to the site of the modern cathedral by 'a pious monk'. At Ethelbert's tomb miracles are said to have occurred, and in the next century (about 830) Milfrid, a Mercian nobleman, was so moved by the tales of these marvels as to rebuild in stone the little church which stood there, and to dedicate it to the sainted king.

Before this, Hereford had become the seat of a bishopric. It is said to have been the centre of a diocese as early as the 6th century. In the 7th century the cathedral was refounded by Putta, who fixed himself here when driven from Rochester by Ethelbert. The cathedral of stone, which Milfrid raised, stood for some two hundred years, and then, in the reign of Edward the Confessor, it was altered. The new church only had a short life, for it was plundered and burnt in 1056 by a combined force of Welsh and Irish under Gruffydd ap Cynan, the Welsh prince; it was not, however, destroyed until its custodians had offered vigorous resistance, in which seven of the canons were killed.

Norman period

Hereford Cathedral remained in a state of ruin until Robert of Lorraine was consecrated to the see (Made Bishop) in 1079 and undertook its reconstruction. His work was carried on, or, more probably, done over again, by Bishop Reynelm, who was next but one in the succession, and who reorganized the college of secular canons attached to the cathedral. Reynelm died in 1115, and it was only under his third successor, Robert de Betun, who was Bishop from 1131 to 1148, that the church which he began, or continued, was brought to completion.

Of this Norman church, nothing has survived but the choir up to the spring of the clerestory, the south transept, the arch between the north transept and the choir aisle, and the nave arcade. It had been completed for scarcely fifty years when William de Vere, who occupied the episcopal chair from 1186 to 1199, altered the east end by constructing a retro-choir or processional path and a Lady Chapel, the latter of which was rebuilt not long while afterwards - between the years 1226 and 1246 - during the early English style- with a crypt beneath. About the middle of the century the clerestory, and probably also the vaulting of the choir, were rebuilt, having been damaged by the settling of the central tower. Then, under Bishop Aquablanca (1240-68), one of Henry III's foreign favourites, the rebuilding of the north transept was begun, being completed later in the same century by Bishop Swinfield, who also built the aisles of the nave and eastern transept.

Bishop Aquablanca

One of the most notable of the pre-Reformation Bishops of Hereford, who left his mark upon the cathedral and the diocese was the Bishop Aquablanca (otherwise Peter of Savoy) who rebuilt the north transept. Aquablanca came to this country in the train of Eleanor of Provence. He was undoubtedly a man of energy and resource; but though he lavished money upon the cathedral and made a handsome bequest to the poor, it cannot be pretended that his qualifications for the office to which Henry III appointed him included paiety. He was an unblushing nepotist, nor was he afraid to practise gross fraud when occasion called for it. When Prince Edward came to Hereford to deal with King Llewellyn, the Bishop was away in Ireland on a tithe-collecting expedition, and the dean and canons were also absent. Not long after the Bishop's return, which was probably expedited by the stern rebuke which the King administered, he and all his relatives from Savoy were seized within the cathedral by a party of barons, who deprived him of the money which he had extorted from the Irish.

14th to 16th century: completion of the fabric

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A plan of the Cathedral published in 1836.

In the first half of the next century - the 14th - the rebuilding of the central tower, which is embellished with ball-flower ornaments, was carried out. Somewhere about the same time the chapter house and its vestibule were built, and then Bishop Trevenant, who presided over the Bishopric from 1389 to 1404, rebuilt the south end and groining of the great transept. About the middle of the 15th century a tower was added to the western end of the nave, and in the second half of this century Bishops Stanbury and Audley built three chantries, the former on the north side of the presbytery, the latter on the south side of the Lady Chapel. Bishops Mayo and Booth, who between them ruled the diocese from 1504 to 1535, made the last additions to the cathedral by erecting the north porch, now forming the principal northern entrance. The building of the present edifice extended, therefore, over a period of 440 years.

Thomas de Cantilupe

Thomas de Cantilupe was the next but one Bishop of Hereford. He had faults not uncommon in men who held high ecclesiastical office in his day, however he was a strenuous administrator of his see, and an unbending champion of its rights. For assaulting some of the episcopal tenants and raiding their cattle, Lord Clifford was condemned to walk barefoot through the cathedral to the high altar, and the Bishop himself applied the rod to his back. Bishop Cantilupe also wrung from King Llewellyn some manors which he had seized, and Cantilupe;after a successful lawsuit against the Earl of Gloucester to determine the possession of a chase near the Forest of Malvern; dug the dyke which can still be traced on the crest of the Malvern Hills. Excommunicated by Archbishop Peckham, he went to Rome and obtained a decree in his favour from the Pope, but did not live to enjoy the fruits of his victory, for he died at Orvieto, on his way home, in 1282. Rome was urged to canonize him, and among the evidences of his saintliness which his admirers appealed to, in addition to the miracles of healing wrought at his shrine, were the facts that he never ceased to wear his hair-shirt, and would never allow even his sister to kiss him. The testimony was regarded as conclusive, and 40 years after his death the Bishop's name was added to the roll of saints. His arms were adopted for those of the See.

16th to 17th century

In the war between King and Parliament the city of Hereford fell into the hands first of one party, then of the other. Once it endured a siege, and when it was taken the conquerors ran riot in the cathedral and, in their fury, caused great damage which could never be repaired. In the early years of the next century, animated by his best intentions, Bishop Bisse (1712-21), (whose brother, Chancellor Bisse, was one of the originators of the Three Choirs Festival which also involves Worcester Cathedral and Gloucester Cathedral), created a good deal of mischief. To support the central tower, he built up a hideous mass of masonry which was useless; he further disfigured the church with an enormous altar-piece and an oak screen, and instead of restoring the Chapter House he allowed its stones to be utlized for alterations to the Bishop's Palace.

1786: Fall of the western tower

On Easter Monday, 1786, the greatest disaster in the history of the Cathedral took place. The west tower fell, creating a ruin of the whole of the west front and at least one part of the nave. The tower, which, unlike the west tower of Ely, was in the west bay of the nave, had a general resemblance to the central tower; both were profusely covered with ball-flower ornaments, and both terminated in leaden spires. James Wyatt was called in to repair the damage. Although, as he did at Durham, instead of just repairing he made alterations which were (and are) not universally popular.

19th century restoration and 1904 reopening

In 1841 the restoration work was begun, instigated by Dean Merewether, and was carried out under the Cottinghams, father and son. Bishop Bisse's masonry, which by this time had been found to be useless, was swept away from the central tower, the lantern was strengthened and exposed to view, and much work was done in the nave and to the exterior of the Lady Chapel. When the young Cottingham was drowned on a voyage to New York in 1857, George Gilbert Scott was called in, and from that time the work of restoring the choir was performed continuously until 1863, when (on June 30th) the cathedral was reopened with solemn services. The Bishop of the diocese, Dr. Hampden, preached in the morning and Bishop Wilberforce preached in the evening. In his diary, the latter Bishop characterizes his right reverend brother's sermon as "dull, but thoroughly orthodox"; but of his own service he remarks (not without complacency), "I preached evening; great congregation and much interested."

Between them these restorations cost some £45,000, a lot in the 1800's. Since then much else has been done. "Wyatt's Folly", as James Wyatt's west front was often called, has been replaced by a highly ornate façade in commemoration of the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria, whose figure is to be seen in the beautiful stained glass which fills the seven-light (i.e where light pours in at 7am) window subscribed "by the women of Hereford diocese".

General description of interior

When we enter the building and stand under the west window, the mind receives an impression of smallness, due mainly to the ponderous Norman arches and columns of the nave. From this point the eye need see nothing that is not Norman, for Wyatt's triforium and his clerestory windows may be disregarded as above the eye line. The decorative work on these fine columns and arches has been freshened, but it remains substantially as the graceful fancy of Bishop Reynelm's masons left it. Until 1847 the piers, massive as they are, must have had a stumpy appearance, for the pavement which had been laid down in the nave completely hid the bold square bases on which they rested. Their bulk, too, is relieved by the double semi-cylindrical shafts which run up their north and south faces, ending in small double capitals at the height of the capitals of the piers themselves. In the south aisle of the nave are two 14th-century tombs, with effigies of unknown ecclesiastics. The tomb of Sir Richard Pembridge, Knight of the Garter in the reign of Edward III, is worthy of special notice as a fine example of the armour of that period, and because it is one of the earliest instances of an effigy wearing the garter. A square-headed doorway gives access from this aisle to the Bishop's Cloister.

If, instead of entering by the west door, we gain access to the interior through the great north porch and the rich Decorated doorway, a good general view is at once obtained. The fine massive Norman pillars of the nave, tower, and choir, the superb modern screen, the spacious and lofty central lantern, the reredos with its richly carved spandrel behind, the distant view of the Lady Chapel with its lovely lancet windows and foliated ornaments, its groined roof and stained glass, the darkness of the choir and the various lights and shades, all combine to make a deep impression of solemn mystery. The tomb of Bishop Booth, the builder of the porch, is to be seen in the sixth bay of the nave on the north side, guarded by the only ancient ironwork in the church which has been left unmolested. On the south side of the nave is the Norman font, a circular bowl large enough to allow of the immersion of children.

Great transept and choir

The north transept, rebuilt, as we have seen, by Bishop Aquablanca in the Decorated period, and restored by Scott, is remarkable for the lovely diapering of the triforium arcade, and yet more for the singular form of the pointed arches and windows, which have so slight a curvature as to resemble two straight lines meeting at an angle. The north window is filled with stained glass by Hardman as a memorial of Archdeacon Lane-Freer, who died in 1863. In this transept is the tomb or substructure of the shrine of Bishop Cantilupe, a rich specimen of early Decorated work, which has been most carefully restored. Of Purbeck marble, it is built in two stages, of which the lower contains 14 figures of Knights Templars in chain armour, occupying cinquefoiled niches - a reminiscence of the fact that the Bishop was Provincial Grand Master of that Order in England. Between the north choir aisle and the eastern aisle of the transept is the tomb of Bishop Aquablanca, the most ancient and most beautiful of the episcopal monuments in the church. The effigy is a fine and perfect example of a bishop in full vestments; the rich canopy is supported by slender shafts; the carving throughout is so delicate and rich that as a work of art the tomb is scarcely surpassed by any of its period. The south transept is thought by some authorities to be the oldest part of the cathedral, and it certainly exhibits some unmistakable Norman work, notably the eastern wall with its beautiful arcades.

The choir-screen, or wrought-iron, painted and gilt, strikes a note too plangent, perhaps, for its surroundings; but it is beautiful in form and admirable in craftsmanship. Designed by Scott, it was executed by Messrs. Skidmore, of Coventry, from whose works also came the earlier metal screen at Lichfield. The choir, consisting of three Norman bays of three stages, is full of objects of much beauty and interest. The reredos, designed by the younger Cottingham, consists of five canopied compartments, with elaborate sculpture representing our Lord's Passion. Behind it is a pier from which spring two pointed arches; the spandrel thus formed is covered with rich modern sculpture, representing Christ in his majesty, with angels and the four Evangelists; below is a figure of King Ethelbert. Against the most easterly point on the south side of the choir is to be seen a small effigy of this king, which was dug up at the entrance to the Lady Chapel about the year 1700. The Bishop's throne and the stalls, of good 14th-century work, all carefully restored, and the modern book desks and figures of angels on the upper stalls, deserve attention. There is also a very curious ancient episcopal chair.

Mappa Mundi

In the north choir aisle is Bishop Stanbury's late Perpendicular chantry, a charming little structure with fan-vaulted roof and panelled walls, lighted by two windows on the north side. The alabaster effigy, although slightly mutilated, is a valuable example of mediaeval vestments. On the wall of the opposite choir aisle, the celebrated Hereford "Mappa Mundi", dating from the later years of the 13th century, hung, little regarded, for many years. It is the work of an ecclesiastic who is supposed to be represented in the right-hand corner on horseback, attended by his page and greyhounds. He has commemorated himself under the name of Richard de Haldingham and Lafford in Lincolnshire, but his real name was Richard de la Battayle or de Bello. He held a prebendal stall in Lincoln Cathedral, and was promoted to a stall in this cathedral in 1305, afterwards becoming Archbishop of Reading. During the troublous times of Cromwell the map was laid beneath the floor of Bishop Audley's Chantry, beside the Lady Chapel, where it remained secreted for some time. In 1855 it was cleaned and repaired at the British Museum. It is certainly one of the most remarkable monuments of its kind in existence, being the largest but one of all the old maps, drawn on a single sheet of stout vellum. The world is represented as round, surround by the ocean. At the top of the map (the east) is represented Paradise, with its river and tree; also the eating of the forbidden fruit and the expulsion of our first parents. Above is a remarkable representation of the Day of Judgment, with the Virgin Mary interceding for the faithful, who are seen rising from their graves and being led within the walls of heaven. There are numerous figures of towns, animals, birds, and fish, with grotesque creatures; the four great cities, Jerusalem, Babylon, Rome, and Troy, are made very prominent. In Great Britain most of the cathedrals are mentioned. In the 1980s, a financial crisis in the diocese caused the Dean and Chapter to consider selling the Mappi Mundi. After much controversy, large donations from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, Paul Getty and members of the public, kept the map in Hereford and allowed the construction of a new library to house the map and the chained libraries from the Cathedral and All Saints Church. The centre opened in 1996 on May 3.

The east transept

In the north-east transept, of which the vaulting is supported by a central octagonal pier, a large number of monumental fragments are preserved, forming a rich and varied collection. There is also a beautiful altar-tomb of alabaster and polished marbles erected as a public memorial to a former Dean, Richard Dawes, who died in 1867. The effigy, by Mr. Noble, is a good likeness of the Dean, who was an ardent supporter of the education movement about the middle of the 19th century. The south-east transept contains memorials or several Bishops of Hereford. The remains of Bishop Gilbert Ironside (1701), together with his black marble tombstone, were removed to this place in 1867m, when the Church of St. Mary Somersetm in Upper Thames Street, London, was taken down. Here also may be seen a curious effigy of St. John the Baptist, and a fine marble bust, believed to be the work of Roubiliac. The handsome canopied Perpendicular tomb of Bishop Mayo (1516), with effigy fully vested, is on the south side of the altar. In the south-east transept, again, is a doorway that opens into the Vicars' Cloister, an interesting piece of Perpendicular work which leads to the college of the vicars choral.

Lady Chapel

Crossing the retro-choir or ambulatory, we enter the spacious and beautiful Early English Lady Chapel, which is built over the crypt and is approached by an ascent of five steps. Of the five beautiful lancet windows at the east end, each with a quatrefoil opening in the wall above it, Fergusson remarks that nowhere on the Continent is such a combination to be found; and he brackets them with the Five Sisters at York and the east end of Ely. They are filled with glass by Cottingham as a memorial of Dean Merewether, who is buried in the crypt below, and is further commemorated here by a black marble slab with a brass by Hardman, recording his unwearied interest in the resoration of the cathedral. In the Lady Chapel are monuments of Joanna de Kilpec and Humphrey de Bohun, her husband. The former, Countess of Hereford, was a 14th-century benefactress of the cathedral, who gave to the Dean and Chapter an acre (4,000 m²) of land in Lugwardine, and the advowson of the church, with several chapels pertaining to it. On the south side of the Lady Chapel, separated from it by a screen of curious design, is the chantry erected at the end of the 15th century by Bishop Audley, who, being translated to Salisbury, built another there, in which he is buried. His chantry here, pentagonal in shape, is in two storeys, with two windows in the lower and five in the higher.

Crypt and library

Though the crypt is small, it is of special interest, as the solitary example of a crypt in an English cathedral built after the Norman period until we come to Truro Cathedral - for the crypt of St. Paul's is only a reconstruction. To its use as a charnel house it owes the name of Golgotha.

The library contains main old books in manuscript chained to their places, some of them fine specimens of ancient handwriting, and containing beautiful illustrations in gold and colour. Two of the most valuable are a unique copy of the ancient Hereford antiphonary of the 13th century, in good preservation, and a copy of the Gospels at least a thousand years old, in Anglo-Saxon characters. Another treasure is an ancient reliquary of oak, bequeathed to the cathedral by Canon Russell, who is said to have obtained it from a Roman Catholic family in whose possession it had long been. It is covered with copper plates overlaid with Limoges enamel representing the murder and entombment of St. Thomas of Canterbury.

Other buildings

Between the cloisters, the Bishop's and Vicars', both on the south side of the cathedral, are the remains of the Chapter House. In the troubles of 1645 the lead was stripped from its roof, and we have already recalled how Bishop Bisse most inexcusably completed its ruin. The Bishop's Palace, the Deanery, residences for the canons, and cathedral school are in close proximity to each other. The College, the residence of the vicars choral, forms a picturesque quadrangle.


The exterior length of the church is 342 feet, the interior length 326 feet, the nave (up to the screen) measuring 158 feet and the choir 75 feet. The great transept is 146 feet in length, the east transept 110 feet. The nave and choir (including the aisles) are 73 feet wide; the nave is 64 feet high, and the choir 62 1/2 feet. The lantern is 96 feet high, the tower 140 1/2 feet, or with the pinnacles 165 feet.

Eminent persons

Among eminent men who have been associated with the cathedral, besides those who have already been mentioned, are Robert of Gloucester, the chronicler, prebendary in 1291; Nicholas of Hereford, chancellor in 1377 - a remarkable man, leader of the Lollards at Oxford; Polydore Vergil, prebendary in 1507 - a celebrated literary man, as indeed with such a name he ought to have been; and Miles Smith, prebendary in 1580, promoted to the see of Gloucester - one of the translators of the Authorized Bible. Another famous prebendary was Thomas Cardinal Wolsey, who was appointed to a stall in 1510. The list of post-Reformation prelates includes Matthew Wren, who, however was translated to Ely in the year of his consecration (1635); Nicholas Monk, a brother of the Duke of Albemarle, who died within a few months of consecration (1661); and two bishops around whom ecclesiastical storms raged - Benjamin Hoadley and R.D. Hampden. The one, by his tract against the Non-jurors and his sermon on the Kingdom of Christ, provoked that Bangorian Controversy which let to the virtual supersession of Convocation from 1717 to 1852; the appointment of the other to this see by Lord John Russell in 1847 was bitterly opposed by those who considered him latitudinarian, including the Dean of Hereford, and was appealed against in the Court of Queen's Bench. Dr. Hampden went his way, which was that of a student rather than that of an administrator, and ruled the diocese for 21 years, leaving behind him at his death, in 1868, the reputation of a great scholar and thinker.


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