Hereford's history mysteries

PUBLISHED: 14:29 26 November 2010 | UPDATED: 17:59 20 February 2013

Hereford’s history mysteries

Hereford’s history mysteries

Chris Poole turns history detective, seeking out the places that give clues to Hereford's past

A walk throughtime

Chris Poole turns history detective, seeking out the places that give clues to Herefords past

High Town in Hereford this summer was enlivened by dozens of people in period costume. The last day of July was Historical Hereford Day. Mayor Anna Toon arrived heralded by a Town Crier. The traditional ceremony of handing over 40 to a representative of the Worshipful Company of Master Tailors in return for permission to hold a fair was re-enacted.

Few will know about this aspect of the citys past. It is, some say, not a city that shows off much of its history. Writing at the start of the 19th century, A G Bradley described it as a humdrum cathedral town deeply concerned with cider and red and white bullocks. But he went on to balance this observation with notes about its hidden charms and its historical role as a frontier town.

The cathedral itself has not been immune from the effects of Herefords turbulent past. Founded in the eighth century, the first cathedral was destroyed by the Welsh in 1055. Rebuilt, it stands today as an enduring edifice at the very heart of the city. Cathedral Close, presently disrupted by extensive restoration works, will emerge next year to regain its rightful role as a focal point.

Intriguing historic echoes resound in the Close. In one corner stands the restored Cathedral Barn. Canon Chris Pullin describes this ancient building: It was one of several medieval halls near the cathedral two others still exist nearby. We know from the style and quality of the timber joints that it was a building of some significance. The restored barn now enjoys a new incarnation as the cathedrals education centre.

Someone else with an expert eye on the citys heritage is Peter Harris. He agrees that the city has more to show for its many centuries than is evident at first glance. Born in Hereford, but with a career that took him elsewhere, Peter recently came back to live here and has taken an interest in the citys history.

Hereford was the last of the English cathedrals of the Old Foundation to be enclosed, explains Peter. Crime was rife so walls and gates became necessary features. Many of the buildings around the Close were canonical residences some still are. Traces of the original enclosure have long gone but the current project will, in a sense, redefine the area as a reserved space, a place at the heart of our community.

As Peter points out, if you look hard enough youll see some unusual reminders of the past. In St John Street, for example, the walls of Harley House have an interesting feature. There are, says Peter, two tiny, barred windows in the wall. That the house has medieval cellars is well known but these windows might indicate that this was the Bishops prison. Bishops have an institution known as a Consistory Court with, in the past, the ability to imprison offenders. This is where the prison might have been.

The Bishop, of course, lived then, as now, in the Bishops Palace with the comfortable and solid mass of the cathedral between him and the prison. The Palace, too, has considerable significance in Herefords history. Its Great Hall dates from the 12th century and although Georgian in appearance the false pillars open to reveal the preserved timbers of the earlier building.

Bishop Anthony, says Anni Holden, Director of Communications for the diocese, is our 104th bishop, exactly the same number as there have been Archbishops of Canterbury. Portraits of many of them adorn the walls in the Bishops Palace the earliest is of Bishop Robert Westfaling in 1586.

Cathedral Close was once the citys cemetery. Just outside the gatehouse to the Bishops Palace a grim discovery served as a reminder of another phase in our history. During excavations for the building that now houses the Mappa Mundi and the Chained Library, workers found the remains of some 1200 bodies. They had been buried in such a way as to suggest that these were plague victims.

The dedication of the cathedral church is St Mary and St Ethelbert. It was the brutal murder of King Ethelbert of East Anglia, on his way to Hereford and to sainthood, by henchmen of the Mercian King Offa that led Offa, out of remorse, to found the cathedral. Ethelberts headless body was eventually laid to rest in Hereford but not before a pause along the way gave miraculous rise to a well now marked in a wall on Castle Hill.
Strangers to Hereford might notice that Castle Hill is one of several references to a fortress Castle Street, Castle Green and so on. But no castle. And yet here, on Castle Green, once stood a bastion against the citys enemies (sometimes the Welsh, at other times Parliamentarians). The castles roles and its fortunes ebbed and flowed through history until what remained was dismantled in the mid-18th century.

Castle Green, according to some records, owes much of the gentle landscaping that we see today to a curious group of gentlemen known as the Society of Tempers. Founded in 1752 with the laudable aim of promoting amicability and good temper the Society leased Castle Green. Whether they were responsible for the unlikely monument to Admiral Lord Nelson, erected in 1809, that now dominates the space isnt clear. His amicability and good temper might have been sorely tried if he had discovered that there was no money to put a statue on top of the column. He remains, today, represented by an urn with ornamental fish.
There is much more to Herefords intriguing and unique history than meets the eye. The city boasts a range of museums to educate, inform and entertain. Regular readers of Herefordshire Life will have seen Sue Knoxs features on fascinating places such as The Old House, the Coningsby Museum, the Cider Museum or the Waterworks Museum.

But there remains much that isnt on show; that takes a little more effort to unearth and rather more imagination to get glimpses of past life in the city times that must have been unbearably harsh by our modern standards. And others act as reminders that Hereford sits now, as it has for centuries, at the very centre of the Marches the meaning of which is disputed territory.

Past conflicts are, happily, now resolved but their impact on the citys fortunes is still there to see.


5 fascinating sites in historical Hereford


The Cathedral Barn: restored as the cathedrals education centre
Harley House in St John Street: the barred windows indicate it could have been the Bishops Prison
The Bishops Palace Palace: its Great Hall dates from the 12th century
Castle Green: once a bastion against the citys enemies
The monument to Admiral Lord Nelson: money ran out before his statue could be raised on the column

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