THESE HAS BEEN so much discussion of the looting of England by the hierarchy at Rome, the bitter warring of high churchmen whose shoes “shone with boocles of silver” and whose girdles had silver harneys, and of the excessive wealth of the monasteries that an impression may have been created of spiritual bankruptcy. This is so far from the truth that a hasty amendment seems now to be demanded. The hold of the Church on the hearts and imaginations of the people was deep enough and great enough to bring about one’ crusade after another and to keep the roads of Christendom filled with pilgrims. It inspired them to the building of the great churches, those wonderful testimonials to richness of faith. It led men by the tens of thousands to devote their lives to contemplation in the abbeys which raised their rooftops everywhere, in secluded vale and on stark moor.
Early in the thirteenth century a magnificent manifestation of this faith was provided by the work of two men, working independently and without knowledge of each other, one in Spain and one in Italy. Out of the efforts of St. Dominic and St. Francis of Assisi came the mendicant friars, the humble preachers who went about on foot, staff in hand, tending to the spiritual and bodily needs of the poorest classes, asking no earthly reward, a field hedge their cloister, a begging bowl their sole possession. The first years of the great century saw at its freshest and finest this fervent striving of man to achieve the purposes of God. As time went on the Dominicans and the Franciscans grew into huge orders. With growth came the inevitable companion, organization, and then, finally, permanence and wealth; but nothing could blur the memory of the glorious start. To the first symbol of the age, which must be the church spire reaching higher and ever higher into the sky, could now be added a second, the humble friar in his brown or white robe of coarsest cloth, his feet bare and scarred, the light of service in his eyes.
Dominicans went out to preach, the Franciscans to serve. The founder of the Franciscans had a conception of selflessness directly opposed to monasticism, which took a man out of the world. It was not their own souls with which the brown friars were concerned; it was the souls of the downtrodden, the leper, the thief, and the doxy. They were sworn to poverty so complete that some of them did not own as much as a breviary. “I am your breviary!” cried Francis to one of his followers. They must own no property; they must give no thought to the morrow. It was a perfect conception but one which, because of its perfection, attracted too many converts; and with growth it changed and became in time something quite different.
The Franciscan order became of great importance in England. It flourished there, growing with more rapidity than elsewhere. After the founder himself, the great men of the order came from England—Adam Marsh, Haymo of Faversham, Duns Scotus, William of Ockham. Above all, there was that fascinating and mysterious figure, Roger Bacon, that bright light in the Dark Ages, that great genius who laid a slow train which smoldered for centuries and then exploded finally into scientific discovery and advance.
The first Franciscans landed in England on September 10, 1224, a party of nine men, only four of whom were in holy orders, under the leadership of Friar Angellus of Pisa. In the party were three Englishmen, Friar Richard of Ingeworth, Friar Richard of Devon, and William of Esseby, a novice. They were received with suspicion at Dover, these unpriestly strangers whose pockets were empty. They were locked up for the night and ejected from the gates of the town early the next morning. Taking then the pilgrimage trail to Canterbury, they stayed for two days of rest and prayer before going on to London to begin their work in accordance with the strictest teachings of the founder, the beloved Poverello: to serve and obey, to be humble and charitable, to perform manual labor and to save neither copper coin nor stalk of lentil against the morrow. They had given away all their worldly possessions when they joined the order, and each owned nothing now but a tunic of patchwork stuff, a pair of breeches, and a cord for the waist.
They began at once to tend the sick in the crowded and poor sections of the city. At first they lived in a small house in Cornhill which had been loaned to them. This they cut up into individual cells, filling the walls with dried grass. Some years later a London mercer gave them a house near Newgate, close to the city slaughter ground and thus in the section generally called Stinking Lane. It was a dwelling of bare plank walls, a proper base for the work to which they were dedicated.
Richard of Ingeworth and Richard of Devon went on to Oxford and obtained a house there in the parish of St. Ebbe. It was their good fortune, therefore, to give the order its first great impetus in England. The university city had been ripe for a spiritual awakening. In the hospitia (the houses where groups of students lived under the stern eye of a principilator) which clustered on School Street were men of fine minds and deep fervor who had been restive and unhappy. They had been studying, probing, seeking, unwilling to bury themselves away from the sins of the world in the easy way of monasticism and yet seeing no other outlet for their zeal. They were men of great learning like the gentle and wise Adam de Marisco, or, as he is better known, Adam Marsh. To men like this the coming of the humble Franciscans was a direct answer. Here, at last, was a way to fight the evil and greed of the world. They began to join in large numbers. While the order continued to spread in all directions Oxford remained the core, the spiritual as well as intellectual center. The King, who was sincerely devout, sent beams from Savernake for the chapel which was being built for them in the university city. Robert Grosseteste, one of the great men of the age, as will become apparent soon, was filling a post which one day would be called chancellor and he acted as rector of the Franciscans. Under his watchful eye the Franciscan school achieved an international reputation. Adam Marsh taught there, and his gentle philosophy supplemented perfectly the teachings of the founder. They now had a choir, not, however, like the resplendent edifices rising all over England; a place of bare walls, as plain as a certain manger in Bethlehem. Some years later the King’s brother, Richard of Cornwall, would build them a church and bury there his third and beautiful wife, Beatrice of Falkenstein.
The order grew so rapidly throughout England that in thirty years it had 49 houses and 1,242 members. Haymo of Faversham had played a large part in its growth and had been instrumental in developing along practical lines the precepts of the founder. He it was who insisted that it was better to gain a living by work than by begging. St. Francis had insisted that his followers subsist on whatever they were given so that all their time could be used in the care of the poor. Haymo’s conception was more practical, a belief that a few hours of labor each day with hoe and mattock, saw and hammer, would suffice to provide the brothers with food and still leave them free in the service of the needy. This was more acceptable to English members. The begging bowl went out of use.
In a still more important respect the order in England grew far away from the original conceptions of the Poverello. Francis had wanted men of small learning, even of an ignorance to match that of the poor people they served. In England the trend was in the other direction. It was men of learning who were attracted to the order, and those who came to the top were the most illustrious scholars of the age. The man chiefly responsible for this was Grosseteste, himself the most vigorous and enlightened of thinkers.
Robert Grosseteste was born at Stradbrook in Suffolk about the year 1175. His parents were humble people, and it was due to the aid of friends that he was able to go to Oxford and later to Paris. He became renowned for his learning and, on his return to Oxford, was rapidly promoted to a controlling post at that institution.
If Grosseteste had possessed any inclination to secular activity, he would have become the greatest man of the century. But his nobly proportioned head with its massive brow (from which came his name) was the head of a scholar. His understanding of science was so profound that he started Roger Bacon on the path to his great discoveries. He was a preacher of mighty power and eloquence. Above everything else, he was a man of sublime courage: the unrelenting critic of the King, a thorn in the side of popes, a rod for the backs of venal churchman and indulgent monk.
In the year 1235 he was elected Bishop of Lincoln, which at that time was the largest see in England, comprising Lincoln, Leicester, Buckingham, Bedford, Stow, Huntingdon, Northampton, and Oxford. The clergy had fallen into slack ways, and the new broom wielded with furious energy by the venerable man with the forehead of a dreamer but the zeal of a crusader swept out concubinage (the flaunting of it, at least), drinking, loose ways of living. He put a stop to such profane practices as the holding of games in churchyards, the Feast of Fools (a form of mummery at which many priests had been disposed to wink), the soft indulgences of refectory and chapter house. To accomplish these reforms it was necessary to visit the monasteries in his extensive province and, as a result of what he observed, he lopped off the heads of many abbots and priors. Rumblings of discontent rose on all sides, and even the canons of his own chapter at Lincoln became bitterly antagonistic. They denied his right to make visitations and carried their case to Rome. The feud continued for six years, and even when Pope Innocent IV gave a decision in favor of the bishop the stubborn canons refused to give in with good grace.
Grosseteste was the great opponent of plurality. When the King desired to make John Mansel the prebend of Thane, the bishop came up to London and threatened to excommunicate the acquisitive royal clerk if he did not withdraw at once. Mansel not only resigned his pretensions in a great hurry but persuaded the King to give in as well. Once Grosseteste threatened also to lay the royal chapel at Westminster under an interdict because of some slyness the King was up to, and Henry retreated quickly.
It was the determination of Rome to treat England as a fief and to demand an ever-increasing share of its revenues which roused the fighting bishop to his most courageous stand. He opposed the appointment of Italians to benefices in his territory and made visits to the papal court to protest against such exactions. On one of these visits, when Innocent IV was in temporary exile at Lyons, he preached a sermon denouncing the evils existing within the shadow of the Vatican and roused Innocent to an almost incoherent state of indignation. On returning to England after this bold defiance of the head of the Church, the bishop began an investigation which uncovered the fact that Rome was taking out of England each year the sum of seventy thousand marks, which was three times larger than the income of the King; and with this weapon in his hands he thundered still more boldly against the policy of the Vatican, not concerned that Pope and King were in alliance and equally resentful of his attitude.
Through it all he remained in high standing even with those he attacked most openly and persistently. He was on friendly personal terms with the King, his advice was sought by the Queen on occasions, he carried on a voluminous correspondence with the prominent men of the country, the cardinals protected him from any hostile action as a result of the Pope’s resentment.
Shortly before his death in 1253 he received through the papal commissioners an order to appoint to a canonry at Lincoln a nephew of the Pope, Frederick of Lavagna. The demand was couched in the most positive terms and carried the obnoxious clause Non obstante. The stouthearted bishop decided to disregard precedent by refusing, and his decision was conveyed in a letter to the papal executor which has been kept and studied down the centuries as a model of reasoning and firmness. He made his chief point that to continue the filling of important posts in the Church with Italians who could not speak the language and would never set foot in the country would make it impossible for the Church to minister properly to the spiritual needs of the people. No faithful subject of the Holy See, he declared, could submit to such mandates, not even if they came from “the most high body of angels.” He went on to protest that “as an obedient man, I disobey, I contradict, I rebel!”
Innocent IV literally boiled over when this letter reached his hands. “This raving old man, this deaf and foolish dotard!” he cried. He went on to say that the English bishop had gone too far this time. He would be punished as he deserved. A command would be sent to the King of England for his prompt arrest. The punishment he would receive would make him a horror to the whole world.
One of the cardinals, Giles the Spaniard, had enough independence to advise against any action. Grosseteste, he said, was “a holy man, more religious and of a more correct life than ourselves.” Other cardinals joined in with the same opinion. The Pope, refusing to look at them, as was his custom when annoyed, grumblingly gave in. The letter, unanswered, was committed to the files. For once the imperious Non obstante! was disregarded and Frederick of Lavagna had to be provided for elsewhere.
Even if Innocent had decided to discipline the outspoken bishop, it would have been of no avail, for while the cardinals discussed his case that stouthearted man was dying at his manor in Buckden. On the night of St. David’s Day he breathed his last. He had lived seventy-eight years and in every conscious moment of his long span of existence he had been selfless, resolute, clear-seeing, filled with the kind of faith which knows when to warn and does not hesitate to oppose. The world had lost its soundest teacher, the Church its finest son.
The night he died Faulkes, Bishop of London, heard a sound in the air like the ringing of a great convent bell. He roused himself and said this could mean only one thing, that the noble Robert of Lincoln had died. Some Franciscan monks, passing through the royal forest of Vauberge, heard the same bell tolling.
Innocent IV had a different kind of intimation of the passing of his venerable enemy. He dreamed that Grosseteste came to him and wounded him in the side; and for the rest of the time that he had left of his own life he insisted he could feel the effects of the blow.
It is unfortunate that so little is known of Adam Marsh. He was the confidant of king and prince and, in the later years, adviser of the men who led popular opposition to the weak and vacillating Henry. Completely lacking in ambition, he had a clarity of vision and a fineness of judgment which would have elevated him to a prominent place. Roger Bacon, the most critical and outspoken man of the age, referred to him as “perfect in all wisdom.” His piety led him to prefer the seclusion of the Franciscan school at Oxford and the wider scholastic arena of the university. He played a large part in the growth of Oxford and at the same time he saw, perhaps to his dismay, his reputation as an intellectual grow throughout Christendom. The stature he attained was so great that in the concluding years of his life a determined effort was made to elect him Bishop of Ely. He did not want a high place in the Church, being certain in his own mind that he was unfitted for administrative duties. It was undoubtedly with a sense of relief that he closed his eyes for all time before his appointment could receive the sanction of Rome.
This gentle scholar and man of God was to do his greatest work, as will be seen later, in the influence he exercised over Simon de Montfort. Adam did not live to see the brave Simon leading the armies of the baronage against the King and calling the first Parliament in which common men were allowed to sit. That privilege was withheld from him, but there can be no doubt that he molded the thinking of the leader of the popular cause.
Duns Scotus came later in the century, and the period of his greatest influence was in the opening years of the fourteenth. This learned man, who is claimed by the Irish but is generally conceded to have been born somewhere in the border country between England and Scotland, earned a place in the front rank of teachers and established a school of thought directly opposed to that of Thomas Aquinas. As Thomas was a Dominican and Duns a Franciscan, the antagonism between the two orders fanned the controversy over the beliefs and philosophies of the two men into a blaze of hatred. The sharpest clash was over the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, which Duns supported with great earnestness and ingenuity, but the important differences were more general. Thomas Aquinas was a constructive thinker; Duns Scotus took the stand that no actual conception of the omnipotent God was possible to the human mind and that all men could accept was what revelation had supplied. The Thomists called their opponents Dunces, and the word made a place for itself in the language which would have distressed the eminent doctor had he lived to realize it. The controversy reached its peak, however, long after the two principals were moldering in their graves. It was perhaps not surprising that, as time rolled on and men began to delve more and more into the nature and meaning of things, the teachings of Duns Scotus fell into disrepute, culminating in such a low place in scholarly esteem that in 1535 one Richard Layton wrote to Thomas Cromwell, chancellor to Henry VIII, “We have set Dunce in Bocardo and banished him Oxford forever, and is now made a common servant to every man, fast nailed up upon posts in all houses of common easement.”
There was not a hint of this eclipse in the days when the brilliant Duns was teaching at Oxford and writing his mighty effort, Opus Oxoniense, or in his later years in Paris. Scholars from all over the known world sat at his feet, delighting in the ingenuity of his dialectics and the forcefulness of his presentation. The influence of his ideas can be traced in the writings of most of his contemporaries. He never took staff in hand and walked the countryside barefoot, but his work, and the reputation he gained therefrom, helped more than any other single factor to maintain the prestige of the Franciscans through this period.
Although the sharpest phases of the great controversy came after his death, Duns must have experienced some enmities in his lifetime. There was a rumor after his death at Cologne, where he had been sent to aid in establishing a university, that he had been made a prisoner and buried alive. The fact that such a wild story could gain circulation and some measure of belief is evidence that the great scholar had enemies who might be expected to go to any lengths.
William of Ockham, an Englishman born in the Surrey village of that name, was a student under Duns Scotus and became leader of the whole Franciscan order. He proved a stormy pilot, preaching the doctrine of Franciscan poverty in the teeth of papal disapproval and being driven into exile. This, however, is a story of the succeeding century.
Roger Bacon, that remarkable man whose enrollment in the ranks of the brown friars was sufficient in itself to lend the order distinction for all time, merits a later chapter to himself, where the magnitude of his work and the impenetrable nature of the mystery which surrounds him may be told.
The Crusades had been in a sense a direct development of the idea of pilgrimage which had seized on Christian people as early as the second century and had been growing continuously ever since. Beginning as an intense desire to manifest faith, pilgrimage had been fed by a number of more concrete motives: to bring back relics, to secure indulgences, to obtain absolution of sin. The great pilgrimage was, of course, to the Holy Land. Second in importance, and the one most commonly adopted, was to Rome, where the sites of early Christian martyrdom served as magnets as strong as the Vatican itself. All countries had shrines which drew visitors, the most famous being the tomb of St. Thomas the Martyr at Canterbury and the shrine of St. James at Compostela in Spain.
In the thirteenth century the difficulties and the dangers of a pilgrimage to Palestine had been heightened by the fact that the Holy City was again in the hands of the infidels. To make it possible for courageous souls to perform this supreme act of faith there were, however, the two knightly orders of the Templars and the Hospitalers. The former had been formed to protect pilgrims on the road to Palestine, the latter to provide care for the sick and needy. They had grown into great and wealthy organizations; but, although other considerations now seemed to come first with them, they were still functioning along the routes the pilgrims took and as far as possible in the Holy Land. The Templars were making their headquarters at Acre, where they had built Castle Pilgrim. This mighty fortress stood on a high promontory extending out into the waters of the Mediterranean and contained within its walls woods and pastures and orchards. It was deemed strong enough to stand siege forever. The Hospitalers had institutions in Cyprus, Acre, Rhodes, and Malta and did a great deal to ease the sufferings of the pilgrims and reduce the mortality.
The march to Palestine continued throughout the century, and for a very long time thereafter, on a truly amazing scale. Statistics are not available save the records kept at the ports of Marseilles and Venice. The ships of the two knightly orders took six thousand pilgrims each year from Marseilles and even more from Venice, from which port two annual round trips were conducted. When it is considered that ocean voyaging was confined to small ships which seldom ventured out of sight of land and that lack of the right winds could keep a vessel in port for weeks, that moreover the whole conception of travel was one of adventuring into strange and mythical lands, the magnitude of what was happening can be better comprehended. Ships were built for the pilgrimage trade alone, and the maritime powers found it necessary to frame laws and regulations for the protection of travelers from the rapacity of sea captains and innkeepers. Books were written and sold in great quantities containing information for pilgrims.
The pilgrims came from all countries, earnest-eyed zealots and feverish penitents with sins to expiate, tramping the overland route to Constantinople and from there by way of Heraclea, Edessa, and Antioch to Jerusalem, or taking ship at Marseilles, Venice, or Genoa and landing at the port of Jaffa. There were hospices in the passes of the Alps and in all ports for the help and accommodation of the seekers after grace. Generally the traveling was done in groups in which at least one would have some knowledge of other languages and so be able to act as interpreter.
There was a recognized costume for pilgrims consisting of a gray cowl, scrip and scarf, and a red cross on shoulder, a broad belt to which were attached rosary and water bottle and sometimes a bell (to make the walking easier), the hat broad-brimmed and turned up in front. Over their shoulders they carried a sack and gourd. This costume became familiar everywhere, but it is probable that the pilgrim would have been recognized without it. His eye, fixed on the horizon, had a fanatical light; his feet moved at a sclaffing gait; fingering his beads as he walked, he sang the words of Jerusalem Mirabilis or, if he came from the Teutonic countries, the crusading songs of Walther von der Vogelweide.
The cost has been exaggerated, some estimates being as high as one hundred silver marks per person. This was perhaps the figure which a knight would have to meet when he traveled with squires, grooms, and the necessary number of horses. The passage from Venice to Jaffa was one mark, but this was the fare only and did not take into consideration the food which became exorbitantly high. The poor pilgrim depended on begging and a free roof when he was ashore.
Shipmasters competed for the trade of the pilgrims. While waiting in port they set up tables on the bows of their ships and invited the gray-cowled men to come aboard and partake free. They made all manner of promises, particularly in the matter of malvoisie, a wine from Crete which was supposed to be the only cure for seasickness. This was a great inducement because the poor pilgrims dreaded mal de mer more than anything, more than the blinding sun, the plague, or the loud screeching of Moslems on the raid.
Once aboard, of course, this soft indulgence ceased. The pilgrim would discover that the efforts of the masters had more than filled the ship. He slept on the lower deck, being allotted six feet of space by two but seldom being able to claim that much. It was customary to sleep with the head to the side of the ship, the feet pointing inward; but it was only a very broad man, or a very pugnacious one, who could insist on his full two feet of space. The stench was unbearable to sensitive nostrils, for the hold directly underneath was filled with sand and bilge water. The sand was seldom changed and, as it was used for sanitary purposes and for the burial of those who died en route (in cases where it was necessary to bring the body back), the atmosphere became extremely foul. To complicate matters further, sheep and cattle were carried on board and stabled on the lower deck with the pilgrims. Most passengers brought hens with them in the hope of having fresh eggs, and they cackled endlessly in the daytime and roosted wherever they could at night.
The food supplied was meager and of wretched quality. After the first few days there was no bread, and the sea biscuit which took its place was hard and far from nutritious. The salt pork and fish turned rancid, especially the fish, which was thrown into the vats without gutting. The wine was thin and sour. There were two meals a day, and the only respect in which early promises were lived up to was that a pan of malvoisie was provided in the morning.
The only moment of the day when the devotional aspect of pilgrimage obliterated the sordid details of mere existence was at the evening services. Everyone attended, the pilgrims bareheaded, the sailors with their hoods thrown back on their shoulders, the ship’s confessor beginning with a Salve Regina. The sailors would remain and say an exclusive Ave for St. Julien, while the seekers after grace sought their allotment of deck space below and prepared for slumber by the light of lanterns suspended from the low beams. There was a continual feud between the pilgrims and the crew over this use of lanterns. They were a constant danger, and many ships were burned at sea as a result of lanterns breaking or the curtains catching fire in the cabins fore and aft where travelers of noble rank slept.
What a picture the ships presented at night! Conjure it up in your mind: the horn lanterns swinging with the movement of the ship, sometimes leaving the whole lower deck in darkness, then steadying to show the long rows of sleeping men, the callused soles of feet turned upward, the passage between the uneasy pilgrims piled high with supplies; the animals penned at each end stamping and struggling, the hens roosting everywhere, sometimes on the breasts and shoulders of the sleepers; a sailor at each end in long pants of sailcloth and with bare feet; a priest pacing anxious-eyed as though aware that the wing of death would brush the shoulders of three quarters of these brave men, and wondering what more could be done about their souls.
The overland journey from the seaport to Jerusalem was comparatively easy after the hardships of the sea voyage. There were droves of wily oriental traders to meet the ships with offers of donkeys (most pilgrims desired to ride into Jerusalem as Christ had done) and with supplies of food and every conceivable kind of relic for sale. The business of fleecing the humble men who had come so far for the good of their souls had been very cleverly organized. Guides were always available for trips throughout Palestine, to see the manger in Bethlehem, to visit the spot along Galilee where the miracle of the loaves and fishes took place; to see, in fact, every place mentioned in the Bible. All that was necessary was for a pilgrim to mention something he wanted to see and there would be a native who knew exactly where to go. The pilgrims traveled in large bodies, knowing that to venture out alone was certain to result in mysterious disappearance. Although under treaty protection and watched over by the Templars and the Hospitalers, they were not only in continual peril but were humiliated at every turn, called “dogs of unbelievers” and pelted with offal by Arab boys as they plodded by or rode their stubborn little donkeys.
In Jerusalem the movements of the pilgrims were carefully supervised. They went about in processions planned and watched over by the Franciscans or the Templars, visiting the Dome of the Rock and the Mount of Olives and even venturing down into the narrow and airless alleys to see the house near the southern wall where the Last Supper was held. Their stay in the Holy City was generally limited to a week because more and more of them kept arriving and the tempers of the oriental masters of the city were too short to allow overcrowding.
The casualties were extremely heavy. In 1066 the Archbishop of Metz led a company of seven thousand pilgrims to Jerusalem. Two thousand only came back. This percentage may be accepted as an indication of the degree of risk the men in gray took. They dropped of exhaustion along the dusty trails and they died like flies in the malodorous holds of wallowing ships. Some died of Eastern fevers and other strange diseases; many were cut off from their companions and sold into slavery. Some could not face the rigors of the return voyage and settled down to finish their lives in crowded ports or olive groves.
The rewards, however, were great. Those who came back from Jerusalem were venerated by everyone and were permitted ever after to wear a cross of palm leaves on their hats; from which custom rose the term “palmer.” The penitent pilgrims had to announce that they were seeking the absolution of a sin in either one of two ways. They wore a chain of iron around the waist (which would spring apart or disappear when the sin had been forgiven) or carried a fagot in their hands. In the latter case they were permitted to burn the fagot publicly when they reached Jerusalem as a sign that they were no longer in danger themselves of burning.
It was customary to bring back a “pilgrim sign” as proof that their destination had been reached. This took the form of something which could be worn on the cap after the order of the palm leaf. Returning from Compostela, after praying before the shrine where the bones of St. James, son of Zebedee, were kept, it was customary to wear a cockleshell; from Amiens, a badge of the head of John the Baptist; from the shrine of St. Thomas, the Canterbury bell.
England had seen armies on the march—Harold in breathless haste from victory at Stamfordbridge to death at Hastings, William leading his steel-clad Normans eastward to London, the handsomely caparisoned knights of Prince Louis going confidently to the Fair of Lincoln—but never anything to equal the curious phenomenon of mass movement which happened around July 7 and December 29 of each year, the march of the Canterbury pilgrims. The pilgrims walked to the cathedral city by three routes, from Dover, from London, and from Winchester. The latter was the one most commonly used because it led direct from the West and South of England and it drew most of the European visitors who sailed from Norman ports to Southampton. It was called the Pilgrims’ Way or sometimes the Old Road.
This road converged on Winchester, the ancient capital, and there the pilgrims were allowed hospitality free for one day and one night in any of the church establishments or at Strangers’ Hall. The road from there ran due east, a rutted and stubborn track over hills and down valleys and across unexpected fords. It followed at first the course of an ancient British road, the antiquity of which has been proven by the ingots of tin occasionally dug up from the sides where they had been hidden by tin merchants when thieves attacked them.
Sometimes an invalid would be carried in a sling between horses. Still less often the creaking of a hammock-wagon would be heard, the only form of traveling vehicle of the time, bearing some great lady or person of advanced years to the scene of the martyrdom. The hammock-wagon consisted of a seat, shaped like the rockers of a hobbyhorse, perched on springless axles, and it was such an uncomfortable way of achieving distance that the need for absolution must have been great in the case of all who adopted it. Pilgrims were expected to walk, and walk they did, in gray cowl and round hat and with staff in hand, the penny which must be left at the shrine carried on a string around the neck or clutched in one hand as an identifying mark. Thus they marched, nobleman and lady of high degree, socman and franklin and buxom dame, rich man, poor man, beggarman, thief. They marched in ever-increasing numbers as the years went on. The Jubilee of the Translation in 1420, just after the great victory at Agincourt which had left men jubilant and filled with a thirst for adventure and, moreover, possessed of French spoils to pay the cost, brought one hundred thousand people to Canterbury, most of them by the Pilgrims’ Way. Conceive of the confusion which resulted when the unorganized masses drew near their destination and the weary files converged on the gates of Canterbury.
The hardest bit was over the high escarpment of the Weald. Here the roads were chalk and so the constant pressure of feet cut ever deeper into the spongy surface until the clay banks on each side, topped by high beech and yew, seemed like drifts of snow. The dense forests of the Weald were filled, according to popular report, with wild beasts and wild men. The deep chalk pits, falling off abruptly from the edges of the road, were a constant peril. All in all it was a welcome sight when the plodding pilgrims glimpsed the green of peaceful Kentish lanes.
It was a pleasant amble downhill to Canterbury, past hamlets where every house offered accommodation, at a price, past Chilham Castle and the village of Old Wives Lees and Knockholt Green, past the grave of the giant Julaber (the natives were always ready to show the way to this sight although Julaber was as mythical as Blunderbore), and so on through Westgate into the sacred city. Canterbury, once a sleepy town which the martyrdom of Thomas à Becket had turned into a busy city with twenty-one watch towers and a cluster of churches, was still gray and austere around the curving course of the Stour. There were always pilgrims walking to Canterbury, seeking grace with penny in hand, but for the two great occasions, the anniversaries of the murder of St. Thomas and the Translation, the old city girded itself to meet the invasions and to profit thereby; and did both exceedingly well. The doors of St. Thomas Hospital, the large spittlehouse built by the Martyr himself on stone arches across the Stour, were always wide open for the needy but capable of looking after a mere fraction of the impecunious who arrived. Every householder was under orders to take the travelers in and was always glad to do so at a good, round price. For the nobility there was the priory of Christ Church, where gracious rooms overlooked the avenue of elms, Les Ormeaux, which became corrupted in time to The Omers. For common men with money in their pockets there were many inns, most particularly the Chequers of the Hope, which boasted of its Dormitory of the Hundred Beds. During the teeming anniversary days, when more than twice the population of London camped in little Canterbury, the most earnest efforts of the church authorities could not cope with the situation, and most of the pilgrims slept under hedges or in the shelter of rick-stavels; finding the company of the stars more congenial, perhaps, than the snoring occupants of a hundred beds.
The carcasses of oxen and sheep were roasted whole and offered for sale on all open pieces of land, together with pots in which soup simmered, and those who could afford such a luxury were permitted to dip a spoon. The inns had capons turning on spits and mawmennies and other stews on the fire, and mountains of loaves which the White and Brown Bakers had labored for days to produce. It was impossible, however, to feed such multitudes, and the wise pilgrims, forewarned, always had a pouch in which they carried food of some kind.
Mass was celebrated in all the churches and in the open on streets black with people as far as the eye could see. It took days for all the visitors to file through the cathedral, past the Martyrdom and the shrine, after dropping their pennies in receptacles at the entrance. The pilgrimage could not have failed to become the most lucrative business in all England.
Finally the pilgrims would visit the open booths in the neighborhood of High Street and Mercery Lane, where the greatest profits were reaped. Here tokens and pilgrim signs were on sale. Every pilgrim bought something. Those who could not afford the costly ampullas, lead bottles containing a drop of the Martyr’s blood (which flowed continuously from a well and then turned from water to blood), had to content themselves with the caput Thomae, brooches with a carved representation of the mitered head of the saint. This ended the pilgrimage and, equipped with proof that they had completed their journey, the weary walkers turned homeward, rich man, poor man, beggerman, and thief.
The road over the chalk escarpment and through Chantries Wood and up St. Catherine’s Hill seemed much longer on the homeward journey and more beset with danger. But what of that? They were full of the wonders they had seen. A life sanctified with new grace stretched ahead.