Why did Lady Mary care about William Cragh?

Maurice Keen

  • The Hanged Man: A Story of Miracle, Memory and Colonialism in the Middle Ages by Robert Bartlett
    Princeton, 168 pp, £16.95, April 2004, ISBN 0 691 11719 5

Robert Bartlett examines with verve, scholarship and gusto the extraordinary story of a Welshman hanged by the neck outside Swansea in 1290 (and rehanged to make double sure he was done for), and restored to life by the intervention of a saint. The Welshman was William Cragh (cragh in Welsh means ‘the scabby’), a follower, it appears, of the Welsh patriot Rhys ap Maredudd. Cragh had been captured by the men of William de Briouze, Lord of Gower, and sentenced by him to hang as a rebel and a homicide. The saint was Thomas de Cantilupe, former bishop of Hereford, who had died in 1282. From soon after his death posthumous miracles had begun to be attributed to him, and he was officially canonised by Pope John XXII in 1320.

The story, in outline, runs thus. On the morning of (probably) 26 November 1290, Cragh and Trahaearn ap Hywel, a fellow rebel, were led out from their prison in the de Briouze castle of Swansea to the place of execution, on rising ground outside town. After William had been ‘turned off’ on the gallows (a transverse beam supported by two uprights), Trahaearn was hauled up by a rope noosed about his neck and thrown across the beam; he was a heavy man, the beam broke, and the two bodies fell to the ground. Both were promptly strung up again from what were left of the gallows. Before the execution, Lady Mary de Briouze, Lord William’s wife, had pleaded for the men’s lives; now, after they had been hanged a second time, she begged her husband to grant her at least what was left of Cragh, and he finally acceded. John de Baggeham, his steward, cut down the body from the gallows, and it was carried into the town by Cragh’s relatives, to the house of one Thomas Mathews. There, seemingly very dead indeed, it was viewed by Lady Mary’s stepson, William de Briouze the younger. As Cragh was turned off on the gallows he had been seen to void his bladder and bowels, and the body now lay showing the usual tell-tale signs of death by hanging: eyeballs starting from their bloody sockets and blackened tongue protruding from between clenched teeth. Lady Mary, however, remained undismayed; on her knees she implored St Thomas de Cantilupe ‘to ask God to restore life to William’, and she sent John of Baggeham back to Thomas Mathews’s house to measure the body, so that a great wax taper of the same height might be made, to burn at St Thomas’s shrine. While John was there, Cragh was seen to move his tongue a little, and then a foot; it became clear that life was returning to the apparent corpse. In a day or so, he was sufficiently recovered for the whole party – Lady Mary, her husband and her stepson, John of Baggeham, the family chaplain and Cragh himself – to set off for Hereford Cathedral to tell their story and to give thanks at St Thomas’s shrine.

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