The Stunningly Captivating Museum of Hereford Cathedral

Set in the heart of the country, Hereford boasts an impressive 13th-century cathedral that spans a large grassy area in the centre of the city. This stunning cathedral features architecture dating back to the Normans, but has been adapted over the ages due to weathering, restoration and war. Now, thanks to donations from individuals and organisations like the Friends of Hereford Cathedral and the National Lottery Grant it now features a Mappa Mundi and Chained Library exhibition.

The Museum

Well written signage takes you on foot through the city centre, past old black-and-white buildings and up to the cathedral’s main entrance. Here, special events or church services are posted on an A-board, which can include artistic, religious classes, the opening of the cathedral’s tower and more.

The museum itself is accessed just past a quaint little café; entry is fairly priced and staff on the front desk are very knowledgeable. Inside, artefacts include book trunks and cases, with illustrated boards providing good documentation on how they were used. There is also a display case featuring a copy of the King's Writ of 1215, and a 1217 copy of the Magna Carta. Throughout the museum, there are places for children to colour pictures and create stone rubbings, as well as a trail for them to follow.

Mappa Mundi

The main theme of the museum is the Mappa Mundi – a medieval map of the known world, dating to 1285. This wonderful example is thought to be the largest surviving map of the age and is a true treasure. Made from vellum, the map features local towns such as Hereford, as well as other countries and areas such as the Red Sea in Egypt, which is depicted being parted as in the biblical teachings. Mythological tales are also featured, with beautiful inked illustrations of legends such as the Golden Fleece.

Mappa Mundi
PHOTOGRAPH BY Carrie Weston

Many creatures have also been inscribed upon the skin, some are very strange and odd, whereas others are recognisable as monsters, dragons, mandrakes and unicorns. Some of these creatures can be seen in modern-day books, and the map is said to have provided ideas for J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter. My own book - Xander Chase and the Unicorn Code – also features unicorns, while many legendary retellings of Merlin include fantastical creatures similar to those depicted here by medieval monks. The complexity of the map lines are also thought to have helped inspire the thrilling tales of the Map of Shadows by J.F. Penn.

The map itself is located behind a large pane of glass. It has been separated from its original frame, which is now displayed separately. It is thought that two doors featuring beautiful religious depictions were originally attached to the frame, and nail marks indicate that the calfskin was attached to the frame before being drawn on. A hole in the frame’s centre also supports this theory, as it suggests that this could have been made by a compass used to draw the map’s outer edge.

The Mappa Mundi originally hung from a wall in the choir aisle, but following the Civil War it was secretly hidden beneath the floor of the Bishop’s Chantry for safekeeping. There it remained, forgotten until 1855 when it was discovered and sent to the British Museum to be repaired. Along with other items of historical importance, it was re-hidden during the Second World War, and returned in 1946. In 1988, an unfortunate financial issue led to a proposal to sell the map, but thanks to donations from the public, Paul Getty and the National Heritage Memorial Fund, enough money was raised to keep the map on-site and allow the construction of the building it is housed in today.

Visiting the map is a truly magical experience that gives you a window into the past. The attendees who work in this section of the museum are very knowledgeable and friendly and will endeavour to answer any questions you have.

The Chained Library

Continuing on from the Mappa Mundi is the equally interesting Chained Library, again said to have inspired best-selling author J.K. Rowling. These chained bookcases were commissioned in 1611 so the library could store books and create a library worthy of scholarship. Today, the library is thought to contain 227 manuscripts, with approximately 56 printed before the 1500s.

Chained Library
PHOTOGRAPH BY Diamond Geezer, via Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The original purpose of the hefty chains was to stop people borrowing the books and not returning them. The books are now stacked upright, like on a modern bookshelf, but originally they would have been laid flat. An interesting fact I learnt while talking to the librarian is that they do not use gloves to handle the delicate pages. Apparently, because of the material used, the oils from their hands actually help the pages of the manuscripts stay supple.

Most of the books here are in Latin, but a few key texts are translated on information boards at the back of the room. For example, one mentions William the Conqueror, while another is an original Bible text. Display units also showcase some of these precious books and the beautiful hand-drawn illustrations they contain, with the most famous being an 8th century illuminated gospel. Inventory on the bookcase’s sides also highlight a priceless original manuscript of The Golden Legends, a first edition of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language and a Polygot Bible of 1657.

Once again the staff here are very friendly and well-educated about the library's artefacts. If you wish to see a particular book, (and can understand Latin, or decipher old English) then you can usually have a closer look by prior arrangement with the librarian.

I would like to take a moment to thank the staff (Susan, Ian, Allan and their colleagues) at the museum for their wonderful friendliness, knowledge and allowing photography (no flash), as well as the Dean and Chapter, and the historians responsible for putting this truly amazing piece of history on show for us all to learn from. I would also like to thank John from Mainly Museums for the invitation to write this article.

Museum Information

Website: www.herefordcathedral.org

Location: Hereford Cathedral, 5 College Cloisters, Cathedral Close, Hereford, HR1 2NG

Admission: prices range from £5.00 for a student to £14.00 for a large family (2 adults and 3 children)

Opening hours: Monday to Saturday, 10am - 5pm (closed on certain bank holidays)

Additional information: services and sermons are conducted in the cathedral, and times can be seen on their website.

Photos throughout the museum are permittable, but not flash photography as it damages the artefacts.

There is a gift shop full of fair-priced trinkets, books and religious related gifts, and the attached café sells a range of delicious homemade bakes and lunches.

Different crafts, courses and exhibitions can also be found on the website as well as opening days for the Tower, which has amazing views. Please remember to phone in advance if you are interested in one of these special events so as not to be disappointed on arrival – numbers are usually limited.

A Little History

Hereford Cathedral was officially founded in 696 and dedicated to the Virgin Mary. In 794 though, after the murder of King Ethelbert, his remains were buried at the cathedral and the dedication was extended to include his sainthood.

Illuminated Gospel
PHOTOGRAPH BY Carrie Weston

The cathedral was rebuilt by order of its 25th Bishop, Athelstan, between 1015-1056, but in 1055 an army destroyed much of the building, including Ethelbert’s shrine. Many religious items were also lost at this time, with only one artefact that survived this terrible fate remaining at the cathedral today; an 8th century illuminated gospel. This now resides as one of the many treasures in the Chained Library.

Between 1107-1148 the cathedral was reconstructed again, this time in the Norman Romanesque style. It is said that in the 1190s a cathedral school already existed, making it one of the oldest schools around.

Also in the Area

There are a few more museums in the county with spectacular artwork and artefacts, as well as black-and-white Tudor cottages which make Herefordshire definitely worth a visit. The city’s newly opened Travel Lodge makes visiting easier than ever, as the cathedral is easily accessible on foot, taking a mere 10-15 minutes. Many other places to stay are also available, from guest houses to hotels, and with the cathedral’s tower looming over the city this landmark is easy to find.

While you’re at the museum, you can also look around the cathedral itself. Upon entering the cathedral you can instantly see its appeal to tourists as well as the locals. The architecture is beautiful with influences of the Romanesque period. This comes through strongly in the South Transept, where the walls are adorned with tapestries and carvings of faces. There is also a relic of St. Anne, in recognition of the altar dedicated to her which stood in place through most of the Middle Ages.

Information desks can be spotted throughout the interior of the cathedral, which are sometime manned by the Dean and his Chapter. There, they dish out leaflets about the cathedral, a special children’s trail and highlight other local events.

One of the stunning features of Hereford cathedral is the beautiful Corona. Created in 1992 by Simon Beer, this suspended artwork of a thorny crown hangs above the Tower Crossing at the centre of the building and features a candle for each of the cathedral’s Deans. Beneath this point, you can also see the tower if you look up.

The Lady Chapel was the original home of nearly half of the archives in the Chained Library, although in 1996 they were moved to create a fuller library which was opened by the Queen. Nowadays, this 13th century chapel holds the shrine to the martyred St Ethelbert. The beautifully designed stained-glass windows of the Lady Chapel are dedicated to the local poet and cleric, Thomas Traherne and are definitely worth taking a good look at. This area is also fun for children to explore.

Moving to the North Transept, you come across the most lavishly decorated shrine of Thomas de Cantilupe, the 45th Bishop of Herefordshire, who was declared a saint in 1320. Standing tall in stone and marble, this tomb is a great example of a well-preserved English medieval shrine. Many pilgrims visit to see this blue, gold and red decorated shrine, as well as the tapestries depicting the saint's journeys which hang on the wall behind.

Thomas de Cantilupe tomb
PHOTOGRAPH BY Carrie Weston

*    *    *

Carrie Weston

Carrie Weston is a UK young adult author of Xander Chase and the Unicorn Code. She has previously also written an article on CRPS for Kiri books, has completed an Open Study Level 3 writing course, is a previous winner of NaNoWriMo and has had several poems published. Carrie can be found online at carrieweston.ampbk.com where she writes regular blogs on writing ‘how toos’, her book and other fun stuff.