History & heritage

CASTLE GREEN  the early centuries – The Church of Hereford in Ancient Days

To walk through the Castle Green in the present day, it is difficult to imagine anything other than a most beautiful park, where local people can enjoy the freedom of an open space and view of the river and beyond.  This site, however, has a more challenging and fascinating tale to tell.

Because of the lack of documentary evidence and archaeological remains it is impossible to give an accurate interpretation of its pre-historic past.  However, it has been established that there is no evidence of occupation on the green or in the area around the site of the cathedral circa 4000BC.  Thirty-five flints were found in the vicinity of Nash’s sack warehouse south of the river, suggesting that the ford below the cathedral was being used for crossing.  This would also suggest that the second ford in the area of the Victoria Bridge was an important thoroughfare leading into grazing pastures and the route up to the Dinedor hill fort.  During the Roman period Hereford probably only served as a military route for the army from Caerleon to Chester, the ford providing passage to the north.  There is, however, recent evidence of a building [probably Roman] situated near to the library in Broad Street, suggesting a building beside a road.

It is not until AD676 and the establishment of a diocese that a depiction of Hereford as a settlement begins to emerge.  What is interesting is that prior to this event there appears to have been the foundation of a monastic community as early as AD550 on the Castle Green.  This humble establishment leading on to an ecclesiastical settlement of importance by the middles of the 7th century, begins to define a separate independent identity.  Coincidentally it is also around AD650 that reference to a settlement relating to the church and the ford is recorded;  a settlement consisting of a small number of buildings centred around the cross-roads adjacent to our present cathedral.

The monastery continued to support its religious order leading to the dedication of the site to St Guthlac, a saint originating in East Anglia.

Guthlac, a descendent of the Mercian royal family, was born in AD670.  In his youth he had spent nine years campaigning on the Welsh borders between AD685-94, an episode he later regretted and retreated to a hermitage within the Fens.

St Guthlac was closely associated with Aethelbald, who before becoming king had spent two years with Guthlac in his solitary retreat.  His respect for this holy man did not waver and even after the saint’s death in AD715,  he visited the hermitage to receive reassurance and enriched Guthlac’s tomb following his burial in Crowland, Lincolnshire.

The Monastery of St Guthlac owned extensive lands and the relationship between monastery and the Mercian kings would suggest that royal patronage played its part.  Similarly the relationship between Guthlac and Aethelbald raised the profile of the monastery and together these friends probably laid down the foundation for the cult of St Guthlac within the green.

The Kings Aethelbald [AD716-57] and Offa [AD757-96] who together played an important role in the formation of the city, raised the profile of the whole county together with that of St Guthlac’s monastery.  Their patronage certainly elevated the county into a different league  as a result of the association with  the Mercian royal house.  The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of 792 suggested that King Offa had a palace at Sutton and evidenced within Domesday it appeared that the monks of St Guthlac claimed the monastery as a royal demesne church, presumably serving the king in the royal chapel at Sutton.  Although the new cathedral seized ecclesiastical power, it was the old church of St Guthlac who was ultimately connected with royalty during these early centuries.

Tragically St Guthlac’s tomb and burial site was destroyed in AD870 and the relics of the saint were dispersed.  This is possibly the time that the monastery received part of the saint’s body.

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