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The Way's Association with Pilgrimage

According to F.C. Elliston-Erwood, research undertaken by Capt. H.W. Knocker found that in all West Kent parish tithe apportionments, ‘woodlands south of the Pilgrims’ Road pay no tithe’.   As such, Elliston- Erwood argues that ‘evidently in Kent there was a well-recognised continuous track on the chalk hills, and that later this was known as the Pilgrim’s Road’.  Edwin Hart's article published in the Surrey Archaeological Collections entitled The Pilgrims' Way from Shire to Titsey, argues that 'it would be impossible to find stronger evidence that the name is far older than 1810' than the West Kent Tithe case.

So how well does pilgrimage fit with the ancient trackway?  Hilaire Belloc suggested that pilgrimage saved the ‘old road’.  Belloc argued that by the time of Becket’s death in 1170, Winchester situated at the end of the ancient trackway, had started to decline as London grew in importance.  Moreover fewer metals were coming up from the West Country as the Sussex iron industry in the Weald had taken its place.   Belloc's contention is that medieval pilgrimage saved the old road from falling into terminal decline.

If the old trackway did become a pilgrimage route between Winchester and Becket’s shrine at Canterbury, then it would have been used by pilgrims between Thomas Becket’s death in 1170 through to the abolition of the pilgrimage under Henry VIII and the destruction of Beckett’s shrine in 1538.  Jonathan Sumption puts the heyday of pilgrimage as the 12th and 13th centuries and infroms his readers that 'no English shrine could match the prosperity of Canterbury at the height of its fame'.  Interpretation of gifts and offerings made at the Cathedral between 1207 and 1420 are one of the few clues historians have as to how many people would have made a pilgrimage to Canterbury.  Elliston-Erwood informs his readers in The Pilgrims Road that it was reported that as many as 100,000 people visited the shrine for the great pilgrimage of Jubilee year in 1420.  The Paston Letters of 1471 also suggest large numbers of pilgrims visited Canterbury.  In Sir John Paston’s letter to his son, 28th September 1471, he writes ‘As ffor tydyngs, the Kyng and the Qwywn and moche other pepall ar ryden and goon to Canterbery. Nevyr so moche peple seyn in Pylgrymage hertofor at ones, as men sayd’

Sean Sennett, in his book ‘The Pilgrims Way—from Winchester to Canterbury’ reminds the reader that ‘the Way must have been the route taken by Henry II in July 1174, when he landed at Southampton and rode eastwards to make his belated but massive and painful penance at Canterbury’.  Nevertheless, it should be bourne in mind that sceptics, such as C G Crump, argue there is no evidence to suggest that Henry II took this route from Southampton.  At Harbledown village we are told that Henry II dismounted his horse and commenced the final mile and a half of his journey barefoot after stopping to pray in the church of St.Nicholas,  belonging to the leper hospital established by Archbishop Llanfranc in 1084.  Nestling just below the hospital of St.Nicholas is to be found the Black Prince's Well, where folklore suggests the Black Prince stopped to drink from the leper's well on his way to Canterbury in 1376.

The Pilgrims' Road before E R James

By the time of Hilaire Belloc's account of the way, published in 1904, the title Pilgrims’ Way was already being applied to the ancient trackway.  Some commentators argue that the first recorded evidence of the old route being referred to as the Pilgrims’ Way was when an Ordnance Survey Officer named Captain E Renouard James designated parts of the trackway as such in the 1860’s. In James' notes published in 1871, to a lecture he gave to the the Bath and West of England Society, he cites the Rev A P Stanley, Albert Way, Bray and Manning's History of Surrey and Russell's Guildford as his sources.  However a century earlier than James' surveys for the Ordnance Survey, both Hasted in his map of the Codsheath Hundred in 1778 and Andrew’s Map in 1779 mark sections of road under the Downs as the Pilgrim’s Road.  

So what of Chaucer’s fictional pilgrims, whose journey is described in the Canterbury Tales, which he began writing in 1387, just over two hundred years after the murder of Thomas Becket.   Chaucer’s pilgrims probably travelled down from London along the old Roman road that became known as Watling Street, much of which is overlaid by the London to Dover trunk road, the A2.  Jack Ravensdale’s ‘In the Steps of Chaucer’s Pilgrims’ is a good place to start for those wishing to explore Chaucer’s route to Canterbury.  Chaucer's Tales offers the reader a valuable insight into the social backgrounds of those that went on pilgrimage as well as giving the reader hints about the social undercurrents of the time, such as Lollardism that was critical of pilgrimage in the 14th and 15th centuries.  The walk along the North Downs Way National Trail coincides with some of places Chaucer’s pilgrims passed through such as Rochester and again at the Black Princes Well in the village of Harbledown. The village is believed to be referred to as ‘Bobbe-Up-and-Down’ by Chaucer in the Manciples Tale.   However for the most part, the Pilgrims' Way follows the southern flank of the North Downs, whereas Watling Street follows the northern flank of the North Downs.  The Pilgrims' Way would have presented a likely route for travellers approaching Canterbury from the western counties.  As to whether travellers approaching Canterbury from the west of England would have transferred on to the Roman road upon reaching Rochester as many commentors suggest, is a matter that is subject to debate.

Today there are many historic sites along the trail associated with the folklore of pilgrimage. Boughton Aluph church boasts a pilgrims porch with a chimney and fireplace on its southern wall.  Local folklore suggests that pilgrims gathered in the porch for warmth and safety until their numbers were large enough to ascend up into Kings Wood in safety without being robbed. A few miles further along the trail passes through Kings Wood.  From here one gets the first view that pilgrims would have seen of Canterbury cathedral as they looked across Godmersham Park and due northeast along the Stour Valley.   However it would only have been pilgrims travelling in the last few decades of pilgrimage that would have glimpsed the Bell Harry tower, which was built between 1490 and 1498.

Following the dissolution of the monasteries, Henry VIII turned his attention to the wealth of the shrine. There had by this time already been a number of critics of pilgrimage and in particular the cult of Beckett. These included John Wycliff, as far back as Chaucer’s time, who criticised the wealth the shrine brought to the monks. The Lollards were an outspoken group extremely critical of the excesses of pilgrimage and in 1530 William Umpton had been imprisoned for asking why Becket should be a saint rather than Robin Hood.  The transcripts of the Kent Heresey Proceedings 1511-12 demonstrate the defendant's belief that pilgrimages were 'not profitable neither meritorious for man's soul'.  However the the ideas of the reformation progressed rapdily and by September 1538 Henry VIII ordered the King’s Commissioners to sack the Saint’s shrine and remove the bones of Beckett. Furthermore the donations of pilgrims were removed and transferred to the King and as John Ure states in his book ‘Pilgrimages – the great adventure of the middle ages’ that after 1538 ‘ no longer could disparate bands of pilgrims, such as Chaucer’s, find a worthy and commendable reason for making a spring jaunt to Kent’.

The above text is an abridged version of an article by Derek Bright.
Sources where applicable to the above text have been quoted.  For precise references and additional source material
please email history@pilgrimsway.net

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