Pilgrimages and Pilgrims

The idea of pilgrimage – a journey to a holy site, undertaken as an act of devotion – is common to many faiths. Here we shall focus on Christian pilgrimage.

Christian pilgrimage was first made to sites connected with the birth, life, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Surviving descriptions of Christian pilgrimages to the Holy Land date from the 4th century, when pilgrimage was encouraged by church fathers like Saint Jerome and established by Helena, the mother of the first Christian Emperor, Constantine the Great. Pilgrimages also began to be made to Rome and other sites associated with the Apostles, saints and Christian martyrs, as well as to places where there have been apparitions of the Virgin Mary. A popular pilgrimage site in the past and today is Santiago de Compostela, in Galicia, Spain, thought to be the final resting place of the Apostle St. James The Great. Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales recounts the tales told by pilgrims on their way to Canterbury and the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket.

While many pilgrims treated the idea of going on a pilgrimage very seriously, Chaucer’s stories suggest that others had more mixed motives and were along for the ride. Traditionally, pilgrims walked all the way, wearing very simple clothes, carrying a staff and wearing a cap badge – rather like a football strip – to show which pilgrimage they were on. One of the most famous was the scallop shell, worn by pilgrims to Compostela because it was the symbol of St James.

Pilgrims to Bridlington

Once Prior John had been made a saint by the Pope in 1401, it was not long before pilgrims began to flock to Bridlington Priory. His body was buried in the eastern end of the church (the chancel) and a rich and elaborate Shrine erected above it, covered in gold. People were very impressed by the stories of the miracles that had taken place around St John. Then the shrine became even more famous when no less a person than King Henry V came to pray there and to give thanks for his great victory at the Battle of Agincourt in France in 1415. Pilgrims to Bridlington may well have worn as their cap badge the design we have used for the Priory 900 logo. The figure in the centre – which perhaps is meant to be St John of Bridlington – is based on a real badge that was found a few years ago in the mud of the river Thames in London. There is good evidence to show that the capital B stands for Bridlington.

We don’t know which routes the pilgrims took to get here, but most of them probably came over the Wolds, perhaps from York or even further. In another pilgrimage area, special sign posts were set up to show pilgrims which way to go. Each one was shaped as a hand with a pointing finger – a finger post – and in this case it was meant to be a bishop’s hand, wearing his bishop’s ring. If they arrived on the Saint’s special day they would have witnessed a magnificent service in the Priory, with music and special ceremonies at the Shrine – and perhaps feasting afterwards. Some pilgrims probably hoped to get healed or to pray for healing for others at the Shrine.

Once the Priory was mostly destroyed by order of Henry VIII, and the shrine flattened, there were no more pilgrimages. However, we hope to revive the idea for Priory 900 with a week-long pilgrimage walk from York to Bridlington in August 2013

Suggested activities

  1. Design a cap badge for pilgrims
  2. Suppose you had decided to go on a pilgrimage from Bridlington to Canterbury (a very famous pilgrimage centre). How long might it take to walk there? What preparations would you need to make?
  3. Write a prayer for the pilgrims to say each day as they travelled.