A Sad and Sorry End to English Pilgrimages

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. 

The Royal Victoria and Bull, Dartford

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.

The Manor Gatehouse - the entrance to where Anne of Cleves lived

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. 

The Bar at The Royal Victoria and Bull

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.

Ornate pictures and hangings in The Royal Victoria and Bull's function room - a sign of more regal, if not better times

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….

Stately function rooms at The Royal Victoria and Bull


About Matt's Tale

A New Age travel writer, seeing the old in the new and the bold in the blue - but mainly seeking the freedom to be, as much as to do. His tales come from meeting modern day travellers following their likes of King Arthur to Geoffrey Chaucer, leading him on to places considered "Camelot" and different ways to see Canterbury and cafes a lot. Email: mattstale@yahoo.co.uk Twitter: @mattstale
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3 Responses to A Sad and Sorry End to English Pilgrimages

  1. great post Matt. I can see that i will have to re-visit Dartford. obviously I did not pay it due respect in terms of Chaucer’s travels. 🙂 I love that you found the Manor House and the pub looks superb. Hope you are well

    • Matt's Tale says:

      Thanks, Cindy. It is still largely supposition that Chaucer and his pilgrims went by or otherwise stopped off there. It was more that there is a crossroads there between the man who possibly popularised the pilgrimage to Canterbury (Geoffrey Chaucer) and the man who ended it (King Henry VIII).

      Whether there is, in actual fact, a link between Henry VIII reading Chaucer’s Tales and then being concerned about his marital and other improprieties being spread about by pilgrims, or him just generally being concerned about pilgrimages not favouring the newly founded Anglican Church (and so ending them by destroying the shrine), really requires more in-depth research into Henry VIII – and that is something I am saving for the book, as it needs a lot more time than 3 days’ ride from London to Canterbury and back!!

      I do have a good idea now of where the pilgrims did actually travel to, thanks to little signposts and other discoveries along the way that allowed me to better read and interprete The Tales – however, I wonder now, does it really matter whether (or whither) they went? That’s what I hope to explore in subsequent blog pages I write up on this (and hopefully over this coming long weekend).

      P.S. Love your latest post, by the way. Keep up the (travel) faith!! 😉

  2. Pingback: Beyond The Sea – and Sky! | mattstale

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