To be a Pilgrim

18th July 2016 — 7 Comments

There must be hundreds of reasons why people go on a pilgrimage. Some are seeking inspiration, others are deeply questioning their life’s purpose and some may be doing penance or just simply curious.

Me? I just wanted to get away for a few hours. Like all pilgrims, I made a special journey to a sacred place, but not as an act of religious devotion … more because I’m a scribbler and wanted something to write about!

The Winchester Experience


Winchester Cathedral

Mrs. John and I were in Winchester. She had been trawling through endless dusty historical tomes and unfathomable family trees at the local Study Centre, looking for deceased and long-lost relatives. I busied myself transcribing baptism, marriage and death lists, taking pictures and trying to look as though I was enjoying the whole business – even though my face conveyed just the opposite.

On the third day, she suggested that I might like to take a walk. I didn’t know how fast to get out of there! The most local place to go on a pilgrimage was the cathedral. Like all pilgrims, here was a chance to save my soul by taking a tough physical journey. Even though the cathedral was just a mere mile away, it qualified, so I grabbed my sturdy staff and boldly made my way to that sacred and distant place. Please note – this was a few years ago when I was a fit fellow!


St Swithun’s memorial shrine at Winchester Cathedral. Pic: Wikipedia

St Swithun is the cathedral’s patron saint and his tomb became a major site for early pilgrims, many seeking to be healed from illness. Alas, The cult of St Swithun and his shrine came to an abrupt end during the Reformation, when King Henry VIII seized control of the Catholic Church in England, and declared himself head of the Church of England.

On 21 September 1538, under cover of darkness at 3am in the morning, the king’s commissioners smashed the tomb apart, and stole all the valuables. Nothing remains of his once great shrine today, but the modern memorial shown above marking the spot.


Pic: JW

Never mind, there was much more to see. And, when I’d finished, there was the inevitable gift shop where I espied and purchased a colourful pilgrim’s ‘badge’ depicting a group making their way to Canterbury cathedral. Yes, rather ironic, I know; but this was nothing. The pilgrim’s progress was rather a painful affair as a discovery in the late 1980’s was to prove.

The Skeletal Pilgrim

We now move to Worcester cathedral, also a centre of pilgrimage in the Middle Ages when the shrines of Saints Oswald and Wulfstan attracted many pilgrims, Like Swithun’s tomb, they were also destroyed by good old Henry VIII.

Construction work (which finished, at a cost of £10m) had uncovered a headless skeleton. Imagine the excitement when archaeologists looked down and saw the extremely well preserved bones clothed in woollen garments and knee-length boots.


The skeleton was lying with his arms crossed on his chest and it is believed construction work may have destroyed the head and neck. Archaeologists were convinced that they had stumbled on a pilgrim after finding a long wooden walking staff with a double-pronged iron tip alongside the skeleton.

They also found a cockleshell, pierced so it could be worn as a badge and reminiscent of the scallop shell tokens associated with the famous shrine of St James of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, the most important destination for pilgrims after Jerusalem and Rome. The picture below shows a shell marker on the road to Santiago.

Shell showing Route to Santiago de Compostela

Pic: Courtesy of Pinterest

The UKDFD has several pilgrims’ ampullae of similar scallop shell design and the one depicted was found not far from Worchester cathedral. The database states, quoting from Michener, that … many ampullae were used in the annual springtime ’Blessing the Fields’ ceremony, in which the Holy Water they contained was sprinkled on the ground to give prayer for a good harvest. Having served this purpose, Michener suggests that the ampullae were discarded. Others have suggested that the ampullae were buried along with their contents for a similar purpose.


Pilgrim’s Ampulla Courtesy of the UKDFD

Worcester Man was probably more than 60 years old when he died, and the skeleton showed he suffered from very bad arthritis, with several joints fused together. Reports at the time said that he also appeared to have been active when younger, and analysis of his leg bone measurements showed that he did many long and arduous walks. The skeleton also appeared to have two arrow wounds.

It is evident that the find was a unique and important archaeological discovery. A spokesman at the time said: Such tangible remains of an individual pilgrim give us a remarkably direct link with thousands of pilgrims of medieval times.

Another place of pilgrimage

We are fortunate in the British Isles to have cathedrals of magnificent splendour. Most people know of William the Conqueror. Imagine for a moment standing in front of a building that he commissioned and built by his men; that’s Lincoln cathedral in the east of England!

Modern pilgrims may visit to pay homage to the famous Lincoln Imp – the little devil perched high in the Angel Choir overlooking St Hugh’s shrine. According to the legend he was turned to stone by the angels because he caused mayhem in the Cathedral. He is now the symbol of the Lincolnshire and the Lincoln football team (the Imps).


Others make the special journey especially to see the Lincoln Pilgrim, but because of his position in one of the spandrels of the east windows of the southwest chapel (which also houses the bookshop), he largely goes unnoticed. In most images of medieval pilgrims there is a badge like the Santiago scallop shell to be seen on a bag or purse but I cannot see one there. I reckon I need to make a pilgrimage to Worcester, remembering to take my binoculars with me!

As a detectorist you may find a badge or ampulla showing a different image and from that representation you can tell the shrine for which the badge was made. The most popular shrines like Canterbury and Walsingham would make thousands every year. In a way, they were the first mass produced souvenir badges and, as a result, are quite a common find in detecting. Notwithstanding, I have yet to find my first!

See The Pilgrim’s Ampulla … an earlier post


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7 responses to To be a Pilgrim

  1. What another interesting read.
    Like some other detectorists,I have found the lead shell shaped Holy water/oil containers.
    Certainly your article enhanced my understand of this subject.
    Thanks John.

  2. Pilgrims choice in the chilled cabinet is the nearest I get to a pilgrimage these days.

  3. John Bunyan wrote about the “Pilgrim’s Progress” but back in the time of times of medieval pilgrimages was it always a “pilgrimage of grace?” There is a lot of evidence to show that some of our ancestors treated them more as a jolly and an escape from their dull routines. Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” suggests this was the case, with pilgrims getting up to all sorts of mischief on their travels. Of course, probably the majority were pilgrim’s for devout and honest reasons!

  4. Now that is probably the most interesting article i,ve read in months. Well done John.

    it would be interesting to see an article on some of the routeways/drovers routes taken by pilgrims to get to the centres of worship/shrines. I often wonder when we go by car, how different it was to walk to the shrine compared with the present transport links!

    • Thank you, Alan. I try to engage my audience, but it doesn’t always work! I believe that I have a ‘drovers way’ blog in the pipeline somewhere … entitled ‘Let’s Tryst Again.’

  5. Thank you John,a very enlightening article.

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