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A Legend of the Crusades

Sometimes stories and legends grow out of historical events and we find it difficult to separate fact from fiction. One such story concerns Eleanor, the wife of Grimbald Pauncefort of Herefordshire who was captured during the crusades. The story relates that she received a ransom letter which requested she send a "digit" of her body. She duly ordered a doctor to chop off one of her hands and sent it to Tunis, whereupon her husband was returned. Duncumb, an early 19th century historian, uses this story to illustrate the popular appeal of the crusading movement:

"Impelled by the extraordinary but general enthusiasm of the times, this Grimbaldus distinguished himself in the expedition against Tunis, but being taken prisoner, a joint of his wife is supposed to have been demanded by the captor, as the only price of his liberty. The fame of her beauty might possibly have suggested this cruel ransom, and the lady, urged by affection for her husband, and by zeal in what was deemed a sacred cause, made no hesitation in complying with the terms proposed, by cutting off her left hand above the wrist, and forwarding it to her husband. This is supposed to have effected his release ..." (John Duncumb, Collections Towards the History and Antiquities of the County of Hereford, Vol. I Part 1, 1812 (1996 edition), Merton Priory Press, p. 98)

This couple's monument was in the east end of the south aisle of Cowarne church, and was described by Silas Taylor in the 16th century:

"... the stump of the woman's arm is somewhat elevated, as if to attract notice; and the hand and wrist, cut off, are carved close to his left side, with the right hand on his armour, as if for note."(Duncumb, p. 99)

Unfortunately little remains of this medieval monument, which seemingly provided some evidence for the truth of this remarkable story.

[Original author: Toria Forsyth-Moser, 2002-3]