From The Church Treasury of History, Custom, Folk-Lore, etc., edited by William Andrews; London :  William Andrews & Co., 1898; pp. 129-144.




English Mediæval Pilgrimages.


PILGRIMAGES amongst Christians appear to have begun about the fourth century of our era. At first the Holy Land was the destination of the faithful, but gradually other places came into vogue, notably Rome, the centre of western Christianity, and the famous shrine of St. James, of Compostella. During the latter part of the Saxon period there was quite a rage for foreign pilgrimages, especially to Rome. Hence it was Charlemagne wrote to King Offa of Mercia “concerning the strangers, who for the love of God, and the salvation of their souls, wish to repair to the threshold of the blessed apostles (i.e. Rome), let them travel in peace without any trouble.” Again in the year 1041 King Canute made a pilgrimage to the City of the Seven Hills, and met the Emperor Conrad with other princes, from whom he obtained for all his subjects, whether merchants or pilgrims, exemption for the heavy tolls usually exacted on the journey.


The number of those, however, who could afford the leisure time and the cost, entailed by a journey to Rome, or the Spanish shrine of St. James, must have been comparatively limited. The rich of no occupation might, or the very poor who chose to abandon all lawful labour and live on charity. But to the mass of the population, such pilgrimages were impossible. Not so those to our English shrines, which later, came so much into fashion, and which were open to multitudes who could not undertake the lengthier expeditions. In popularity, first ranked that to the tomb of St. Thomas à Becket at Canterbury, popular not only in England, but all over Europe. The next in general estimation was Our Lady of Walsingham, in Norfolk. But nearly every great monastery and many a cathedral had its famous shrine, to which the faithful might resort. There was St. William at York, St. John at Beverley, St. Hugh at Lincoln, St. Cuthbert at Durham, St. Swithin at Winchester, St. Edmund at Bury, besides many others, where the devout might pray, and whither they might bring their offerings.

It is not surprising to us that these pilgrimages became so popular, when we learn the panacea for physical infirmities offered, and the spiritual 131 pardons and immunities which were held out to those who undertook them. Besides, to many they were a pleasant holiday, combined with a religious function. Indeed in the course of time, the home pilgrimages generally partook largely of the holiday character. Not that for one moment we would infer there were none who took up the pilgrim staff in other than a festive spirit. Numbers there doubtless were, who, with all sincerity, thus sought to atone for an evil past, or to obtain some future blessing. Yet, with Chaucer for our authority, we venture to assert, that by the fourteenth century, whatever may have been their original intent, these shorter pilgrimages had become largely divested of any really sacred character.

We would not close our eyes to the change which has passed over our religious ideals since Chaucer’s days, brought about by the Reformation and the spread of the Puritan spirit. We know well enough, how the sober and the gay, the serious and the ridiculous, were then interwoven in the national life and thought. One only needs to study the sculptures of our old churches, with their grotesque figures placed amidst the most sacred and solemn surroundings, to understand 132 something of this incongruous mediaeval spirit. And yet after making every allowance, we maintain that in the majority of cases, eventually the pilgrimages became little more than a pleasant summer’s excursion. The travellers appear to have taken every precaution to make the journey as agreeable as possible. Far from begging their bread, they put good store of money in their purses at starting, ambled on horseback in easy stages along green lanes, and lived well at comfortable inns all along the way.

A black and white engraving of a bearded pilgrim in a hair shirt with a cloak, carrying a staff.


There was a certain costume appropriate to pilgrims, which old writers speak of as “pilgrim weeds.” The especial insignia were the staff and scrip. The staff was not of an invariable shape. On a fourteenth century gravestone at Haltwhistle, in Northumberland, it is like a rather long walking-stick, with a natural knob at the top. Usually it was a staff from five to seven feet long, turned in a lathe, with one knob at the top, and 133 another a foot lower down. Sometimes beneath the lower there was a hook or staple, to which a water-bottle or small bundle might be attached. The same kind of staff is to be found in ancient illuminated manuscripts in the hands of beggars and shepherds, as well as pilgrims. The scrip was a small bag slung at the side by a cord over the shoulder, to contain the traveller’s food and necessaries. Sometimes it was made of leather, but probably the material varied according to individual taste.

A black and white engraving of a pilgrim with staff and scrip.

PILGRIM (From “Praise of Folly”).

Often the pilgrim is represented with the scallop shell. In an old wood-cut, illustrating Erasmus’ “Praise of Folly,” he appears with it attached to his hat. The scallop shell had, however, more especial reference to the shrine of St. James of Compostella, being the badge of that particular Spanish saint. Sir Walter Raleigh makes reference to it, in his well-known lines: — 

“Give me my scallop shell of quiet,
My staff of faith to walk upon,
134 My scrip of joy, immortal diet,
My bottle of salvacion;
My gown of glory, hope’s true gauge,
And thus I’ll take my pilgrimage;
Whilst my soul like quiet palmer,
Travels to the Land of Heaven.”

Though, however, the conventional pilgrim as a rule, is represented with robe, hat, staff, and scrip, it is by no means clear that the actual pilgrim always bore them. Chaucer, who gives the most minute details as to the costume of the characters in his Canterbury Tales, does not, so far as we remember, mention any of these things.

The Knight

“Of fustian wore a jupon” (guernsey).

The squire

“Short was his gowne, with sleeves long and wide.”

The Yeoman

“Was clad in coat and hood of greene.”

The Merchant was in motley:

“And on his head a Flander’s beaver hat.”

The only one of Chaucer’s pilgrims who bore anything of a religious insignia, was the Pardoner:

“A vernicle had he sewed in his cap.”

The vernicle — the kerchief of St. Veronica — on the original of which the sacred countenance was said to have been miraculously imprinted by Our 135 Lord as He trod the Via Dolorosa, was borne by those who had made a pilgrimage to Rome; and the Pardoner, the poet tells us: — 

Straight was comen from the court of Rome.”

A black and white engraving of an ampulla, or flask, from Canterbury.


The chief sign of the Canterbury pilgrims was the ampulla (a flask). The legend was that the monks carefully collected from the pavement the blood of the blessed St. Thomas, and that it was preserved as a sacred relic. A lady visiting the shrine, begged for a drop of the precious fluid, and this being used as a medicine, worked a wonderful cure. Naturally the tidings of the miracle became noised abroad, and as time went on, the pilgrims were not satisfied unless they too shared the same benefit. A drop of the blood was mixed with a chalice full of water, so as not to offend the senses. According to the monkish writer, who records many of the miracles, it wrought extraordinary cures. Vast crowds came to partake of the strange medicine, and 136 those who came were also anxious that their friends at home should in turn share the privilege. At first the liquid was placed in wooden vessels, but these were split by it, and many fragments of the broken vessels were hung about the martyr’s tomb. At length the thought came into the head of a certain young man to make little flasks (ampullae) of lead and pewter. And, wonderful to relate, the miracle of the breaking ceased. Then was it known that it was in these vessels the fluid was designed to be carried. Some of these curious relics still exist. There is an example preserved in the museum at York. The principal figure is a somewhat stern representation of the saint; above is a crude illustration of the shrine, and round the margin a rhyming legend: — “Optimus egrorum, medicus fit Thoma bonorum,” which is thus translated “Thomas is the best physician for the pious sick.”

Second only in importance to the shrine of St. Thomas at Canterbury, was that of Our Lady of Walsingham. Pilgrims flocked to it from all parts of England, and even from abroad. No less than five English kings paid their devotions in person there. For hundreds of years an excellent road, or pilgrim’s way, was maintained 137 through the East Anglian counties leading to the spot. Thither came the critical Erasmus, and he has left some of his impressions on record. Half serious, half sceptical, it is not easy to know exactly in what light the keen scholar regarded all the reputed wonders of the place. Of the scholarship of the monks he had no exalted opinion, for he tells us that in his time they did not know Greek from Hebrew. Erasmus describes the holy places, the various chapels and sights. For besides the venerated image of Our Lady, Walsingham contained many celebrated relics, such as the Virgin’s milk, and a finger-joint of St. Peter. In one of his colloquies he writes: — “Presently a man’s finger is exhibited to us, the largest of three; I kiss it, and then I ask whose relics were these? He says, St. Peter’s. The Apostle? I ask. He said yes. Then observing the size of the joint, which might have been that of a giant, I remarked that St. Peter must have been a man of very large size. At this one of my companions burst into a laugh, which I certainly took ill, for if he had been quiet, the attendant would have shewn us all the relics. However, we pacified him by offering a few pence.”


Of the northern pilgrimages, one of the most famous was that to the shrine of John of Beverley, the Anglo-Saxon saint. It had many notable visitors in its day; amongst others Henry the Fifth, who came thither after the Battle of Agincourt. The reason for the journey was a story noised abroad at the time, to the effect that the shrine of St. John on the day of the great conflict, had exuded blood. Whether the King believed the legend or not, we cannot decide, but he was a good Catholic, and so we may assume he probably accepted it in good faith. Anyhow the following year he made a pilgrimage to Beverley in commemoration of the great victory which the English arms had achieved, and we trow left the minster considerably richer for his visit and offerings.

The custom was for pilgrims to travel to their destined shrines in companies. Of such a party Chaucer has left us an inimitable picture in the Canterbury Tales. They appear to have done their best to make the road agreeable to one another. Chaucer makes mine host of the Tabard say: — 

“Ye go to Canterbury — God you speed,
  The blissful martyr quit you your mede;
   139 And well I wot as ye go by the way,
  Ye shapen you to talken and to play,
  For truly comfort and worth is none,
  To riden by the way dumb as a stone.”

A black and white engraving of a group of medieval pilgrims on horseback, with a town in the background.


Each pilgrimage, we are told, had its gathering cry. This cry, in the early morning, the pilgrims shouted as they left the town, or villages, where they slept overnight. It acted as a muster call for the pilgrims who were bound to the same shrine. The common custom was, for the party to hire a few singers and musicians, to enliven the journey. Before reaching a town they used to 140 draw themselves into procession, and then, with music, to pass through the streets. The songs which the pilgrims sang, whilst on their journey, strictly should have been of a sacred character, as should also the stories that were recited, but frequently, they were very much otherwise. The songs were often love songs, and though Chaucer’s “poor parson” preached a sermon, the majority of the stories told on such a pilgrimage, were probably of a light, or even loose, description. The following picture, from Foxe’s “Acts and Monuments,” if not very friendly, is certainly amusing.

“When diverse men and women will go thus after their own willes, and finding out one pilgrimage, they will order with them before, to have with them both men and women, that can well synge wanton songs; and some other pilgrims will have with them bagge-pipes, so that every towne they come throwe, what with the noise of their singing, and with the sound of their pipyng, and with the jingling of their Canterbury bells, and with the barking out of dogges after them, they make more noise than if the Kinge came there away, with all his clarions, and many other minstrelles. And if these men and women be a 141 moneth on their pilgrimage, many of them shall be a half year after great janglers, tale-bearers, and liars.”

We must take such a statement as this with considerable reservation. There doubtless was an admixture of good and evil, for the reader will perceive by this time, that the mediæval pilgrimage was practically equivalent to the modern tour. To refer for a while to the longer religious journeys; such as those to the Holy Land, or the shrine of St. James of Compostella, it is strange how like the personally conducted tours of the nineteenth century, were these pilgrimages in later pre-Reformation times. The “personally conducted” was quite an extensive business. The “patronus,” as the conductor was called, chartered a ship, provisioned it, and conducted the pilgrims from the place of embarkation and back, at so much per head; feeding them by the way, arranging for their safe conduct, leading them in a body to the various shrines, and pointing out the different objects of interest and devotion on the journey. An English traveller in the fifteenth century counted eighty such pilgrim vessels lying at once in the harbour of Corunna, thirty-two of them English.


One of the books which Caxton printed was “Informacion for Pylgrmes into the Holy Londe,” a sort of fifteenth century Murray, or Baedecker. This curious work serves to shew that really the gulf between the mediæval pilgrim and the nineteenth century tourist was by no means so wide as some people might be led to suppose. The passenger, for instance, was to look well after his berth on board, and see that he did his utmost to minimise the troubles of sea-sickness. “In a ship or caryk, choose you a chamber as nigh the middes of the ship, as ye may. For there is least rolling or tumbling, to keep your brain or stomach in temper.”

He was also to take care the “patronus” did not get to the windward of him in the victualling.

“Also see that the sayd patron geve you every day hote mete twyse at two meeles. The forenoon at dyner, and the afternoon at supper. And that the wyne that ye shall drynke be good, and the water fresshe and not stinkyng, yf ye come to have better. And also the byscute.”

He was counselled to provide himself with a few extras. He was advised to take some wine of his own, and half-a-dozen hens or chickens, besides various other things.


“Also I counsell you to have wyth you out of Venyse (that is, to purchase whilst at Venice) confections, comfortatives, grene gynger, almondes, ryce, fygges, reysons, greate and smalle, which shall doo you grete ease by the waye. And pepyr, saffron, cloves and mace a few, as ye thynke need. And loaf sugar also.”

“Also take wyth you a lytell caudron, a fryenge panne, dysshes, platers, sawcers of tree, cuppes of glasse, a grater for brede, and such necessaryes.” Evidently it was not intended the pilgrims should journey fasting, eating sparingly of the coarsest food, drinking nothing but water, travelling in rags, or with peas in their shoes.

Caxton’s “Information” is severely practical and scrupulously minute. Fourteen days in the Holy Land was the time stipulated for in the covenant with the patron. It was reckoned that all the most important places could be “done” in that time, allowing four days for the journey from Jaffa to Jerusalem and back. “Ten Days at Jerusalem,” would have been the modern advertisement. The fees for admittance to the various spots, to be visited en route, are clearly stated in this pilgrim’s vade mecum. When these directions are read, it is not difficult to understand how 144 Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, besides making several minor tours, had been three times to Jerusalem. Furthermore we are enabled to more thoroughly see the reason why these pilgrimages were so popular. They had their supposed spiritual benefits, but in addition to these, and the pleasure of beholding the wonders of strange countries, the traveller enjoyed several useful temporal advantages. If he were a priest, he drew his stipend all the time he was away, provided his absence did not exceed three years. If a layman, he was exempted from all taxes and public burdens. Once the cross was sewed upon his shoulder, and he had received the blessing of the church, no one could sue him for debt in any temporal court, for he was under the especial protection of S. Peter and the Pope. It thus came to pass that fraudulent bankrupts were often found in the company of those who proceeded on pilgrimage to the Holy Land.