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.

The source from which Bartlett reconstructs this story is the record of the 1307 inquiry into Thomas de Cantilupe’s life and miracles, conducted as part of the formal process of considering his candidature for canonisation by commissioners appointed by Pope Clement V. Three distinguished career ecclesiastics – William Durand, bishop of Mende in southern France, Ralph Baldock, bishop of London, and William de Testa, the Gascon collector of papal taxes in England – headed this commission, which was set up in response to a vigorous campaign for Thomas’s canonisation orchestrated by the cathedral chapter of Hereford and the bishop. Pilgrimage to a recognised saint’s shrine and the pious benefactions it would attract represented a potential source of significant financial gain to the chapter, so they had every reason to be active in bringing pressure to bear. A record of reliably attested miracles was among the essential qualifications for sainthood, and from early in 1290 they had been compiling a dossier of Thomas’s wonder-workings; the news of Cragh’s resuscitation that autumn came at a very opportune moment from their point of view. Their dossier (which the commissioners were of course shown) revealed Thomas as something of a specialist in resuscitations (a rather rare brand of miracle), with some forty to his credit. Cragh’s resurrection was, however, the most spectacular and vividly attested of his feats in this line, and it is no wonder that the commissioners of 1307 took a special and critical interest in it.

As was the rule in canonisation processes (and in heresy trials), the pope’s commissioners followed the inquisitorial procedures of Roman canon law, eliciting testimony from individual witnesses on the basis of a carefully prepared set of questions, and recording what each said with meticulous accuracy. For the medieval historian, records thus compiled have a very special quality, allowing uniquely intimate access to individual voices speaking in the past. Very often, moreover, these will be the voices of people who would otherwise have left no trace, the obscure and unlettered. Reconstructions based on such evidence are especially exciting and illuminating, because in its light the historian is able to tune in to personal experiences and mental operations in the past in a way and to a degree not usually open to him. The classic example of reconstruction from this sort of evidence is Montaillou, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s historical masterpiece, based on the record of Bishop Jacques Fournier’s investigation into Cathar heresy in a remote Pyrenean community. The narrower scope of the investigation into William Cragh’s resuscitation and the comparatively limited number of witnesses examined – just nine in all – mean that Robert Bartlett’s study fills a slimmer volume than Montaillou, and that the range of experiences and outlooks it uncovers is less extensive, but the insights it offers and that Bartlett exploits and explores are no less revealing for that.

The star witness of 1307 was, in a sense, Cragh himself, but though the story was his own there were crucial passages in it on which, for obvious reasons, he could throw no light. He could recall being led out from Swansea Castle and praying to St Thomas to aid him. After that, the last thing he could remember before losing consciousness on the gallows was the roar of the crowd as his fellow prisoner, Trahaearn ap Hywel, was hauled up. The key testimony as to the precise nature of the miracle that followed, a full-scale restoration of life to a thoroughly well-hanged corpse, had to be elicited from others who had seen Cragh turned off and then hanged again, or had viewed his body lying prostrate and disfigured in Thomas Mathews’s house: John of Baggeham, Lady Mary, her stepson, the de Briouze family chaplain, and four Swansea men whom the commissioners also examined. Bartlett goes through the fascinating detail of their statements very carefully, worrying out the intriguing contradictions between the individual versions of what happened, making due allowance for the uncertainties of recall after a lapse of time and for the effect of rendering into Latin testimony given in a native language (English or Norman French, or in Cragh’s case Welsh), illustrating and probing the variety of attitudes reflected in witnesses’ responses to rigorous grilling by the commissioners.

In the second half of the book Bartlett broadens the scope of his study to explore the background to the material circumstances and varieties of mental outlook highlighted by the evidence of the inquiry. The story that it uncovered centred on two events, an execution and a miraculous resuscitation, and he has important things to say on both topics. The age of William Cragh was one in which there was a great deal of hanging, and some of what Bartlett has to tell about the technology of ‘turning off’ and the symptoms that identify a hanged corpse demand a strongish stomach in the reader. Cragh was probably lucky to have been sentenced by a Marcher lord with a right to his own gallows; if he had fallen into the king’s hands, the sent-ence might well have been not just to hanging but to drawing and quartering as well, after which resuscitation might have taxed the powers even of Thomas de Cantilupe. Full-scale resurrections such as he achieved in this case are pretty rare, but miraculous intervention by saints to save devotees by other means from death by hanging are more numerous (a favourite technique seems to have been to ensure survival by supporting, unseen, the feet of the victim hanging from the gallows). Bartlett also reveals the intriguing statistic that while, over the period from 550 to 1100, in approximately 75 per cent of recorded cases of miraculous survival the individuals hanged were believed to have been guilty of the crime for which they were condemned, between 1100 and 1500, 60 per cent of those on whose behalf the saints intervened were thought to have been innocent (it is not clear into which category Cragh would have fallen; he claimed he was innocent, but no one else seems to have thought he was). Does this development reflect a growing sense that supernatural interference ought to be justified in morally rational terms? Perhaps, but Bartlett is prudently hesitant on the point; it seems unwise to invoke reason too readily in the context of powers whose operations by definition exceed the limits of possibility that human experience would suggest.

Among the principal characters of the 1307 enquiry whose stories before and after 1290 Bartlett goes on to trace, William Cragh has a natural first claim on our interest. He was a Welsh native of the parish of Llanrhidian in Gower. Ever since the first establishment of an Anglo-Norman lordship in Gower in the reign of William Rufus, this had been a region of bitter conflict, between its English Marcher lords (from 1203 the de Briouzes) and the Welsh princes of Deheubarth and their descendants. Cragh was in the company of the last of these, Rhys ap Maredudd, when in the course of his revolt against English lordship in 1287 he sacked and burned the de Briouze castle of Oystermouth; it was for his part in this that Cragh was condemned to be hanged when he was captured in 1290, after the back of the revolt had been broken. Of his life following his wonderful deliverance we know virtually nothing, save that in 1307 he was living landless among his kinsfolk; he seems wisely to have taken care after 1290 to steer well clear of the sorts of situation that might require further applications to the good graces of Thomas de Cantilupe.

The later fortunes of the de Briouze family members who feature in the story are naturally more traceable, since they were great people of the March. William the younger inherited the Gower lordship when his father, who had sentenced Cragh, died in 1291. He lived on until 1326, and the future of his inheritance became a key factor in the tangled political manoeuvres that climaxed in the bloody confrontation between King Edward II and the barons of the March in 1321-22. We know much less about Lady Mary, his stepmother, who died in the same year as he did, but her story raises one of the most interesting of the many unanswerable questions prompted by the 1307 inquiry evidence. What was it that led her to plead for Cragh’s life, and when he was hanged to plead for his body, and to pray to St Thomas to give him life again? Her husband, according to the family chaplain, had particularly ‘hated’ Cragh and had ‘rejoiced greatly at his hanging and death’, granting his wife the body only when he believed the life had left it. John of Baggeham told the commissioners that he had thought it shameful that his lady should intercede for such an evil man as Cragh. But she was unshakeable; she got her ladies in waiting down on their knees with her to petition the saint to restore Cragh to life; she sent John of Baggeham (and one of her ladies) to measure him for a taper at the saint’s shrine, and told him to invoke the saint again beside the body; and she personally prepared broth for Cragh in the castle when he was recovering and could not yet swallow solids. As Bartlett points out, pleading for mercy was accepted to be a traditional role for high-born women in the medieval period; Queen Philippa’s eloquent plea to Edward III to spare the lives of the burghers of Calais is a famous example. But in the light of the expressed feelings about Cragh among the rest of the de Briouze household, one cannot help wondering whether there may have been something more than a routine response and ordinary feminine pity at work in this instance, something which is now irrecoverably lost to us.

The three great churchmen who presided over the 1307 inquiry all continued thereafter in careers that involved them in high politics and major ecclesiastical issues. Ralph Baldock became one of the lords ordainers, who sought in the early years of Edward II’s reign to hold that wayward king to a programme of reforms and to the exile of his favourite, Piers Gaveston; he died in 1313. William de Testa continued for a while as papal collector (and as a noted pluralist) in England; in 1312 he was promoted to the college of cardinals and under John XXII was active in the canonisation process of another Thomas, more important than Cantilupe – Thomas Aquinas. He died in 1326. William Durand was the longest lived of the three and had the most varied career. Between 1307 and 1311 he was active as a papal commissioner investigating the alleged blasphemies and obscene malpractices of the Templars, one of the most sinister and disreputable heresy hunts of the whole Middle Ages. Later, he was much involved in negotiations preparatory to the planned crusade of King Philip VI of France, which never got off the ground. He died in Cyprus in 1330.

Bartlett’s accounts of these further doings of the witnesses at the 1307 inquiry and their interrogators are informed by lively scholarship. Inevitably, there is not quite the same freshness in their telling as there is in the central story; the narrative voice is now necessarily that of the historian, no longer that of the witness testifying to what he or she has personally seen or heard. It is the history of William Cragh and his deliverance, as those who had seen him hang told it, that holds Bartlett’s book together and makes it so absorbing – that, and the author’s skill as an interpreter. ‘The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there’: Bartlett uses the extraordinary tale that he has quarried from the record of Thomas de Cantilupe’s canonisation process to take us on a gripping, educative and quite often disquieting excursion into that alien land.