The See of Hereford is considered the most ancient of England. The area was Christianized before the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons and a chapel may have been erected here by the Romans. The first Bishop of Hereford who is actually named by historians dates from the seventh century when the Mercians were established well enough to name the first Saxon Bishop. At the Synod of Hertford in 672 it was decided to divide the Mercian kingdom into several new dioceses. The old Celtic see of Hereford was to be one of these divisions and Bishop Putta was appointed. At the time of his accession, if not before, a cathedral of wood was erected.
The town of Hereford did not gain any importance or notoriety until 793 when a curious event happened. Aethelbert, King of East Anglia visited King Offa of Mercia’s palace near Hereford at Sutton’s Walls, supposedly in hopes of marrying Offa’s daughter. For unknown reasons, either upon the orders of Offa or his wife Queen Cynethryth, Aethelbert was murdered. Aethelbert’s body was brought to the site of the modern cathedral by a pious monk and buried there. Miracles began to occur at this tomb. Around 830 a Mercian nobleman named Milfrid was so moved by these miracles he decided to build a new church in stone, dedicating it to Saint Mary the Virgin and Saint Aethelbert the King.
In 1012, the new Hereford Bishop Aethelstan found Milfrid’s church in a great state of decay and began to rebuild it. Even though he was blind, he governed his see with fervor. A few months after Aethelstan’s death, in 1056, his building was attacked by a combined force of Welsh and Irish under the Welsh Prince Gruffydd ap Llywelyn. Despite fierce resistance by the canons, the church was plundered and burned. It would be another twenty four years before a Norman bishop, Robert de Lorraine would begin new construction. This would consist of additions to Athelstan’s building. To this day, construction from Aethelstan’s time can be seen in the South Transept, the south aisle of the Choir, the vaulted entrance of the Chapter House and a small portion of the masonry on the north side.
Robert and his successors added the Norman arches in the choir, the Nave and the West Front. The construction was completed and the cathedral was dedicated in 1110. Succeeding prelates added the North Transept, the Central Tower and another tower over the West end. These two towers were added without the benefit of strengthening the foundations of the building, a miscalculation that would come to have disastrous consequences four centuries later. A thirteenth century Hereford bishop, Thomas Cantilupe was canonized in 1310 and additions were made to the church for pilgrims to visit his shrine. In 1320, the Central Tower was enlarged to its present dimensions and a later architect added a ninety-two foot tall lead covered spire. In 1327, Joanna de Bohun, Countess of Hereford bequeathed all her property to the diocese with the stipulation that a Lady Chapel be erected to hold her remains. A chapel and crypt were built on the east end along with an additional Transept east of the Choir which changed the shape of the ground plan from a single to a double cross.
In the fourteenth century, the Chapter House and its Vestibule were added. Bishop Trevenant (1389-1404) rebuilt the South end and groining of the Great Transept. In the middle of the fifteenth century a Tower was added to the western end of the Nave and in the second half of the same century, three chantries were built. The last addition to the cathedral of a porch on the north was made in the early sixteenth century. Under the Reformation, the shrine to Thomas Cantilupe was destroyed. During the English Civil War in the 1640’s, the building was occupied by Parliamentary forces and the cathedral administration was abolished and all property was confiscated. When the Monarchy was restored in 1660, the cathedral administration was restored.
The greatest disaster ever to befall the Cathedral happened on Easter Monday, April 17, 1786. The West Front and West Tower collapsed in a huge heap due to the unstable foundations. It was amazing it lasted as long as it did. Restoration was not begun until 1788. Several periods of restoration occurred during the nineteenth century, leaving us with what we see today of the cathedral.
The Cathedral of Hereford is the home of two treasured documents. There are only four originals of Magna Carta from 1217 and Hereford possesses one of these. They also hold a document from the later thirteenth century called the Hereford Mappa Mundi. This world map was the work of an ecclesiastic and is one of the largest of all old maps drawn on a single sheet of vellum. During the Commonwealth of Cromwell the map was hidden beneath the floor of one of the chantries. In 1855 it was cleaned and repaired by the British Museum. Among the many depictions of scenes from the Bible, figures of towns, animals, birds, fish, and other grotesque creatures, it shows four great cities in prominence; Jerusalem, Babylon, Rome and Troy. In the depiction of Britain, most of the cathedrals are named.
Reference: “Hereford, Cathedral and City: A Handbook for Visitors and Residents” by Joseph Jones