Why Did People Go On Pilgrimage?


Pilgrims visit the family of Jordan Fitz-Eisulf with ampules of holy water from Thomas Becket's shrine,Canterbury Cathedral, Trinity Chapel Ambulatory nII-16. 
The story of Jordan Fitz-Eisulf of Yorkshire
© Dean & Chapter Canterbury
Origin/Date: England || c.1213-1220

There was no one reason why medieval people went on pilgrimage. We probably think first of the quest for healing, which still takes pilgrims to shrines such as Lourdes today, and cures are certainly the chief subject-matter of the miracle stories which contain a lot of our information about medieval pilgrimage. Miracle stories do not usually report cases of spiritual improvement or enlightenment, but if there was an official theological view of pilgrimage it was that Christians were all sinful and could benefit from a visit to a shrine provided it was undertaken in a proper spirit of repentance. On this view, as sickness or injury were commonly believed to be the result of sin,

Christians were not to believe that healing would be the automatic consequence of going to a shrine. Sometimes, when a pilgrim failed to obtain a cure, it was explained that it was because of his or her sinfulness. It seems likely, however, that many pilgrims saw shrines more simply as special places where they could establish a connection with the divine. It was that connection, however it was achieved, which brought results, whether this meant healing or relief from the burden of sin. The obverse of this belief was frequently expressed by critics of physical pilgrimage from very early times and still on the eve of the Reformation. Because God was spirit and could be found everywhere, and because Christians sought spiritual rather than material benefits, pilgrimage was considered by some to be at best unnecessary and at worst dangerous to body and soul.

St Thomas Becket. 
Bolton Hours
© Dean & Chapter York, York Minster, Archive Ms-Add-2 f38v.
Origin/Date: England 15th century [after 1405]

Men and women often made vows to go on pilgrimage. This might be out of pure devotion or in hope of receiving some benefit. Before the thirteenth century miracles were most often performed at the shrine, or at least in contact with relics, but it later seems to have become more common for the prospective pilgrim to promise to go to a shrine with an offering after the cure or other benefit was received. This could almost be described as a system of payment by results. There had always been some 'long distance' miracles. Saints who rescued people from prison, shipwreck, burning houses or the perils of childbirth had to act promptly from afar. Already in the 1170s Thomas Becket was performing a number of long-range miracles, and he was very insistent that the people he helped should then make their thanksgiving pilgrimage. Why late-medieval miracle collections describe so many more of these cures is not entirely clear; perhaps preaching helped to popularise the idea that the saints would intervene from far away to help their devotees (on condition of a thanksgiving pilgrimage, of course).

If pilgrims were not going to obtain a cure, they were presumably in search of spiritual benefit. It has sometimes been claimed that after about 1300 they went above all to obtain indulgences (grants of remission of the time that they would have to spend in Purgatory). The quest for release from the burden of sin was always important, but some individuals were motivated by curiosity and the sense of adventure. Already in the eighth century the Anglo-Saxon Willibald, who went to Rome and the Holy Land around 720, admitted that he was curious to see faraway places. Early in the twelfth century, Honorius of Autun had cautionary words for pilgrims who were, in effect, tourists. In the mid fourteenth century Geoffrey de Charny (the first documented owner of the Turin Shroud) wrote a treatise on chivalry in which he numbered pilgrimages among the enterprises a military man might legitimately undertake. There were families in which successive generations of males went on pilgrimage, just as successive generations went on crusade: among them were several ancestors of St Bridget of Sweden, who herself went to the Holy Land not long before her death in Rome in 1373. It seems too that individuals sometimes used pilgrimage as a way of getting away from surroundings and occupations to which they might otherwise have spent their whole lives inextricably tied. Sometimes it was a response to bereavement or some other life-crisis.

St Peters, Rome.
© Dee Dyas

A widow might not only feel the need for a change of scene but wish to pray for the soul of the departed spouse at a particular shrine. Sometimes the departed spouse had made a will requesting that such and such a pilgrimage should be made at the expense of the estate. A testator might declare that he had been unable to perform such and such a pilgrimage in his lifetime, or simply that he wished it now to be performed for the benefit of his soul and that of his relatives. Sometimes such pilgrimages were performed by relatives, friends or servants who may have promised in advance of the testator's death that they would do so, but sometimes the pilgrim was a hireling. English testators quite often directed that a priest should go to Rome to say masses there on their behalf. We may be able to imagine the motivation of a widow, son or nephew who carried out the wishes of the dead; it is harder now to imagine what was in the mind of a simple hireling. Not all medieval pilgrims were on the road because they themselves had made the decision to go.

Pilgrimage journeys varied very considerably in length. Margery Kempe, who in her time went to Rome, Jerusalem and Santiago de Compostela and several other major continental shrines, also one day went two miles from Lynn to the church of St Michael the Archangel, and she called this a pilgrimage. Were short- and long-range pilgrimages undertaken for the same reasons? Clearly if one was sick, one could scarcely make the journey from England to Jerusalem; but conceivably one might do so by way of thanksgiving. A study of Hindu pilgrimage shrines in India has suggested that resort is made to local, 'low status' shrines for everyday problem-solving purposes (such as passing one's examinations), whereas high-status shrines are visited, often from much further away, for more strictly spiritual purposes. It may well be that a similar distinction was made by medieval pilgrims, although people who could not hope or afford to make lengthy journeys might have to seek their spiritual benefits locally. Some holy places, above all Rome and Jerusalem, had a unique character which could not be found anywhere else. Felix Fabri, a young Dominican friar who went twice to the Holy Land in the late fifteenth century, believed that he would be a better preacher if he had seen the places mentioned in Scripture with his own eyes.

Most pilgrims to Rome or Jerusalem doubtless hoped to return home, but it was thought to be meritorious to die in either place. There were hermits living on the walls of Jerusalem in the twelfth century when the merchant-saint Raniero of Pisa joined them (he did in fact go home) and Bridget of Sweden was by no means the only late-medieval individual to transplant herself permanently to Rome. In 1399 the pope authorised a woman from the diocese of London who was living as an anchoress in Rome to make a visit home. We sometimes catch a glimpse of a perpetual pilgrim, without having any idea of what had impelled them to take to the road. In 1335 Edward III granted protection to William de Nesham, who had lately come to England from the Holy Land and was now returning there, collecting alms. Did William sometimes earn a crust as a hireling pilgrim, or was he simply a religious wanderer?


St Thomas Becket Shrine. The family of Jordan Fitz-Eisulf give money in thanks. Canterbury Cathedral, Trinity Chapel Ambulatory nII-16.
The story of Jordan Fitz-Eisulf of Yorkshire
© Dean & Chapter Canterbury
Orgin/Date: England || c.1213-20

If we were to form our impression of medieval pilgrimage from miracle collections, we would believe that most pilgrims went in search of cures for a variety of physical and mental afflictions. These included paralysis, blindness, deafness, and mental sickness, which was usually interpreted as possession by demons. Down to the twelfth century the majority of reported miracles took place in proximity to the shrine and it was believed that the closer one could get to the relics the better. The large openings made in the outer casing of shrines such as Becket's (as shown in the stained glass of Canterbury Cathedral) or the shrine, supposed to be that of St Osmund, that can still be seen at Salisbury, were intended to facilitate this contact. When a cure was achieved at Hereford, the bells were rung and the news proclaimed to the people. Sometimes suppliants kept vigil or slept by the shrine, recalling the ancient practice of incubation; already in the eighth century the Venerable Bede tells of a madman who spent the night unobserved by the tomb of St Chad at Lichfield.

A madman could conceivably walk to a shrine, under restraint, as shown in the Canterbury windows, but what of men and women who were too ill or crippled to walk? Children could be carried and many sufferers were brought in carts, or by some other means, in what must have been considerable discomfort; one client of St Thomas Cantilupe, late in the thirteenth century, was brought to Hereford in a wheelbarrow. By this date, however, it seems to have become more common for people to call on the saints from afar, vowing to make a thanksgiving pilgrimage if they received their cure. Healing miracles at the shrine itself are less commonly reported but they did continue. In 1445 a native of Aberdeen somehow made his way to Canterbury with 'contracted feet with vile worms lurking in them'. He was so effectively cured there that he was able to go on, as he had vowed, to Wilsnack in Prussia, returning to Canterbury on his way back.

’My mother has promised another image of wax the weight of you to our Lady of Walsingham’
Margery Paston to her husband John Paston in 1443.
Paston Letters I, 218

Panel reputedly showing Mad Matilda of Cologne being brought to the shrine. Canterbury Cathedral, North Choir Aisle n-II: panel 33.
© Dean & Chapter, Canterbury

Some saints specialised in the cures of certain conditions. As late as 1536 a labourer of Enfield in Middlesex sought royal permission to go to the shrine of St Cornelius (probably the one at Ninove in modern Belgium); this saint specialised in the treatment of epilepsy. Bishop Edmund Lacy (d.1455), who was venerated at Exeter Cathedral, himself suffered from leg trouble and a large number of wax legs were found by excavators around his tomb. Wax models of body parts - legs, arms, eyes - were commonly offered by satisfied customers, just as model ships were offered by those who had been rescued from the sea. Another very common form of offering was a wax candle or taper, made to the measure of the client, who might have him or herself 'measured' at the moment of making a vow of pilgrimage. Eleanor of Provence, Henry III's queen, did so in 1257 during a severe illness, and then brought her offering to St Albans. It was not only human beings who were cured; sometimes models of cows or other livestock were offered. In the 1530s Thomas Cromwell's commissioners found that in many places shrine custodians made objects connected with the saints available to help local people in their afflictions; at Pontefract, Thomas of Lancaster's belt aided women in childbirth and his cap was helpful for headaches.

Penance and punishment

The belief that deliverance from the burden of sin could be achieved by visiting holy places was expressed at least as early as the eighth century, for example by the Anglo-Saxon Willibald who went to the Holy Land in about 720. Willibald was a voluntary pilgrim, but pilgrimage could be imposed on a penitent, or even a criminal. Pilgrimage resembled exile, in that it detached the individual from his (or her) familiar surroundings. In view of the difficulties and dangers of medieval travel, it could well be viewed as an ordeal, whether it was self-inflicted or imposed on a penitent or even criminal. English bishops used pilgrimage, usually over short distances, as punishment for a variety of misdemeanours, from poaching on their estates to slandering the neighbours; a more serious offence (committing adultery with one's godmother) might however take the culprit to Santiago de Compostela. In 1283 Archbishop Pecham of Canterbury commanded a clerk of the diocese of Chichester who was guilty of fornication to go in successive years to Santiago, to Rome (where he had to perform the 'accustomed stations') and Cologne. The Inquisition of Southern France sentenced repentant heretics to pilgrimage and ordinary secular courts in various parts of northern Europe used it as punishment for a number of crimes, although it was often possible to buy oneself off.

Increasingly, after 1100, indulgences were made available to pilgrims who visited a particular shrine, often on a certain day (for example, the major feast-day of the saint whose shrine was being visited). These indulgences in a sense formalised, and even quantified, the belief that pilgrimage brought relief from sin. By this means the Christian could hope to earn remission of the time that he or she would otherwise have to spend after death in Purgatory working off the penance that was due for his or her sins. An indulgence was effective only if the beneficiary was truly penitent, had confessed his or her sins in the proper manner and received absolution, although critics claimed that this was not always understood. The amount of time remitted might be as little as forty days or even less but it might be total or 'plenary' remission, a privilege first promised to Holy Land Crusaders in 1095 but made available to pilgrims, on certain conditions, when the first Roman Holy Year was proclaimed in 1300. Thereafter plenary indulgences were awarded to or claimed by a number of churches, including Canterbury for Thomas Becket's Jubilees (the celebrations, every fifty years, of his translation to a new shrine in 1220).

It has sometimes been suggested that pilgrims after about 1300 made their journeys primarily in order to obtain indulgences, but it should be remembered that pilgrimage was never the only way of obtaining even plenary indulgences; a variety of other 'good works' could earn them. It is hard to think that a man or woman would have undertaken the arduous journey to Jerusalem solely in order to obtain indulgences which, as a late-fourteenth-century guidebook to Rome pointed out could just as well be obtained at Rome or even closer to home. A Holy Land pilgrim might be motivated by a sense of his own sinfulness, but the consolation he sought was connected with the uniqueness of the place and its associations.

Failure to go on pilgrimage

Cathedral from the Plaza Obradoiro. 
Wikimedia Commons
© slideshow bob (licensed under CC-BY-SA-2.0)

Many vows of pilgrimage were made that were never fulfilled. If the vow had been to go to Rome, Jerusalem or Santiago de Compostela (the 'major' pilgrimages), application had to be made to the Pope for absolution from the vow. Normally the petitioner would be required to perform a lesser pilgrimage or other good works in compensation. In 1330 Matilda de Brionie, unable to complete her pilgrimages because she lost all her money when her boat capsized on the Rhone, was authorised to enter a convent instead. While some vows were clearly made impulsively or even frivolously, some of these petitions shed light on the real difficulties that prospective pilgrims might encounter. For example, a man in the diocese of Paris whose wife was going through a difficult childbirth vowed that he and she together would go to Compostela if she survived; he failed to reflect that if she did survive, as she did, she would be repeatedly pregnant and quite unable to make the journey. Petitioners sometimes made multiple excuses. A father and son from Salerno told the pope in 1363 that the father had gout and the son was suffering from piles. In 1367 a party from Lautrec who had vowed to go to Jerusalem said not only that they were deterred by tales of Muslim 'savagery' but that they were anyway far too poor to go. They were required to make a contribution to the fabric of their local church.

Occasionally death overtook an intending pilgrim before he could carry out his intention. In that case, his will might direct that the pilgrimage should be carried out on his behalf at the expense of his estate or that some other 'good work' be performed; for example, a native of Wakefield in 1516 left money for road repair (especially for the mending of 'a foul hole about the bridge') in recompense for 'pilgrimages not done'. In such cases the testator was in effect paying a debt, but other posthumous pilgrimages were intended to earn extra merit for the deceased and to ease his or her passage through Purgatory. Often it was requested that they should be carried out as quickly as possible after the death. It is not surprising to find bequests for Rome, Jerusalem or Santiago, but only the more affluent testator could afford to fund pilgrims to these destinations. Many wills highlight the local shrines which were known to the testator, whether he or she had in fact been to them in their lifetime, or intended or vowed to do so.

Diana Webb


In origin a Germanic word meaning a chest or reliquary, this term describes something which contains a sacred object. It can thus be applied to an elaborate tomb around the body of a saint, a cabinet containing a relic or to the whole architectural complex where such a body or relic rests.

Thomas Earl of Lancaster

The holder of five earldoms, Thomas of Lancaster effectively governed England during part of the reign of Edward II. However, in 1322 he was the head of a rebellion which was halted at the Battle of Boroughbridge. Executed by his political enemies near Pontefract Castle in Yorkshire, Thomas came to be regarded as a martyr. His beheading may be the subject of a wall painting from the 1340s at South Newington in Oxfordshire. His cult is just one medieval example of the instance of a political martyr who came to be regarded as an unofficial saint. 


(Also called the Eucharist. Holy Communion or Lord's Supper). The chief sacramental service of the Church, incorporating praise, intercession and readings from scripture. The central action is the consecration of the bread and wine by the priest. recalling the words and actions of Christ at the Last Supper and commemorating the sacrifice which he offered for the sins of mankind on the cross. In the medieval Church the Mass was celebrated daily; it was also offered for the souls of the dead.  


Term given to the movements of church reform which in the 16th century resulted in Protestantism. The Reformation took different forms in different parts of Europe, sometimes being promoted by rulers, as in Germany and England, sometimes expressing itself as a popular movement. While different reformers promoted different doctrines. They were united in their rejection of pilgrimage and visual images which were viewed as idolatrous and superstitious, their emphasis on salvation through faith rather than the sacramental systems, masses and good works and their desire to promote the study of the Bible and the conduct of worship in the vernacular. The origins of these reforms can be traced to religious movements in the Middle Ages, such as the English Lollards. The criticisms of Protestantism provoked a time of reform within the Catholic Church usually known as the Counter-Reformation and expressed in the pronouncements of the Council of Trent (1562-3).  

Thomas Becket

 English Archbishop (Archbishop of Canterbury from 1162) and martyr, famously murdered by knights at Canterbury Cathedral after a dispute with Henry II. Miracles were soon recorded at his tomb. Canonised in 1173, his shrine became one of the most popular pilgrimage centres in Christendom. Patron saint of London with St Paul.


In the New Testament this applied to all Christians. Later used of those who were martyred or showed exceptional holiness and whose status was confirmed by the church. The practice of venerating the saints and their relics and asking for their intercessions (prayers) can be observed from the second and third centuries onward and played a central role in popular medieval religion.


Grants (usually in the form of documents) allowing the reduction of time to be spent atoning for sin in purgatory, gained through pious acts such as pilgrimage or through particular prayers.


Person who has retired from society to follow the spiritual life in solitude. Unlike anchorites not confined to one spot. From Greek ‘eremos’ meaning 'desert'.

Bede, the Venerable

(c.673-735) Anglo-Saxon historian and biblical scholar. Sent to study at the monastery of Wearmouth at seven; later transferred to Jarrow. Renowned in his lifetime for his learning, Bede wrote treatises on poetry, time and cosmography. Historical works include History of the Abbots, prose and verse versions of the Life of St Cuthbert and Ecclesiastical History of the English People.

Alban, St

(d.304, or possibly 283, or earlier) Recognised as the first Christian martyr in Britain. He is said to have been a Roman living at Verulamium, who was converted by a priest who sought sanctuary in his house during a persecution of Christians, and then gave himself up in place of his guest. Miracles involving water took place when he was executed, he stopped a river's flow to allow a safe crossing, and a fountain sprang up when he was beheaded. The reputed place of his execution is where St Albans Abbey now stands.


Refers, in this context, to the act of moving the body or other relics of a holy person.


Lourdes, a town in the French Pyrenees, is now most famous as a place of Marian pilgrimage. In 1858 a local girl of fourteen called Bernadette Soubirous experienced apparitions of the Virgin Mary in a remote cave known as the Grotte of Massabielle. The Roman Catholic Church declared these visions as authentic in 1862. It is estimated that 200 million pilgrims have visited this site since 1860 and the shrine currently welcomes six million pilgrims a year. The waters of the Grotte are associated with miraculous healings.


Renunciation of sin coupled with determination to obey God in the future.


Disobedience to the known will of God. According to Christian theology human beings have displayed a pre-disposition to sin since the Fall of Humankind. The medieval Church taught that there were two categories of sin: Mortal and Venial. The Church mediated the forgiveness made available by Christ's sacrificial death through the sacrament of Penance.


A place or state of being after this life, where souls destined for heaven would have their sins purged away to make them ready to enter the presence of God. Protestants reject Purgatory as unscriptural.  

Willibald, St

(c.700-c.787) Anglo-Saxon monk, missionary, pilgrim and bishop.


This Italian city was the capital of the Roman Empire and, with the primacy accorded to the bishops of Rome (the popes), the centre of the Western Church from the late-Antique period onwards. Rome was not only the administrative centre, but an important source of innovation, relics and liturgy. Missionaries from Rome played an important role in the conversion of Anglo-Saxon England from late 6th century onward.

Holy Land

A common term for the area of what is now Israel/Palestine where Jesus spent his earthly life. Such a term expresses the allure of pilgrimage to the actual places where Jesus lived and died and was also a concept which inspired the crusading movement.

Birgitta of Sweden, St

(c.1303-73) Founder of the Brigittine order of nuns. The revelations she was believed to have received in visions were highly regarded in the Middle Ages, influencing Margery Kempe among others. Also known as St Bridget.

Kempe, Margery

(c.1373-after 1433) Wrote a book describing her spiritual experiences and pilgrimages.

Santiago de Compostela

From the ninth century the church at Compostela has been the resting place of what is believed to be the body of St James the Apostle (Sant Iago - St James). Compostela was an important focus of long-distance pilgrimage in the Middle Ages. 

Faber, Felix

Also known as Felix Fabri. A Dominican who wrote a very full and lively account of his journeys to Egypt and the Holy Land in 1480 and 1483-4. 

Dominican Order

Founded by St Dominic (d. 1221), primarily as a preaching order to combat heresy. The Black Friars landed in England in 1221. Very influential in the universities. 


Member of one of the mendicant (begging) orders. Fromt the Latin ‘frater’ and Middle English ‘frere’ meaning 'brother'


Head of the medieval church in the West. Used as a title preceding the name of the Bishop of Rome, the head of the Roman Catholic Church.  

Osmund, St

A Norman ecclesiastic who served as chancellor to William the Conqueror from 1072 and from 1078 was Bishop of Salisbury, where he completed the building of the first cathedral at Old Sarum. This scholarly and virtuous bishop died in 1099 but it was not until 1456 that he was formally canonised.  

Chad, St

A disciple of St Aidan and brother of St Cedd of Lastingham, St Chad was caught up in the political struggles which accompanied the Synod of Whitby in 664. Eventually he was appointed by St Theodore, the Archbishop of Canterbury, to be the first bishop of Mercia and Lindsey (effectively the Midlands and Lincolnshire). In 672 he died and was buried at Lichfield. A healing cult associated with his tomb is described by Bede.

Thomas Cantilupe, St

(1218-1282) English bishop of Hereford, from a noble Norman family, whose shrine became the focus of many healing miracles after his death.


A north German town famous for a miracle which was said to have occurred in 1383, when three consecrated hosts survived a fire in the parish church. These hosts were found to have signs of bleeding on them, thus confirming the doctrine of transubstantiation. 


A geographical area composed of a number of parishes, under the administrative and spiritual jurisdiction of a Bishop.


City in Germany which houses the relics of the Magi and St Ursula.


This term describes a commission of enquiry instituted by the Church to identify heresy and to deliver stubborn heretics to the secular authorities for punishment (the Church had no right to impose punishments in which blood was shed). The first inquisition was instituted in 1184, but the papal inquisition, with full-time investigators and extensive powers, dates from 1233. Those recruited as inquisitors were often members of the mendicant orders - Franciscans and Dominicans. Inquisitions were used against medieval heretical movements, such as the Cathars, 16th-century Protestants and those of Jewish and Muslim background in Spain.


Formal declaration of God's forgiveness, pronounced by a priest.


The term for those who had 'taken the cross' - that is made a vow to go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem and had a cross sewn into their garments as a sign of this vow. This term is often applied more specifically to those who formed the armies sent to recapture the Holy Land from Muslim powers and establish Christian rule from 1095 onwards. From the thirteenth century onwards, 'crusades' were also declared against other groups of non-Christians such as the Lithuanians, and heretical groups such as the Albigensians. Participation in any enterprise declared to be crusade carried indulgences and those who died on crusade might be regarded as martyrs.

Plenary Indulgence

A special indulgence that promises to remit all of the punishment incurred by all an individual's sins up to the time when the indulgence is granted. The first such indulgence was offered by Pope Urban II for those taking part in the First Crusade (1095).


Disobedience to the known will of God. According to Christian theology human beings have displayed a pre-disposition to sin since the Fall of Humankind. The medieval Church taught that there were two categories of sin: Mortal and Venial. The Church mediated the forgiveness made available by Christ's sacrificial death through the sacrament of Penance.