In the Middle Ages the Church encouraged people to make pilgrimages to special holy places called shrines. It was believed that if you prayed at these shrines you might be forgiven for your sins and have more chance of going to heaven. Others went to shrines hoping to be cured from an illness they were suffering from.

The most popular shrine in England was the tomb of Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. When Becket was murdered local people managed to obtain pieces of cloth soaked in his blood. Rumours soon spread that, when touched by this cloth, people were cured of blindness/ epilepsy and leprosy. It was not long before the monks at Canterbury Cathedral were selling small glass bottles of Becket’s blood to visiting pilgrims.

Another important shrine was at Walsingham in Norfolk where there was a sealed glass jar that was said to contain the milk of the Virgin Mary. Erasmus visited Walsingham and described the shrine as being surrounded “on all sides with gems, gold and silver.” He also added that the water from the Walsingham spring was “efficacious in curing pains of the head and stomach.”

At other shrines people went to see the teeth, bones, shoes, combs etc. that were said to have once belonged to important Christian saints. The most common relics at these shrines were nails and pieces of wood that the keepers of the shrine claimed came from the cross used to crucify Jesus.

untitled2Important shrines in the Middle Ages included those at St. Winifred’s Well, Lindisfarne, Glastonbury, Bromholm and St. Albans. When people arrived at the shrine they would pay money to be allowed to look at these holy relics. In some cases pilgrims were even allowed to touch and kiss them. The keeper of the shrine would also give the pilgrim a metal badge that had been stamped with the symbol of the shrine. These badges were then fixed to the pilgrim’s hat so that people would know they had visited the shrine.

Some people went on pilgrimages abroad. In Palestine, for example, it was possible to visit a cave that was supposed to contain the beds of Adam and Eve and a pillar of salt that had once been Lots wife.

Travelling on long journeys in the middle Ages was a dangerous activity. Pilgrims often went in groups to protect themselves against outlaws.

Wealthy people sometimes preferred to pay others to go on a pilgrimage for them. For instance, in 1352 a London merchant paid a man £20 to go on a pilgrimage to Mount Sinai.

In August 1535, Henry VIII sent a team of officials to find out what was going on in the monasteries. After reading their reports Henry decided to close down 376 monasteries. Monastery land was seized and sold off cheaply to nobles and merchants. They in turn sold some of the lands to smaller farmers. This process meant that a large number of people had good reason to support the monasteries being closed.

In 1538 Henry turned his attention to religious shrines in England. For hundreds of years pilgrims had visited shrines that contained important religious relics. Wealthy pilgrims often gave expensive jewels and ornaments to the monks that looked after these shrines. Henry decided that the shrines should be closed down and the wealth that they had created given to the crown.

The Pope and the Catholic Church in Rome were horrified when they heard the news that Henry had destroyed St. Thomas Becket’s Shrine. On 17 December 1538, the Pope announced to the Christian world that Henry VIII had been excommunicated from the Catholic Church.


So in the age of transport and when Christianity is looking to it’s past for it’s future what does teh mnodern day spilgrimage look like and where do we find it?