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Hereford Cathedral


The cathedral at Hereford is known as the Cathedral Church of St Mary and St Ethelbert. The building is constructed almost entirely of local sandstone of a mainly reddish colour. Some of the carved work in the presbytery is of Ketton stone, while the shafting in the north transept is of Purbeck marble. The roofs are covered in lead.

History of the foundation

The diocese of Hereford is one of the oldest in the country. The compiler of the earliest surviving set of Anglo-Saxon Episcopal Lists named the first in the line of the bishops of Hereford as Putta.

AD 676: According to Bede (a historian writing around 730), Bishop Putta of Rochester, after the sack of his own city and cathedral by Ethelred, was given a plot of land - assumed to be at Hereford - for a church.

740: Cuthbert, the fifth bishop, erected there a cross of great magnificence. In 741 Cuthbert was made Archbishop of Canterbury.

790s: The border was dominated by the rule of King Offa, famous for building the dyke along the Welsh Border. Ethelbert, King of East Anglia was eager to marry Offa's daughter but in 792 Offa's wife Cynefrith, opposed to the marriage, arranged for Ethelbert to be murdered. Many people objected to the beheading of Ethelbert, and so Offa was forced to bury Ethelbert in Hereford to appease them. Ethelbert was made a saint and from that time the cathedral was dedicated to Ethelbert and the Virgin Mary. (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle)

1012-1015: Bishop Athelstane II rebuilt the church at Hereford. He also gave the cathedral a copy of the Four Gospels, which can still be seen in the Chained Library today. Hereford Cathedral had managed to escape the conversion to monasticism that many other cathedrals had undergone. This was mainly due to the fact that substantial revenue was required to support a community of monks, and Hereford was too poor.

1055: The building was seriously damaged by Welsh raids in 1055 and three canons, and four of their sons, who bravely fought to protect the cathedral were killed on its threshold. The cathedral was then burnt and only one book, the Cathedral Gospel, survived. The relics of St Ethelbert were burnt or stolen.

1056: Bishop Athelstane died in this year and Edward the Confessor chose the warlike Leofgar (a chaplain of Earl Harold) to replace him. In 1056 Leofgar undertook a revenge attack against the Welsh but was killed in battle. Hereford was temporarily put under the control of Ealdred, bishop of Worcester.

1061: Shortly before the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, Bishop Walter of Lorraine was appointed. He was one of a group of foreign clergymen given control of English dioceses at this time. These foreign clergy brought with them the Rule of Chrodegang, a new constitution drawn up by the Bishop of Metz, which meant that Hereford would always be served by canons and never by monks. The pontificate of Walter was short and we have little information about him, but we do know that he does not appear to have improved the finances of the cathedral.

1079: Bishop Robert de Losinga, who was also from Lorraine, is said to have then built a church at Hereford, based on the two-storey basilica at Aix. This may have been the structure which formerly stood on the south side of the Bishop's Cloister, and was subsequently destroyed by Bishop Egerton in 1737. Robert had trained at the cathedral school at Liege (said to be one of the best), and the cathedral finances began to improve, perhaps because of the experience that he had. Robert was also the first bishop to appoint an archdeacon in Hereford and he began to acquire books for the cathedral.

1086: Robert may have been one of the commissioners for the Domesday Survey published in this year. He also created small tenancies for members of the cathedral community. He died in 1095.

1095-1131: Between these years the bishops of Hereford are poorly documented. In 1096 Bishop Gerald was responsible for introducing the "Use of Hereford" (see glossary).

1107-15: The only documentary evidence relating to the beginning of the existing cathedral building is in the "Calendar of Obits", which describes Bishop Reinhelm as "fundatoris ecclesiae" or the founder. The architecture coincides with this statement and indicates that the east end, presbytery, eastern towers and south transept and sacristy were all built in the early 12th century.

1130s: The Cathedral Chapter start to emerge as a governing force in their own right, but the bishops still exercise strong influence over them.

1140s: During the civil wars between Stephen and Matilda, Hereford featured prominently. In 1138 Stephen came to the city and besieged the castle. The cathedral acted as a fortress to Miles of Gloucester who was fighting for Queen Matilda. Bishop Robert de Bethune, who was a loyal supporter of Stephen, was forced to withdraw to Shropshire. On the feast of Pentecost, Stephen is said to have worn his crown in the cathedral while seated in a massive wooden chair, said to be the one that is now in the sanctuary of the cathedral and which still bears his name.

1143: A truce between Miles and Stephen allowed the foundation of St Guthlac's Priory on episcopal land just outside the city's Bye Gate. The following year Matilda's troops arrived in the city and laid siege to Stephen's garrison at the castle. The cathedral and its grounds appear to have been the headquarters of the troops, and they dug ramparts and even stabled their horses in the cathedral grounds.

1131-48: After the troops left it was up to Bishop Robert de Bethune to repair the cathedral, remove the ramparts and restart the religious services. The building of the church at Hereford was carried on throughout the 12th century and finished (Anglia Sacra) by Bishop Robert de Bethune. This work included the nave and aisles, and most probably a central tower. At this time the earlier presbytery was enhanced with elaborate carving. Bishop Bethune had studied at the famous school of Laon, where fragments of evidence point to the fact that Hereford was considered an important centre of religious study in the 12th century. Indeed the Chained Library holds over 90 manuscripts from this period, many of them cathedral books.

1148: Gilbert Foliot, a Cluniac monk who had been abbot of Gloucester, succeeded Robert de Bethune. Gilbert began to encourage local landowners to make grants to the cathedral. In 1163 he was moved to the diocese of London.

1163: Robert de Melun - who was only in office for a short time - succeeded Gilbert. He had taught Thomas Becket and died at the height of the Becket dispute. After his death the see remained vacant until 1174.

1174: The new Bishop Robert Foliot had been archdeacon of Oxford and a canon lawyer as well as a supporter of Becket. He was generous to the cathedral and in 1179 commissioned the timber hall in the episcopal palace.

1186: William de Vere, who had been an Augustinian canon, succeeded Robert. He had also been clerk of works at Henry II's re-foundation at Waltham Abbey. He tried hard to increase the chapter's communal revenue and he recruited many canons with scholarly interests. After the death of William de Vere the canons attempted to secure the position for Walter Map, but before they could obtain King Richard I's permission, he died. King John had other ideas for the new bishop. He wished to curry favour with William de Braose, lord of Brecon (and possibly the most powerful man in the Welsh Marches), so he installed Braose's son Giles as Bishop of Hereford.

1200s: Giles had little experience in ecclesiastical matters but was sensible enough to employ a large, highly-educated clergy to guide him. In 1208 relations between the de Braose family and the king broke down and Giles was forced to flee to France, where he remained until 1213. He died in 1215.

The diocese was without a bishop for a year as the chapter wished to appoint Hugh de Mapenore, who had been clerk to Giles. To do this the chapter had to wait for King John to die, as he would not have approved.

1219: Hugh de Mapenore was followed by Hugh Foliot (1219) and Ralph de Maidstone (1234), who were members of the chapter. Both of these men were responsible for improvements in the organisation of the cathedral affairs. Hugh extended to cathedral dignitaries the right to a year's grace and payment of a year's income to executors on their death. Ralph established the office of the penitentiary before becoming a Franciscan in 1239.

1239: Peter de Aquablanca, who was the youngest son of the Briancon family from Savoy, succeeded Ralph. He had begun his religious career as a clerk to William of Savoy, bishop elect of Valence and uncle of Eleanor of Provence (who was married to Henry III). Peter first came to England in 1236 and in 1249 he entered the king's service. He was known for his linguistic and diplomatic skills, and was frequently away from the diocese collecting taxes on behalf of the papacy and Henry.

The alterations to the north transept were probably begun by Bishop Peter de Aquablanca (1240-68) who lies buried beneath the arch constructed between the transept and the north aisle of the presbytery. Bishop John le Breton (1269-75) probably completed the transept. Bishop Peter was a man who felt the need for order and structure in the religious affairs of the cathedral and he was responsible for the creation of a full set of statutes. Some of the customs he introduced, such as the lighting of two candles before the bishop's throne whenever he is seated in it, are still observed today.

Throughout his career Peter and the chapter (who worked well together, which is not surprising as out of the 30 canons 20 were from Savoy and four of those were Peter's nephews) strove to prevent the Dominicans from building a convent on land they had been given in the city.

Peter also faced opposition from residents who were living under the King's Fee rather than the Episcopal one. They objected to the benefits afforded the episcopal tenants, such as exemption from the jurisdiction of royal officials. People also disliked the control the bishop had over the annual fair of St. Ethelbert, from which the dean and chapter greatly benefited.

Because of the nationality of Peter and the majority of the canons, Simon de Montfort's men at Eardisley imprisoned them in 1263, during the Barons' Wars.

1276: Thomas Cantilupe became Bishop of Hereford. Cantilupe had had a very distinguished career, becoming not only Chancellor of the University of Oxford but also Chancellor of England. He was a supporter of Simon de Montfort and the Barons in the baronial wars of the 1260s. He spent much of his time at Hereford attempting to reclaim the infringed property of the diocese. He won the hearts of many with his kindness and humility. He was excommunicated by the Archbishop of Canterbury and died in 1282 whilst in Italy making an appeal to the Pope.

The bones of Thomas Cantilupe were brought back to Hereford and buried in the Lady Chapel. Later they were moved to the north transept, where part of his shrine still exists. Pilgrims began to flock to his tomb and many claimed miracles. Thomas Cantilupe was eventually canonised in 1320. A new shrine was erected in the Lady Chapel in 1349 but it was destroyed during the Reformation. The pilgrims who came to the shrine of Thomas Cantilupe raised such a great revenue that it was possible for the central tower of the cathedral to be built.

The Franciscans and Dominicans established priories at Hereford; these new spiritual trends changed the demands placed on the cathedral.

1360s: The reconstruction of the south-east transept was probably undertaken sometime around this date under Bishop Lewis Charlton, whose tomb it contains. Towards the end of the 14th century the Lollards and their heretical views became prevalent in the country. A later version of the Lollard Bible, also known as Wycliffe's version, is held in the Chained Library where it is known as the Cider Bible. At this time Nicholas of Hereford was one of the cathedral canons. Nicholas is famous for his part in the production of one of the earliest English translations of the Bible.

The vault of the south-east transept was reconstructed later in the 15th century, probably under the supervision of Dean Harvey, whose tomb stands on the south side. Also in the 15th century Bishop John Stanbury built the quadrangle of cloisters to the south-east of the cathedral for the twenty-seven vicars choral. The vicars choral were priests who were not only employed in the worship in the cathedral but who also served as the singing deputies of the absent canons. The vicars choral had been in existence since the early 13th century, and in 1395 King Richard II had granted them a charter which established them as a college and allowed them to hold property and determine their own affairs. For almost the first 100 years of their existence they lived in a building called Old College; this is now part of the Cathedral School. The Vicars Choral College was dissolved in 1937 and now there are only two practising vicars choral.

1516-35: The outer north porch, which is usually attributed to Bishop Charles Booth, was most probably begun under his predecessor Richard Mayhew. It was completed by 1519 as the date is on a small adjoining doorway connected with the Chapel of St Mary, the architectural details of which are carved on the outer porch. Bishop Booth died in 1535.

1535: Edward Fox was made bishop but his episcopate lasted only three years. Fox was sympathetic to the idea of reform but was not in position long enough to instigate any major changes at Hereford.

1535: The Reformation of Henry VIII was not well received in Hereford, and in particular Bishop John Skip was an active objector to Henry's new Church of England, despite having been Anne Boleyn's chaplain. The first Reformation change that had any effect at Hereford was the campaign against shrines. The King's Chief Minister, Thomas Cromwell, condemned shrines and images in a series of injunctions issued in 1536 and 1538. At Hereford these injunctions had particular effect on the shrine of St Thomas Cantilupe, who had been venerated since 1320. Offerings at the shrine had begun to decline earlier but this decline increased because of the condemnation, however observance of his feast day lasted well into the 16th century.

1547: Two Acts of Parliament (one passed just before the death of Henry VIII and one just after the accession of Edward VI) ordered the dissolution of chantries on the grounds that prayers to the dead were ineffectual and the endowments might be put to better use by the state. Hereford argued that as the chantry prayers were sung by the vicars choral the revenues should remain in the possession of the college. Extraordinarily the vicars choral won.

1549: The introduction of the Book of Common Prayer must have brought about considerable change in Hereford Cathedral. For example, it was now illegal to sing anthems with Latin text. The more radically Protestant Second Prayer Book was brought out in November 1552.

1550: Edward VI's privy council issued a demand that all stone altars be removed from the centre of churches and be replaced with more simple wooden tables aligned east to west. However, it is not clear how strictly this order was followed at Hereford.

1553: The see was granted to Bishop John Harley, the chaplain to the Duke of Northumberland. In the same year Edward VI died and Mary I succeeded to the throne. John Harley was deprived of his position. His successor was Robert Parfew, a former Cluniac monk.

1554: All dioceses were ordered to remove married clergy from the cathedral staff. At Hereford this involved the removal of four members of staff, plus another married priest was banned from performing the sacraments. In the same year it was recorded that England had been reconciled to the Church of Rome.

1558: Elizabeth I was crowned Queen. With the start of her reign the Reformation of the Church began again.

1559: The more Protestant John Scory was Elizabeth I's choice of bishop. He described the attitude of Hereford Cathedral towards the Reformation thus:

"The canons will neither preach, read homilies, nor minister the Holy Communion, nor do anything to commend, beautify, or set forward this religion, but mutter against it, receive and maintain its enemies". (Rev. P L S Barrett, Hereford Cathedral - A Visitor's Guide)

Also in 1559, a set of royal injunctions was sent to Hereford by three university professors who had been appointed the Queen's Visitors. These injunctions were specific to Hereford and included such details as: sermons were to be preached regularly; the clergy were to avoid adultery and fornication; they were to pray for the queen; and also they were to keep hospitality and help the poor.

During the reign of Elizabeth I Hereford Cathedral was privileged to have one of the greatest and most famous musicians in the country as its organist. John Bull was renowned in England and on the Continent for his keyboard skills.

17th century: The Chapter at Hereford Cathedral included some very distinguished men. These included Miles Smith, one of the translators of the Authorised Version of the Bible, Robert Montagu, a noted theologian, and Thomas Thornton, who was in charge of the great cathedral library.

1640s: During the Civil War Hereford was occupied twice by parliamentary forces. In 1645 the city was garrisoned by Royalists who succeeded in resisting the attack of a Scottish Army. Unfortunately the lead roof of the chapter house was stripped and melted for ammunition. (It has been said that the chapter house roof was one of the greatest examples of fan-tailed roofing in England.)

During the period when Colonel Birch and his Parliamentarian troops occupied Hereford, Herbert Croft was Dean and he spoke out against the desecration of the cathedral by Roundhead soldiers. (In 1644 Croft Castle, the family home of Herbert Croft, had been plundered by Royalist levies, perhaps giving him a justified dislike of the Royalist troops.) The Roundheads prepared their arms and asked if they should shoot him but Colonel Birch spared him. The pulpit from which Herbert Croft gave his address is now preserved in the nave. The Cathedral clergy were not spared. They were thrown out of their houses and the cloister were used as homes for the poor, whilst both the library and the impressive brass collection were plundered. In 1646, three Presbyterian preachers and ministers were appointed to preach in the cathedral in place of the clergy of the foundation.

1660s: During the Restoration of 1660, in the reign of Charles II, the Dean and Chapter were re-established. In 1661, Herbert Croft was made Bishop and George Benson became Dean. This partnership was one which suited both men and they worked together extremely amicably. They died within a few months of each other and were buried side by side. On their tombstones were carved clasping hands, above the Latin phrase "In vita conjuncti, in morte non divisi" ("In life joined together, in death not divided"), a lasting symbol of their friendship. (These tombs are situated in the south-east transept.)

Early in the 18th century: Bishop Philip Bisse carried out some alterations to the choir and sanctuary. The Norman pillars and arches were covered with lath and plaster and concealed by oak panelling. He installed a new altarpiece, which was a "Grecian" screen with an oil painting framed with boards painted to look like curtains. His successor Bishop Egerton went further and demolished the early Norman chapel of the palace.

The 18th century also saw the start of the Three Choirs Festival, which involved the joining of Hereford's choir with those of Worcester and Gloucester for an annual gathering. Thomas Bisse, Bishop Bisse's brother, was responsible for the foundation of a Festival Charity in 1724, which was responsible for raising funds for the widows and orphans of the clergy of the three dioceses.

Easter Monday, 1786: The west tower of the cathedral collapsed, demolishing much of the west front and the nave. (Not a good omen, given the date!) James Wyatt was put in charge of the rebuilding operations. He shortened the nave by one bay and replaced the Norman triforium and clerestory with a design of his own. The new west end was given a very plain front and the spire was removed from the central tower.

Early 19th century: The cathedral and close appeared to have fallen into a terrible state. Dean Gretton's son recalled what it looked like:

"In the Cathedral were to be seen broken pavements, monuments uncared for, the grand Norman pillars buried in coats of whitewash ... the Minster Yard was an untidy and uncared for place, with pathways made ad libitum in all directions." (Rev. P.L.S. Barrett, Hereford Cathedral - A Visitor's Guide)

1826: One of the canons complained about the "riot and disorder existing nightly in the cathedral churchyard", and four years later the City Beadle was asked to be on duty during services to prevent rowdy behaviour and trespassing.

The cathedral underwent further renovation in the 19th century under the supervision of architects L. N. Cottingham and Sir George Gilbert Scott.

During the 19th century the services in the cathedral also suffered. Canons Morgan and Napleton were locked in a feud and the vicars choral were irregular at attending services, whilst the organist Charles James Dare was also said to be past his best.

1832: Dean John Merewether came to the cathedral and was appalled at what he found. He described the Sunday service in the cathedral as a "disgrace" and strove to reorganise the cathedral and uplift the services. In the same year that he arrived he appointed the young organist Samuel Sebastian Wesley. Wesley later became recognised as the leading organist of his day.

1847: Bishop Hampden was appointed. Dean Merewether is very open in his objection to this appointment. The Chained Library, which had been situated up until now in the Lady Chapel, was moved to a room above the north transept.

1860s: During this period the cathedral was extremely popular, especially for Sunday evening service, and people would queue up outside the north porch.

20th century: At the beginning of this century the Three Choirs Festival had reached the height of its fame and popularity. The composer Sir Edward Elgar, who lived in Hereford for a short time, was a frequent conductor and composer. Others such as Ralph Vaughan Williams and George Bernard Shaw were also visitors to the festival.

Another distinguished name associated with the festival is the organist George Robertson Sinclair, who was cathedral organist from 1889-1916. He was great friends with Sir Edward Elgar, and Sinclair's dog Dan is said to have been the inspiration for one of Elgar's Enigma Variations. This piece is said to portray how the dog fell into the River Wye and paddled back to the bank. A wooden sculpture depicting Dan can now be seen sitting on the south bank of the River Wye. Sinclair was responsible for the rebuilding of the cathedral organ in 1892. The result was one of the finest organs in the country, designed by "Father" Willis.

1930: The Chained Library was restored by Canon Streeter in the upper transept room.

1937: The Vicars Choral College was dissolved and the cloisters became the property of the Dean and Chapter.

1939: During the Second World War the Deanery on the cathedral Close was requisitioned and afterwards became the boarding house for the Cathedral School, who still own the Deanery. The school now stretches down both sides of Castle Street. The Cathedral School still have morning chapel in the cathedral every weekday.

1976: The Diocese of Hereford celebrated its 1300th anniversary, which included a visit from HM The Queen and HRH The Duke of Edinburgh who distributed Royal Maundy Money.

The Three Choirs Festival is still an annual event, and every third year Hereford and the cathedral play host. The event will next be held in Hereford in 2015.

Hereford Cathedral is currently undergoing an extensive programme of external renovation. The masons can be seen at work in their on-site workshop in the cathedral close.

[Original author: Miranda Greene, 2003]