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The English Pilgrimage
Published in Country Life, April 8, 2020

Pilgrimage was the fun part of religion in medieval England as Chaucer reveals to us, in his Canterbury Tales.

A pilgrimage is a physical journey that aspires to some sort of encounter with the divine. They are journeys towards a spiritual portal, where something miraculous had once happened; such as an apparition of the Virgin Mary or the discovery of a holy cross of jet-black flint.

England was once studded with a dozen famous pilgrimage Abbeys whose vast gothic vaults encased such places of holiness. They were in a continuous process of embellishment driven by centuries of devotional gifts. For everyone understood that a saint who had answered a prayer had to be rewarded by a respectful visit of thanks and a votive gift, anything from a beeswax candle to an entire estate, signed and sealed with a charter. A pilgrimage also offered the chance for an intercession (a wished for child, a cure or a successful war) as well as serving as an act of contrition, for both public crime and private sin.

The holiday atmosphere would be gradually shed as the company approached the Abbey shrine. The carnival would be transformed into a three-day fast concluding with an all-night prayer vigil at an outlying church (such as the slipper chapel at Walsingham) with the last mile approached in bare feet. The long nave served to replicate the physical journey, now set to a more intense emotion (with pilgrims on their knees) as they made a full circuit of the side altars before finally reaching the screen-enclosed chapel in the centre which contained the holy shrine. In Westminster Abbey this sacred architecture has survived intact, with rows of niches for the praying pilgrims to physically immerse themselves into the thickness of the shrine. Personal pilgrims could trickle in throughout the year, but there was also an annual focus on the specific Holy day of a Saint, when the Abbey would be specially decorated with tapestries and its chapels thronged with choirs, pilgrims and petitioners.

In the aftermath, the pilgrims were free to feast in the taverns of the town and acquire souvenirs, bottles of holy water and a metal pilgrim badge for their bonnet.

The great pilgrimages, to visit the tomb of St Peter in Rome or the Holy Sepulchure of Christ in Jerusalem knit together all of Christendom. These distant journeys were once in a lifetime occasions for the very rich or the very pious. They provided the role models (first established by St Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine) for the more accessible but equally busy shrines of England. The most important English shrines included St Swithun at Winchester, Edward the Confessor in Westminster Abbey, the Holy Cross venerated at Waltham Abbey in Essex, the apparition of Our Lady of Walsingham (Norfolk), the martyred boy-king Edmund (killed by pagan Vikings in the 9th century) at Bury St Edmunds, St Cuthbert’s tomb at Durham, St Thomas at Canterbury (murdered due to his opposition to King Henry II) and the holy thorn tree planted by Joseph of Arimathea at Gastonbury Tor. Given this generous geographical spread, there was a pilgrimage destination within reach of everyone, assisted in each county by dozens of holy wells and shrines of the lesser saints. Before the Reformation every church was to some extent a pilgrimage chapel, for they were all required to have some fragment of the bone of some accredited saint (be they martyr or confessor) beneath the stone high altar. This proliferation makes nonsense of any specific claim to any Pilgrimage Way, for given this grid of shrines, all roads were used by every condition of people. St David in Wales, St Columba and St Andrew in Scotland and St Patrick in Ireland expanded this arena of holiness to the furthest edges of the British isles.

But the great era of pilgrimage has now been dead for five hundred years. It was smashed apart by King Henry VIII’s agents, who broke up the jewelled shrines, stripped the lead from the rooves and then stole the land of the great Abbey shrines. At the same time the Protestant Reformation ridiculed the veneration of saints bones (literally throwing them out on the dung heap) and the cult of the Virgin Mary. Medieval Christianity was trimmed right back: so no more flickering tapers set before side chapels, the frescoed walls were whitewashed, attenuated gothic statues were smashed alongside brilliant coloured glass which told of the sacred in a cartoon-like succession of images. In their place came the Kings Bible (beautifully translated), Gospel study groups and long sermons (filled with textual exegesis).

The dismantling of medievalism eventually spread all over Western Europe, and it is an intriguing fact that all the busiest Catholic pilgrimages are actually modern: be it Lourdes (1858), Knock (1879), Our Lady of Fatima (1917) or the Virgin of Medjugorje (1981). While even the most famous medieval pilgrimage route to have survived, the many roads to St James at Compostella, is merely the most successful revival. A very suitable project in the 1950’s with which to revive tourism in the homeland of Francisco Franco.

Nor is the recent revival of British pilgrimage routes a return to medieval spirituality, but just a “heritage label” added to the post-war invention of long-distance walkways. These are thoroughly good things, complete with bridle paths, cycle tracks, joggers and contented dog-walkers setting off from car parks. Fortunately the reality of pilgrimage has been kept alive elsewhere on the globe, such as the Hindu Kumb Mela and the Muslim Haj, keeping that curious fusion of sanctity mixed with predatory tourism, half gaudy fun-fare, just one quarter spiritual retreat. As a Muslim friend of mine returning from Mecca reported ( getting a bit irritated with all my romantic but detailed questions) “you wouldn’t like it Barnaby, there are no longer any Mahmal camels sent from Cairo and the Yemen carrying the Kiswa. It is like Las Vegas without the taste.”


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