William the Scabby was lead out to the scaffold on which he was to be hanged. A rebel against the Anglo-Norman rule, he had been sentenced to death on 13 counts of Homicide. Now it was time for him to meet his maker. Except, that is not how the story ends, for though William was hanged “until dead”, he was not to stay as such and later in the day, his miraculous resurrection was witnessed by a large proportion of the population of Swansea, including the highly experienced executioner himself.
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William Cragh: The Not So Hanged Man
On a cold November morning of 1290, deep in the southern Lordhsip of Gower, Wales, William the Scabby was lead out to the scaffold on which he was to be hanged. A rebel against the Anglo-Norman rule, he had been sentenced to death on 13 counts of Homicide. Now it was time for him to meet his maker. Except, that is not how the story ends, for though William was hanged “until dead”, he was not to stay as such and later in the day, his miraculous resurrection was witnessed by a large proportion of the population of Swansea, including the highly experienced executioner himself. This is Dark Histories, where the facts are worse than fiction.
The Briouze Family & Medieval Wales
The Gower Peninsula, part of the county of Glamorgan with the city of Swansea to the East, lies in the heart of Southern Wales, extending out, westward into the Bristol Channel. In 1106, during the Norman expansion into Wales, the Welsh ruler of the parish was killed and Norman castles sprung up along the coastline, numbering over twenty by 1116, including the 4.5 acre stone fortress of Swansea, built by Henry de Beaumont, the first Lords to establish themselves in South-East Wales and one of the largest Anglo-Norman baronial families. After the Earl of Warwick died in 1184, the land passed back into the hands of the Royals. Despite a long period of tumultuous war and rebellion, by the late 12th Century in the reign of Henry II, both the Normans and Welsh were keen to negotiate a fragile form of peace, with the Normans settling for occupying the Southern principalities, creating a series of Lordships including that of Gower. These Lordships were not simple geographical divides in the country and the reality on the ground was a series of complicated districts that teetered on the edge of constant rebellion and uprising, peace and outright war. Gower itself was divided administerally into two halves, with the lower south western area named English Gower, and the upper North Eastern known as Welsh Gower. Welsh Gower was further split into the areas of Upper and Lower Wood and whilst the divide generally saw the English occupy the English Gower and the Welsh occupy the Welsh Gower, native Welsh still lived and worked in both areas alongside the influx of English peasant farmers who transformed the agricultural landscape and the Townsmen who took up residence in Swansea.
This delicate arrangement coasted in relative peace until Henry II died in 1189. Within the year, the Welsh had taken up arms once more and rebellions sprung up throughout the Lordships. In Gower, Swansea came under siege in 1192, until eventually the threat of the incoming Anglo-Norman forces pushed them to retreat. It was in this fraught landscape of fragile peace, ethnic division, bitter rebellion and constant war that Gower passed into the hands of William de Briouze, when it was granted to him by King John in 1203.
William de Briouze hailed from Briouze in Southern Normandy and had embarked into England with the Norman invasion lead by William the Conqueror. The invasion saw him rewarded with land spread throughout Southern English counties, including Berkshire, Dorset, Hampshire, Surrey, Wiltshire and a considerable chunk of Sussex, with he lands of Bramber, a centre of salt production and economically important area. He built Bramber Castle in 1070 overlooking the River Adur and towering over the 150 peasant families that lived within its shadow. With careful marriages and continual economic expansion, the Briouze family flourished alongside the Norman invasion. In 1203 when the current head of the family, William, was granted Gower, the family was at it’s most powerful, expanding its influence throughout Southern England and now deep into the Welsh Lordships. It was not to last however, and William de Briouze was exiled just five years later in 1208, whilst his wife and children were imprisoned and starved, all by the same King John that had earlier so elevated him with the control of Gower. Over time, the family eventually reclaimed control when John de Briouze, the only surviving male heir took control over the Lordships of Bramber and Gower. He retained control of the lands until his death in 1232 when he died from a fall from a horse and control passed to his son, William De Briouze in 1241 when he came of age. For the next fifty years, William ruled the Lordships and became once again one of the more powerful Barons of the English kingdom. It was a period of some security, however, it was not without its troubles as we have heard, with the constant battles, both local and national, with rebellious uprisings in Gower and battles for the King during the Barons War, where the King sought to regain authority over the aristocracy the had placed restraints upon his government, ending in his death at the battle of Lewes in 1264. William de Briouze had taken the side of the defeated Royalists in this particular skirmish, and his 4 year old son was captured and held hostage as a consequence until the defeat and dismemberment of Simon de Montfort, the leader of the baronial opposition. As Royal authority slowly restored throughout the kingdom, the De Briouze family once again returned to ruling their lands in Gower and Bramber, with the usual ebb and flow of violence and peace, occupation and revolt, that had so become the metronomic nature of the day. Despite the special status of the Lords throughout the Welsh principalities that saw them as powerful as most Kings, life was not particularly peaceful.
1287 saw a particularly violent surge of rebellion lead by Rhys ap Maredudd, a native Welsh outlaw who had been in a long dispute with the English after a host of financial and land disputes had festered alongside a growing feeling of resentment against English rule. This eventually lead him to bring a force against Gower, besieging Swansea for almost two weeks. Though the force was pushed back, they left the township plundered and the castle burned alongside several other castles along the coast that they had rolled over as they ploughed down through Gower, picking up Welsh natives who were living in Gower along the way.
“He came down into Gower in the month of June with a great many and joined to him the Welshman of that area who lived in the Upper Wood. In that same month by their counsel… he burned the town of Swansea… and a few days later descended on the noble manor of Oystermouth, which the brave knight Sir William de Briouze had built for himself, and – I do not know whether by force or by fraud – he captured the castle there. Of the men who were taken prisoner, some he commanded to be killed in his presence, other he led off captive.”
The rebellion was eventually crushed and Rhys ap Maredudd fled to the cover off the forests, where he lived as an outlaw until his capture and death in 1292 by native Welshman who were rewarded with land, an act which shows the complicated nature of the precarious living situation in the Welsh Lordships.
One of the native Welshman who joined forces with Rhys as he steamrolled down through Gower was a peasant farmer named William Cragh. Whilst he had enjoyed some freedom after the failed rebellion, he was eventually captured and incarcerated in 1290, charged with 13 counts of homicide and Arson for his part in the siege of Swansea and Oystermouth. Now, on the 26th November, as he sat in a communal jail cell in Swansea Castle, he prayed for his life on the eve of his execution.
A Hanging for Breakfast
At the time of William Craghs incarceration, Hanging was the primary method for execution throughout England. Of the 98 prisoners executed between the years 1389 – 1392, 68 were hanged, 14 burned at the stake, 12 decapitated, 3 were buried alive and 1 was boiled in a cauldron. This list might sound brutal in itself, but the short form only tells half the story. During this period of civil unrest and rebellion, executions were becoming more gruesome, fuelled by a drive to send a message mixed with considerable feelings of revenge with every new uprising. Not simply strung up and then buried, many of the executed were dragged to the gallows tied to a horse and once the hanging was done, their bodies were cut down and quartered, with each piece sent to the far reaches of the land to be displayed as a warning to others. Heads of the treasonous were routinely spiked and displayed for months on end within London itself. Even in a relatively clean hanging that would forgo the disembowellings, decapitations, burnings and removal of hearts and other various organs, the process was not pretty. “The Drop”, a collapsable floor on the gallows was not invented until the 18th Century, so prisoners were hauled upon the gallows by ropes or turned off of ladders or cartwheels. An 18th Century hanging might have been a swift death, as the neck would usually break from the jolt of the drop, but without such a device, a lengthy, drawn out strangulation was par for the course.
This brutal death penalty was rolled out more and more as the Norman invasion of England spread across he country. William the Conqueror was keen to show that he was not a man to be trifled with and the death penalty was passed down not just for crimes such as poaching, murder and rebellion, but also for repeat offenders of lesser crimes. It was possible to pay off the debt to the king and avoid an execution, the going price for the pardon of a Nobel was 63 cows, less for people of the lower classes. Aside from this payment, there were two other ways to avoid an execution in medieval England. The first was to gain pardon, often petitioned to the Lords wife. Lords may have been seen as harsh, or maintaining their rule with an iron fist, but their wives were often thought of as the more gentle and compassionate members of the Baronial hierarchy. Not wanting to seem out of step with their class, the petitions were often upheld and executions were at times pardoned after the request of a Lady to the Lord, who held the final say in upholding the law of the land. The second way out of an execution was a little more complicated. If you were hanged and the gallows or rope was to break, it was, at times, viewed as an act of divine intervention. There was some debate over this, as well as the level of importance given to the clause in a sentence that said the prisoner was to be “hanged until dead”. A sentence with this tagged to the end could be seen to mean exactly that, no matter what might happen along the way. Nevertheless, this was one final, desperate, ray of hope for a prisoner who faced the gallows.
On the eve of his execution, William Cragh had already been imprisoned and questioned in Swansea castle by William de Briouze for fifteen days. He was, by his own admission, unsure of his age, but thought around 45 years old. Known as William the Scabby in English, he was described at the time as,
“A poor man, living with his kinsfolk, because his land was taken away from him by his lord.”
As heard, he stood accused on thirteen counts of homicide and Arson. Not only were the accusations serious enough in themselves, but he was captured as a rebel after one of the most violent uprisings against the Lordship of Gower in recent times that had seen much of the Lords lands pillaged and properties burned and plundered. He had been petitioned for pardon and offered the price of 100 cows for his freedom as well as a direct pardon sent to Lady Mary de Briouze. William de Briouze, however, refused pardon on both counts. Lady Mary described William Cragh as a renowned Brigand, but the reality was much darker for Cragh. The rebellion he had taken part in was pushed back only three years prior and would still have been very fresh in the mind of William De Briouze. This execution would have enacted a certain degree of revenge for the Lord and to pardon Cragh in such a way would have shown a degree of leniency that was uncharacteristic of the time to an almost absurd degree. Combined with the fact that the leader fo the rebellion had escaped into the forests of South Wales and was yet to be captured, William Cragh’s coming execution was the epitome of a statement execution, combined with feelings of revenge, his was an execution that had little chance of pardon.
At 7:30am On the 26th November, 1290, William Cragh was lead out from Swansea Castle, down to the Gallows that stood on a hill outside of town. The structure was a makeshift design, consisting of upright lengths of lumber hammered into the ground with a crossbeam resting upon the top. The noose was already tied around his neck and he was made to carry the length of rope that would string him up, with his family following behind. In a particular act of brutal barbarism, William de Briouze had forced Craghs own family to hang their relative themselves. As he approached the gallows, he spoke to the chaplain that accompanied the party, though unable to understand welsh and Cragh unable to speak English, latin or French, his pleas fell on deaf ears. The procession was quite the show of force and included William Cragh, his family, the local chaplain, William de Briouze and ten armed guards on horseback along with the executioner who was there to hang the second prisoner to be executed on that day, Trahaern ap Hywel, another “malefactor” of the Welsh noble class.
When they reached the gallows, William Cragh was to be hung first and he was ordered to climb the ladder carried from the castle and propped up against the gallows. His rope was tied and the ladder handed to the care of his relatives, who were to turn him off, by quite literally turning the ladder away from the structure until Cragh would fall and hang. With the job done, attention was turned to Trahaern, who was hoisted up over the crossbeam and too, hanged. The men were to be left to hang until sunset upon oders of William de Briouze, however, shortly after the execution was completed, the gallows collapsed and the men fell heavily to the ground. Here we are reminded of the pardon clause due to the possibility of divine intervention. No such concern was shown by Lord de Briouze though and Trahaern was ordered to be taken away and buried. Despite both men being reported dead, Cragh was ordered to be hung up once again and to hang until sunset, due to his being “a very famous and public malefactor,” and “As an insult to his Kin.” His body was once more hauled up over one of the upright beams, tied off and left to hang until evening.
When he was eventually let down at 4:00pm that afternoon, he was placed on the ladder that he had earlier climbed and been turned off to his death and carried into town where he was placed in the house of local man Thomas Mathews who lived next door to what would be his final destination in the Church of St. Mary. As his body was placed in the house, William de Briouze Junior came down from the castle to see the corpse for himself, describing it as such,
“He was laying by the main door, stretched out on the ground in the way that a dead man lies. His whole face was black and in parts bloody or stained with blood. His mouth, neck and throat and the parts around them, and also his nostrils, were filled with blood, so that it was impossible in the natural course of things for him to breathe air through his nostrils or through his mouth or through his throat… his tongue hung out of his mouth, the length of a mans finger, and it was completely black and swollen and as thick with the blood sticking to it that it seemed the size of a hands two fists together.”
Further witness description told of how in his death throes, he had voided his bladder and bowels and of how both of his eyes had popped loose from their sockets. It was, whilst his body lay in the house of Thomas Mathews, that things began to take a turn towards something a little more strange.
Back in the Ladies chamber of Swansea Castle, Lady Mary de Briouze had, after having her request for pardon denied by her husband, been preying for divine intervention to spare William Cragh during his execution. Now, upon return of William de Briouze Junior and following his report on the state of the dead body, she insisted,
“This man has been hanged twice and has suffered a great penalty. Let us pray to God and Saint Thomas de Cantilupe, that he give him life and, if he give him life, we will conduct him to Saint Thomas.”
Thomas de Cantilupe
A trusted advisor to Kind Edward I and a raging anti-semite, in life, Thomas de Cantilupe had petitioned the King to expel Jews from the Kingdom, claiming they were “enemies of God and rebels against the faith.” He had previously campaigned to stop ethnic Jews from being given positions of authority in society. At the time of his death, on 25th August 1282, he was in a state of excommunication by he Archbishop of Canterbury and was travelling in Italy towards Rome where he planned to take up the matter with the Pope. After his death, his flesh was boiled from his bones, which were sent back to England and laid to rest, though in 1287 they were removed from the grave and transported to Hereford Cathedral where he had previously been appointed as Bishop, effectively canonising him within the local community in all but official sense.
Thomas de Cantilupe, was not, however, a de facto saint, in that he had not been recognised as such by the Pope, though since his remains were placed in the tomb, local hearsay had spread rumours of numerous miracles being performed after pilgrimages to the cathedral.
“We have heard that the blind recover their sight there, the lame walk, and the dead rise again.”
This reporting of miracles, helped along by Richard de Swineford, the incoming Bishop that replaced Thomas after his death, had led to a recent pilgrim cult forming around Hereford and Thomas de Cantilupes tomb and as such, it would have been fairly natural for Lady de Briouze, familiar with the area and as it turned out, a distant relative, to have chosen this particular dead Bishop as the target for her prayers.
As part of the prayers and invocation of the saint, Lady Mary sent one of her handmaidens to the house of Thomas Mathews to measure the body of William Cragh with a piece of string. This was a religious practice common in medieval England, whereby a body would be measured lengthwise with a piece of thread, the thread or string would then be dipped into wax to make a taper the same length of the person in need of the saintly help, in hopes of attracting their attention to the request. They also bent a penny in Thomas de Cantilupes name, another religious practice in the invocation of saints where the invoker would quite literally, bend the soft silver of a penny.
After all the invocations and pleading to Thomas de Cantilupe, the body of William Cragh lay lifeless and still on the floor of the Swansea household. To all onlookers, he was as dead in the evening as he was when he was pulled from the gallows and transported to town. At least, that was until around the middle of the night.
“After he had been measured, not immediately but after an hour or so, William Cragh moved his tongue a little and after another space fo time moved a foot and afterwards gradually began to recover strength in his limbs.”
If the breaking of the gallows were not enough to convince some that there had been a level of divine intervention into his execution, his miraculous resurrection surely did the trick. Unfortunately, the miracle had not extended to bringing him back to life in prime condition and several witnesses stated that for days after the execution, he continued to look dreadfully unwell. Lady Mary de Briouze, upon hearing of the success of her invocation of the saint, nursed him for four days herself, bringing porridge to the house for him every day. He struggled to speak for the first days of his new life, which was a shame, because he had quite a story to tell of his execution and when he did regain command of his speech, he told of how a vision of a bishop dressed in white had supported his feet on the gallows. Through speaking with Lady Mary and confirming that she had invoked Thomas de Cantilupe in his death, it seemed best to William to agree that in that case, the bishop who had helped him on the scaffold must have also been Thomas. After ten days, with his recovery going well, Lady Mary set about a pilgrimage to Hereford Cathedral on horseback, accompanied by her son, William de Briouze Jr and William Cragh, who walked behind their horses barefoot, with the noose from his execution around his neck. It was a three day trek and once they reached the tomb in early December and had given their thanks to the local Saint, the group parted ways, with William Cragh telling the de Briouze family he was planning on continuing his pilgrimage to the holy land.
If the story were to end here, we might consider it a fireside story, perhaps stuffed with rumour and hearsay that had eventually become engrained as lore in the local and surrounding area. However there is another chapter to this supposed miraculous resurrection that transcends it from a local story to one with an international platform that would see it subject of rigorous investigation.
During the latter half of the 11th Century, The Popes decided that it was necessary to restrict the authority regarding canonisation to the sole judgement of the Pope, though it would take several centuries for the law to be entirely adhered to. To this end, in the event of a written application including reference to virtue, character and miracles worked was sent to the Pope and accepted, a counsel was set up made up of high ranking members of the church who would question witnesses and investigate claims of miracles. The entire process was recorded for latter perusal in Rome, where the decision would be made on whether or not to officially canonise the subject as a saint. This process would often take decades, with over 50% of canonisation requests during the Middle Ages never reaching a conclusion due to being bogged down by the sheer amount of bureaucracy involved. And so it was with the canonisation of Thomas de Cantilupes, whose inquiry began in the summer of 1307, 17 years after the miraculous resurrection of William Craghs.
First and foremost, the matter of his excommunication had to be settled to allow the Papal inquiry to begin. It was quickly found that upon investigation, the Archbishop of Canterbury that had enacted the excommunication was thought to be vindictive towards Thomas and further, he had already been absolved before his death during his visit to Rome. With the matter wrapped up neatly, the inquiry could begin proper. The questions for the inquiry were grouped into three main categories, “Faith, Life & Character,” “reputation, public report & opinion,” and “miracles” and were seen over by three ecclesiastics, William Durand, the Bishop of Mende in the South of France, Ralph Baldock, the Bishop of London and William de Testa, the Archdeacon of Aran in the Diocese of Comminges. All three were University trained men, in the school of Law. The inquiry was held in Saint Catherines Chapel in Hereford and began on the 28th August, 1307.
One of the very first miracles to be investigated by the counsel was that of the resurrection of William Cragh. Three witnesses were called to the inquiry, Lady Mary de Briouze, William de Briouze Jr. and William of Codineston, the chaplain that had overseen the execution. William de Briouze Sr. had died 5 weeks after the execution, in early January of 1291. All three gave evidence in French, and though there were some discrepancies over the exact timing of the hanging, their stories were more or less in line with one another. They all told of the execution and of seeing William Cragh dead after his arrival in the house of Thomas Matthews,
“His eyes had come out of his sockets, and his teeth were clenched so tight that some of William’s relatives who were there were unable to open his mouth.”
There was some question over how the execution had taken place and the method of the hanging, which William de Briouze was more than happy to explain,
“The method of hanging men in this country is such that the hanged men die immediately after the hanging, became a noose with a slipknot is placed around their necks and the knot of the noose is at the back of their necks so that they are suffocated at once.”
The chaplain, told the panel of how he had heard the story from William Cragh of the Bishop, assumed to be Thomas de Cantilupe, who had supported his feet during the execution. It was customary, he went on to explain, that if any error or trickery was found to have been enacted during the execution process by the executioner, he would himself be hanged. The questions, though probing into the details of the execution and resurrection, were fairly straightforward and all three witnesses gave evidence that matched the accepted tale of the day. They all stated that they had no direct contact with William Cragh after their pilgrimage, with the de Briouze family assuming he went off to the Holy Land as he said, though they had heard that he had died of natural causes sometime in 1305, two years prior to the inquiry. In conclusion, Lady Mary stated to the inquiry that she
“Did not believe, nor did she know of and had not heard anyone stating, that he could have lived without a divine miracle above nature.”
Likewise, William de Briouze Jr. similarly confirmed that,
“I do not believe William Cragh could have escaped death through the powers or force of human nature.”
And the Chaplain too, who said simply and directly, that it could not have ben possible without a miracle.
After their questioning, the three witnesses were dismissed and the inquiry into the life of Thomas de Cantliupe continued. The miraculous resurrection of William Cragh was just one of the further 37 post-humous miracles that had been attributed to Thomas de Cantilupe and that all needed to be investigated. Nevertheless, several weeks later, when witnesses 148 through 153 were called to give their statements and answer the panels questions regarding the William Cragh case, a rather surprising group showed up in the cathedral, ready to give testimony.
On this occasion, the Nobels and Chaplain were overlooked and instead, saw witness made of local men who had attended the execution and lived in the area. First up was Thomas Marshall, a local priest who had lived in Swansea. John of Baggeham was present, the executioner on the day of the execution, Henry the Tanner, a freeman who, at the time of the execution, had been one of the group of ten armed guard on horseback who were drafted to oversee the events. There was also Adam of Loghorne, a freeman who had watched the execution from the town wall and Johannes ap Howel, another freeman. Lastly, and without a doubt most surprisingly, was William Cragh himself. Apparently not quite as dead, once again, as the de Briouze family had thought, he was still very much alive and as far as John of Baggeham knew, had been living back in Gower since soon after his “pilgrimage” to Hereford. Three of the witnesses gave testimony in English, two in French, and only one, William Cragh, in Welsh. This caused some confusion last first, though after a small difficulty, two further interpreters were drafted in to the translate and record the questions put to him from the counsel.
The questioning of the witnesses, once again, went much the same as before with everyone confirming the general story. All witnesses confirmed that he was hanged in front of a decent crowd, who “rejoiced greatly, for William had frequently been the leader of many evildoers.” And that when he was pulled down, he had according to Jon of Baggeham, the executioner, “as much life as a stone.”
It became quickly apparent that John of Baggeham was not overly impressed by the entire affair. When speaking of Lady Mary and her invocation of the saint, he said that he did not know why she did it and that though he did not agree with her position on the matte, he went along with her orders on the day.
“She was rejoicing about an evil thing, for it was evil that an evil man should be brought back to life.”
One of the hang ups on the veracity of the story of the hanging of William Cragh raises itself when considering the actual date of the execution. During the inquiry for canonisation, many of the dates given were different depending on the witness. This was, perhaps, understandable given the seventeen years that had passed since the hanging and the inquiry itself. It becomes further understandable when viewed through the lens of the medieval perspective of the passage of time. None of the nine witnesses that gave evidence concerning the resurrection of William Cragh gave the date using the Anno Domini system, that being 1290, but instead gave the date using the amount of time that had passed, landmarked by various religious feasts and festivals. For example, XXX gave the date of the hanging as “15 years and more past at the feast of Saint James.” This was a common method for discussing time throughout the general medieval population and it extended to both the passage of time, as well as spatial distance. Much like one might today say that a particular city is a two hour drive away, in Medieval England, distance was calculated on the amount of days it would take to travel at normal speed. This measurement gave a unit of time that was generally understood and could be scaled down to fit the situation, thus in the account of the hanging of William Cragh, do we read that he walked “about the distance of two crossbow shots” from the prison to the gallows, and once there, hanged “For as long as it takes to walk a quarter mile at normal pace”. When viewed through this perspective, the lack of alarm raised by the inquiry concerning the contradicting dates becomes better understood.
Overall however, there were only minor inconsistencies in their story, which were largely overlooked by the counsel and not followed up with extra questioning. One of the larger changes in story however, was from the testimony of William Cragh, who told of how he had no memory of the bishop holding his feet on the scaffold at all, his last memory was climbing onto the ladder, and then he fell unconscious until he awoke the next day in the house of Thomas Mathews. Instead, he told of a story of seeing the Virgin Mary in his prison cell on the morning of his execution and of how she had told him that Thomas de Cantilupe would come to his aid. This dramatic shift in story may well have held significance, but once again, the counsel didn’t probe too deeply upon the matter. When they questioned William, they did inspect his neck but found no trace of the execution, though he did show the counsel a scar on the end of his tongue which, he claimed, had come from biting down on it so hard during the hanging.
Once more the witnesses were dismissed and the inquiry continued on, concerned with other matters. The report of the inquiry was completed and sent to Rome, where it was reviewed by a group of Cardinals in 1313 and eventually, in 1320, Pope John XXII officially canonised Thomas de Cantilupe as a saint. Curiously, of the 38 post humous miracles examined in the inquiry, only 26 were accepted to be examined bye the Pope, whilst a further 12 were thrown out, and hundreds simply ignored. Of the 12 that were thrown out, the miraculous resurrection of William Cragh was one and was Neve accepted by the Papalcy as a bonafide miracle, however, they gave no reasoning for this decision in the report.
When considering the story of William Cragh, we are left with several, unanswered questions and several mysteries. First and foremost is the resurrection of William Cragh, had he really been bought back to life by Saint Thomas? If, as we should be, we remain sceptical on the subject of divine intervention, how then did Wiliam Survive? Then there is the question of why Lady Mary de Briouze took such an interest in saving William Cragh in the first place.
Concerning the hanging itself, summarising an Essay written by Christian Krötzl on Scandinavian Miracle stories, historian Jussi Hanska suggests that William was simply not dead at all, writing on the subject of death in the Middle Ages as such,
“There were no sure and generally accepted signs of death, save in a few obvious cases such as plague victims, but there were two common ways of establishing that a person was indeed dead. The first one was simply to wait and see if signs of life appeared over the course of time. The second one was public opinion.”
Although in the case of William Cragh there are a considerable number of witnesses who claimed to have seen William dead, none have any solid evidence other than the fact that he voided his bladder and bowels on the gallows, which at the time, was considered to be only something which would happen when one was as good as dead. Though each witness did state symptoms which when added together, would certainly see him considered as dead even by modern medical standards, none have anything outside of hearsay and local gossip.
One could question the honesty of the members of the inquest itself, were they perhaps prone to tall tales, or would they wish to bolster the evidence of miracles in order to see Thomas made a Saint? Jussi Hanska, again in the same paper addresses this quite directly,
“The Hereford Proctors were naturally keen to produce the best possible evidence to support the case of Thomas de Cantilupe. It seems, however, that they were not producing forged evidence and false witnesses. The testimonies of different witnesses have too many differences between them to have been invented by the proctors. Furthermore, some witnesses called by the proctors even deny any knowledge of the miracle itself. Had they been briefed to produce false testimonies they would probably have told detailed stories of the miracle so that there would have been n room for doubt. There is no positive evidence that the proctors in this case or any other miracle attributed to Thomas de Cantilupe would have produced manipulated evidence.”
One other possibility is that the William Cragh who gave evidence in the inquiry, was perhaps, an imposter. Although there may well have been motivation to insert an imposter as a witness on behalf of the Hereford Cathedral, after all, if they could have a legitimised saint lying in their tombs to act as a site of pilgrimage, it would almost definitely bring a great deal of wealth to the Cathedral. That said, however, there appears to be no evidence that the William Cragh who appeared before the inquiry was anyone else but the man himself. Against the fact would be that anyone who were to be drafted in as an imposter would have to have been meticulously briefed on the events of the execution due to the extent of the questioning. Several of the other witnesses who testified at the same time also positively identified the man as William Cragh under a sworn oath on the Gospels, an oath which, at the time, was not something discarded lightly.
So what of Williams dramatic change of story, from being supported on the gallows by a Bishop clad in white robes, to a vision of the Virgin Mary? It seems not unlikely that the original story told by William, that of the Bishop supporting his feet, was a tall tale to help him avoid a second hanging. Tales of divine intervention by having a religious figure support one as they were hanged were not uncommon and it’s almost guaranteed that William Cragh would have heard of at least one such tale in his lifetime either at a religious sermon or through gossip and hearsay or equally likely, both. During the inquiry, he mentions himself that he feared a second hanging, and so, did he perhaps invent the story at the time of his resurrection to tie in with Lady Marys tale of invocation in order to further bolster the likelihood that his survival had been a saintly miracle and therefore, lessen the chance of any further executions?
One of the easier discrepancies to square away was that of where William Cragh went after the pilgrimage to Hereford. Upon leaving the travelling party, he told them he was off on a further pilgrimage to the holy land and was thought to have died some years prior. By all Welsh locals however, he returned shortly after the Hereford pilgrimage and lived out his days in the same area that he was hanged in. It is not a stretch to imagine that the suggestion of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land was simply conjured up by William to allow him an easy departure from a family whom, despite having invoked a saint to apparently resuscitate him, had arrested him and hanged him in the first place.
So what did happen on the scaffold? Was the knot improperly tied, allowing William Cragh to survive, despite all that he appeared? Or was there, as suspected by the locals, but finally rejected by the Pope, a miraculous resurrection after all? If he had simply survived, how had he done so? And why had Lady Mary decided to invoke the aid of Saint Thomas de Cantilupe in the execution of William Cragh over any number of other executions, one even on the same day? Medieval stories are full of complex intrigue, mystery and myth, even in the case of William Cragh, with such consistent and well kept records, we are still left pondering some pretty large questions on the entire affair. Just how had a man been put through a brutal hanging only to wake, over 12 hours later?