Why Do People Make Pilgrimages to Canterbury?
For thousands of years, people of various faiths have been making pilgrimages to religiously significant sites. Sometimes they go to repent for a sin. Sometimes they go to pray for healing. Sometimes the pilgrimage is a sign of religious devotion -- the equivalent of religious sightseeing. All of these reasons contributed to Canterbury emerging as one of the most popular pilgrim destinations in England.
St. Augustine's "Seat"
Canterbury, located in Kent in southeast England, gained significance in 597 when Pope Gregory the Great sent St. Augustine as a missionary to the region where he made Canterbury his "seat."
Thomas Becket's Murder
Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral on December 29, 1170. The former Chancellor of England and King Henry II had been in conflict over the question of the church's independence. Four of Henry's knights interpreted some of their king's comments to mean he wished Becket dead, and so they obliged, attacking him while he was kneeling. The spot where Becket died is marked.
St. Thomas Becket's Shrine
After Becket's death, miraculous healings were reportedly associated with his tomb or with pieces of a blood-stained cloth taken from the site. Becket was canonized in 1173, becoming St. Thomas Becket. Pilgrims were drawn to the Cathedral. They could buy small bottles purported to contain Becket's blood, and they would receive a badge bearing the shrine's symbol. One of the pilgrims in the early years was Henry II himself, who came barefoot as an act of penance for Becket's murder.
A Shorter Trip
Canterbury's popularity as a destination for pilgrims may have been enhanced by the fact that the trip was shorter (and, therefore, less expensive) than a journey by English pilgrims who otherwise might have felt compelled to travel to places like Lourdes, Rome or the Holy Land.
A pilgrimage to Canterbury was the framework for Geoffrey Chaucer's classic Canterbury Tales, written over several decades in the late 14th century. The work is still read today and tells the tale of a Canterbury pilgrimage whose participants share stories along the way to pass the time.
In the 16th century, King Henry VIII ordered that Becket's shrine be destroyed, which probably added to Canterbury's mystique. The former shrine location is marked by a candle.
Melanie F. Gibbs is a freelance writer and editor who has lived in the metro Atlanta area for more than 30 years. Currently she contributes to a variety of magazines, web sites and newspapers on topics ranging from education, real estate and religion to profiles, travel and family-oriented activities.
Photo by Melanie F. Gibbs