Category Archives: Pilgrimage

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

Geoffroi de Charny and the Turin Shroud

These week we’re continuing with our look at aspects of the life of Geoffroi de Charny. Like most of his contemporaries, de Charny was very pious. In the 1340s he started planning the building of a church on his estate at Lirey. He wanted to have five clerics in the chapel who would pray and say masses for himself, his family, the king and the royal family. It was in relation to this church that the Shroud of Turin was first mentioned and De Charny was probably its first owner, if not the person the commissioned its creation. He’s certainly the first verifiable owner.

The first mention of it being in his possession was in a papal letter written not long after his death, when de Charny’s son had inherited the shroud. De Charny junior gave exhibitions of it to the public to no little scandal, since he gained financially from it. It’s possible that de Charny himself exhibited it around 1355 to 1356. The exhibitions were subject to an episcopal investigation at the time, led by Henri de Poitiers, the bishop of Troyes. It seems that the church was worried that the shroud was being passed off as a relic of Christ. Following the episcopal investigation, the family were told that they had to announce that the shroud was not a relic whenever they exhibited it. This doesn’t mean that it was created with the intention of deceiving people, but that people can convince themselves that something is a relic, even when it clearly isn’t.

A pilgrim badge has been found showing the shroud with the arms of de Charny and his second wife. They might, of course, be the arms of de Charny’s son, but the badge certainly shows that there were sufficient pilgrims wanting to see the shroud around the middle of the fourteenth century that it was worthwhile to have lead badges manufactured to sell to them as souvenirs.

This sounds trite, but in the days before photography, a badge was proof that someone had arrived at and returned from a recognised site of pilgrimage. This might be particularly useful if the pilgrimage was being carried out as an act of penance. It was also a way of recognising another pilgrim.

It’s possible that de Charny purchased the shroud while he was on crusade in 1345 to 1346, although unlikely due to the way in which the linen thread was spun. It’s more likely that it was made and painted at his or his wife’s request by an artist local to Lirey for an Easter service, in which a linen sheet representing Christ’s shroud was carried to the altar and laid on it ready for mass. This was a recorded part of the Easter liturgy in some places. Most scientific tests have dated the shroud to between 1260 and 1390. The width of the cloth is certainly standard for the fourteenth century loom. It would have been created as an icon, an aid to devotion, rather than a false relic, something deserving reverence of itself. It was only later that it was considered to be a relic.

The Book of Chivalry of Geoffroi de Charny by Richard W. Kaeuper and Elspeth Kennedy
The Origins of the Shroud of Turing by Charles Freeman, History Today November 2014

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 Fourteenth Century, Pilgrimage, The Medieval Church

Medieval Music

In the last post we saw that people are taking to medieval style music in a big way at the moment. That made me reflect a little on the kind of music that was around in the Middle Ages.

Music was very much a part of medieval life. Then, as now (well, not right now, but usually), there was music in church and music for dancing. Performances of mystery plays were accompanied by music. Pilgrims often sang as they walked.

It’s difficult to know now what medieval music sounded like, or even what some of the instruments used in the Middle Ages were. Much of what is known about medieval instruments comes from pictures and sculptures, which don’t say anything about what the instruments were made of or how they were made. They don’t even provide much information about how they were played. Sculptors and artists weren’t necessarily accurate in the way they depicted musicians and their instruments. If they weren’t musicians themselves, their representations of the instruments and how they were held and played could be flawed. There were some treatises written about music, though, which help.

Fortunately, there are those who have done the work to try to replicate what medieval musicians might have played. They reproduce the instruments and work out what the musical notation means. Musicians research performance practice and the music is performed.

The examples below are fairly short and come mostly from the twelfth century. The first two are from the Carmina Burana. This was a collection of poems by various authors mostly written in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Most are in Medieval Latin, but some are in Middle High German. Many of them are very bawdy, so you’ll have to go elsewhere to find the lyrics. Carl Orff set some of the poems to music in the 1930s, so the name and some of the poems might be familiar to you. He wasn’t the first, though. Many of them are accompanied by music in the original manuscript.

In taberna quando sumus means ‘when we are in the tavern’. Need I say more?

Tempus est Iocundum (The time is pleasing) is a celebration of new love.

This next piece is the sort of thing that pilgrims sang on their way to Compostela to the shrine of St James. Dum Pater Familias tells the story of St. James and ends as a prayer to him.

Finally, here’s a piece by Hildegard von Bingen, an extraordinary woman who was a nun in the twelfth century. Ave generosa (Hail thee, noble one) is a song of praise to the Virgin Mary. I’m sorry about the picture that goes with it, but you could listen with your eyes closed.

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 Fourteenth Century, Medieval Entertainment, Medieval Life, Pilgrimage, The Medieval Church

Wanderings of Medieval Saints


A short discussion with C J Hyslop (Fraggle) on her post about a visit to a church which claims to have been been one of the resting places of the body of St Cuthbert during his post-mortem peregrination around the north of England and the south of Scotland has made me think again about the importance of relics in the Middle Ages.

St Cuthbert’s body was moved to keep it out of the hands of the Vikings, who were not known for their respect for religious artefacts. The coffin containing his body was taken to various places before it came to rest in Durham.

To our minds, it seems odd that people would put their own lives at risk to carry the body of a man long dead to safety. St Cuthbert died in about 687 and set off on his long journey after the destruction of Lindisfarne by the Vikings in 875. It’s a little under 80 miles from Lindisfarne to Durham, but St Cuthbert’s journey there took more than 100 years. That’s a lot of people over several generations who were willing to risk everything for what should have been a heap of bones, but was said to have been an uncorrupted body.

Being close to a saint’s body was considered the same as being close to the saint himself (or herself). This was the reason why pilgrims travelled long distances. It wasn’t to visit churches or cathedrals because they were important in themselves, but because of the relics of the saints they contained and the miracles they expected to see performed because of the saint’s presence.

Saints’ bodies were often moved from one place to another and rarely with the altruism shown by the people who carried St Cuthbert from place to place.

A church was nothing if it didn’t have some kind of relic. Even a piece of bone could be placed in a shrine for pilgrims to visit. Some churches went to extraordinary lengths to obtain even a sliver of bone. There are stories of respected churchmen surreptitiously tearing off a finger when allowed access to a saint’s remains or, in more than one case, biting one off whilst giving the appearance of kissing the saint’s hand. It’s no wonder that saints’ relics were kept safely hidden in reliquaries and shrines. When a relic was displayed publicly, it was a big occasion.

I live in the diocese of Winchester and the cathedral’s patron is St Swithun. His body did not fare as well as that of St Cuthbert. He was the bishop of Winchester when Wessex became the most important of the Saxon kingdoms. He died in 862 and was buried, at his request, in the cemetery of the cathedral.  In 971 his relics were moved inside the cathedral. There was heavy rainfall on the day and this was interpreted as showing his displeasure at being moved. It’s still said that if it rains on St Swithun’s day (15th July) it will rain for the following 40 days. If it doesn’t rain, the weather will be fine for the next 40 days.

This resting place lasted only three years before St Swithun’s body was broken up and placed in two separate shrines within the cathedral. In the early eleventh century his head was taken to Canterbury by Alphege when he left Winchester to become Archbishop of Canterbury. As I said above, even respectable churchmen were not above stealing a relic.

After the Conquest, the Normans built a new cathedral in Winchester and what was left of St Swithun was taken there in 1093, where his shrine continued to be visited by pilgrims until it was destroyed in the Reformation.


The Oxford Dictionary of Saints – David Hugh Farmer


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, Pilgrimage

The British Museum in Thirteen Objects – Reliquary Casket of St Thomas Becket

Reliquary Casket of St Thomas Becket

Reliquary Casket of St Thomas Becket, British Museum

This is the final object of those I photographed in the British Museum and it’s my favourite. It’s a tiny reliquary, about 6¼” tall, 6″ wide and 2¾” deep. I like it for several reasons. Firstly, because it’s just beautiful. Despite its age the colours shine and sparkle. Secondly, because it’s enamelware from Limoges, which I don’t come across very often. Thirdly, because it’s about Thomas Becket, who was an important English saint in the Middle Ages.

I first became aware of the enamelware produced in Limoges when I was doing research for my novel Beloved Besieged, part of which is set in the town. My Pinterest board for the novel is full of pictures of enamelled objects made there and it’s beautiful stuff.

Enamel is a type of glass fused onto metal. The metal was usually copper, but it could be silver or gold. The metal between the pieces of enamel was gilded. This type of object was produced mainly in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. About forty similar caskets made to contain relics of Thomas Becket still survive.

Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, was killed on 29th December 1170 in his own cathedral by four knights who had been sent, or believed they had been sent, by Henry II to strike him down. Having risen from fairly humble beginnings to become Chancellor, Becket was made archbishop of Canterbury. Since it was Henry II who had raised Becket to prominence, he naturally assumed Becket would side with him in the constant struggle between medieval kings and the pope about the authority each had over the king’s subjects.

The archbishop did not support the king and was exiled. They were reconciled and the trouble began again. Hearing the king utter the infamous words, ‘Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?’ (possibly in medieval French, Norman French or even Latin, but definitely not English) the four knights rushed off to Canterbury and did their king’s bidding.

Becket was canonised in 1173. Henry II made a very public penance, and he and his descendants were very energetic in promoting the murdered archbishop as a saint. His relics were sent to churches and monasteries all over Europe in reliquaries like this one. The shrine at Canterbury drew pilgrims from many countries, becoming the fourth most visited shrine in the Middle Ages, after Jerusalem, Rome and Compostela.

Pilgrims didn’t just visit the shrine, they also bought ‘Canterbury water’. It was holy water mixed with a drop of Becket’s blood and was said to cure many illnesses and disabilities. Sold in ampoules it could be taken back home if the sick person was too ill to make the pilgrimage on their own behalf.  The monks also sold badges to pilgrims as reminders (souvenirs) of their pilgrimage.

Becket was an important saint for English pilgrims, as demonstrated by Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. His pilgrims were on their way to Becket’s shrine. Many pilgrimages ended at Canterbury, but others continued on to Dover, with pilgrims crossing the English Channel in the next stage of their journey to Rome, Compostela or Jerusalem. It was not always safe enough to travel further afield, though, and many had to be satisfied with Canterbury.

The saint’s murder was a popular motif in medieval art and the British Museum also has an alabaster panel depicting it. The image on the reliquary is of two of the knights attacking Becket in front of the altar. It dates from the early thirteenth century, about 40 years after the event. At this time Limoges was part of the duchy of Aquitaine, whose dukes were the Plantagenets, which explains why so many Becket reliquaries were made there.

Henry II’s descendants took their devotion to St Thomas seriously.  They were always stopping off at Canterbury to visit his shrine. Edward III once walked from London to Canterbury as a pilgrim. In 1343 he gave a golden ship to the shrine after he had been saved from a storm. Edward of Woodstock, his eldest son, is interred there.

All my photograph does really well is show you how tiny the reliquary is. Here’s a better photograph of its front.


Masterpieces of Medieval Art – James Robinson

The Perfect King – Ian Mortimer



Filed under Pilgrimage, Thirteenth Century

The Three Destinations of the Medieval Pilgrim

This week I have have had the pleasure of writing a post for the English Historical Fiction Authors blog. It’s a companion piece to last week’s post here about medieval pilgrims and looks at the places to which medieval pilgrim travelled, in particular, Compostela.


In the Middle Ages the top three destinations for pilgrims were Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago de Compostela, in that order of importance. For the English, a pilgrimage abroad was never an easy thing to undertake and wars, thieves and bandits made it even more difficult.

Jerusalem and Rome were top of the list for obvious reasons, but why was Compostela the third? Compostela is in Galicia, in northern Spain, and is a little less than fifty miles from Cape Finisterre, which the Romans thought was the edge of the world.

The cathedral at Compostela is said to contain the remains of St James the Great, believed to be the first apostle to be martyred. One of the legends about St James is that he preached in Spain, before returning to Judea where he was martyred by being beheaded on the orders of Herod Agrippa in 44 AD. His remains were then transported from Judea to Spain in a rudderless, stone boat guided by angels. Santiago is the Galician form of St James.

Click here to read the rest.


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