Medieval Shrines

Pilgrim badge, Becket’s shrine

Some time ago I wrote a post about pilgrimage and how many people travelled from their homes to visit shrines. The shrine didn’t have to be far away or even devoted to an important saint, but it had to be a shrine that contained a holy relic of some kind.

Some shrines were huge and the pilgrims could go inside. Others were much smaller. The main thing was that the shrine should contain a holy object. In some places the pilgrims were permitted to see the relic, in others the relic was only displayed on special occasions, if at all. A relic could be a part of a saint’s body, something the saint had touched, something associated with a miracle performed by Jesus or an object associated with him. Most famously these last were parts of the True Cross or the crown of thorns. All these objects were believed to have the power of healing, protection, forgiveness or spiritual guidance depending on the saint involved.

This belief in the powers of relics went back to the first days of Christianity. Since shrines and reliquaries contained objects of power, they also, by association, became objects of power themselves.

One of the outcomes of the second Council of Nicaea in 787 was that every church should have a relic, in or on the alter or beneath it in a crypt. Even small parish churches needed a relic in order to be consecrated.

Much has been made of the vast number of fake relics during the early Middle Ages, as there was easy money to be made from selling them to churches. There were, for example, many heads of John the Baptist. Many people were aware that fake relics were in circulation. They could accept that a particular relic might not be all that was claimed for it, but still believed that it had power because people accepted it as a relic. Others simply believed that relics possessed the power of self-replication.

Most pilgrims brought money to shrines. At some of the larger pilgrimage sites part of the money was spent on souvenirs of the trip in the form of pilgrim badges like the one at the top of the post. These were a proof that the pilgrimage had been completed, which was useful if the pilgrimage was a form of penance ordered by the pilgrim’s priest, or a punishment.

Pilgrims didn’t just buy souvenirs, they also left gifts at the shrine. A gift could be money, but it could also be a precious object. Pilgrims who undertook the journey to thank the saint for a healing miracle, for example, might leave a model of the affected body part made of gold or silver. Sometimes, however, the person giving thanks was not very wealthy and their models were made of wax. Wealthy pilgrims might also give money to the church housing the shrine.  Pilgrimage was a commercial proposition from the beginning of the fifth century. Offerings left at the shrine, however, were rarely touched by the church housing the shrine, even in times of great financial need.

Most English shrines were dismantled during the Reformation and the precious metals left by the pilgrims were taken to the royal mint.

The Companion to Cathedrals and Abbeys by Stephen Friar

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Filed under Church, Medieval Buildings, Pilgrimage, The Medieval Church

14 responses to “Medieval Shrines

  1. Self-replication! Why didn’t I think of that?

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I went on a school trip to Our Lady of Walsingham which was restored in the ’30’s having being Cromwelled. Don’t remember a relic but in medieval times it had a statue that did miracles. Fab post!

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    • Thank you. There were a surprisingly large numbers of miraculous statues spread across Europe. Walsingham would have had a relic, but I think most of them were destroyed or became curiosities during the Reformation. Some (possibly where there were lots of bones or a whole skeleton involved) were buried.

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  3. Thanks for the easy explanation of a curious tradition. The notion that we can accept something likely to be false, if enough people accept it is a little scary.

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  4. I have a thing about pilgrimmages and relics…I suspect many people have. I have had a book on relics for years but its very dense – Holy Bones and Holy Dust – and I still have to get through it, but I find it fascinating. The holders made for arms and heads etc are quite wonderful. Dorothy Dunnett (yes mentioned here before) is quite humerus (sic) haha about Canute’s wife Emma’s collection of relics in King Hereafter, which as you point out is connected to money. They were like stocks and shares perhaps?If enough people believed they were valuable they became so…and proof of power?
    We have things like Oliver Plunketts Head in Drogheda. One time I went to see it and it was away being cleaned which amused me for some reason.
    I would love to see Our lady of Walsingham too Fraggle…partly because it features in one of Elly Griffiths books which I enjoy. Thanks for the as usual excellent the image.

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    • I like the idea of pilgrimages, but I’m not keen on relics. To be honest, I’m not terribly fond of the idea of saints as anything other than examples to other Christians. That’s six hundred years of Protestant ancestors talking. I love the idea of going on a pilgrimage and I’d really like to walk the Camino, but I’m not sure what I’d do when I reached Compostella. I suppose the pilgrimage for me is in the journey rather than the arrival.

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      • Had not thought Irish catholic heritage was an influence but you are more than probably right!A fish can’t see water….I also like the ridulousness of overly ornate containers for random body parts I like the madness of it (that could be the Irishness too 😆). But Im in agreement about the journey. We have a pilgrimmage trail in County Waterford…St Declan’s trail…which goes over the mountains…its only recently been “discovered” and not all walkable but Id like to do it some day.

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        • Yes, there is a madness to it, which I sort of understand. If you’re going to venerate saints and their body parts are important, you probably want to contain them in something really beautiful. It’s just the idea of all these bits of saints wandering around Europe. After the canonisation of Thomas Becket, bits of him were sent to various kings across Europe. It seems less than respectful to me.

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  5. The power of popular belief inducing persuasion is a curious thing!

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