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From Henry II to university students: The history of pilgrimages to Canterbury Cathedral

A regretful, barefoot king, a widowed queen, two Americans on a tandem tricycle and hundreds of others seeking a miracle, spiritual healing or time away from hectic lives, have all trekked to Canterbury Cathedral over the centuries.

In medieval times, there were various, intertwining routes for pilgrims travelling to the holy building, where the city's archbishop, Thomas Becket, who fatally chose his church over his monarch, was surrounded by knights and stabbed.

Canterbury Cathedral is the final destination of the Pilgrim's Way
Canterbury Cathedral is the final destination of the Pilgrim's Way

Great stretches of the ancient paths have been concreted over now, but modern-day pilgrims, some travelling from as far as New Zealand, armed with their 'pilgrim passports' can follow established, parallel routes, stopping at many spots which tell of Kent's past.

We have delved into the history of pilgrimages to Canterbury Cathedral and the collection of routes known as the Pilgrims Way, immortalised in Geoffrey Chaucer's collection of stories, The Canterbury Tales.

It all started, it can be argued, with a monarch's angry outburst in 1170 and six knights eager to please.

Thomas Becket was Lord Chancellor and a close confidant of King Henry II, who appointed his trusted friend as archbishop, hoping this would improve his relationship with the Church.

Becket appeared to undergo a religious conversion and from that point lived a pious life.

Thomas Becket is memorialised in a stained glass window at Canterbury Cathedral Stock Picture
Thomas Becket is memorialised in a stained glass window at Canterbury Cathedral Stock Picture

The pair clashed when Becket argued the church was above the law of the land and a feud was born.

After hearing of Becket excommunicating some fellow bishops, the king and one time friend, is said to have uttered: “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest."

Immediately, knights headed off to Canterbury to fulfil what they believed to be their ruler's wishes, and at dusk, surrounded Becket in the cathedral.

They spilled his brains on the floor, it is recorded.

"He was the archbishop and the way he met his end, being martyred, that must have just shaken medieval society at the time. I think for ordinary people that must have shaken them.

"The medieval church was seen as the body and the voice of God on earth, so to have your archbishop killed, who God talks through, I think that must have been very powerful," Reverend Dr Emma Pennington, Canon Missioner at Canterbury Cathedral said.

An engraved illustration of Thomas Becket's murder at Canterbury Cathedral from a Victorian book
An engraved illustration of Thomas Becket's murder at Canterbury Cathedral from a Victorian book

A pilgrimage is defined as a long journey made to some religious place as an act of spiritual devotion and in 1173 Becket was hailed as a martyr and canonised, his tomb placed in the cathedral. This was to become the most well known centre of pilgrimage in the country.

Horrified about what had happened Henry II travelled to Canterbury as a barefoot pilgrim, with other members of royalty making the journey, including Edward I from France in 1289, who stayed at Leeds Castle, in Maidstone.

But ordinary people in their hundreds also came, each bringing an offering which helped build the cathedral's wealth and stories of miracles being performed for pilgrims began to circle.

Reverend Dr Emma Pennington, Canon Missioner at Canterbury Cathedral Picture: Chapter of Canterbury
Reverend Dr Emma Pennington, Canon Missioner at Canterbury Cathedral Picture: Chapter of Canterbury

"Monks started to record miracles that took place in the chamber. Because of the stories of the miracles, more people came to the cathedral," Canon Emma said.

Within 10 years of his death more than 700 healing miracles had been recorded at his tomb and other examples include travellers being given safe passage on feared journeys.

Pilgrims travelled to Canterbury for almost 500 years, but what well warn paths did they tread?

There was no set pathway and journeys altered over time, but expeditions often started in Winchester or Southwark, sometimes going via Rochester, and stopping at its cathedral.

Many would have trampled across the North Downs and plodded along rudimentary roads.

Edward I stayed at Leeds Castle during his pilgrimage in 1289 Picture: Thomas Alexander
Edward I stayed at Leeds Castle during his pilgrimage in 1289 Picture: Thomas Alexander

Chaucer's chatty group started in a Southwark inn, following the Roman Watling Street route, which is now the modern A2.

The author, who was a justice of the peace and Knight of the Shire for the county, depicts a motley crew telling and hearing ridiculous, heroic and moral tales to pass the time, in his work, written between 1387 and 1400.

However, pilgrimages were often not such happy and festive occasions.

Where pilgrims today can book an Airbnb quick sticks, those from the past might not know where they would sleep the following night.

Canon Emma said: "There's another side to pilgrimages other than Chaucer. There was often a very serious side, people were often sent on a pilgrimage of penance, if they had committed an awful sin.

"You would be leaving everything behind and your comfortable home. You don't know whether you're going to be attacked on the road. You would have felt quite relieved that you got there safely."

The stained glass windows in the Trinity Chapel of Canterbury Cathedral Picture: Chapter of Canterbury
The stained glass windows in the Trinity Chapel of Canterbury Cathedral Picture: Chapter of Canterbury

After the reformation in the 16th century, the veneration of saints stopped and Becket's shrine was "obliterated," his ashes cast to the winds.

All that remains of it now is a single burning candle in the cathedral.

In the 19th century interest was renewed in the Pilgrims Way as a route, with many authors writing about it, including Americans Elizabeth and Joseph Pennel, who penned A Canterbury Pilgrimage, which described their journey on a tandem tricycle.

In 1947, a report on footpaths recommended reviving the Pilgrims Way as a recreational route.

Consequently, the North Downs Way trail, which includes parts of the original path, was established and opened by the Archbishop of Canterbury Donald Coggan, in 1978.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Donald Coggan, pictured with Princess Alexandra in 1978
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Donald Coggan, pictured with Princess Alexandra in 1978

There is also a possible, easier route along the Stour valley from Chilham via Chartham to Canterbury.

Pilgrims can obtain a 'pilgrim passport', which can be stamped at churches, pubs, hostels and hotels on the route.

Along the way there are many other historical figures to learn about, such as Gundulf, a Norman Benedictine monk who was Bishop of Rochester from 1077 to 1108. He is remembered for his links with building The Tower of London and he bought Halling House on the River Medway.

The head of St Thomas More, another victim of an English king called Henry, is buried in a vault at St Dunstan's church in Canterbury.

Whatever route you choose, however, the destination is always the same and pilgrims of all ages, from students to seventy years olds, are still flocking to the cathedral, although of course, the numbers have dwindled during the pandemic.

'I met a couple in their seventies who said they always wanted to do this...'

Canon Emma added: "This weekend we had four students who were all at uni and walked from Southwark to Canterbury. A lot of people are later in life, maybe when they have just retired or they've had a big life change.

"I met a couple in their 70s who said they always wanted to do this. We had a couple from New Zealand as well."

Upon arrival, pilgrims will be offered a blessing, but not all travellers are religious.

Canon Emma explained: "It's a real mixture, often we find people are not religious but it feels like such a monumental occasion they want some kind of recognition, and we will bless them.

The North Downs Way incorporates parts of the route pilgrims in medieval times would have travelled on Picture: Phil Scrivener
The North Downs Way incorporates parts of the route pilgrims in medieval times would have travelled on Picture: Phil Scrivener

"Particularly when you're standing in the sept where the shrine was and you're standing with a pilgrim, you can say ' you are the latest pilgrim to be here, that continued history blows our minds."

The cathedral is also the starting point of a pilgrimage to Rome, known as the Via Francigena, which takes about four months to walk.

"You say 'why are you doing this?' They have got very precise reasons, they have got to the bottom of life and they are looking for something, they are walking through the pain of life.

"There's something about Canterbury, you see these people come and go and it makes you realise we are at the beginning and the end, there's something about the stability of Canterbury."

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