7th February 2018: Canterbury Pilgrimages

At our February meeting Fr Rodney Schofield gave a very detailed talk on Canterbury Pilgrimages. He began by giving an overview of the Christian pilgrimage tradition, which began in earnest after Constantine's conversion in the fourth century AD when travellers started visiting the holy land. The first shrine in Britain was to St Alban. In the early centuries of Christianity there was a huge cross-channel trade in relics. Augustine brought relics of the martyred Pope Sixtus II to improve an existing shrine to him somewhere near Canterbury. A long list of relics held at St Augustine's Abbey included the arm of Bartholomew; the more relics, the more visitors came. Increasingly elaborate reliquaries were designed to hold them. Canterbury's religious significance grew; all of the first six archbishops of Canterbury became saints. In the same period there were also 27 local royal saints, such as St Mildred associated with Minster. In the Viking siege of 1011 the archbishop Alphege was taken away and murdered. On his conversion King Cnut had Alphege's body brought back to Canterbury and a shrine built. In September 1091 many of the early archbishops were reburied and this drew great crowds. Goscelin, writing at the time, said that a "saintly perfume" pervaded the city.

This was the last big pilgrimage event until Thomas Becket's death. Becket had been Chancellor and a friend of Henry II, but by 1164 the archbishop was exiled to France because he stood up to Henry over control of the Church. On his return in 1170 he had been back in Canterbury only six weeks when he was murdered. The miracles began when a local man threw his shirt in Becket's blood; he soaked this in water and gave this water to his paralysed wife, who recovered. Others then sought out this "Canterbury water"; ampullae were made for storing it. Richer pilgrims could buy a fragment of Becket's clothing which could be soaked in water, and with these relics the miracle could be brought to you. A record of over 700 such miracles was compiled over the following decade, and in 1173 Becket was canonised. However, it was King Henry's penitent visit in 1174 which really popularised Canterbury as a pilgrimage site. Soon all of the European nobility wanted to go to the shrine, including Philip of Flanders who stayed at Wye Court. After a fire in 1174 burnt down the east end of the cathedral master mason William of Sens re-built it to accommodate these new visitors. A new shrine was consecrated on 7 July 1220 and this was a massive event for Canterbury. The city doubled in size between 1200 and 1300. Votive offerings were bought in the city and a huge pilgrim trade built up. The cult spread throughout the continent - there were more churches dedicated to Becket in France than England, and he was revered even in Sweden and Iceland. There were many pilgrimage routes to Canterbury; the Gough Map of 1350 shows a red line running from Southampton and it appears to cross the Stour at Wye. Buildings were erected en route to house the pilgrims, such as the Maison Dieu in Ospringe in 1234 and the Eastbridge Hospital in the city.

The cult continued for another two hundred years. The peak was around 1350 when pilgrims wanted miracles against the Black Death. After 1420 visits declined and the last miracle was recorded in 1474. Although Henry VIII visited, by the 16th century the role of pilgrimage in the church was being questioned. Pilgrimage was halted in 1536 and images of Becket were destroyed in 1538.

Ellie Morris