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Where history happened: pilgrimage

Charlotte Hodgman speaks to Dr Dee Dyas, from the University of York, about the history of pilgrimage in Britain, and examines eight related places

Durham Cathedral on a sunny day. Taken near to the water of the River Wear. (Dreamstime)
Published: June 7, 2012 at 11:15 am
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This article was first published in the June 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine 


Pilgrimage, as practised in Britain through the centuries, has had a profound influence on the country’s spiritual, literary and physical landscapes. It connected with the desires of people from many cultures and backgrounds, and funded the development of abbeys and cathedrals throughout the Middle Ages.

Yet, says Dee Dyas, director of the Centre for the Study of Christianity and Culture at the University of York, in the early days of Christianity there was no pilgrimage to holy sites because there was no perceived need for such places.

“The Christian church taught that God was omnipresent, so there was no reason to travel to encounter him,” she says. “Not until the early fourth century do we really see pilgrimage to holy places take off within Christianity. This was stimulated by the desire of the recently converted Roman emperor Constantine I, along with his mother, Helena, to identify key biblical sites in Palestine and create a ‘Holy Land’. It was also inspired by the rapidly developing cult of the saints.” But this shift was not without opposition. As Dyas explains: “The growing promotion of sites such as Jerusalem and Bethlehem as special places in which to encounter God posed real theological problems to some. But they were soon the minority; theology had been ambushed by experience.”

The Roman missionaries who came to the Anglo-Saxons in 597 brought a strong tradition of pilgrimage to holy sites but the perceived power of special places predates Christianity. “From the earliest days of the Anglo-Saxon church, missionaries such as Augustine of Canterbury deliberately adopted places already regarded as sacred and made them their own,” says Dyas. “They gave them a new kind of holiness by placing relics of the saints there, making them into shrines where heaven and earth were believed to intersect.”

The motivation for pilgrimage in medieval Britain was essentially to encounter God and his saints and find spiritual and practical benefits through that contact. “Many pilgrims were looking to strengthen their faith or seek forgiveness for sins,” says Dyas. “Shrines increasingly offered indulgences – a means to gain remission from time spent in purgatory – during the Middle Ages. Some people were sent to particular holy sites as a punishment for serious sins,” she continues. “And in an age where medicinal cures were few, many people embarked on pilgrimages in search of healing, either for themselves or for family and friends. Women wanting to conceive made up a large number of these.”

Many pilgrims left offerings at shrines in anticipation of, or in thanks for, healing. Early 14th-century records from Hereford Cathedral, for example, reveal a list of offerings that included 129 images of men, or their limbs, in silver; 108 crutches; and 97 nightgowns left by women who had been granted a child. Pilgrims would often leave wax images of the part of the body that had been healed, or that they wished to be cured. These offerings served to increase the faith of the pilgrims that followed and increased their desire to get as close to the shrine, and the relics of the particular saint, as possible.

And such pilgrimages didn’t always mean long, possibly dangerous, journeys to major shrines. As Dyas says: “There were also many smaller, local cults – not necessarily endorsed by the pope – that could even be visited in a day.

“Although pilgrimage could be a perilous business – putting individuals at risk of robbery and disease – we shouldn’t forget that these journeys were not only opportunities for spiritual devotion but often the only way of escaping daily responsibilities and leaving home, particularly if you were a woman.”

Competition between holy places was fierce and some shrines claimed to ‘specialise’ in specific types of healing to encourage visitors. For example, research into the ‘miracles’ performed by Godric, the hermit of Finchale, reveals that he carried out around 60 per cent of them on women.

Other shrines are known to have ‘enhanced’ the pilgrim experience. One such was Boxley Abbey in Kent, which was famed for a wooden cross bearing a figure that could, it was claimed, move by itself. During the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century, it was revealed that the cross was moved by a series of hidden levers and wires.

“The pilgrim experience would have been a real assault on the senses,” says Dyas, “Crowds of people would have been fighting to get as close to the saint as possible; there would have been sick people groaning, the clamour of ringing bells and the saying of mass.”

Even entering the shrine would have been an awe-inspiring experience. “Places such as Canterbury Cathedral were built to impress and would have been full of colour. Stained glass windows, soaring architecture and a plethora of statues, altars and religious iconography made belief more tangible. Many people must have felt as if they were standing at the gates to heaven itself.”

Unsurprisingly, many pilgrims wished to take something of their experience home with them, and the concept of ‘transferable holiness’ via badges, reliquaries, stones and even pieces of cloth that had touched the shrine, gave rise to a huge pilgrim souvenir industry. These items often acted as spiritual encouragement and even amulets against illness or danger.

“What pilgrims also brought back with them was enhanced spiritual status in the eyes of their community,” says Dyas. “Pilgrimage was seen as something that benefited everybody. Numbers of people going on pilgrimages have risen and fallen through the centuries, but the power of special places has always been something that people have responded to instinctively across all cultures and faiths.”

8 places linked to pilgrimage


Aylesford Priory, Kent

Where the Carmelite friars returned in 1949

Founded by the first Carmelite friars to come from the Holy Land in 1242, Aylesford Priory originally provided hospitality for pilgrims travelling to the shrine of St Thomas Becket at Canterbury. The land was granted to the friars by crusader Richard de Grey and it was officially recognised by the bishop of Rochester, Richard of Wendover, five years later.

“When the Carmelite order was disbanded in England at the Reformation, Aylesford Priory, like many religious sites, became a private house,” says Dee Dyas. “However, in 1949 the house was bought once more by the Carmelite order and subsequently grew into a centre of pilgrimage in its own right. It’s a fascinating example of the way in which the practice of pilgrimage continues to evolve and adapt, even in the present day.”

Today, Aylesford Priory is one of the largest centres of Christian pilgrimage in Britain, attracting 200,000 pilgrims every year. Visitors to the site, which is open 365 days a year, can still see some of the priory’s medieval buildings, including the Pilgrims Hall, which displays some of the original medieval floor tiles from the old priory church.

The skull of St Simon Stock is contained in the reliquary behind the altar in the Relic Chapel.

01622 717272



Canterbury Cathedral, Kent

Where Thomas Becket is said to have punished an ungrateful pilgrim

Canterbury Cathedral was founded by St Augustine, who came from Rome as a missionary to the pagan Anglo-Saxons in 597. There is no evidence that Canterbury was a major centre of pilgrimage until the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket in 1170. Thomas, the cathedral’s most famous saint, was canonised in 1173. He was particularly well known for healing from a distance. But those who had been healed were expected to show their gratitude.

One story, depicted in the 13th-century stained glass windows of the cathedral’s Trinity Chapel, tells of Sir Jordan Fitz-eisulf who failed to visit the cathedral to deliver an offering of money after his son’s recovery from the plague. Following the death of his other son, though, Fitz-eisulf hastily fulfilled his vow to the saint.

Once in the cathedral the pilgrim was taken on a journey to visit four ‘stations’: the Martyrdom (where the murder took place); the original tomb in the crypt; the shrine (after 1220); and the Corona, where the saint’s severed skull was venerated. Ampullae believed to hold water tinged with the blood of the martyred Becket could also be bought up until the 14th century.

Although Becket’s shrine was destroyed at the Reformation, a lit candle marks the place of his murder.

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Canterbury Cathedral website


Durham Cathedral, County Durham

Where the relics of St Cuthbert have lain since 995

The relics of St Cuthbert were brought to Durham in 995, along with the head of St Oswald, king of Northumbria, and the site has been a place of pilgrimage ever since. The building itself is the only cathedral in England to retain almost all of its Norman craftsmanship and would have been an awe-inspiring sight to a medieval pilgrim’s eyes.

A medieval manuscript found in the Durham monastic library describes how the heavy, painted cover, which hid the shrine from the casual glance, would have been lifted. As the canopy slowly ascended, six attached silver bells rang out and the Magnificat was sung. The feretory, which held the relics of St Cuthbert, would surely have been incredible to behold, covered as it was with gold, intricate figures and masses of rich jewels. A shrine base made of green marble supported the feretory, while four niches with seats were carved into its base, allowing pilgrims to sit or kneel.

Women were not allowed to approach the shrine of St Cuthbert and were instead directed to the nearby Godric of Finchale, a hermit who died a few miles outside of Durham in 1170. According to analysis of Godric’s miracles, some 60 per cent were performed on women.

Cuthbert’s shrine was destroyed during the Reformation, but some of his relics were recovered in 1827, including his stole, pectoral cross, an ivory liturgical comb and a leather-bound Gospel of St John. These can still be seen in the treasury.

0191 386 4266



Glastonbury Abbey, Somerset

Where Christianity and paganism have intertwined 

Glastonbury Abbey is venerated to this day as an ancient centre of English Christianity, but much of its history is bound up in the legend of King Arthur, whose tomb the Glastonbury monks claimed to have found in 1191. Indeed, the monks at one point also claimed to possess the relics of St Dunstan, who had been a monk and abbot of Glastonbury before becoming archbishop of Canterbury, an assertion that caused a dispute with the monks of Canterbury.

According to legend, Joseph of Arimathea was the founder of Glastonbury, and the sacred Glastonbury Thorn is said to have grown from his staff. Joseph is also said to have buried the Holy Grail just below the Tor at the entrance to the underworld, now known as the Chalice Spring. Those who drink from the well are supposedly granted eternal youth.

Glastonbury still retains its intriguing mix of medieval Christian heritage and Arthurian legend, a combination that continues to attract visitors from a variety of backgrounds – from Roman Catholics and Anglicans to followers of New Age movements. You can still visit the remains of the abbey and the Chalice Spring, but much of the Glastonbury Thorn was destroyed in 2010.

01458 832267



St Winefride’s Well, Holywell Flintshire

Where pilgrims still bathe in the holy waters

St Winefride’s Well is said to have sprung up in the seventh century when Caradog beheaded the virgin saint and martyr, Winefride, in revenge for his failure to seduce her. After allegedly being brought back to life through the prayers of her uncle, Beuno, Winefride lived as a nun until her second death, 20 years later. Surviving records of cures claimed after bathing at the well begin in the 12th century and the well itself has been a site of pilgrimage for some 13 centuries.

The current chapel, located above the Well Crypt, was built in c1500 by Margaret Beaufort, Henry VII’s mother, and has had many high- profile visitors. These include James II and VII in 1686, who came to the healing spring with his queen, Mary of Modena, to pray for a son.

Shrine offerings, including 19th and early 20th-century crutches, are on display in the site’s museum, while its library houses letters and documents relating to cures claimed through the intercession of St Winefride.

01352 713054



Iona Abbey, Isle of Iona Argyll

Where St Columba founded ‘the cradle of Christianity’

Established by St Columba and his Irish followers in AD 563, Iona Abbey attracted pilgrims from the seventh century onwards, and also served as a burial place for several important and holy people, including kings of the Scots – among them, allegedly, Macbeth.

The site was inhabited by a community of Benedictine monks in c1200 who rebuilt it as a place of pilgrimage following the dispersal of many of its relics in the late eighth and early ninth century as a result of Viking raids.

As with hundreds of other religious sites, the Reformation brought monastic life on the island to a close, but the site was revived in the 1870s by the 8th Duke of Argyll, who began restoring the buildings.

The current Iona community was established in 1938, and the restored abbey welcomes some 50 guests a week, as well as pilgrims. All that remains of Columba’s original monastery is the great vallum, or enclosure bank, and Tòrr an Aba, ‘hill of the abbot’, where Columba is thought to have died in 597.

The island is accessible by ferry from Fionnphort, Mull.

01681 700404



St Albans Cathedral Hertfordshire

Where one of the oldest sites of continuous Christian worship in Britain can be found

Two major shrines located at St Albans Cathedral have played a role in establishing the site as a location for pilgrims since the 12th century. The most well known of these is that of St Alban, an early Christian martyr believed to have been killed by the Romans in c230 AD (although some state c304 AD). St Alban is said to have converted to Christianity after sheltering a Christian priest, St Amphibalus, whose remains are also enshrined in the church.

Bede, in his Ecclesiastical History, described the building of the church “in which place there cease not to this day the miraculous cures of many sick persons, and the frequent working of wonders” – and certainly it would have been a magnificent place to visit.

Says Dee Dyas: “The medieval shrine was so richly decorated with silver gilt and jewels that a watching chamber, manned by monks in shifts, was built to guard against thieves. The watching chamber, dated c1400 and built of oak, features relief images of the martyrdom of St Alban and scenes of daily life.”

The shrine was destroyed at the Reformation but was restored and rededicated in 1993. In 2002 the abbey was presented with a relic, a shoulder bone of St Alban, by the church of St Pantaleon in Cologne. The bone was placed in the restored shrine.

01727 860780



The Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham Norfolk

Where royal patronage assisted the site’s rise to fame

The Shrine of Our Lady at Walsingham, established in 1061, is an excellent example of the rise to pre-eminence in late medieval Europe of sites dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Yet, says Dee Dyas, “the shrine’s popularity among pilgrims was also the result of royal patronage”.

Henry III made his first visit to Walsingham in April 1226. Edward III, similarly devoted to the Virgin Mary, sent one of the five golden ships made to commemorate the naval victory of Sluys in 1340 as an offering to Walsingham – and royal patronage continued until the reign of Henry VIII. Even after the shrine was closed and the statue of Mary was burned, Walsingham continued to attract prominent visitors, including Elizabeth I in 1578 .

The Slipper Chapel, built in the mid-14th century and dedicated to Saint Catherine of Alexandria, was the last chapel on a pilgrim’s route to Walsingham, and many are said to have removed their shoes at this point and walked the last mile to the shrine with bare feet. You can still visit the Catholic shrine and the neighbouring 20th-century Anglican Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham.

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Words: Charlotte Hodgman. Historical advisor: Dr Dee Dyas, author of Pilgrimage in Medieval Literature (DS Brewer, 2001), and editor of Pilgrims and Pilgrimage: Journey, Spirituality & Daily Life Through the Centuries (CD-ROM, 2nd ed, 2011)


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