Following on from my post on the Yard Foreman’s Tale, it would not just have been the romance of the coach and horses being the mode of transport, but also the interesting people one would have met on their way to pay their spiritual dues to someone who had inspired them, in some way or other, to take a journey of several days, if not one hundred miles or more.
I could almost have begun and ended my journey at Dartford, just over the border into Kent and only just a short way down the Canterbury road from London, following the signs I saw there that uncovered about the last dark days of pilgrimages to Canterbury.
For Dartford was seen as a convenient one day’s ride from London in King Henry VIII’s day, less than two hundred years after The Canterbury Tales were written (and fifty from when they were first printed and published by Caxton, as well as being one of the first texts in English), as I learned from what I read about the history of The Manor Gatehouse.
The Manor Gatehouse is an old heritage building down Priory Road, and just off the circular sweep that traffic now takes as it arrives into Dartford. It is the building at the entrance to what is left of the estate that King Henry VIII gave to Anne of Cleves, one of his many wives, as part of his divorce settlement from her.
How this place and its history ties in with pilgrimages to Canterbury, and a possible end to them, is as follows.
Unlike his five other wives, Henry married Anne of Cleves more out of pursuit of political stability, rather than through lust and seeking an heir. It was largely thanks to him seeing a flattering painting by Holbein that the marriage happened at all (and, indeed shortly after meeting her, he compared her to “a Flanders mare”), but he was not able to get out of the marriage treaty – which allowed England to have an ally to balance the combined might of Spain, Italy and other parts of Western Europe that had been brought together as the Holy Roman Empire under Charles V.
The interesting adjunct to this history and estate, is that just down the road stands the Royal Victoria and Bull, one of the last remaining coaching inns – and a place where pilgrims to Canterbury would have met and chattered, as much as chatted, about who as much as what they saw and knew along the way.
Just from what the stories in The Canterbury Tales tell, such as that of the Wife of Bath who conveniently changes husbands like others change dresses, you can bet good old King Henry would have been the subject of much gossip back then with one of his (not-so) merry wives installed just down the road.
Whether or not that was the case, or merely to limit any ongoing allegiance to the Papists, it was Henry’s rage against the marriage machine of the time and his perception of the idolatry of saints (and especially one that would have further highlighted the sin of kings) that led him to ordering destruction of the shrine of Thomas a Beckett and, as a result, bringing an end to pilgrimages to Canterbury.
Indeed, that also seemed to be the end (as far as I can tell so far) to pilgrimages per se in England. Unless what I found with those travellers taking the Pilgrim’s Way back in 1991 was a sign to any such faith and spirituality having been driven underground? Then again, maybe those people I met back then just enjoyed having a final destination to get to, as well as a good pub at the end of each day, as they trudged along what is also known as the North Downs Way – but maybe that’s another trail to follow, and a story in itself, though…
In any case, it was the rise of the Anglican church – and an ever-increasing division in Christian faith between Protestants and Catholics – which ultimately led to the uprisings in Northern Ireland that have only ended in recent times.
Perhaps if people had been allowed to travel and talk freely, in line with seeking some higher spiritual purpose in life (no matter what form that took), then maybe things would have been different. Whatever the case may be, spirituality would have been seen to be heavily entwined with politics and religion – and perhaps something best kept in private, if one wanted to keep one’s head safe from being chopped off by either side.
After all, “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition“, as the Monty Python team jokingly said – and so, perhaps sadly with spirituality here in England from King Henry VIII’s time forth, such things are better off unsaid, rather than risk losing one’s head….