The Strange Story Of Thomas Of Elderfield

Mark Jones jones.mark at
Thu Jan 11 13:15:03 MST 2001

A. The Plea Roll Record.
Hundred of Deerhurst . George of Nitheweie appeals Estmar of Netheweye, together
with Thomas his son, for assaulting him and wounding him on his arm and his wife
similarly. And he offers to prove against him with his body as the court may adjudge
that he did this wickedly and in felony and within the Lord King's peace. Later,
however, he denies that he appeals Estmar of the deed, but his son Thomas of the
deed and Estmar of the force. And so Thomas is to be arrested. Later Thomas comes,
and George appeals him of wounding him on the arm, wickedly and in felony and within
the Lord King's peace, on the night of the Sunday after Whit in the first year of
King Henry. And he is prepared to prove this against him as the court may adjudge,
as a man maimed by that wound, and if he be not maimed he is prepared to make proof
by his body as the court may judge. And Thomas comes and defends the Lord King's
peace etc. and felony and everything word for word as the court may adjudge, and he
places himself on his neighborhood. The wound is viewed and it is attested that he
has no mayhem through it. And the coroners and the shire attest that suit was made
in the proper manner ("racionabiliter") and that they viewed the wound when it was
recent, and that he [George] at that time appealed Thomas of the deed and Estmar of
force. And the jurors say that they well understand that the same Thomas is guilty
of the wound, and they well know that he [George] made suit just as the coroners
attest. And it is therefore adjudged that there be a duel between them; and Thomas
should give a gage to defend and George to prove [their pleas]. George's sureties:
Robert de Haghe, Adam de Pudebrok, John de Notteclive and Richard de Happelege; and
Estmar is to be under surety until it is known what will become of Thomas.[1] A day
is given to them at Hereford the Wednesday after St. Margaret's Day when they are to
appear armed. Thomas was defeated, and blinded and castrated. And the sheriff was
ordered to call on the sureties of Estmar of Netheway to produce Estmar himself at
Gloucester on the arrival of the justices to answer George concerning the breach of
the Lord King's peace of which he appeals him.[2] Estmar is to be under surety until
it is known what is to become of Thomas etc. Later they came in arms to Worcester
and a duel was fought between them, and Thomas f. Estmar was conquered and therefore
judgement is made of him, and it was carried out, and he lost his eyes and scrotum
("pendencia") etc.[3]
[F.W. Maitland, Pleas of the Crown in the County of Gloucester (), no. 87, pp.


B. Worcester Story, c. 1240.
The blinded and castrated champion who received eyes and genitals through St.

Rejoice noble England, incomparably glorious from the merits and memories of the
saints. Thou, who were in long decay wasting away in idolatry, although slowly
steeped in health-giving baptism, although you were not compressed under the
footsteps of the Savior Lord, or burdened with the sacred burden of the holy
apostles, you yet dare as best you can to contend for equality with the eastern
church and sometimes to lift up your head even higher as regards the unheard of
novelty of miracles. For saving the reverence due to the holy apostles and martyrs
with whom I in no way presume to compare our confessor, who ever heard that what God
has deigned to work for his saints in our West has ever been done in the East? To
infuse the eyes of the blind with sight, to move the lips of the dumb with speech,
to stretch the tendons so the lame and crippled may walk, to clean up the skin of
lepers, and to repair or confer new utility to other limbs not indeed lost but
enfeebled, this is indeed great and very wonderful. But far more wonderful because
absolutely extraordinary is the restoration of new limbs for ones cut off and in
every way utterly destroyed. Yet God has deigned to honor England, the corner of the
whole world,[4] beyond all kingdoms of the earth, and to favor it with a certain
prerogative of dignity. First in Thomas, the glorious archbishop of Canterbury and
martyr, and now in our own days in the equally comparable confessor of Worcester.
How this happened, I shall tell if that most blessed confessor Wulfstan helps me and
God gives me His grace.

There was in the vill of Tirley in Gloucestershire a certain young man, Thomas by
name, the son of Estmer of Northway, a man free in condition, indeed, but thin in
substance. Since his means scarcely sufficed for himself, the father with pious
severity drove him off when he became adult to look to his own needs and in addition
to leanr courtly skills ("curialitatem") in the service of some honourable man. Off
he went to Chief Justiciar of the kingdom, Geoffrey FitzPeter, confident in the hope
that he could more easily gain admittance to service there, where the domestic staff
was greater and was less likely to fail anyone where there was an abundance of good
things. Nor did his hope deceive him, for he was at once admitted, joined one of the
hall-servants ("aulici") and as a conscientious servant acquired the goodwill of the
household. In consequence, he profited in many ways, and in brief heaped together
many things ready to shower them forth in benediction at the time of seed sowing so
that he might reap more richly at harvest time.[5] After a few years there hunting
wealth, he returned to his native soil to see his father and his home.[6] And there
he dwelt for some time, energetically accumulating riches by seeking out business
deals the way laymen do. The wife of his lord, Robert of Northway, saw this and
frequently borrowed money from him. She then drew him into the closer intimacy of
adultery and kept him for about two years netted in the snares of Venus. Eventually
God's grace intervened and remourse stung him; so he presented himself to a priest
and took his healthy advice to do proper penance for his offence. Nor did he ever
backslide afterwards, thanks to God's protection, though the Lady often incited him
to do so and, after her husband's death called on him to marry her. On the contrary,
Thomas first completed the penance imposed on him, then confessed to about four
other priests, and each time voluntarily underwent and completed in full a new
penance. But that daughter of the old Eve, lamenting his refusal and shamed by her
repulse conceived a mortal hatred ("mortales .. inimicitias") for him. She disguised
this for a time ("ad horam"), as women can, postponing vengeance for her wrongs to
the right moment. Disgusted by a long widowhood, she married a certain George, a
very sly man, skilled at dissimulation. When it came to his notice that his wife had
committed adultery with Thomas in her first husband's time, he was tortured by
suspicion and, inflamed by marital zeal, he came to feel an inexorable hatred for

One day when they had met to buy a beer or two and were returning home both quite
drunk. George, who had been following Thomas along the road, overtook him, stood in
his way and hit him, on the head with a big stick, when he was expecting nothing of
the kind, then violently threatened worse things. Thomas complained that he had not
deserved the blow and warned him with due moderation that, so long as it was the
beer that had driven him to do this, he might go away safe this time, but if he
added anything to the pain of his wound he would not pass on without punishment. But
George's anger had not cooled; nor had he got rid of his malice. He struck him a
further blow on his left shoulder. Thomas had now been struck twice. He turned white
with anger, and, afraid that if he did not repel force with force, he risked being
killed, he raised the axe he was carrying over his arm to strike George.[7] By an
unlucky chance he cast the axe-blade further than he had intended. The handle alone
struck George's shoulder without harming him, but on the way back the point at the
back of the axe slightly scratched George's arm just enough to draw blood. There was
a little hedge of the kind you often find by a road or path to safeguard the crops;
George leapt across it and hurried on his way. He complained to anyone who crossed
his path that he had been bloodied ("de effusione sanguinis sui") and named the one
who had caused the wound. He told the story quite differently from the way it had
happened. He declared that he had been wounded in all innocence, and proclaimed
Thomas a violator of the King's Peace. George hurried back to his home which was not
far off. He was used to consulting his wife, because the evil woman never fully
sweated out the poison which the malicious serpent poured into the ears of the first
mother, but found in herself counsel always ready and capable of evil.

(Once home), he roused the neighborhood against the fugitive with a horn blast,
lying that Thomas had violently invaded his house with no respect for the royal
peace and had wickedly carried off his goods like a thief, thus inflicting on him a
mortal wound while he was defending his home. Among the others coming to the sound
of the horn was Estmer, Thomas' father, quite unaware of these things. Meanwhile his
son had diverted his flight in the meantime to his own house which he had bought in
fee ("sibi et heredibus suis") at Eldersfield in Worcestershire. That whole assembly
of men therefore rose up against Estmer as a closely involved supporter and
accomplice. They took him to Gloucester and handed him over for the sheriff to shut
him up in a dark cell. But he was eventually released, when he had given sureties
("fideiussoribus") and exhausted his purse. Thomas was likewise arrested on a number
of occasions and as often freed, through the intercession of the courtiers whom he
had served, after pouring out all his goods and chattels in the business.

Later, when king John died and peace was restored to England by the coronation of
his son Henry in his place, justices were appointed for the punishment of
malefactors and praise of the good through every shire of the realm. George, who had
not forgotten his grudges, now proceeded to appeal the said Thomas before the
justices for a wound wickedly inflicted within God's peace and the King's. Thomas
had no place to hide, so absolutely denied the wound and all the allegations. It was
adjudged that the matter be tested by duel and a day was fixed for this on the tenth
day before the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary [August 5 1221] at Worcester.

On the day, the justices and innumerable people of both sexes gathered on the field
of battle with the champions their arms prepared. George stands there in the middle
of the crowd trusting to his strength, nimble with the skills of duelling and ready
for action. Opposite stands Thomas putting his trust in the Lord, devotedly to his
aid Mary, the glorious mother of God, and the blessed Wulfstan, weeping copious
tears for the past and promising a reformed life in the future. Once the address had
been given, they joined battle, both giving and receiving wounds, but with Thomas
always getting the worst of it. Yet the more he was hurt, the more it inspired him
to greater devotion for St. Wulfstan. At length, Thomas was worn down by many
assaults, taken by George and thrown to the ground. Then, with his right eye almost
torn out, he was forced to acknowledge himself beaten. The odious result of the duel
was irrevocably declared. He was stripped by the victor of his fighting clothes, and
left on the field more or less naked. And though he was liable to hanging by the
custom of the realm, the justices mixed mercy in their judgement, declared him
deserving of castration and blinding and authorized the victor's neighbors and
kinsmen to execute this judgement. They extracted one eye at once and with ease,
more from eagerness to punish than any love of justice, in the presence of servants
left behind by the justices for the purpose and a crowd of curious people willingly
streaming in for the spectacle. But the other one, already badly injured by George,
they could hardly dig out and then only with great difficulty and anguish to the
suffering man. They sharpened the blinding instrument two or three times then cast
it into the brain in the hope of extinguishing life along with sight. The wretched
Thomas felt that nothing was left for him except to raise to God the eyes of his
mind and so, crying out strongly, he constantly and continuously invoked the blessed
Mary and the blessed Wulfstan. The apparitors completed the job with cruelty, and in
full sight of many cut off the pupils and nerves that had been dug out but were
still hanging off the front of his face and flung them down onto the field. They
then tore out his testicles from the scrotum and threw them even further away so
that some young men kicked them to and fro to each other among the girls. None of
this could escape notice by the people, who had come with such curiosity to see the
affair and as usual would not leave until it was brought to a conclusion. Fear of
the justices urged on the apparitors, and hatred fired them not to spare anything,
so that they might complete the business as adjudged. The reason I mention this is
that later, when the members had been miraculously restored, many were compelled to
disbelieve by malice or forced to doubt by the amazement of so great a miracle. I
admit that doubt crept over me too until trustworthy men who had been present at the
deed and seen everything with their own eyes cleansed the shadows of all doubt from
my heart with their oath.

When all this had been done wretchedly on the wretched Thomas, they went away,
leaving him half dead. The poor man wallowed in his own blood, which poured from his
injuries in such a flood, that, scarcely breathing, he might have been thought about
to breathe his last. Nevertheless he was taken away by some who took mercy on his
miseries, so that he should not be left to be devoured by the dogs, rather urged on
by the arms of those supporting him than helped by his own feet. A certain woman,
moved by mercy, took him from their arms and had him put in a hamper and carried to
St. Wulfstan's Hospital. When the brothers of that house repelled him as a disgrace
and unworthy of dwelling with them, the maidservants who had brought the hamper
there took it back again, threw the wretched Thomas out against a wall and left him.
And thus he, whom they had not admitted freely, they retained against their will.
Oh, how many and miserable were the miseries of this miserable wretch! pains that
can only be expressed by the one suffering them, hardships indescribable except by
him who experiences them! Worn out with his wounds, overwhelmed by pain and
hardship, saturated with hatreds and confusion, he was cast out of the world as a
vile being, despised and detested even by those most dear to him. But to thee, O
Jesus, to thee the poor man is abandoned, and thou shalt bring aid to the orphan
whom the world father rejects. Thou thus punish with mercy, so that thou mayest pity
with justice. For all thy ways are mercy and truth. For with thine illumination, O
lord who illuminates every man that comes into this world, he has the eyes of his
mind opened. And the more reliably he fastens the eyes of his devotion firmly on
thee, the further from himself he sees all hope in the fallible and infirm things of
this world to have fled.

There was in that hospital a woman called Isabel, dedicated particularly to the
service of the poor; she took care of Thomas in contravention of the prohibitions of
its Master and brethren, but in secret for fear of them. Thus is God on the lookout,
so that where misery abounds, mercy is superabundant, and where there is an
abundance of sin, grace is in superabundance. Daily she cleaned the empty eye pits
with care from the lees of humours flowing in there, and cared for his wounds,
soothing and healing after the example of the Samaritan.[8] Amidst these torments,
eight days raced past and a ninth dawned, the eve of the Holy assumption of the
Virgin Mary [August 14 1221], ready to illuminate the darknesses of the blind man
through God's grace. And when vespers were being solemnly chanted in the cathedral
church, the solemnity of the moment spurred the wretched Thomas on to the most
fervent new devotion. He called on the mother of mercy to have pity on him, in the
hope that she who aided the whole world and wiped away from it the shadows of
eternal damnation while introducing the light of divine compassion, might deign to
illuminate also his temporal eyes[9] and through the multitude of Her consolations
gladden him in the multitude of his pains. No longer did he pray timidly and
hesitant as before, but adopting a kind of new style of supplication by which he
made his demands with unfeigned faith and a firm hope, without hesitation,
unwavering in his requests. "O thou glorious Lady", he said, "who art this day taken
up into Heaven so that thou may may intervene for us from that much closer, that
Thou might obtain from thine son more effectively what thou sought, who destroyed
that bronze wall which thy mother, the transgressor,10 erected between us and God so
that sinners' parayers should have no access to Him. Thou who have compensated us
with the blessed fruit of thy belly for the apple from the Tree of Life, when the
cherubim blocked our way with the fiery sword. Thou who have become a window to
Heaven through which the shouts of those groaning in pain may reach the mercy of
God, pray that my petitions made lavishly to thee on this thy holy day
("sollempnitate") may not pass in vain, but that He may receive my prayers through
you who bore them on our behalf as your own. But the blessed Wulfstan was permitted
neither to drowse off nor to sleep in the face of this great devotion of his; he was
instead roused to compassion with tearful prayers and noisy groans and deep sighs of
devotion and was forced to listen.

And so after repeated prayers in this fashion, the Lord immersed Thomas in a wave of
drowsiness ("sopor") so shallow that he did not know whether he was awake or asleep.
And behold the whole house seemed to him to shine with an indescribable brightness.
What would not glisten when overtaken by such brightness? For there was the splendor
of fire in the midst of a similitude of a flash of lightning , as described by
Ezechiel,[11] and the fire was coming out of the lightning. Thomas rejoiced and
marvelled that he could while wrapped in this new light see more without eyes than
could be believed; and he concentrated closely on that light. There appeared to him
the mother of true light, the perpetual virgin Mary gleaming with such clarity that
he neither dared nor was able to gaze upon Her face. She seemed to him more than
mitred ("cornuta"). With her and following in her footsteps, appeared the blessed
Wulfstan clothed in full pontificals, indeed, but radiating equal splendor ("longe
impari fulgore resplendens"). They approached his bunk, made their benedictions over
him, passed on and went on.

Thomas now recalled from his trance, at once shouted to all in the house that St.
Mary and St. Wulfstan were present. But he fell silent, like one who had been
unhinged by the ferocity of his pain and hence inspired to shout out aloud. After
lying for a while all on edge turning over within himself so glorious a vision, his
eyelids and everything on the wounds he had received in the duel began to itch so
viciously that he could scarcely restrain his hands from scratching. He called the
sister mentioned above and asked her for his eyepits and other wounds to be bathed
in order to deal in this way with his itching. With devoted obedience, she loosed
the bandages which held poultices against his eyes, and prepared washing water.
Impatient as usual, he turned to the wall, put his fingers under his eyelids and
drew them back so that they might not be healed too hastily, before the flow of
humors was restrained. And behold, to his wonder and amazement, he observed a light
entering the doorway across which his bed was set. Not believing himself, he
suspected that he was in death's departure just before being carried off. But he
moved his eyes around and could make out every object and see his hands moving
pretty clearly. Turning on his other side towards the street, he distinctly saw
people coming, going and standing about just as he once had. So he noisily bawled
out to Isabel how he was and declared that he could see freely. She ran to him, and
others too, and they could not believe for joy. But they eventually learned by
certain signs and proofs ("indiciis et experimentis") that he could distinguish
everything by sight. Getting up quite close they made out new if tiny pupils in the
botom of the eye pits, like two small plums.

As proof of so great a miracle and to the wonder of everyone who had known Thomas
before the loss of his eyes, where his natural ones had been changeable in color
("varias") these were black. They grew from one day to the next until they were fair
size. And lest anything of divine grace be imperfect but restore everything in full,
putting his hands down he found his genitals and showed that they had been restored.
Thus all the many wounds he had received in the duel had received the same moment of
cure, just as if they had the same doctor.

And since so great a miracle had to grow by the authentic testimony of the respected
("maiorum") so that it might astound astound by its magnitude, Master Benedict,
bishop of Rochester happened to arrive in Worcester on pilgrimage, as if come from
the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom and see the power of the true Solomon. The
story of such a miracle absolutely bowled him over, and he was sceptical along with
many others[12] and proclaimed with Thomas the apostle: until I see it, I shall not
believe. He mounted his horse and got off at St. Wulfstan's Hospital where Thomas
was still living whether the claims of the story-tellers squared with the truth of
the matter. He therefore ordered his chaplain, a monk, over protests from modesty,
to feel ("palpare") the male organs ("virilia") and tell him if they had really been
restored. There was no room for doubt over the eyes, because that was obvious to the
whole world.[13] The monk could not but obey. Down on his knees, he moved his hand
towards them, felt them and exclaimed that it was just as had been said. And so the
bishop, weeping floods of tears for joy, said: "I too will stroke them, not to
satisfy my incredulity but in order that I may become a true and faithful witness to
so great a miracle.[14] He stroked, found matters to be as stated and believed.
Having done so, he glorified God, got back on his horse and went his way rejoicing.

Glory and honor for ever and ever to God, who has deigned to work to work so many
and so great marks of virtue in the church of Worcester through the merits of His
glorious mother the perpetual virgin Mary, and of St. Wulfstan and the other saints
who rest there. May he never withdraw His grace from it, but add more to their cure
of souls so that no-one's prayers drain into the void but instead gush forth with
devotion for their salvation to the Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, who lives and
reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit in world without end.

[ The Vita Wulfstani of William of Malmesbury, ed. R.R. Darlington (Camden Society,
n.s. xl, 1928, cap. 16), 168- 75.]

1 The fact of the duel and the place and date fixed for it, as below, are noted on
the margin of the roll for easy reference by court officials.

2 This paragraph is only on one of the two extant rolls, obviously added after the
previous one.

3 This paragraph too is only in the one roll. It carries a marginal reference to the
"Assize of Clarendon".

4 Cf. Fr. Angle-terre.

5 Obviously a biblical allusion along the lines of "As ye sow, so shall ye reap".

6 "patria" = pays, home locality.

7 Our author implies with "feriret" that Thomas intended more than a mere threat to
ward George off.

8 Luc., x. 33

9 ? "temporales illuminare".

10 Eve; possibly a reference to Jerem., iii. 7 sq.

11 Ezech., i. 14

12 "dubitavit commodo multorum" = to the profit of many, as far as consistent with
the interest of many?

13 "quod lippis et tonsoribus palam erat videre", = literally "to those with
eye-disease and to the barbers, a reminiscence of Horace, Satires, 1, 7, 3)

14 Ironically, this recalls the original Roman connotations of "testis", which also
means testicle, no doubt associated with the nature of testimony in suits concerning
the consummation of marriage.

Translation by Paul Hyams of Cornell University. See his Course Page?. He indicated
that the translations are available for educational use. He intends to expand the
number of translations, so keep a note of his home page.
This text is listed as part of the Internet Medieval Source Book. The Sourcebook is
a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts related to medieval and
Byzantine history.

Paul Halsall Jan 1996
halsall at

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