British Pilgrimage: The Ritual that Disappeared…

All across the globe, pilgrimage is booming. Kumbh Mela in India is the largest gathering of humans on earth, with one hundred million pilgrims in 2013.  The Hajj in Mecca hosts three million pilgrims per year, and Santiago de Compostela in Spain welcomes two hundred and fifty thousand walking pilgrims.

Yet Canterbury cathedral, the heart of British pilgrimage, has this year hosted only fifty pilgrims.

Why is Britain so far behind the curve? Where have all the pilgrims gone?

there’s one…

Read on to find out…

The traditional excuse for the demise of British pilgrimage points to the sixteenth century, when Henry VIII banned the showy side of religion. Pilgrimage went the way of the Latin mass, painted churches and incense. The Reformation required the dismantling of monasteries and reliquaries, the miracle and hospitality network. Furthermore, the idea of people wandering the land in hope of healing had become undesirable because the feudal system relied on people working for their tenured Lords till death, and pilgrimage offered a sanctioned free vacation. So vagrancy laws were passed, to forbid roaming. ‘Testimoniales’ were demanded for wanderers on the road – the root of our modern passport system.

Under such pressure British pilgrimage was forced to become an internal pursuit, a studious mental journey done quietly sat still at home after work, and so it faded from the footpaths.

Once and Future Path

But in the last twenty years, without trump or fanfare, pilgrimage has crept back from the realms of impossibility, to re-emerge onto the British cultural circuit.

Perhaps Henry VIII’s puritanical assault did pilgrimage a favour, giving it 500 years to be refreshed. By the time of its ending in Britain, the late Medieval Catholic pilgrimage tradition had become impossibly complicated, host to Indulgence selling for time off in Purgatory, and monastic battles over Relic ownership. It caused crusades, and enabled the rise of Templars and Hospitallers. So King Henry pruned the bough.

But the roots of pilgrimage stretch deep into ancestral memories of migration trails and hunter-gatherer tracks that have existed in Britain since the Ice Age. Such a legacy cannot be easily forgotten.

Hollingbourne hillfort

Through all the fallow years since Henry, pilgrimage was disguised but never lost. Most obviously, tourism replaced the pilgrimage missing from our national diet. Thomas Cook, the great Victorian holiday seller, was a Baptist minister, and the first holidays he sold were to Jerusalem. Today, we travel round the globe and beyond, seeking ever greater intensity of thrill, while we ignore our homelands.

Thankfully, a widespread re-appraisal of discarded traditions like slow-travel, bushcraft, wild-swimming, organic food, folk-song and local distinctiveness, has been gaining strength. Recently considered backward, these simple pursuits have become symbols of hope and beauty for people living urban and technological lives.

la vie fireside…

Pilgrimage is the summary of all such virtues, in one profoundly simple package. It is an ancient technology that can refresh us as individuals and communities. From birth we journey toward death, along unknown winding paths full of challenge and joy. Pilgrimage is a vital dramatic ritual that lets us play with the unfolding pathway of life. It is something you don’t know how badly you need to do, until you try it. And then you’ll wonder how you ever did without it…

Will at Oldbury



2 Responses to “British Pilgrimage: The Ritual that Disappeared…”

  1. terry evans says:

    Absolutely………we can create our personal objects of pilgrimage and of course it is the journey and not just the destination.
    ‘Circumambulating Mount Tamalpais’ is worth a Google. A modern ritual/pilgrimage that has taken place every year for over 40 years. Inspired by the poets Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen.

  2. Major pilgrimage destinations are Holywell in Wales which was never destroyed because it was a favourite place of Henry VIII’s mother and Walsingham in Norfolk. Walsingham in particular attracts thousands of pilgrims every year and has done ever since the shrine was re-establushed in the 1930’s. The reasons for the end of pilgrimages are very complex and certainly include Henry VIII’s extreme reaction to the so called Pilgrimage of Grace which he saw as a potential revolution. The main reason was the institutionalisation of religion which had been taken over by the State (the Erastian church). All lay religious fraternities were closed down and anything which was not sanctioned by the state was discouraged. The church in England was nationalised and taken out of the hands of the people. This is at last changing and public religious processions such as the one that took place in central London on the feast of Corpus Christi are now more common. I hope you manage to encourage more active pilgrimage activity!

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