Half a trip to Rome, a third the trip to Jerusalem

Christian pilgrimage was a well-established part of medieval life. Chaucer’s ‘Pilgrim’s Tales’ attest to the popularity of such a journey and the hugely differing backgrounds and social statuses of pilgrims. With the Ottomans in the ascendancy in the Holy Land and with travel in Europe arduous and, at times, dangerous, what options were available for English pilgrims?

In the middle ages, travel abroad was not to be lightly undertaken even if in Christian zeal for pilgrimage. From Britain, all foreign journeys involved a perilous sea crossing. Even if your creaking, vomit splattered ship made it safely to port, travel across land was gruelling, slow and dangerous.

St  Davids Cathedral By James Knight / JKMMX (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Bandits vied with rapacious locals to make off with as much of the pilgrim’s gold as possible. The only comfort was a network of monasteries, abbeys and nunneries which would usually offer the weary traveller welcome, accommodation and food. The prize for enduring so perilous an undertaking were the spiritual blessings and rewards on offer.

A successful pilgrimage to the papal city of Rome offered indulgences reducing the time a man’s soul would spend in limbo. Making it as far as the holy city of Jerusalem could wipe a man’s sinful slate completely clean.

But the cowardly or impecunious pilgrim did not need to leave the kingdom to seek penance and a degree of absolution. Britain boasted an array of holy sites that were popular with pilgrims: Canterbury Cathedral and the shrine dedicated to Saint Thomas Becket, Bronholm Priory (said to  possess a piece of the True Cross), Lindisfarne or Holy Island (to venerate Saint Cuthbert), the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham and St Albans (England’s first domestic martyr).

Perhaps the most rewarding domestic pilgrimage of all was the journey to St David’s Shrine at St David’s Cathedral in Pembrokeshire. Admittedly, this required the penitent travel through Wales, which could be as foreign and dangerous to the English as any pilgrimage to Europe. But it avoided the sea crossing and the pilgrim trail went through the ostensibly friendly and loyal territory of the Marcher Lords.

St David's Cathedral - Shrine of St David By Wolfgang Sauber (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

St David’s Shrine became so popular a place of pilgrimage it was recognised by the Pope. In 1123, Pope Calixtus II granted a ‘papal privilege’ to the shrine, declaring that:

“Two pilgrimages to St David’s is equal to one to Rome, and three pilgrimages to one to Jerusalem”.

For English and Welsh Christians, this was a spiritual boon – a place of pilgrimage that enjoyed Papal patronage and did not require journey overseas. The present day cathedral owes much to this dispensation: Bishop Bernard was able to build a new cathedral, undoubtedly funded by the donations of a swell of pilgrims.

For residents of Bristol or even London, a trip to St David’s was a vastly safer, quicker and cheaper journey than going to Rome and incomparably convenient compared with the trek to Jerusalem. It is, therefore, no surprise that domestic pilgrims flocked to this Welsh holy site. Its renown also attracted its own foreign pilgrims – from across the Irish Sea and from Europe.