Orviedo Cathedral

We visited Orviedo Cathedral on our first day along the Camino Primitivo. I was really impressed by this building- even though it was built and revised over several centuries it seemed very coherent- the size, shape, light, design all held an integrity and beauty. The three rose windows were stunning. It reminded me of the Art School designed by Mackintosh in Glasgow- the same absolute conviction in design down to the smallest detail.

Walking out into the countryside the patterns of arches, etc could be seen in the hills, trees and many wild flowers. The building reflected this and celebrated it: a truly great work of art. ACE77A4C-257A-4B60-BAF2-E0B61DA2BBD9F5019FC6-DB05-4440-9B27-1CB7EE20767FBD1D4060-81DB-4DDA-942D-ECCC97CDF3FA

Destruction of images

I visited the Cluniac priory in Thetford with my friend David Rees. The ruins of the complex are easier to imagine than the Abbey ruins in BSE as the scale is smaller and there is slightly more left, including the remains of the priors’ house, a piece of gothic arch and the altar, completely stripped.  There are two sets of cloisters: a large one and much smaller one beside a 12th Century infirmary with a flint-knapped floor: perfect squares. The priory closed in 1540, 4 years after the beheading of Ann Boleyn. Duffy’s Book “The Stripping of the Altars” goes into detail on the debates at that time over images. Pilgrimage was banned from 1536. Thetford had possessed a statue of a virgin which performed miracles. John ap Rice, writing to Cromwell described his findings from Bury St Edmunds: “Amongst the reliques we found moche vanitie and superstition, as the coles that St Laurence was posted with all, the paring of S.Edmundes naylles, S. Thomas of Canterbury penneknyff and his boots, pieces of the olie crosse..”

Hugh Latimer, Lenten preacher to the king, was particularly exercised by images: in June 1536 he gave an sermon rejecting a list of objects of popular devotion: the cult of saints, images, lights, relics, holy days, pilgrimage, pardons and Purgatory. As most people were illiterate this completely undermined the structure of their devotion.

The Bishops’ Book, published in 1537 states that “we are utterly forbidden to make or have any similitude or image to the intent to bow down to it or worship it”…”Use (of images) in church was a concession to the dullness of men’s wits surviving traces of gentility or paganism. Better to have no representation whatever of God the Father.”

The banning of pilgrimage would have suppressed communication and greatly reduced income for the churches or their towns: the equivalent of stopping the Tourist Industry. I wonder how much devotion with candles, statues, etc. continued at a private domestic level? The act of pilgrimage is thus linked to image-making and image-appreciating. The emotional rants of the time confirm the emotional power of the images, particularly with an illiterate population



Off to Santiago

I am walking with my husband from Orviedo to Santiago, along the Camino Primitivo next week, joining a larger group from Bury St Edmunds to go on to Finistere and Muxía. About 450km.

The various preparations for this journey would be recognised by pilgrims before me, although solutions have varied.

?What to bring. Absolute necessities nowadays include mobile phone, passport, money- all of which makes you vulnerable; food and drink enough- for me this includes a supply of tea! I will be wearing layers to cope with unpredictable weather in the hills and a St Edmund Pilgrim Badge

?How to get there. Pre-Reformation Orviedo could have been reached by boat across the Bay of Biscay to the Spanish coast, followed by a long day’s walk or ride. The journey from Bury St Edmunds is 1,091 miles, and would have taken weeks by boat or even longer by foot through France.  Nowadays this is accomplished in a few hours by aeroplane.

?where to stay. This has been prearranged through a Travel Company- were there such things back then? None of the solutions are cheap, and must have been prohibitive in the past unless money was given for travel as intercession for someone else’s soul. Margery Kempe, writing in the 1430s asked the Lord, who replied; “I shall send enough friends in different parts of England to help you. And, daughter, I shall go with you in every country and provide for you…” The Lord also instructed she should wear white, which Margery pointed out was different from how other chaste women dress. She feared ridicule

?when to go. I have been watching the weather forecast. I can’t imagine many pilgrims would have enjoyed the muddy paths around BSE until April; even now Santiago de Compostela is 12C and raining.


Potential primary sources of evidence

Written records

Pilgrim literature: Marjery Kempe; Sir Richard Guilford; pilgrim manual e.g William Wey “An English Pilgrim to Compostela” 1456

Records of visits to BSE: e.g. King Henry VI 1433

nb Literacy rates? Excluded groups, such as women

Commissioners’ reports during reformation


Records from takings at the Abbey?

Pilgrim badges and materials

Numbers of pilgrim badges  Finds from British museum; Moyse Hall, Bury St Edmunds

Death rates?

Mortality rates from plague- devotion increased during crisis or calamity, but might have been instrumental in carrying disease, or reduced numbers due to illness and death?

Indirect evidence

Ronald C Finacune post-humous accounts of miracles




Wall painting/churches

Personal walking experience; creative experience




The Pilgrim’s Progress


A favourite book of all time for me is The Pilgrim’s Progress. It is easy to read as not too long and the characters are obvious: Help, Faithful and so on. The English countryside, weather and walking are used as metaphor between the material and spiritual.


If Bunyan had been given access to the internet he would have certainly used it- yet he was writing for himself: “I did not think to show the world my pen and ink in such a mode; I only thought to make I knew not what; not did I undertake thereby to please my neighbour: no, not I; I did it my own self to gratify.”


The following is a list of expressions taken from this book:

dark clouds; dark and cloudy words;

Truth’s golden beams

Carrying a heavy burden

I walked through the wilderness

Walking in the sight of God

Slough of Despond

sound ground

forbidden paths

knocking at the gate; an open door

the straight and narrow way

The Hill Difficulty

The Way of Danger, Way of Destruction

Valley of Humiliation/Humility

Leaves of the Tree of Life

Valley of the Shadow of Death

Clouds of Confusion

Pits, pit-holes, deep holes

The heavenly country

These expressions draw on the countryside, weather, walking, and the heavy burden to carry.  Less is surely more for a pilgrim as far as carrying material possession is concerned. How was this managed? Carrying very little, I imagine, unless you were rich enough to get others to carry your burden for you. The tragedy for Bunyan was this work of art was written in prison; his burden was not a material one and he he must have yearned for country views

Sundridge in April

Aramaic chant

IMG_1990I was sent this by my friend Genista:

Aramaic chant

In 2007 I visited my brother in Syria. We were lucky enough to go on an expedition north from Damascus to various sites- there was so much stuff to see and the countryside in April was full of wild flowers.
I was quite obsessed with The Veil at the time, and its many meanings. I worked on a sketchbook using layers, veils, things hidden; an inner life.  Looking at this now I could pick up these threads in Christian pilgrimage: layers of history, things hidden, forgotten or destroyed
Coming back to Damascus we visited Maaloula set in cliffs where the caves have provided refuge in times of trouble. Aramaic is still spoken and there was a convent and a church. I bought some Sumaç and an Aramaic cross.
The monastery has since been destroyed in a battle between Assad and rebels. I can only hope the caves provided some refuge- as they had before

Gathering evidence



My pilgrimage has taken me into books. I am lucky enough to use  Lucy Cavendish College Library and was introduced to the Erasmus Room in the basement. This contains a legacy from Dr Peter Newman Brooks, former lecturer in Divinity. The walls are completely covered with books on Christianity and the Reformation, with a large red leather chair in which to read them. But where to start! I tried to stay focussed on pilgrims, pilgrimage, and Bury St Edmunds in particular, but it was easy to be distracted.

Most of the books focussed on the Church rather than the pilgrims in medieval England, however I found a book by Eamon Duffy: The Stripping of the Altars, which described in some detail the laity’s relationship to saints and pilgrimage, and is well-referenced.

Duffy states the main purpose of pilgrimage was to seek the holy, as embodied in a sacred place, relic, or privileged image (such as a statue). This, however, ignores the journey itself, which is also influential. The fact that the holy place is away from your own locality is relevant to the change of thinking which occurs from “stepping out” of normal circumstances. This has been described as a “liminal space” of transition and transformation. The pilgrim leaves behind his or her  routine world to enter a “sacred space”.

Duffy suggests an element of hardship was valued as giving  profane men and women insight into monastic life with renunciation, discipline and penitence. Pilgrimage may have been done as a penance:

who sekyth saints for Crystes sake –

And namely such as pains to take

On fote to punyshe thy frayle body-

Shall therby meryte more hyely

Then by any thynge done by man.    John Heywood 1533 

The symbolic nature of a journey as a consecration of a whole life’s journey towards the sacred was recognised, as referred to by John Lydgate in 1426. Thus both the journey and the arrival are important as metaphor.

Seeking pardon and gaining “indulgences” for oneself and also through bequests for surrogate pilgrims were sited in wills. Bequests were designed to gain merit by paying for “diverse pilgrimages to holly seyntes” or paying by deputy indulgences. Margery Kempe from Kings Lynn describes her attendance at the Porticuncula Indulgence at Assisi  in 1414 for herself and  for her friends and enemies and all the souls in Purgatory. For this Margery was given money by neighbours and strangers. Thus a belief in the Afterlife, including Purgatory, was a necessary part of practise.

Seeking healing from holy sites, relics and icons was a common motive, with transfers of allegiance depending on the success of the miracles which occurred there. Pilgrim numbers can be estimated from pilgrim badges. Sites became competitive, with scope for fraud and abuse.

But what of Bury St Edmunds? The librarian wanted to lock the library, and I will need to return.

reference: The Stripping of the Altars. Traditional Religion in England c.1400-c.1580 by Eamon Duffy ISBN 978-0-300-10828-6 Chapter 5 Pilgrimage