We’re all going on a summer … staycation: sightseeing in medieval England

The post-lockdown staycation has proven popular this year and in today’s blog Dr Hannes Kleineke, editor of our Commons 1461-1504 project, looks into the popular sites that could be visited a little closer to home in medieval England…

Holidays and sightseeing have long traditions. If a pilgrimage could offer a convenient excuse for a medieval Englishman or -woman to abandon home, family, and day to day duties and go on an adventure, either at home or even abroad, more prosaic journeys, such as travel on business also had their attractions. Any trip could afford the traveller an opportunity to see and admire the unfamiliar, and it is tempting to wonder whether the men who gathered in Parliament did not boast of the prominent features of their constituencies either when speaking in the House (much like Members often do today), or in private exchanges outside the formal proceedings.

Ruins of Tintagel Castle in 2010, via Wikimedia Commons

In the late 1470s and early 1480s William Worcester, one time secretary to the soldier Sir John Fastolf, travelled through large parts of southern England, and kept a record of what he saw. Most of his notes were dispassionate: he wrote down details of the measurements of churches and other buildings. As the former secretary of a soldier, he took an interest in the dilapidation (or otherwise) of the castles he came across. Something that interested him keenly, were Arthurian associations: at Castle-an-Dinas, near St. Columb Major in Cornwall, ‘lies on a high hill and a spring rises in the midst of the castle’ he noted. ‘There Cador, duke of Cornwall, husband of [Igraine], the mother of Arthur was slain’. Tintagel castle ‘a very strong one near Camelford, where Arthur was conceived is in ruins.’ When he reached Glastonbury, Worcester made a point of consulting with the minks of the great abbey ‘for chronicles and the acts of King Arthur’.


An underground lake in the first chamber at Wookey Hole caves in 2009, geograph.org.uk via Wikimedia Commons

In Somerset, Worcester was particularly taken with Wookey Hole. He noted the custom of asking leave to enter from the statute known as the ‘Porter’, the various caves (including the ‘Hall’ which he compared in size to Westminster Hall), and the stalactites hanging from the ceiling. He then progressed to the attraction’s oast house, with its statute of a woman spinning wool, and the ‘Parlour’, with its holy well.

Just occasionally, Worcester recorded his own pleasure at some of what he saw. At Exeter cathedral, he noted, ‘each window in the aisles of the church contains five beautiful lights. And the whole church is vaulted over in the most lovely way.’ At the abbey of St. Benet, Hulme, in Lincolnshire he noted the east window, ‘glazed with figures and arms’, and the vaulting, ‘cunningly carved of stone’. At the Sheen Charterhouse outside London, Worcester noticed ‘that on the walls on each side of the nave of the church hang many devotions and good reminders to devotion and the arousing of all Christian souls to God, both smaller and larger tables,  written in a good text hand and in bastard letter to the number of about 34, nor have I seen in any other monastic church even the twentieth part of these tables so fully written.’

Foreign visitors, to whom England and its customs seemed strange and exotic, penned even more detailed accounts of what they had seen. At Canterbury, the principal attraction was the richly jewelled shrine of St. Thomas Becket, commented upon both by the members of the company of Leo von Rozmital, a Bohemian nobleman who visited England in 1466, and Niclas von Popplau, a Silesian knight, who came there in 1484. Alongside the shrine, the monks of Canterbury proudly showed off a multiplicity of other relics of the saint – his hair shirt, the sword that had killed him and so forth.

London proved more of a challenge to foreign visitors. Gabriel Tetzel of Nuremberg, one of Rozmital’s companions, commented approvingly on the range and quality of crafts being exercised there, and the beauty of the local women, yet he found board and lodging rather expensive. Popplau found a Silesian compatriot to act as his guide to the sights of the city. He was shown a number of large water jugs, said to date from the wedding at Cana, and was impressed by the nave of St. Paul’s cathedral. He then headed to Westminster abbey, where he admired not only the shrine of the Confessor, but also the other royal tombs in the abbey church, taking particular note of that of Queen Anne of Bohemia. Rozmital’s party was shown a stone said to hail from the Mount of Olives and bearing a footprint of Christ.

Modern sketch of St Paul’s Cathedral before 1666 fire,  from Early Christian Architecture by Francis Bond (1913), via Wikimedia Commons

One of the glories of England, so the visitors reported, were its rich monasteries. Tetzel commented on the beautifully carved images of saints, some of which were equipped with an ingenious system of pulleys and weights that made them move. York Minster, Popplau declared, was far more beautiful than St. Paul’s, even if its nave was rather shorter. It was, however, the music of the Chapel Royal for which Popplau reserved his highest praise, declaring it to be comparable to the singing of the angels in heaven. This echoed Tetzel’s observations, who was convinced that the English singers he had heard in both London and Canterbury were the best in the world.

The visitors noted the large number of villages they encountered, and were struck by the extensive rearing of sheep, the use of turves for fuel, and the odd beer (called ale) consumed by the common people, but otherwise found little to admire other than the exceptionally well-endowed and welcoming local women, who appeared to display a particular predilection for Germans, as Popplau noted.

H.W.K.

Further reading:

The travels of Leo of Rozmital through Germany, Flanders, England, France, Spain, Portugal and Italy, 1465-1467 ed. Malcolm Letts (Cambridgem, Hakluyt Society, 1957).

Itineraries [of] William Worcester: edited from the unique MS Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, 210 ed. John Harvey (Oxford, 1969).

Reisebeschreibung Niclas von Popplau, Ritters, bürtig von Breslau ed. Piotr Radzikowski (Krakow, 1998).

To read Dr Kleineke’s earlier blog on medieval pilgrimages click here.

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