The landscape of pilgrimage

19 October 2018

Nicholas Orme traces the roots of medieval pilgrim routes

Kevin Britland/Alamy

Roche chapel, near St Austell, Cornwall

Roche chapel, near St Austell, Cornwall

MEDIEVAL pilgrimage caused people to socialise together. It also brought them into new relationships with their surroundings. Where a shrine was placed might become as important as what it contained in terms of relics or images. This was a by-product of the enormous number of pilgrimage sites. The lesser ones — the vast majority — could not compete with Canterbury or Walsingham in terms of their spiritual treasures: instead, they attracted attention by choosing a dramatic site, or by having a building with an unusual appearance.

Here, medieval chapels came into their own: chapels of the Roman Catholic Church, of course, long before there were Free Church chapels in the 17th century. Chapels were founded in large numbers in England from the 1100s up to the Reformation. Large means large: there were more than 1200 in Devon alone; perhaps 700 in Cornwall; and as many as 30,000 over the whole of the country (they have never all been listed or counted).


FOR pilgrimage promoters, chapels had two advantages. Unlike a parish church, with its set form of chancel, nave, and tower, a chapel could be created in whatever shape was preferred. It could consist of two storeys, like the one on Roche rock in mid Cornwall, or three storeys, like the Red Mount at King’s Lynn. It might be absolutely square, like the chapel on St Aldhelm’s Head, near Swanage, in Dorset, or octagonal, like the one that survives as part of Hertford College, Oxford.

You could also attract people by building a replica chapel: a copy of a famous building somewhere else. The prime example in England was Walsingham, where the priory church founded in 1153 held a replica of the Holy House in which the Virgin Mary and Jesus had lived in Nazareth.

The House was believed to have been constructed miraculously on the model of the original. It was probably made of wood with a steep gabled roof, enclosed within a larger stone chapel. Pilgrims entered it by doors at its sides to find a dark interior lit only by candles, beautified with gold and jewels, and holding an altar and statue of the Virgin and Child.


An even more famous building was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem, which housed the smaller aedicule containing the tomb of Jesus. A copy of this was planned at Edington Priory, in Wiltshire. The promoter of the scheme, the traveller William Wey, had visited the Holy Land twice, and had made maps and models of buildings there. He died in about 1480, leaving bequests for the chapel, but its creation is not certain. If it was built, it took an oblong form rather than the wedge shape of the original aedicule.


THESE were not the only replica chapels. In 1503, Abbot Richard Bere of Glastonbury went on a diplomatic mission to Italy, where he saw or heard about the Holy House at Loreto. This was said to be Mary’s original Nazareth dwelling (rather than a copy), which had been supernaturally transported by air from Palestine. On his return to England, he built a chapel of Our Lady of Loreto in his abbey — very likely as a wooden structure within the north transept, similar to Walsingham’s.

A chapel with the same name is recorded at Pilton, in north Devon, in the 1530s, and there could well have been others.

A chapel could be constructed in an unusual location to make it seem romantic and other-worldly. It could stand on a hilltop to be seen for miles around, and give people a sense of achievement and a wonderful view when they reached it. Chapels of St Michael were often placed on hills: at St Michael’s Mount, in Cornwall, and Glastonbury Tor and Burrow Mump in Somerset.

A chapel could be sited on an island, so that people had to reach it by boat, and there were dozens of these round the coast of Britain, from Northumberland to Cornwall and Wales. Or a chapel might be built in a wood. Woods were romantic places in medieval England. In romances, knights experienced adventures there; and, in religious songs, Mary, or Christ himself, might be encountered in a wood. “Down in yon forest there stands a hall,” the carol runs, “The bells of paradise I heard them ring.” Robin Hood founded a chapel to St Mary Magdalen while he was an outlaw.

At Cotehele House, in Cornwall, beside the River Tamar, the Chapel of St George still stands in a wood, having allegedly been built by its owner in thanksgiving for his escape from the agents of Richard III.

The most popular of all such chapels was St Anne “in the wood” at Brislington, just east of Bristol. Henry VII went there, and his queen, Elizabeth of York, sent it a donation while awaiting the birth that resulted in her death. This chapel started a vogue for chapels of “St Anne in the Wood”, and it was copied by others with the same name as far afield as Halifax, Luton, and Whitstable.

A chapel could even be founded in a cave, so that people had to make their way underground to reach it. There are at least two such chapels in existence. One is at Knaresborough, in Yorkshire, where the hermit St Robert of Knaresborough used to live. Another is in Clifton, near the Bristol Suspension Bridge. This is St Vincent’s Cavern, once accessible only down a cliff but now reachable (when it is open) via a long tunnel built by the Victorians.


THE study of local pilgrimage in the Middle Ages turns out to be of far more significance than pilgrimages themselves. It shows that English people took a delight in the landscape. Unlike the Romantic artists and poets of the period around 1800, they did not (much) try to paint it or poeticise it, but they wanted to visit dramatic sites such as hills, woods, and caves, and to Christianise them with churches and chapels.

This empathy with Nature is often supposed to be a Celtic rather than an Anglo-Saxon characteristic. In fact, it is older than both, and is found in the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament. The English felt it quite as much as the Welsh and the Irish, and, in their own way, they romanticised it quite as enthusiastically as Wordsworth and Turner would do, centuries later.


Professor Nicholas Orme’s book Medieval Pilgrimages is published by Impress Books at £14.99 (CT Bookshop, £13.50).

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