We’re all going on a summer… pilgrimage

As Covid-19 restrictions begin to lift, many people are eager to travel again. In today’s blog Dr Hannes Kleineke, editor of our Commons 1461-1504 project, discusses the 15th century parliamentarians who had another reason to look forward to embarking on a trip…

Geoffrey Chaucer, from the 15th-century Ellesmere manuscript of The Canterbury Tales, Encyclopaedia Britannica

As Elizabeth I knew well, it doesn’t do to make windows into men’s (or indeed women’s) souls. It is thus at our peril that we seek to judge how sincere or otherwise the – to our minds often effusive – expressions of religious devotion of pre-reformation Englishmen and women really were. We may, however, perhaps be permitted to speculate that some at least derived genuine pleasure from some ostensibly devotional practices, and the adventure that a pilgrimage to a local shrine, or perhaps even to Rome or the Holy Land, might represent was surely an experience cherished by those who embarked upon it.

There is a palpable sense of enjoyment and camaraderie in that best known account of a late medieval pilgrimage, Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, which has a disparate group of pilgrims regaling each other with narratives to pass the time. Significantly, Chaucer’s pilgrims included a number of travellers of relatively modest social status: a journey to the shrine of St. Thomas Becket at Canterbury, or other domestic shrines, required comparatively less financial outlay than a journey overseas. 

For those who could afford it, there were sites on the European mainland, such as the popular shrine of St. James at Compostela in Galicia, accessible by a comparatively short sea-voyage, or the well-trodden route to Rome; at both destinations the English pilgrim could be certain to encounter countrymen.

Indeed, there was even in the fifteenth century a flourishing tourist industry, particularly among the shipowners of south-western England, but also shipmen based elsewhere in England, many of whom purchased royal licences to convey pilgrims to northern Spain where they might embark on the ‘camino’, the traditional route to the shrine of St. James.

Pilgrim’s Guide to Compostela, a practical manual for pilgrims walking St James’s Way to Santiago de Compostela in north-west Spain, 14th c manuscript, British Library

Such shipmen were well represented among the MPs returned by their home towns:  among their number were men like John Hacon, between 1383 and 1393 repeatedly an MP for Great Yarmouth, the Bristolians Thomas Knap, and Thomas Fish (MP for Bristol 1431, 1435), and numerous Devonians, including the famous John Hawley (thought to have provided the model for the shipman among Chaucer’s pilgrims), and his hardly less successful synonymous son who sat in no fewer than twelve Parliaments between 1410 and 1432.

The truly adventurous might even make their way to the Holy Land, and on the way see a large part of the known world. When Sir Thomas Swinburne was elected to Parliament for Essex in 1393, he was still in Beirut, from where he took ship to England via Rhodes. His travels in the previous summer and autumn had taken him via Venice, Alexandria, Cairo, Mount Sinai and Bethlehem to Jerusalem, where he celebrated Christmas. From there he had made his way to Damascus, and then to Beirut. It is not clear whether he reached England in time to take his seat, but if he did, he certainly had a tale to tell.

A man who could certainly claim to have seen the world before taking his seat in the Commons for Norfolk in 1401, was John Payn who as butler to the young Henry, earl of Derby (the later Henry IV) had accompanied his master on many of his travels in the 1390s. Payn was in Earl Henry’s entourage on his expeditions to Prussia and Lithuania in 1390-1 and 1392, and accompanied him later in 1392 on the pilgrimage that took them across central Europe via Bohemia and Austria to Venice, and then by way of Rhodes and Cyprus to Jerusalem.

What the Middle Ages sadly did not know was travel insurance. Pilgrims travelled at their own risk, which could be considerable. Another companion of Henry of Derby (and John Payn) in the 1390s was William Rigmaiden, who later entered the Commons in 1411 as MP for Nottinghamshire. He participated in both the expeditions of 1390 and 1392, but on the latter occasion only got as far as Danzig, where most of the members of the earl’s force behaved so riotously that Derby unceremoniously packed them off home, taking only a small entourage (including several other later MPs like Sir Ralph Staveley and Peter Melbourne) with him to the Holy Land.

But quite apart from the vicissitudes of storms, pirates and land-based bandits, and the possibility of being caught up in local warfare or of upsetting a powerful lord, there was also the risk of falling foul of one or other of the Church’s provisions that had to be observed for the pilgrimage to deliver its promised spiritual benefits. This was a lesson painfully learned by the Gloucestershire knight, Sir Thomas Butler.

In the spring of 1390 Butler sued out a royal licence to travel overseas, and set out for Rome and the Holy Land. He had taken a vow to visit the sites in the eternal city sanctified by their association with the apostles Peter and Paul, but never reached Rome, on account of – as he claimed – a combination of local feuding among the Italian city states and the general dangers of the journey. He did, however, eventually reach Jerusalem, but rather than keeping his distance from the infidels, he was reported to have eaten, drunk and even conversed with the ‘perfidious Saracens’ – conduct expressly forbidden by the Holy See.

View of Jerusalem 1486, from Description of the trip from Constance to Jerusalem, Konrad Grünenberg, Baden State Library

When the Roman pope, Boniface IX, got wind of this, he summarily excommunicated Butler, but left him a convenient back door to redemption: Bishop Wakefield of Worcester (Butler’s diocesan bishop) was instructed to set him alternative pious works to complete, but more importantly, the errant knight was ordered to pay to the pope’s tax collectors a sum equal to the costs he would have incurred had he completed the Roman leg of his pilgrimage, including the donations and offerings he would have made while in Rome.

Many a traveller who has ended up paying over the odds for a trip he never got to take may sympathise!

H.W.K.

Further Reading:

Medieval Pilgrimage: A Reader ed. B.E. Whalen (Toronto, 2011)

Nicole Chareyron, Pilgrims to Jerusalem in the Middle Ages (New York, 2005)

D.J. Birch, Pilgrimage to Rome in the Middle Ages (Woodbridge, 1998)

The Pilgrimage to Compostela in the Middle Ages ed. M. Dunn and L.K. Davidson (New York and London, 2000)

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