Today there is a renewed interest in either going on a pilgrimage or visiting a holy shrine, not necessarily because of faith but as an opportunity to experience the slower pace of life in the past - and to feel a closeness to nature and the benefits to health and wellbeing.
In medieval times going on pilgrimage was one of the “good works” that would guarantee you a place in Heaven, and so was of huge significance to all believers. Here we suggest some of the sites that can be visited. Many can be reached through walking along specific Pilgrim Ways, but all are accessible through public or private transport.
The Shrine of Our Lady, Walsingham, Norfolk
Photograph © The British Pilgrim Trust
Walsingham was the premier place for pilgrimage in England throughout the Middle Ages, rivalling Canterbury and the great shrines of Europe. Many kings and queens of England made pilgrimages here including Henry VIII.
In 1061, the widow of the Lord of the Manor of Walsingham, Richeldis de Faverches, had a vision of the Virgin Mary. In the vision Mary took Richeldis to Nazareth to show the place where the Angel Gabriel had appeared to her. Richeldis was told to build a copy of the Holy House in Walsingham. The legend is that she prayed all night to locate the exact spot and in the morning the chapel was found, fully completed. People who came testified that their prayers had been answered and their illnesses healed by drinking water from the adjacent wells.
King Henry III came on pilgrimage in 1226 and Walsingham’s reputation grew.
Since the 1930s there have been two shrines to visit – Roman Catholic and Anglican - both enjoying a spiritual revival with pilgrimages, both organised and personal, regularly taking place.
Holy Island, Lindisfarne
In 635 St Aidan came from Iona and founded a monastery on the island of Lindisfarne. This became the base for Christian evangelism in the north of England.
St Cuthbert later became the abbot and his deeds were recorded by the Venerable Bede. Cuthbert died on Lindisfarne and his shrine soon became the focus for pilgrims.
After his death this peaceful setting was the birthplace of the Lindisfarne Gospels, long acclaimed as the most spectacular illustrated manuscript to survive from Anglo-Saxon England and held now by the British Library.
Lindisfarne was sacked by Viking raiders in the 8th century. Horrified, the monks left Lindisfarne, taking the bones of St Cuthbert with them, eventually to be re-interred in Durham Cathedral.
The priory was re-established in Norman times in 1093 as a Benedictine house, and continued until its suppression during the Reformation. Its ruins are both extensive and evocative. Lindisfarne is still a place for Christian pilgrimage and at low tide it is possible to walk across the sands following an ancient route known as the Pilgrims' Way.
St Julian’s Shrine, Norwich
Photograph © Norfolk Churches
Interest in Julian of Norwich, the anchoress who lived and wrote in the 14th century is undergoing a revival.
She is known for her work, thought to be the first written in English by a woman, called Revelations of Divine Love. The book is based on a series of 16 visions that she received in May 1373. Lying on what she thought was her deathbed she saw Christ bleeding in front of her and received insight into his sufferings and his love for mankind.
After her death Julian was for a time largely forgotten and her writings were almost lost, but in the 17th century they were saved when a number of copies were made by English nuns living in exile in France.
The Julian Shrine is a place for quiet contemplation, a chance to read her words, to consider her solitary life in the cell next to the chapel and to marvel at her value as a spiritual adviser to all who came to see her. The Julian Centre next door to the chapel has important information about Julian’s life and an extensive library.
Waltham Abbey, Essex
In 1035 a miraculous black marble crucifix was discovered by a peasant after a vision, in Somerset.
The owner of the land, Tovi, standard bearer to King Cnut decided that the cross should be placed in one of the great religious houses of the country.
But legend has it that the oxen pulling the cart containing the cross took it, of their own accord, to the tiny Saxon church at Waltham. A new church was built, the cross became known for its healing powers and was soon the object of pilgrimage. Harold Godwinson was a pilgrim to the shrine, and is said to be buried in the Abbey church.
In the 12th century Henry II founded an abbey at Waltham as part of his penance for the murder of Thomas Becket and it became one of the most important of all Augustinian houses in England. In 1536, as the Reformation progressed, pilgrimages were abolished as superstitious practices and the Holy Cross disappeared. The abbey was dissolved in 1540. Many of its building were demolished but the 12th century nave was saved for the parish church where it can still be seen today.
Glastonbury Abbey, Somerset
The legend and details differ according to the source, but the story centres on the idea that St Joseph of Arimathea, uncle to Jesus Christ, came to Glastonbury with twelve holy men, soon after the crucifixion, bringing with him the “Holy Grail” the chalice used at the Last Supper, containing the blood and sweat of Jesus on the cross.
He planted his walking staff in the ground, from which sprang the Glastonbury Thorn. These men built the first Christian church in England – a small wattle building. There is little to substantiate this story, but an abbey was built on the spot in the 7th century.
In the 12th century the monks claimed to have discovered the bones of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere. This coincided with a revival of interest in the Holy Grail, and the legends of the Knights of the Round Table and Glastonbury soon became a focus of pilgrimage, which lasted until its dissolution in 1539 and the brutal execution of its last abbot, Richard Whiting.
The abbey has a thorn bush in its grounds, as does the nearby St John’s Church. The abbey ruins and the Chalice Well are also worth a visit, but the highlight is a climb up Glastonbury Tor to see the surrounding countryside for miles around.
St Winefrede’s Well, Holywell, Wales
Photograph © Nabokov
St Winefrede’s Well claims to be the oldest continually visited pilgrimage site in Britain. According to legend the holy waters sprang from the spot where St Winifred was beheaded by Caradoc, a local prince, after she turned down his advances. Miraculously she was then restored to life by her uncle.
It became a place of pilgrimage and was visited by Richard I in 1189 to pray for the success of his crusade. In the 15th century Lady Margaret Beaufort built a chapel overlooking the well. Its stonework is covered in graffiti – the grateful thanks of many pilgrims who have visited, some claiming miraculous cures for their illnesses.
Modern pilgrims and casual visitors can visit the crypt, small pool and chapel and at certain times it is possible to bathe in the holy waters.
St David’s Cathedral, Wales
St David’s has been a sacred location for pilgrims for hundreds of years. As the birthplace of St David, Dewi Sant, the patron saint of Wales, it is a devout holy site as it is believed that the saint performed many miracles here in the 6th century.
It was declared that on the occasion of his baptism the monk holding him regained his sight. He died here on March 1st in 589 – now commemorated in Wales at St David’s Day.
In 1123 the Pope declared that two pilgrimages to St David’s were equal to two to Rome. The cathedral is built on the site of a 6th century monastery, with building beginning on the cathedral itself in 1181. The cathedral contains the shrines of St David and St Caradog; chapels to St Justinian and St Non are all within 2 miles. His last words to his followers were “Be joyful, keep the faith, and do the little things in life that you have seen me do”.
“Do the little things in life” is still a well known maxim in Wales.
You can visit the cathedral, including St David’s shrine, which was restored in 2012, the Cloisters, the Treasury and the Library as well as the nearby Bishop’s Palace.
St Swithun’s Cathedral, Winchester
Winchester has been a place of pilgrimage since the 10th century as the devout came to pray at the shrine of St Swithun, a 9th century bishop with a reputation for posthumous miracle working.
He was originally buried, at his own request “where the feet of ordinary men could walk over him and raindrops could fall from the eaves above on to him”, outside the cathedral walls - but as his bones became famed for their healing powers, a shrine was built inside the cathedral in 971. A short tunnel (the Holy Hole) allowed them to crawl right under this memorial, as close as possible to its healing powers. The shrine itself was destroyed in the Reformation but there is a modern replica of it.
You can visit the shrine in the cathedral and see other landmarks such as the 12th century Winchester Bible, the grave of Jane Austen, the crypt with an Antony Gormley statue and The Close. Pilgrims with strong legs, stamina and time are encouraged to walk the 153 mile Pilgrims’ Way from Winchester to Canterbury, passing the Hospital of St. Holy Cross and visiting Rochester and St Dunstan’s en route.
Canterbury Cathedral, Kent
Canterbury, which was already well known as the place where St Augustine began his Christian missionary work in 597, is undoubtedly the most famous pilgrimage site in England because of the martyrdom of its most famous Archbishop, Thomas Becket.
In 1170, following a bitter dispute between Henry II and Becket over the powers of the church, Henry II exclaimed “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest”, whereupon 4 knights set out for Canterbury and murdered Becket at the altar. Shortly afterwards, healing miracles were said to have taken place at the spot.
Becket was canonised and his body was moved from the crypt to a shrine. Canterbury then became one of Europe’s most important pilgrimage centres. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, written in the late 14th century, illustrates Canterbury’s huge importance in medieval England. The shrine was destroyed in the Reformation, its gold, silver and jewellery originally donated by pilgrims looted by Henry VIII.
The cathedral and all its many treasures are open to visitors, but it is best to choose a quiet time if you want to experience its solemnity. At the site of the shrine today there is a simple burning candle and you can see depressions in the stone paving worn by the knees of praying pilgrims over 850 years.
There are many other significant religious sites in Canterbury like St Martin’s Church and St Augustine’s Abbey which can also be included as part of your visit to this unique city.
Iona Abbey, Iona, Scotland
Iona is one of the oldest centres of Christian pilgrimage and of a monastic community in Britain.
The 12th century abbey church stands where Columba’s monastery once stood. Known as St Mary’s cathedral, it is of the Romanesque style. Today the abbey is the home of the Iona Community, an ecumenical Christian community of men and women from all different Christian traditions founded in 1938. Visitors must take the ferry from Mull and follow the pilgrims’ route to reach the Abbey Church, and see the original Celtic crosses. The community runs 3 residential centres on Iona and Mull.