Last year was declared ‘The Year of Cathedrals: The Year of Pilgrimage’, in part prompted by the anniversary celebrations of saints associated with a number of cathedrals, most notably Canterbury, where St Thomas was martyred on 29 December 1170. English Cathedrals planned various celebrations and a national ‘passport’ was launched, allowing visitors to collect a stamp from each cathedral visited, akin to medieval pilgrims collecting pilgrim badges from the holy sites to which they journeyed. To mark this, I wrote about cathedrals in February 2020, intending to write about pilgrimage later in the year. But then covid-19 changed all our plans. The Year of Cathedrals: the Year of Pilgrimage has now been extended to 2021, and the British Museum’s major exhibition on Thomas of Canterbury, planned for 2020, has been moved to 2021 and continues to 22 August. It brings together wonderful objects and manuscripts from the time of his death through to the sixteenth century, and is strongly recommended for a staycation visit to London.
Because of Thomas’s martyrdom, Canterbury very quickly became one of the greatest national and international centres of pilgrimage. At first pilgrims came to visit the place of his martyrdom and burial. But in 1220 his body was moved (‘translated’) to a shrine, breathtakingly decorated with gold and jewels, which was placed in a chapel especially built for it at the extreme east end of the cathedral, behind the high altar. Not only were there jewels on the shrine, but the space was bejewelled by light falling through the many stained glass windows which told of his life and miracles. The shrine was destroyed at the Reformation, as were the windows telling of Thomas’s life. But enough of the miracle windows survive to give us some sense of the glory of his shrine and its setting. One window is on display in the exhibition, allowing for a privileged close-up look.
People made pilgrimage to shrines in hope of healing for mind and body, to seek forgiveness, to draw upon the power of the saint as an intercessor with God, as a generous act of thanksgiving, or as act of penance. We must never forget the sacrifice involved in making pilgrimage in the middle ages, even if it was within one’s own country, nor how much more difficult it was if the travel involved other languages, other customs, and the problem of making one’s way through challenging terrain and across the sea. It’s hardly surprising that recognised routes grew up to the major international shrines such as Canterbury, Rome and Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain. These routes provided reliable sources of hospitality, the protection of companions travelling for the same purpose, and the simple fact that a defined route provided the guidance you needed in a world without maps, where social and political circumstances were a constant challenge.
But this pattern of pilgrimage, familiar to us from the Camino de Santiago, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and the well-known route to Rome through the Great St Bernard Pass, only begins to develop in the ninth century. Before that, pilgrimage was much more local — and for the majority remained so throughout the Middle Ages. Most pilgrim sites were relatively small, and most pilgrims did not travel far, certainly not between northern Europe and Santiago, Rome or Jerusalem. But there were always intrepid spirits, my favourite being an Icelandic monk who travelled to the Jordan and back in the mid-1140s . Perhaps it’s not surprising that he was elected abbot on his return.