English Literature

The Pilgrims’ Way from Winchester to Canterbury by Julia Cartwright

The Pilgrims' Way from Winchester to Canterbury by Julia Cartwright.jpg



THREE hundred and seventy years have passed since the shrine of St. Thomas at Canterbury was swept away, and the martyr’s ashes were scattered to the winds. The age of pilgrimages has gone by, the conditions of life have changed, and the influences which drew such vast multitudes of men and women to worship at the murdered Archbishop’s tomb have long ago ceased to work on the popular mind. No longer does the merry{2} cavalcade of Chaucer’s lay ride forth in the freshness of the spring morning, knight and merchant, scholar and lawyer, Prioress and Wife of Bath, yeoman and priest and friars, a motley company from all parts of the realm, “ready to wenden on their pilgrimage with full devout courage” to Canterbury. The days of pilgrimages are over, their fashion has passed away, but still some part of the route which the travellers took can be traced, and the road they trod still bears the name of the Pilgrims’ Way. Over the Surrey hills and through her stately parks the dark yews which lined the path may yet be seen. By many a quiet Kentish homestead the grassy track still winds its way along the lonely hill-side overlooking the blue Weald, and, if you ask its name, the labourer who guides the plough, or the waggoner driving his team, will tell you that it is the Pilgrims’ Road to Canterbury. So the old name lives, and the memory of that famous pilgrimage which Chaucer sang has not yet died out of the people’s heart. And although strangers journey no longer from afar to the martyrs shrine, it is still a pleasant thing to ride out on a spring or{3} summer morning and follow the Pilgrims’ Way. For the scenes through which it leads are fair, and the memories that it wakes belong to the noblest pages of England’s story.

In those old days the pilgrims who came to Canterbury approached the holy city by one of the three following routes. There was first of all the road taken by Chaucer’s pilgrims from London, through Deptford, Greenwich, Rochester, and Sittingbourne; the way trodden by all who came from the North, the Midlands, and the Eastern Counties, and by those foreigners who, like Erasmus, had first visited London. But the greater number of the foreign pilgrims from France, Germany, and Italy landed at Sandwich Haven or Dover, and approached Canterbury from the south; while others, especially those who came from Normandy and Brittany, landed at Southampton and travelled through the southern counties of Hampshire, Surrey, and Kent. Many of these doubtless stopped at Winchester, attracted by the fame of St. Swithun, the great healing Bishop; and either here or else at Guildford, they would be joined by the{4} pilgrims from the West of England on their way to the Shrine of Canterbury. This was the route taken by Henry II. when, landing at Southampton on his return from France, he made his first memorable pilgrimage to the tomb of the murdered Archbishop, in the month of July, 1174. And this route it is, which, trodden by thousands of pilgrims during the next three centuries, may still be clearly defined through the greater part of its course, and which in Surrey and Kent bears the historic name of the Pilgrims’ Way. A very ancient path it is, older far than the days of Plantagenets and Normans, of shrines and pilgrimages. For antiquarian researches have abundantly proved this road to be an old British track, which was in use even before the coming of the Romans. It may even have been, as some writers suppose, the road along which caravans of merchants brought their ingots of tin from Cornwall to be shipped at what was then the great harbour of Britain, the Rutupine Port, afterwards Sandwich Haven, and then borne overland to Massilia and the Mediterranean shores. Ingots of tin, buried it may be in haste{5} by merchants attacked on their journey by robbers, have, it is said, been dug up at various places along this route, and British earthworks have been found in its immediate neighbourhood.

The road was, there can be no doubt, used by the Romans; and all along its course remains of Roman villas, baths, and pavements have been brought to light, together with large quantities of Roman coins, cinerary urns, and pottery of the most varied description. In mediæval days this “tin road,” as Mr. Grant Allen calls it, still remained the principal thoroughfare from the West to the East of England. It followed the long line of hills which runs through the north of Hampshire, and across Surrey and Kent, that famous chalk ridge which has for us so many different associations, with whose scenery William Cobbett, for instance, has made us all familiar in the story of his rides to and from the Wen. And it lay outside the great trackless and impassable forest of Anderida, which in those days still covered a great part of the south-east counties of England. Dean Stanley, in his{6} eloquent account of the Canterbury pilgrimage, describes this road as a byway, and remarks that the pilgrims avoided the regular roads, “probably for the same reason as in the days of Shamgar, the son of Anath, the highways were unoccupied, and the traveller walked through byways.” But the statement is misleading, and there can be little doubt that in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries this road was, if not the only means of communication between West and East, at least the principal thoroughfare across this part of England, and was as such the route naturally chosen by pilgrims to Canterbury.

Certain peculiarities, it is interesting to notice, mark its course from beginning to end. It clings to the hills, and, wherever it is possible, avoids the marshy ground of the valleys. It runs, not on the summit of the downs, but about half-way down the hill-side, where there is shelter from the wind, as well as sunshine to be had under the crest of the ridge. And its course is marked by rows of yew trees, often remarkable for their size and antiquity. Some of these are at least seven or eight hundred years old, and must have{7} reared their ancient boughs on the hill-side before the feet of pilgrims ever trod these paths. So striking is this feature of the road, and so fixed is the idea that some connection exists between these yew trees and the Pilgrims’ Way, that they are often said to have been planted with the express object of guiding travellers along the road to Canterbury. This, however, we need hardly say, is a fallacy. Yews are by no means peculiar to the Pilgrims’ Way, but are to be found along every road in chalk districts. They spring up in every old hedgerow on this soil, and are for the most part sown by the birds. But the presence of these venerable and picturesque forms does lend an undeniable charm to the ancient track. And in some places where the line of cultivation gradually spreading upwards has blotted out every other trace of the road, where the ploughshare has upturned the sod, and the hedgerows have disappeared, three or four of these grand old trees may still be seen standing by themselves in the midst of a ploughed field, the last relics of a bygone age.

The murder of Becket took place on the{8} 29th of December, 1170. At five o’clock on that winter evening, as the Archbishop was on{9} his way to vespers, the King’s men, Reginald Fitz Urse and three knights who had accompanied him from Saltwood Castle, rushed upon him with their swords and murdered him in the north transept of his own Cathedral. The tragic circumstance of Becket’s end made a profound impression on the people of England, and universal horror was excited by this act of sacrilege. Whatever his faults may have been, the murdered Archbishop had dared to stand up against the Crown for the rights of the Church, and had died rather than yield to the Kings demands. “For the name of Jesus and the defence of the Church I am ready to die,” were his last words, as he fell under the assassins’ blows. When he landed at Sandwich, on his return from France, the country folk crowded to meet him and hailed him as the father of orphans and deliverer of the oppressed, crying, “Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.” His journey to Canterbury was one long triumphal procession.[1] The poor looked to him as their champion and{10} defender, who had laid down his life in the cause of freedom and righteousness. Henceforth Thomas became a national hero, and was everywhere honoured as the Martyr of the English.

The popular belief in his holiness was confirmed by the miracles that were wrought in his name from the moment of his death. A violent storm broke over the Cathedral when the fatal deed was done, and was followed by a red glow, which illuminated the choir where the dead man’s body was laid before the altar. The next day the monks buried the corpse in a marble tomb behind Our Lady’s altar in the under-croft. For nearly a year no mass was said in the Cathedral, no music was heard, no bells were rung; the altars were stripped of their ornaments, and the crucifixes and images were covered over. Meanwhile, reports reached Canterbury of the wonderful cures performed by the martyred Archbishop. On the third day after the murder, the wife of a Sussex knight, who suffered from blindness, invoked the blessed martyr’s help, and was restored to sight. And on the very night of the burial the paralytic wife of a citizen of{11} Canterbury was cured by a garment which her husband had dipped in the murdered saint’s blood.

These marvels were followed by a stream of devout pilgrims who came to seek healing at the martyr’s tomb or to pay their vows for the mercies which they had received. A monk was stationed at the grave to receive offerings and report the miracles that were wrought to the Chapter. At first these wonders were kept secret, for fear of the King, and of Becket’s enemies, the De Brocs, whose men guarded the roads to Canterbury. The doors of the crypt were kept bolted and barred, and only the poor in the town and the neighbouring villages crept to the tomb.[2] But on Easter Day, 1171, the crowds rushed in to see a dumb man who was said to have recovered his speech; and on the following Friday the crypt was thrown open to the public. From that time, writes Benedict, the monk of Canterbury, “the scene of the Pool of Bethesda was daily renewed in the Cathedral, and numbers of sick and helpless persons were to be seen lying on the pavement{12} of the great church.”[3]“These great miracles are wrought,” wrote John of Salisbury, an intimate friend of Becket, who became Bishop of Chartres in 1176, and was an able statesman and scholar, “in the place of his passion and in the place where he lay before the great altar before his burial, and in the tomb where he was laid at last, the blind see, the deaf hear, the dumb speak, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and, a thing unheard of since the days of our fathers, the dead are raised to life.”[4]

From all parts of England the sick and suffering now crowded to Canterbury, telling the same marvellous tale, how Thomas had appeared to them robed in white, with the thin red streak of blood across his face, bringing healing and peace. “In towns and villages, in castles and cottages, throughout the kingdom,” writes another contemporary chronicler, “every one from the highest to the lowest wishes to visit and honour his tomb. Clerks and laymen, rich and{13} poor, nobles and common people, fathers and mothers with their children, masters with their servants, all come hither, moved by the same spirit of devotion. They travel by day and night in winter and summer, however cold the weather may be, and the inns and hostelries on the road to Canterbury are as crowded with people as great cities are on market days.”[5]

On the 21st of February, 1173, Pope Alexander III. pronounced the decree of canonisation, and fixed the Feast of St. Thomas of Canterbury on the day of the Archbishop’s martyrdom. In July, 1174, King Henry II., moved by the reports which reached him in Normandy of the popular enthusiasm for Becket, and fearing the effects of the divine wrath, came himself to do penance at the martyr’s tomb. Three months after the King of the English had given this public proof of his penitence and obtained release from the Church’s censures, “the glorious choir of Conrad” was destroyed by fire, on the night of September 5, 1174. The rebuilding of the church, which was largely assisted by offerings at Becket’s tomb,{15} was not finished until 1220, when the Saint’s body was removed to its final resting-place in the new apse at the East end of the Chapel of the Blessed Trinity, where the Archbishop had said his first mass.

On Tuesday, July 7, an immense concourse of people of all ranks and ages assembled at Canterbury. “The city and villages round,” writes an eye-witness, “were so filled with folk{16} that many had to abide in tents or under the open sky.”[6] Free hospitality was given to all, and the streets of Canterbury literally flowed with wine. A stately procession, led by the young King Henry III. and the patriot Archbishop Stephen Langton, entered the crypt, and bore the Saint’s remains with solemn ceremonial to their new resting-place. Here a sumptuous shrine, adorned with gold plates and precious gems, wrought “by the greatest master of the craft” that could be found in England, received the martyr’s relics, and the new apse became known as “Becket’s Crown.”

The fame of St. Thomas now spread into all parts of the world during the next two centuries, and the Canterbury pilgrimage was the most popular in Christendom. The 7th of July was solemnly set apart as the Feast of the Translation of St. Thomas, and henceforth the splendour of this festival threw the anniversary of the actual martyrdom into the shade. The very fact that it took place in summer and not in winter naturally attracted greater numbers of{17} pilgrims from a distance. And on the jubilees or fiftieth anniversaries of the Translation, the concourse of people assembled at Canterbury was enormous.

Besides the crowds attracted by these two chief festivals, pilgrims came to Canterbury in smaller parties at all seasons of the year, but more especially in the spring and summer months. Each year, as Chaucer sings, when the spring-time comes round,

“When that Aprille with his showers sweete
The drought of Marche had pierced to the roote….
When Zephyrus eke with his sweete breathe
Inspired hath in every holt and heathe
The tender croppes …
And small fowlës maken melodie,
That sleepen all the night with open eye,
Then longen folk to go on pilgrimages,
And palmers for to seeken strange ‘strandës’ …
And specially, from every shire’s ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The holy blissful martyr for to seeke
That them hath holpen when that they were sicke.”
The passage of these caravans of pilgrims could not fail to leave its mark on the places and the people along their path. The sight of these{18}strange faces, the news they brought, and the tales they told must have impressed the dwellers in these quiet woodlands and lonely hills. And traces of their presence remain to this day on the Surrey downs and in the lanes of Kent. They may, or may not, have been responsible for the edible variety of large white snails, Helix pomatia, commonly called Roman snails, which are found in such abundance at Albury in Surrey, and at Charing in Kent, as well as at other places along{19} the road, and which the Norman French pilgrims are traditionally said to have brought over with them. But the memory of their pilgrimage survives in the wayside chapels and shrines which sprung up along the track, in the churches which were built for their benefit, or restored and decorated by their devotion, above all in the local names still in common use along the countryside. Pilgrims’ Lodge and Pilgrims’ Ferry, Palmers’ Wood, Paternoster Lane—these, and similar terms, still speak of the custom which had taken such fast hold of the popular mind during the three hundred and fifty years after the death of Becket, and recall the long processions of pilgrims which once wound over these lonely hills and through these green lanes on their way to the martyr’s shrine.

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