Research project brings forgotten medieval pilgrimage alive
It is a truly remarkable story.
A Welsh outlaw was hanged in 1290. But he miraculously came back to life and went on pilgrimage - accompanied by the Norman lord who had tried to execute him.
“It must have been the most awkward road trip of all time,” says Professor Catherine Clarke of the University of Southampton and director of the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) - funded project The St Thomas Way: a new heritage route from Swansea to Hereford, which traces the route of this unlikely journey and provides interactive digital content for modern wayfarers.
“The research is based on such an exciting story - it's so weird and wonderful strange,” she says. “I think it taps into a growing public interest in pilgrimage journeys and heritage walks.”
At the heart of the tale is William Cragh, a medieval Welsh warrior who took part in a rebellion against the Marcher Lord of Gower, William de Briouze.
Cragh was captured in 1290 by the Lord of Gower, tried, found guilty of burning down the burned down the nearby castle at Oystermouth and sentenced to death.
The execution was set to take place at Gibbet Hill, near Swansea. But according to one source things did not go at all smoothly.
Twice the gallows collapsed, and Lord of Gower's wife, Lady Mary de Briouze, prayed to St Thomas of Hereford during the hanging.
Despite this, at the third attempt Cragh was hung and taken from the gallows -dead.
But he began to show signs of life the next day, and made a full recovery.
Once fit enough he headed off on a pilgrimage to Hereford to the shrine of St Thomas at Hereford Cathedral to give thanks for what was understood as a miracle, accompanied by Lord and Lady Briouze.
Cragh is said to have walked barefoot, wearing the rope he had been hanged with around his neck - and Thomas de Cantlupe would become St Thomas.
“Very few people have heard of St Thomas of Hereford, but next to Thomas Becket he was one of the most important saints in medieval Britain,” says Professor Clarke. “His shrine was a major pilgrimage destination.
“We took the journey that Cragh and Lord and Lady Briouze took as the inspiration our recreation of St Thomas' Way, building on our AHRC-funded research in Swansea (www.medievalswansea.ac.uk) so people today can step into the rich and colourful history of the March of Wales - the ‘wild west’ of medieval Britain.
“That's why there are so many castles! It was a dangerous, contested place with a fascinating history.”
The walk is not a continuous, linear route, but 13 separate walks at 13 separate locations. Visitors can chose to link them all up, walk one or two, or just drive to the ones they fancy.
People with mobility issues can simply engage with the interactive digital content.
At each location walkers can also win a 'badge' by solving a puzzle, which is a modern twist on the old medieval tradition of pilgrims gaining badges as they walked along.
“People are very interested in history located in place, and we wanted to tap into that to open up a wider perspective on history.
“Frustratingly, the documentary sources end with the trio heading off on their walk together, so if this was a movie, what we have done with St Thomas' trail is the sequel.
In terms of impact, one of the things that Professor Clarke and her team were very keen to do is use their research to encourage heritage tourism.
“But while most of the main events took place in Swansea, tourists don't visit the town in great numbers and many prefer to get out into the countryside and visit castles, which is partly why we focused on the walk. And there are many wonderful places to visit along the route,” she says.
“Many of them are not at all well known. But we have connected them through this narrative.”
And if modern pilgrims get thirsty on their walk, there is a special St Thomas Way beer developed by the Mumbles Brewery, which is served under two names - Hanged Man Walking and St Thomas Way Ale - and available at outlets right along the route.
The project has also been working with the artist Michelle Rumney who has been producing work inspired by the Mappa mundi - the medieval map held by Hereford Cathedral.
The project will launch in July this year, just in time for a summer stroll through the long grass - and long history - of a remarkable patch of the UK.
Read our case study featuring Professor Catherine Clarke.