The Hanged Man: Robert Bartlett Delves into the Vatican Archives to Resuscitate a Remarkable Tale of Execution and Resurrection in 13th-Century South Wales

Article excerpt

IN 1307 AN INQUIRY opened in London to determine whether Thomas de Cantilupe, Bishop of Hereford who had died twenty-five years earlier, was a saint. The three high-ranking ecclesiastics appointed by the pope to investigate were interested in two main things: the kind of life Bishop Thomas had lived and the miracles he might have performed after his death. A good life and posthumous miracles were, in the eyes of the Church, requirements before a person could be canonised.

The commissioners heard a remarkable story from three witnesses: the dowager Lady Mary de Briouze, her step-son William de Briouze, and the family chaplain. All described how some years back a brigand or rebel had been captured in the de Briouze lordship of Gower in south Wales. Lady Mary's husband (now deceased) ordered the man, William Cragh, to be hanged, and this was duly done. Although the rope broke and Cragh tumbled to the ground, he was strung up again and, to all appearances, died on the gallows. William de Briouze gave a particularly vivid description of the state of the corpse. However, this was not the end of the story. Lady Mary had pity on the condemned man and prayed to Thomas de Cantilupe for him. From his place in heaven, Cantilupe heard her. The corpse began to move. Soon he could take some broth. A little while later Cragh went, with the de Briouze family, to Hereford to the tomb of Thomas de Cantilupe to give him thanks. The bells were rung, a hymn of praise sung and a wax model of a gallows offered at the tomb.

The commissioners were all experienced lawyers and administrators, and the inquiry followed the rules of ecclesiastical trials, with active cross-examination by the judges. Questions and answers were recorded and this made discrepancies or gaps easy to spot. Had this miraculous resurrection taken place fifteen, sixteen or eighteen years earlier (each of the three witnesses had a different position on this)? Was Lady Mary description's of William Cragh as a 'brigand' more accurate than her step-son's choice of the term 'rebel'?

Then six further witnesses to the resurrection of William Cragh were interrogated. One was the head of the execution squad; another was William Cragh himself. He presented particular problems since he was a monoglot Welshman and interpreters had to be sought. Simultaneous translation was in any case a necessary part of the proceedings, since the witnesses deposed in English or French and the record was kept in Latin, and here another layer of linguistic complexity was added.

The detailed and often vivid accounts of these nine witnesses allow a composite picture to be built up both of the events of the day of execution and of the procedures involved in calling on the help of a saint. …