Worcester Cathedral has a number of monuments commemorating men who served as its bishops. Those who died holding that office often chose burial in the Cathedral. In 1266, 750 years ago, Walter de Cantilupe was such a bishop, said to have died at his estate in Blockley Gloucestershire and to have been buried in the Cathedral in his bishop’s vestments, wearing a mitre on his head with his crozier or staff at his left side.
For about 20 years from roughly 1857 the Cathedral underwent major restoration works. A well-known antiquary and amateur archaeologist named Matthew Bloxam was called in by the Cathedral architect and in 1862 wrote this record of his findings:
In December, 1861, the workmen employed in removing a part of the wall on the north side of the choir, near the east end, discovered a stone coffin, a portion of which fell away, disclosing the remains of one of the bishops in his episcopal vestments.
The lid of the coffin had been removed and the contents were disturbed. But Bloxam was able to record that parts of the vestments were still intact, and other items still in the coffin: parts of small metal crowns, a gem stone, a brooch, ivory fragments and a silver gilt paten. However the bishop’s ring and chalice traditionally buried with their owner were missing.
The vestment remains were considered of national significance and were divided up between the Cathedral, the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum. Part of the V & A collection may be viewed on their website where it is described as “woven silk twill, embroidered with silver-gilt thread and silks” depicting the repeated figure of a king with crown and mace.
The other items discovered by Bloxam are still in the Cathedral. The fragments from the crozier, the gem stone and the brooch are on display in the Library, and the paten is in the Treasury.
A bishop’s crozier is a long staff shaped like a shepherd’s crook, also called a pastoral staff (from the Latin ‘pastor’, a shepherd). A bishop carries it in his left hand as a sign of his role as the shepherd of his people. It is traditionally said to be used to pull back any straying sheep. Broken pieces of ivory from the staff and parts of crowns, which may have ornamented the crook, remain.
The paten is a small metal plate used to hold the bread during the Eucharist and sometimes to cover the chalice. Bloxam described de Cantelupe’s as “a silver-gilt paten in perfect preservation, measuring about 4 inches in diameter . . . in the centre is engraved a representation of a hand with two fingers upraised in the gesture of benediction.”
Bloxam also identified as the lid of this coffin a sculptured effigy lying elsewhere in the Cathedral, which he discovered to be a perfect fit. This is his description of the effigy, slightly abbreviated:
The episcopal effigy which may be ascribed to Bishop Walter de Cantilupe is sculptured in bold relief on a coffin-shaped slab, out of a block of Purbeck or dark-colored marble. It represents the bishop wearing moustaches and a curly beard, with a low pointed mitre, either side of which is sculptured Early English foliage. The right hand is upheld with the fore-fingers raised in benediction; the left grasps the pastoral staff.
Bloxam’s identification of the body as Walter de Cantelupe has never been definitively proved, but it is still assumed to be correct. The effigy described above can be seen today in the Lady Chapel at the east end of the Cathedral.
What exactly is known about this Walter de Cantilupe? He was Bishop of Worcester from 1236 until 1266, coming from a family with close links to royal government and the court. He had long been rewarded with ecclesiastical patronage, holding at least thirteen benefices and church offices, clearly just for their income as he was not ordained priest until he was consecrated bishop of Worcester in April 1237.
A Cathedral blog from April 2013 titled Three Medieval Bishops of Worcester mentions him as continuing the building of the Lady Chapel and the new Choir, and founding the White Ladies nunnery in Worcester with an endowment of 51 acres of arable land and 2 acres of meadow at White Ladies Aston. He initiated the 1240 Synod of Worcester where a number of statutes were settled: children should have three godparents, games of religious mockery were prohibited, and the playing of chess by clergy was forbidden. In 1255 he began the fortification of Hartlebury Castle. He was uncle to Thomas de Cantilupe, Bishop of Hereford from 1275 to 1282, made a saint in 1330, the last Englishman canonised before the Reformation.
He was a friend and fellow-scholar of Robert Grosseteste, famous Bishop of Lincoln, and eventually he became a spokesman for the English clergy. In the civil war of 1265 he sided with Simon de Montfort, and was in some danger of both exile and excommunication for his active part in the rebellion. His death the following year saved him from such a fate. But we can save that story for another time!
You can read Bloxam’s account of the discoveries by googling Bloxam “Sepulchral Remains Worcester”. Wikipedia has a good article on Walter de Cantilupe, and the Victoria and Albert Museum displays parts of the vestments on its website at http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O92411/part-of-a-unknown/