Hereford Cathedral History Part 1: Celtic & Saxon Times

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The History of Hereford Cathedral in Herefordshire, Part 1
Edited by David Nash Ford


Centre of the Oldest See in England

The See of Hereford has been quoted as being "one of the few bishoprics which have come down almost without interruption from the first establishment of Christianity in our land until the present day." It is certainly considered the most ancient in England. Traditionally, the erection of the first Cathedral at Hereford or Caerfawydd, as the city was then known, was paid for by King Gerren Llyngesoc of Dumnonia (Devon & Cornwall) in AD 542; the Bishopric probably being transferred from the nearby Roman town of Magnis (Kenchester). A south-western monarch is, however, unlikely to have instigated such an undertaking in this part of the country and the dates are not quite right for this man. It seems clear that there has been some confusion with King "Gerascenus" of "Orcheus pagus". The existence of this little known King of Ergyng, the early British Kingdom that encompassed most of Herefordshire long before the arrival of the Saxons, is briefly recorded in the Life of his son, St. Mewen. His Welsh name was probably Gwrgan, as used some generations later in the Ergyng dynasty.

The Iolo Miscellany records that the Bishop of Caerfawydd attended the Synod of Caerleon in AD 544. A later Bishop, possibly Elwystl or Ufelfyw, was supposedly one of the prelates present at the conferences held between St. Augustine of Canterbury and the Welsh Ecclesiastical hierarchy in AD 602 & 4. It seems probable that these men were Bishops of the whole of Ergyng, with additional seats at Welsh Bicknor (Llangystennin), Kenderchurch (Llangynidr) and Glasbury (in Radnorshire). The names of the early 7th century Bishops of Ergyng are recorded in a jumbled mess amongst the semi-legendary early Bishops of Llandaff.

The first Bishop of Hereford, actually named by most historians, dates was in office in the 670s, when the Welsh had been pushed westward and the Mercians were well established enough in this area, which they called Magonset, to appoint their first Saxon Bishop. In AD 672, the Synod of Hertford, held by Archbishop Theodore of Canterbury, decided that the Mercian dominion should be divided up into several new dioceses. The old Celtic See of Caerfawydd was confirmed amongst these with the appointment of Bishop Putta, who was translated from Rochester in Kent, three years later. The eastern portion of the old diocese was given to the new Bishop of Worcester but, in recommence, King Merewalh of Magonset erected a grand new cathedral in Hereford. Its site is not precisely known, as the Priory of St. Guthlac, on Castle Green, has been shown to date from around this period and may have been the original Bishop's seat. Merewalh's son, King Mildfrith, and his family were buried at the Cathedral, probably in the 720s, and the move to the Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary may have occurred soon afterward.

However, it was the actions of these monarchs' Mercians Overlords which were to finally put Hereford's Cathedral securely on the map. In AD 793, King Aethelbert of East Anglia arrived in great state at King Offa of Mercia's Palace at Sutton Walls in order to ask for the hand of his daughter, Aelfrida, in marriage. Tradition has her step-mother, Queen Quendrida, oppose the union, believing that, in aspiring to become her son-in-law, Aethelbert was planning to succeed Offa. Planting the seen of doubt over Aethelbert's motives in Offa's mind, she persuaded her husband to have the poor man murdered. Aethelbert was initially buried at Marden "amid supernatural manifestations''. Tradition says that such stories, added to the King's remorse, led Offa to remove the body to Hereford Cathedral where it was reinterred beneath an elaborate shrine. Wilfrid, a viceroy of King Egbert of Mercia, later built a noble church of stone around the grave, in about AD 825, and dedicated it to St. Mary and St. Aethelbert.

By 1012, Bishop Athelstan (vir magnae sanctitatis, according to Florence of Worcester) found the church in a great state of decay and practically rebuilt it. The Bishop, although blind for thirteen years before his death in 1056, directed the affairs of his See with great fervour and it must have been a heavy blow to him when his Cathedral was burned down in 1055 by a Welsh horde who overran the city. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says, "They burned the town and the great mynstre, which the venerable Bishop Athelstan had before caused to be built, that they plundered and bereaved of relics and of vestments and of all things and slew the folk and led some away."

Partly edited from "Cathedrals" (1924).

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