the 18-year-old Henry VIII, shortly after his coronation
Apart from having six wives, Henry VIII is notorious for breaking with Rome and establishing the Church of England. In the 1530s, he instigated a huge programme of reform, investigating and dissolving the country’s monastic houses and closing sites of pilgrimage central to centuries of national worship. Yet, in the early years of his reign, the young king was a model of Catholic devotion, writing his own rebuttal of Luther’s theology and styling himself as a defender of the very faith he would shortly seek to transform. And typical of his era, it was a showy, demonstrative sort of faith, visible through the bestowing of generous gifts to religious houses and regular visits to Saints’ shrines.
For the newly-crowned King, pilgrimage was a significant and regular act of worship. In 1511, to celebrate the birth of his son, he paid a visit to the Norfolk shrine of Our Lady at Walsingham, dismounting a mile away at the Slipper chapel, where he removed his shoes and proceeded barefoot. Once there, he lit a candle, made an offering of expensive jewels and commanded the royal glazier, one Bernard Flower, to make a stained glass window for the Lady Chapel. Sadly Henry’s young son did not survive, nor did the shrine. Yet in 1511, although the heyday of pilgrimage had passed, no one could have anticipated its days were actually numbered.
the remains of Walsingham Priory today
Walsingham had been generously endowed by a string of previous kings and queens: it was the centre of a national cult, a favourite of the monarchy, beloved by Richard II, Henry III, Edward I, Edward II and Edward III. Margaret of Anjou, wife of Henry VI, had dedicating jewels to the shrine in 1452 and Henry’s grandmother Margaret had toured the East Anglian shrines in 1498,bequeathing silver to Walsingham in 1503. It would all end, though, with Henry VIII. The famous statue of the Virgin Mary would be burned and the shrine destroyed, the sub-prior hanged for his resistance and the site’s wealth “confiscated,” to be absorbed into the royal coffers. The Slipper chapel, where the King had so reverently left his shoes back in 1511, became a farm building. It is ironic to think of the supplicating King's place being taken by sheep or cattle.
For all degrees of Tudor society, pilgrimage was an essential component of an active faith; an undertaking that proved devotion and offset sin. In a world where few individuals could exercise control over their destinies, men and women could ask for direct saintly intercession when confronted by disorder. Tudor society contained large numbers of disenfranchised and marginalised groups for whom life was often brutal, difficult and short; spiritual guidance could assist in decision making and influence the course of auspicious events. It could cut through barriers of class, health and wealth, uniting all in mirroring the difficult journey of life. From start to finish, it stood outside the everyday experience, apart from daily norms and as such, was imbued with an “otherness” or magic quality that transcended the temporal realm. It should be no surprise then, that the most common miracles associated with shrines around the country were health-related; the apocryphal cures of cripples and lepers, sight restored to the blind, dead children brought back to life and barren women made fertile.
A modern interpretation of the medieval Walsingham Madonna
Nor were the Virgin and Saints confined to their shrines. In fact, they were accessible on many levels: trade guilds enacted dramas and tableaux of their lives; on Rogation Days, Whitsun and Corpus Christi, robed and crowned statues were carried through the streets accompanied by blazing candles, while at Midsummer, the consecrated host was paraded, with banners, torches and crosses. Additionally, regular rounds of holy water processed through villages and was sprinkled on fields, animals, beds and homes, bringing the saint’s blessing into the very heart of domestic life. Holy water, bells, blessings, relics, prayers and even exorcisms can appear superfluous and dramatic today; it is difficult to overstate just how much these things mattered to many early Tudor Catholics.
By the advent of the Henry VIII, the shrines dotted across the country, particularly those dedicated to the Virgin Mary, were particularly favoured by women at all stages of their lives. In 1443, Margaret Paston undertook a pilgrimage to Walsingham to supplicate Our Lady for a cure for her husband’s illness; during the pain of labour, Margaret of Hamilton vowed to visit Canterbury and give thanks for a safe delivery; Elizabeth of York visited Walsingham after losing two children; the barren wife of William of Lincoln travelled to Canterbury and afterwards was fruitful. At a shrine in Thetford, it was reported that the Virgin had revived a deceased child and according to Benedict of Peterborough, St Thomas of Canterbury could transmute water into milk. Even as late as 1538, five or six hundred pilgrims a day were still visiting the shrine of St Asaph in Flintshire and the shrine to Our Lady at King’s Lynn was so popular, that a double staircase had to be installed to deal with the vast numbers of visitors.
No doubt sufferers made repeat visits in the hope of easing pain; the panacea of the journey may well have brought psychological and consequently, real, physical relief. Some shrines were known for curative specialisms, usually determined by the saint to whom they were dedicated: two thirds of the visitors to that of Goderic of Finchdale near Durham and St Frideswide in Oxford were female. Promising health and wholesomeness in uncertain times, pilgrimage, with all its attendant psychological stages, lay at the heart of English devotional culture.
replica of a medieval pilgrim's badge depicting the tomb of
Thomas A Becket at Canterbury Cathedral
Thomas A Becket at Canterbury Cathedral
Undertaking a pilgrimage had a serious social and ritual dimension for rich and poor alike. From making an initial vow, preparations would be made and friends and family informed, who might add their own requests and recount ailments and experiences. Word would spread: it was a declaration of the suspension of the daily routine, conferring special status upon the pilgrim. Motives for going were as varied as those who went, from sincere devotion and desperation for a miracle, to those who sought opportunity for escape. According to Chaucer, the desire to go on pilgrimage was a kind of wanderlust, provoked by the spring, when people all round the country longed to visit strange lands and foreign shrines after the long hard months of winter. No doubt in rural communities where travel was limited, the pilgrim, setting off on an adventure and returning with tales to tell, could experience something not unlike modern celebrity. Predictably then, while some pilgrims went in sincere quest of cures and assistance, others became addicted to the thrill of the journey and chance encounters along the road. Chaucer’s Wife of Bath is perhaps most infamous for having had five husbands and undertaking a pilgrimage to Canterbury in the hope of meeting number six.
The experience of pilgrimage encompassed preparation, separation, endurance, travel, return and the all-important souvenirs. After the momentous contact with the shrine, there were badges, medals, crosses, ribbons, wax discs, holy papers, emblems and other aide-memoires to purchase. But these talisman were not just proof of the visit, they were the physical embodiment of the divine blessing and an important acknowledgement of the disenfranchised within a predominantly male religious framework. In their size and accessibility, pilgrim badges could be worn on clothing, tucked into bags and displayed proudly in the community and home. Their protection could extend to those too infirm to travel: undoubtedly pilgrim badges from the Marian shrines would have been used as charms or talismen, against pain and suffering of all varieties and lent or bequeathed to family and friends. The souvenirs of recent and long-remembered journeys must have been present in many bed chambers to comfort the labouring, dying, unhappy and unwell.
more replica pilgrim badges
Pilgrims did not just bring home souvenirs: they left offering too. Displays of wealth were considered directly proportional to degrees of devotion, although humble offerings might realistically represent the same percentage of income, as more ostentatious gifts: while poor women might leave valuable eggs, medicinal herbs and milk, noble and aristocratic ladies could endow shrines with riches, such as the jewels and twenty pound crown of gold bequeathed by Isabel Beauchamp to Our Lady of Caversham in 1439. It must be significant too, that many of the traditional herbs offered before the virgin, including bunches of periwinkle, verbena and thyme to be blessed and kept throughout the year, also found their way into potions and balms for aiding reproduction and birth.
For the majority, the wealth of saints’ shrines must have been paradoxically overwhelming and comforting. The piles of attendant jewels, gold and rich fabrics were a contemporary shorthand for spiritual wealth, a reassurance of the long-standing history and authenticity of this form of worship, as well as an indication of the saints’ rates of success as healers. At Willesden, the statue of the Virgin was draped in fine silk, set with precious stones and a lace veil edged in pearls, gold and silver. The additional theatricality of blazing candles and tapers must have exaggerated the spectacle and associated these earthly offerings with metaphors of divine light and the revelation and salvation it promised. A description of the tomb of St Thomas in Canterbury Cathedral gives some idea of just how dazzling the experience must have been as the culmination of pilgrimages. The shrine’s display was pure theatre: behind an altar at the top of steps, a wooden canopy could be raised and lowered to reveal a stone plinth, through the open arch way of which was revealed the reliquary. This was a casket covered in gold plate, studded with gems given by visiting kings, past and present. Describing it in 1512, Erasmus wrote: “the last valuable portion was of gold but every part glistened, shone and sparkled with rare and very large jewels, some of them larger than a goose’s egg.” The statue of Our Lady in Lincoln Cathedral sat in a four poster chair, wearing a crown of silver and gilt decorated with pearls and precious stones, her child on her knee.
the remains of St Augustine's Abbey, Canterbury,
dissolved by Henry VIII in 1538
dissolved by Henry VIII in 1538
Shrines themselves were a complex multi-sensory display of light, sound, statues, glass, wall painting, prayers, music, water, incense, procession, souvenir, and attendants. The ritual of approach, supplication and departure were a carefully controlled piece of theatre. Many pilgrims approached on hands and knees, while silver bells tinkled, incense wafted and the prior indicated the precious gifts with a white wand. The canopy was raised for the supplications and offerings then lowered again, offering tantalising but brief view of the riches that symbolised the state of blessedness all visitors hoped to attain. Their route around a shrine was often carefully controlled, with symbolic stages, to concentrate and control the experience. Once outside, pilgrims must have buzzed with euphoria. The taverns and inns of Canterbury would have resounded with the tales of successful saintly interventions, like the parishioner who spent a day and night in labour after the arm of her foetus swelled and would not be expelled despite all the midwives’ efforts; eventually the child turned and was born normally, through the intervention of St. Thomas. Stories like this engendered hope in the pilgrims; everyone believed their own miracle was possible.
That source of national hope received a major setback in the 1530s. Henry’s programme of religious reforms, designed to eradicate the abuses of the Catholic Church, initiated a set of sweeping changes that would realign national faith and possibly character, forever. Shrines were closed down even as people knelt before them in worship. Famous icons and statues of saints were burned on huge pyres whilst others were desecrated and incorporated into domestic contexts. Images of the Virgin Mary were given to children as dolls and altar slabs from parish churches were recycled as doorsteps. In 1547, Henry VIII died, still considering himself a Catholic, yet the ball of Protestant reform had been irretrievably set in motion. Recently, Anne Vail, author of a book on modern pilgrimage, has even suggested his last words were to offer his soul up to the Virgin of Walsingham. Considering that he had probably been playing the fiddle while her effigy burned, his recantation would have been a bit too late.