October 25, 2017
I am inspired by my newly redesigned website to return to the blog and finish up the story of how I undertook to update the pilgrimage of my youth. There is one good excuse for leaving it unfinished, and that is that Chaucer’s pilgrims never got to Canterbury, never returned to London, and never finished the stories they were meant to tell.
My hearty companions and I did, however finish our trip. I returned home on the 10th of June, Anna went on to Berlin for the summer and Kathy and Jeannie went back to Seattle, all well satisfied with our adventure. Along the way we saw two Shakespeare plays, at the Globe and the Royal Shakespeare theatres; went to four evening vesper services, at Westminster Abbey, Christ College at Oxford, Winchester Cathedral and Canterbury Cathedral; we had high tea at the Randolph Hotel in Oxford and the Pump Room at Bath; and we stepped on stones that were stepped on by previous pilgrims for a thousand years or so.
I am going to end my pilgrimage blog with three chapters from by book of twenty years ago. The first talks of leaving Southwark, from which place Chaucer’s pilgrims departed, which deals with some of the problems of research and of recreating historical events. The second and third parts are the final chapters of the book, and describe the road into Canterbury from Harbledown (where Chaucer left his pilgrims), my first view of the great cathedral, the story of Thomas Becket (who I credit with much of the inspiration for the whole damned enterprise), but gives the last word to Alison, the Wife of Bath. Here I should also give a plug for my novel Pilgrimage Walk, which grew out of this experience—and there I gave the last word to Anna!
Chapter Seventeen: Redy to wenden on my pilgrimage
Bifel that, in that seson on a day,
In Southwerk at the Tabard as I lay
Redy to wenden on my pilgrimage
To Caunterbury with ful devout corage,
At night was come into that hostelrye
Wel nyne and twenty in a companye,
Of sondry folk, by aventure y-falle
In felawshipe, and pilgrims were they alle,
That toward Caunterbury wolden ryde.
The Canterbury Tales
Belloc’s old road is made up of best guesses about a path that might have been take by pilgrims travelling from Winchester to Canterbury. No such guesswork is necessary to determine the route from London to Canterbury. Chaucer did not leave us a map, but he gave us signposts. Several places are mentioned in passing in the text. The trip begins at the Tabard Inn in Southwark. The pilgrims stop to rest a few miles later at St. Thomas’s Watering. They travel through Deptford, bypass Greenwich, mention Rochester and Sittingbourne, pick up some additional pilgrims at Boughten-under-Bleen, and end just short of Canterbury at “Bob-up-and-doun,” usually thought to mean Harbledown.
The whole length of this route is defined by an ancient Roman Road known as “Watling Street,” on which people have travelled between London and the coast for about two thousand years. When Chaucer’s pilgrims made their trip, around 1387, this Pilgrim’s Way was well established.
The story begins in Southwark, across London Bridge from the center of the capitol. When London Bridge was the only bridge, Southwark was the gateway to London, and along the Borough High Street were lined the coaching inns from which travelers set out to every destination in Britain. Along this track the Wife of Bath travelled, and Thomas Becket, and Queen Emma, and Edward the Confessor, and Chaucer, and Charles Dickens, and all the kings Henry, and Jane Austen. It is the one sure road that all of them traversed. Now it was my turn. Before starting on the next phase of my own pilgrimage, however, I wanted to get the lay of the land, and I invited Joannie to accompany on a ramble around Southwark as I scouted things out.
The first thing to look for were remnants of the age of Chaucer, and there are very few of those left. In medieval times the influence of Winchester reached north all the way to the Thames, and the Bishop of Winchester had a palace in Southwark as his local residence. Remnants of the walls of Winchester Palace are still standing, with the stone tracery of an ancient stained glass window visible high up in the tallest remaining wall. The other medieval structure in Southwark of which some remnants remain, is the church now known as Southwark Cathedral.
Some say that in the ninth century St. Swithun, who was then Bishop of Winchester, built a priory here which came to be known as “St. Mary Overie.” The name means “St. Mary over the water,” a moniker obviously chosen by Londoners rather than Winchesterites (for whom it would have been something like “St. Mary over a long stretch of road”). A different creation myth for the church makes it a nunnery founded by a woman named Mary who was the daughter of one of the Thames ferrymen.
Though the building has its roots in the Middle Ages, it has over the years been damaged by fires, rebuilt, had its roof collapse, been rebuilt, fallen into decrepitude, been restored, and generally reflected the changes in the neighborhood around it. And what a neighborhood! Chaucer must have visited this church. In the last decade of his life, the Bishop of Winchester was Cardinal Henry Beaufort, the son of Chaucer’s patron John of Gaunt, and Beaufort oversaw many repairs, including the completion of the tower. Chaucer’s friend John Gower, who may have provided him with the outline of the Wife of Bath’s Tale, is buried here. In a portrait effigy, Gower lies with his head resting on a pile of books. Also buried here is Edward Shakespeare who, with his brother Will, was a member of the parish in the decades before and after 1600.
John Harvard grew up in the neighborhood and attended the church school before emigrating to America in 1637. He left his library of 400 books and half his estate to a newly-founded college in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and consequently got the place named after him. Harvard was also associated with the Queen’s Head Inn, one of the coaching inns that lined the High Street. I picked up a 1907 biography of Harvard to see if I could find out more about him, but it quickly became obvious that the author, Henry Shelley, had found almost no details on the life of John Harvard and consequently had written a book about what his life might have been like if he were basically like other people of the time.
Shelley makes a wonderfully wacky contention that John Harvard’s parents were probably introduced to one another by William Shakespeare because Harvard’s mom was from Stratford-upon-Avon, like Shakespeare, and the Globe Theatre was in Southwark, where Harvard’s dad lived. Harvard lost his father, two sisters, and two of his three brothers to the plague in 1625. His mother married twice more in quick succession and was quickly widowed each time. With monies inherited from her husbands, she apparently purchased the Queen’s Head Inn while John was at Cambridge University, and she left it to him when she died in 1635, just as he was graduating. Within two years he had emigrated to Charlestown, Massachusetts, and a year later he was dead. Friends of the University which he never had a chance to see, donated the funds for a memorial chapel in Southwark Cathedral.
There is a reference to the baptism of John Harvard in the records of the church and from the entries surrounding it you get a sense of what the neighborhood was like in the early years of the seventeenth century. Moms don’t get a mention in the record, but the other babies baptised that week get listed along with their fathers and their fathers’ occupations. In addition to Harvard’s father, who was a butcher, the other dads of the week included a victualer, an oarmaker, two watermen, and a brewer. Southwark was then the center of transportation not only for the inns that lined the High Street, but for the waterway of the Thames. It was also the center of entertainment. You could watch plays by Shakespeare and Marlowe there, you could also watch bears being baited. Those were the glory years of Southwark.
By the time Dickens was spending time there in the nineteenth century, Southwark had become poor and grimy. When structural repairs were made to London Bridge the road bed around the church was raised, leaving it below street level. To add injury to this insult, in 1841 they built a railway viaduct right through the yard. The neighborhood was now by then so congested and so poor that the church fell on hard times.
It had, at the time of the Reformation, became the parish church for Southwark and the name was changed to St. Saviour. As the Church of England reorganized itself over the next several centuries, the diocese of Winchester was curtailed and Southwark became a part of the diocese of Rochester. At the turn of the twentieth century, Southwark became the seat of its own diocese and St. Saviour became Southwark Cathedral. Since that time it has been extensively restored.
The thing that most surprised us in the cathedral was its active lived-in look. It’s the first old church I’ve seen which still paints its monuments. From a preservation perspective it gives me pause, but as it is such a long tradition in the church, there is something wonderful about it. Harvard alums paid for a nice chapel, and I was glad to see a plaque dedicated to the memory of Sam Wanamaker, the American actor who zealously worked to build the replica of the Globe Theatre around the corner, and who died before it was finished.
From the cathedral Joannie and I crossed the High Street to see what was left of the great coaching inns. It’s easy to see from the map where they were. Each was on a courtyard that opened from the main street, and the names of the alleys leading into them still bear the names of the old inns: the George, the King’s Head, the White Hart, the Queen’s Head (inherited by John Harvard from his mother), the Spur, and of course the Tabard, from which the Wife of Bath and her companions set out for Canterbury.
The Tabard was originally built as a hostel for pilgrims in 1306, eighty or so years before Alison and company. The founder was the Abbot of Hyde, whose abbey site I had visited a week earlier just outside the Winchester walls. In 1539 the property was taken over by Thomas and Henry Tabard, who must have taken their surname from the place (which had itself been named for a sleeveless leather coat.) It changed hands again in 1590 after a fire and was renamed the “Talbot,” the symbol for which was a greyhound dog. Over the next generation the former abbots lodge was turned into a brewhouse.
The whole of the medieval building was destroyed in a fire in 1676 that swept through the neighborhood and leveled all the inns. The Talbot was entirely rebuilt and reopened in 1681. That building stood for two hundred years, into the age of photography, and a number of wonderful pictures survive. In 1873 it was advertised for sale, then consisting of “the Talbot Public House, and other buildings in the inn yard, including a very Substantial Hop Warehouse of Six Lofty Floors, (Recently Erected): also Two Houses and Shops.” Two years later it was demolished, and though a pub called the Tabard opened on the site for a time, today nothing remains. It was rather sad to see it. The name of the street is Tabard, so there is no mistaking the location, but no plaque marks it for the interested pilgrim and the people who work there now, in a quasi-industrial building called “Tabard House,” informed me that they had never read the Canterbury Tales and consequently had no interest in talking about it.
At least the George survives and Joannie and I went there for lunch to regain our spirits. Like the Tabard/Talbot, the George Inn was destroyed in the big Southwark fire of 1676, but unlike the Tabard, the building which was built at that time still survives, and in it one can still see the courtyard formation of the medieval coaching inns. Though it is now only about a quarter of its original size, it is a wonderful bit of the past and easy to transport yourself back there.
Except for some solid and interesting Victorian buildings on the High Street, most of the neighborhood is composed of awful buildings, built in the post-War period of unspeakable architectural crimes. It is dominated by London Bridge Station with its access for trains and pedestrians, and the big complex of Guy’s Hospital, descended from a hospital originally built in 1173 and called St. Thomas’ Hospital after Becket.
Though the modern hospital is not architecturally charming, there is an interesting history to the building which preceded it. It was founded by Gilbert Foliot, the Bishop of London, who was excommunicated by Becket for participating in the coronation of Henry III, an honor which Becket believed belonged only to himself. Bishop Foliot bowed to the popularity of the Becket cult by naming his new hospital, which opened the year Becket was canonized, after his enemy. Centuries later, when Becket was declared an enemy of the state by Henry VIII, the name of the hospital was changed to St. Thomas the Apostle, and later the new Guy’s Hospital overtook the neighborhood. Florence Nightingale founded the first nursing school here.
As we ate our lunch at the George, Joannie and I read through brochures of the neighborhood. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Thames waterfront in Southwark was said to have teemed with pirates and privateers. Walter Raleigh and Francis Drake marched around these parts, preparing themselves for their great sea voyages, and a replica of Drake’s Golden Hinde is one of the local attractions. The Clink Prison is also here, from which the slang term for all prisons is derived. It was originally run by the Bishop of Winchester as a place to incarcerate prisoners who were charged within the jurisdiction of the church rather than the state, and so it was at the heart of what caused the breakdown in relations between Becket and his king, Henry II. Later, when civil criminals began to be sent there, it was located conveniently near the sailorizing community and that undoubtedly kept it occupied. Certainly by Dickens’ day, Southwark was seen to have a pretty seamy criminal element.
It was nice to have Joannie with me on this day, especially as we sat at the George and I prepared myself for the final stage of the walk to Canterbury. We traded stories about jobs and family and travel, much as my old pal Alison must have done with her companions. The conversation inevitably turned to that party of 600 years earlier. Who were they? One was a sea captain like Peg Brandon, my stalwart companion of the week before, one was Chaucer himself, and one was the Tabard innkeeper, Harry Bailey. Chaucer and Bailey were both actual persons; their companions were born in the brain of Chaucer, but they were based on types that must have been circulating around Southwark at the time.
A number of Chaucer’s pilgrims were church people, and the irreverent way in which he depicts them is testimony to the breakdown of the church’s power by the end of the fourteenth century. The prioress is the highest ranking among them, both socially and ecclesiastically. She has a retinue that includes a nun and three priests. There is also a monk, a friar, a pardoner (with his bag of fake relics to sell), and a summoner, who summoned people to the church court and probably threw a bunch of them into the Clink. The only reverent one among them is the poorest, a parson who travels with his ploughman brother.
Multiple castes of English society are represented among Chaucer’s pilgrims. At the top is a knight who travels with his son as squire, and a yeoman servant. There is also a franklyn, who owns an estate, and a reeve, who oversees the management of someone else’s estate. There is a scholar, a doctor, a maunciple (who was something like a law clerk), and a bunch of middle class tradespeople. This is where the weaver Alison fits into the lineup, along with a tapestry maker, a dyer, a haberdasher, a miller, a cook, a carpenter, and a merchant.
The independent middle class was a new phenomenon during Chaucer’s lifetime. When he was a boy of about ten bubonic plague, the Black Death, swept into England from the continent and decimated so much of the population that the survivors found themselves with expanded opportunities. Serfs left the bondage of their feudal manor lords and moved around the countryside or even struck out for the city. In the period following the first wave of the plague, England changed dramatically. This is the point at which hedgerows were planted to break up the land into the smaller plots of yeoman farmers, independent tradesmen began to flourish in the cities, and the dominant language changed from French to English. If Chaucer had been born a hundred years earlier, his French-speaking party of pilgrims would have included the ecclesiastics and the knight, but none of the rest of the party. Certainly Alison would not have come to London as a professional weaver with an income of her own.
With the rise of the middle class, pilgrimages also became popular. This was not because these jolly tradespeople were particularly holy or reverent, in fact they were the opposite. But the pilgrimage was a legitimate way to see the world. It was an excuse for travel within a well-developed and acceptable framework. It was like a guided tour with published itineraries, specified routes, souvenir shops, and travelling companions. It allowed a woman like the Wife of Bath to travel by herself in safety, without losing dignity or blemishing her character.
The lack of holiness is evident in the way that Chaucer treats the clerics in the party. The monk and the prioress are both very rich and used to living well (she is also a raving anti-Semite, whose tale describes how horrible Jews like to murder innocent little Christian children and throw their bodies into muck heaps). The pardoner is a crook, the friar a womanizer, and the summoner, who is a drunk and a blackmailer, taunts the friar by telling him a little story about where friars spend eternity. A friar in hell notices that he’s the only friar ther and asks the question, “Where is the nest of freres in this place?” To which he gets the answer: “Right so as bees out swarmen from an hyve, Out of the develes ers ther gonne dryve.”
Chaucer once beat a friar and was fined two shillings as punishment, so he wasn’t exactly a reverent man, but it still seems amazing that he got away with being so disdainful of the Catholic Church. One has to keep in mind that the thirteenth century was a really a low point for the church, and it wasn’t just due to false relics, dubious indulgences, wealthy bishops, and fornicating priests. Ten years before our pilgrims headed down the road the “Great Schism” ripped the church apart. There were two popes! The English backed their guy, Urban, in Rome, but the French set up their own pope in Avignon, France. For forty years each claimed to be the true, honest-to-God pope, and the situation began to raise doubts among even the most faithful catholics.
So the rationale for making a pilgrimage had as much to do with travel and adventure as veneration. I was right in step.
Nearing the End: From Harbledown to Canterbury
Harbledown was called “Bob-up-and-Down” by Chaucer and every pilgrim stopped here, not just to dismount and walk into Canterbury, but to see the Becket relics preserved in St. Nicholas Church. Originally built as a leper church in 1150, it quickly became associated with the pilgrimage to Becket’s tomb after his murder in 1170. I went into the church and found three nuns there, two Americans and a Brit. There was a stained glass window in the church, from the middle of the nineteenth century that depicted Sir Galahad looking at the Holy Grail held out to him by an angel. In the background was another knight, oblivious to the vision and still aimlessly seeking.
The Dutch scholar and cleric Erasmus visited this church after a pilgrimage to Canterbury accompanied by John Colet, the Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral. The year was 1514, the Reformation had not yet come to England, and these were two Catholic clerics who both spoke out for reform in the church. The cult of relics had descended into a pathetic sham by that time. Erasmus wrote about his arrival at this church.
Not far from Canterbury we came into a great hollow and straightway, moreover bowing so down, with hills of either side, that a man cannot escape, nor it cannot be avoided, but he must needs ride that way. Upon the left hand of the way, there is an almshouse for old people, from them runneth one out, as soon as they hear a horseman coming, he casteth holy water upon him, and anon he offereth him the overleather of a shoe bound about with an iron hoop, wherein is a glass like a precious stone, they that kiss it give a piece of money.
[Colet, his companion] rode upon my left hand near the almshouse, he cast holy water upon him. He took it in worth not so. When the shoe was proferred him, he asked what he meant by it, saith he, it is St. Thomas shoe. Thereat he fumed and was very angry, and turned toward me: what (saith he) meane these beasts, that would have us kiss the shoes of every good man? Why do they not likewise give us to kiss the spittle, and other filth and dirt of the body? I was sorry for the old man, and gave him a piece of money to comfort him withall.
The relics had lost meaning for them. I wandered out of the church and down toward a pilgrims’ well in the yard. Carved into the stone above it are three feathers, identifying this as the well of the Edward, the Black Prince. I would meet him soon enough at Canterbury Cathedral as his famous tomb and effigy lie adjacent to the spot where Becket’s shrine stood.
Behind the church was a view to the west over the green fields of Kent. An oust-house for drying hops was in the foreground, with its strange bent chimney. I sat on the grass by the well and read Hilaire Belloc’s description of arriving in Canterbury. Sadly, for him, after determining and following the path, the pilgrimage ultimately held no meaning.
He walked in the winter, timing his journey so that he would arrive at Canterbury Cathedral on the evening of December 29th, on the day and at the hour of Becket’s murder. And yet he felt nothing. “There was another thing to be duly done before I could think my task was over,” he wrote.
The city whose name and spell had drawn to itself all the road, and the shrine which was its core remained to be worshipped. The cathedral and the mastery of its central tower stood like a demand; but I was afraid, and the fear was just. I thought I should be like the men who lifted the last veil in the ritual of the hidden goddess, and having lifted it found there was nothing beyond, and that all the scheme was a cheat; or like what those must feel at the approach of death who say there is nothing in death but an end and no transition. I knew what had fallen upon the original soul of the place. I feared to find, and I found, nothing but stones.
Now I feared it too. What if I didn’t feel anything? I sat for too long on the grass before the Black Prince’s Well. I finally rose, rather somberly, and walked back to the church, and then beyond it to the crest of the steep hill on which it sits. Once the hill is conquered, the road makes a gentle curve downward and as the pilgrim looks up, THERE IT IS. Canterbury Cathedral comes into view, shining blue in the distance, its towers rising above all the surrounding buildings.
I stopped in my tracks, mesmerized and paralyzed, and sobbed. I wasn’t like Belloc. I had worried for nothing. I felt it and it was powerful. There was my destination.
Each of the great cathedrals along the way had a distinct color in my memory: Wells was a warm brown, Salisbury was white from every vantage point and all distances, Winchester was a solid grey, but Canterbury shone blue. It was with growing anticipation and emotion that I crossed the highway, met up with the North Downs Way and Belloc’s Pilgrim Road from Winchester and proceeded along the ancient track of all Pilgrims coming from the west or north. Not far from here was Godmersham, another home associated with Jane Austen, but by now the momentum to reach the magnet that was Canterbury was too strong to think of making a side trip, even for my beloved Jane.
The last week of the walk—the part that actually followed Chaucer’s pilgrims—was the hardest. Except for Rochester, it had too little left of the ancient past and too little left of the countryside. It was probably the path itself that did it. The Romans built the straight thoroughfare of Watling Street to get them expeditiously from London to the coast and more than a thousand years later it’s still the way to go for the person with a destination in mind and a time table to follow. It is no wonder that the route followed by the pilgrims to Canterbury would evolve into a super highway with all the development that accompanies it, but it makes it a less wonderful walk. The ambler is not looking for the modern England of cars and trains and schedules and convenience markets, but of the olde England of wields and wolds and copses. This was the last moment I would have in anything resembling the English countryside. I thought back to my first day at Inglesbatch, with the great ancient barn into which modern machinery will not fit, and of all the things I had seen along the way: bluebells in the forest, big yellow dogs, slopes filled with sheep and fields of hay, small square churches, the landscape seen from the height of the downs. Peg had referred more than once to the “ubiquitous blue Land Rover,” and I had ever since thought of the “ubiquitous” things: blue land rovers in the rural districts, semi-detached houses in the burbs, long undulating rows of attached houses in the urban sprawl, Boots the Chemist, jacket potatoes, war memorials. We want to think of England as rural, even though my last week was probably the more realistic representation of England on the verge of the millennium.
A thousand years ago, on the verge of that other millennium, pilgrims had gone to the shrines to protect themselves from the catastrophes predicted to come with the magical number. It was strange to think that human beings were really not all that much different as we faced the next one.
That one tantalizing glimpse of Oz disappeared as I descended the hill. Before I actually reached the cathedral I had to pass one more important church for the pilgrim, St. Dunstan’s, just outside the west gate in the medieval town wall of Canterbury. It was at St. Dunstan’s that Henry II had, on a July day in 1174, taken off his shoes and put on a sack to go and prostrate himself at the tomb of Becket, the man who had been his friend, his enemy, and ultimately the victim of his careless rage.
St. Dunstan’s is also famous for being the place where Thomas More’s daughter buried his decapitated head in the family vault of her husband. More was to Henry VIII what Becket was to Henry II, the friend and Chancellor who would not submit to the religious views of his king. I have always admired Thomas More, maybe because of the wonderful Paul Scofield portrayal of him in A Man for all Seasons. Among the various guys who became saints because they were martyrs for their faith, he has always seemed like the real article.
More wrote extensively on a wide variety of topics, often with humor and imagination. He is thought to have helped Henry VIII edit his book “An Assertion of the Seven Sacraments,” in which Henry argued against Martin Luther’s doctrine, and for which he was awarded the title “Defender of the Faith” by Pope Leo X. After he broke from the pope and started his own church, Henry demanded an oath of loyalty to his new church and to himself as its head from everyone in his court; Thomas More was one of only a handful to refuse. For More it was not so much a defense of Catholicism per se, but an argument that each man should decide his own faith, and not have it dictated by the king.
Before he was executed, he spoke to the crowd, proclaiming himself “the King’s good servant, but God’s first.” After the axe fell, his head was displayed on a pike on London Bridge until his daughter was able to retrieve it. What a horrible, grisly, moment for her; it is actually too awful to think about. Surprisingly, it took 400 years for Thomas More to be canonized. By the time he was made a saint and his head became a holy relic in 1935, St. Dunstan’s Church had long been an outpost of the Church of England. Nonetheless, More’s head made it a pilgrimage site for Catholics. (In 1978 on the 500th anniversary of his birth, the church opened the tomb just to verify that there was a head in there. There was.)
By More’s time the pilgrimage had long since peaked and declined. He was himself skeptical of relics, indulgences, and of the honestly devout intentions of pilgrims. He said of pilgrims in the sixteenth century:
There be cathedral churches into which the country come with procession, and the woman following the cross with many an unwomanly song. ... the most part that cometh, cometh for no devotion at all, but only for good company to babble thitherward, and drinke dronke there, and then dance and reel homeward.
Hmm. I guess “Jerusalem” did not qualify as an unwomanly song, but there had been those moments on my procession across the country when I had babbled here and dronke cider there. In two days I would dance and reel homeward.
Before I left St. Dunstan’s I dropped a fingernail onto the floor near the stone that marked the burial place of Thomas More’s head. I had scattered my fingernail relics across England, one at the so-called tomb of Arthur and Guinevere in Glastonbury, one at the so-called tomb of Edward the Martyr in Shaftesbury, one high up on the west face of Salisbury Cathedral, one at the place where Jane Austen died, one at Winchester Cathedral where she is buried, one at the so-called tomb of Alfred the Great, one at the house where Jane Austen lived in Chawton, one at the tomb of Edward the Confessor, and now, the ninth one here at the tomb of Thomas More. The last one was saved for Canterbury Cathedral. And now the time had come to go there. From the door of St. Dunstan’s you can see the west gate of Canterbury and the High Street stretching beyond it.
I love the way a medieval wall defines the confines of the ancient core of a city. To pass through the gate is to enter the past. At Canterbury we are fortunate that the west gate still stands. In the early nineteenth century they almost tore it down so that the menagerie caravans of Mr. Wombwell’s travelling show could get through. Thank goodness at the last minute the Mayor stepped in and prevented it.
There was once a church sitting right on this gate called the Church of the Holy Cross, which was probably named after a relic of the same contained therein. An even more interesting relic inspired the name of a pub just outside the gate, “The Archbishop’s Finger.” (If I ever become a saint, the “History Pilgrim’s Fingernail” could go nearby.) I passed through the gate and onto the main street of Canterbury. The old half-timbered buildings seem to lean right over the roadway. I stumbled along with ever growing emotion and anticipation until I saw a sign that said simply “Cathedral.”
A glance to the left brought the magnificent carved “Christ Church gate” into view, and a few more steps brought me into the yard of the Cathedral. I had not been able to see it again since that moment on the hill near Harbledown and it was a wondrous sight. I paid my fee and in a fairly high state of agitation moved along the nave to the place where Becket was murdered. His name, “Thomas,” is carved in the floor. Belloc was wrong. It is very moving.
There is a small chapel near the spot and I ducked in there to have a good cry for a half hour or so. As I rummaged in my little belt pack for some tissues, I noticed the altar, carved to represent human skulls and thigh-bones. The objective of this realistic-looking pile of bones was clearly not to give comfort. Bones. Bones. Bones. The whole of the cathedral was designed to give the maximum effect to the display of bones—and it is fabulous. From the main entrance through the west door, the cathedral rises up and up to the empty place that once held the shrine. Beyond it, at the very eastern tip of the cathedral is the “corona,” or “Becket’s Crown,” the place where the severed cap of Becket’s skull was kept in a separate reliquary.
Who was Thomas Becket? And what circumstances caused him to be murdered for the benefit of Henry II, his king and former friend? That is the ultimate Canterbury Tale.
The Last Chapter: The “Holy Blissful Martyr” and How He Got that Way
Thomas Becket was born in London in 1118 and went to work for the Archbishop of Canterbury when he was twenty-one. He subsequently studied law and theology on the continent and when he returned to England was appointed archdeacon of Canterbury. A tall and charismatic individual, Becket clearly stood out among the men of his age. When Henry II was crowned in 1154, the Archbishop recommended Becket to the young king and he was made Chancellor, in which position he became Henry’s strong ally and friend. When Henry tangled with the Pope over control of church affairs in England, Becket stood strongly with the king. In 1162 Henry thought that he could fully gain the reigns of the church in England if he had Thomas Becket named Archbishop of Canterbury. If Becket were both Archbishop and Chancellor, the powers of church and state would be consolidated, and Henry would be able to stand up to the pope. Becket did not seek the position and vainly attempted to persuade Henry to chose another candidate.
Once he was appointed, Thomas Becket had something of a conversion experience. He became a zealous defender of the Catholic Church, resigned his position as Chancellor, and devoted his considerable energy and talent to fighting the king over who would control the church in England. Many of the stands that Becket took were petty; he would not agree that minor clerks in the church should stand trial in the civil courts for crimes committed among the populace. Henry was also petty, eventually even accusing Becket of having embezzled funds during his chancellorship.
Here were the two most powerful men in England, not only by virtue of their offices, but by the strength of their personalities, former confidantes, highly visible celebrities, and they began to duke it out in public. When Henry ordered Becket to appear in court, not as the Archbishop of Canterbury, but in a civil action, Becket refused, left England and headed to Rome for papal support. Such support was a long time coming and then only in name. Becket remained in exile in France for six years while he and Henry blasted away at each other from either side of the Channel. Henry persecuted Becket’s family; Becket excommunicated half of England just for speaking to Henry.
In 1170 the king had his oldest son, Henry, crowned by the Archbishop of York, to secure the succession. Becket was furious and excommunicated the Archbishop of York and the Bishop of London for having participated. (English kings, by tradition, were always crowned by the Archbishop of Canterbury.) Henry and Becket finally met in France in July of that year, each made some concessions, and Becket returned to England on the first of December. The public acclaim at his return was compared (after his death) to that given to Christ on his entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.
Henry was still in France and fed up with the whole business. In the presence of several members of his court he muttered the immortal words: “Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?” (Some sources say “wretched” or “low-born” rather than “troublesome.”) Four knights immediately crossed the channel and made their way to Canterbury, Reginald Fitzurse, Hugh de Moreville, William de Tracy, and Richard le Breton. Becket was warned but would not hide. On 29 December 1170, he went from his dinner to the church for the vespers service and was followed by the knights.
It was five o’clock in the evening when the knights rushed into the church. There were a number of monks there for the service, and a small crowd, having heard the commotion, followed the king’s men into the nave. Becket resisted with force their attempts to take him prisoner, he swore at the knights, not just as the Archbishop of Canterbury but as their social superior. Tracy swung at him with his sword but Edward Grim, one of the monks of the Cathedral, deflected the blow from Becket by taking the force of it on his arm. Becket’s scalp was grazed and began to bleed. When he saw the blood Becket said “Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.” Another sword blow brought Becket to his knees and from there prostrate to the floor. Richard le Breton then delivered a blow to the back of Becket’s head so forceful that it severed the cap of his skull, instantly killing the Archbishop and breaking the blade of the sword on the pavement.
Hugh of Horsea, a fifth knight who had joined the party as they came into the cathedral, then put his foot upon the neck of Becket’s corpse and put the tip of his sword into the exposed brain matter, scattering it out onto the pavement. “Let us go, let us go,” he said as he finished, “The traitor is dead; he will rise no more.”
After the knights clattered out of the cathedral there must have been profound silence, though there were numbers of witnesses. Finally Osbert, Becket’s servant, went to his master and bound the severed piece of his head back on with a strip of his shirt. Others began to come out of the darkness. The floor was soaked with brains and blood and the people in the church began to soak them up with pieces of cloth; some are said to have dipped their fingers in the blood and smeared it on their faces. Becket’s body was carried to the high altar and bowls were placed beneath it to catch his blood. They knew he was a martyr. They knew he would be a saint. The collecting of his relics began instantly upon his death. The blood was put into small bottles called ampullae or phials. It would work miracles for centuries.
Becket was an arrogant man but he also tried to be a holy one. When the monks of Canterbury prepared his body for burial they found that under his vestments he wore a lice-infested hair shirt. It was to meant to make him suffer constantly in a small way. He apparently took it off only to be scourged or whipped on the back, a greater suffering to which he had submitted himself that very morning. Fearing the return of the knights, the monks quickly buried Becket in the crypt of the church—though it was reported that there was a short delay while they waited for Becket to rise up and bless them before lying down again.
The miracles began immediately. A blind man, who didn’t know about the murder, came to the cathedral that day and was cured. A paralyzed woman drank some water into which drops of blood were dripped and she walked again. The pilgrimages began.
Across the channel, Henry II was told about the murder. He burst into tears, he howled, he could not leave his room for days. Two years later Becket was, not surprisingly canonized. A year and a half after that Henry made his pilgrimage to Canterbury. He came from France to Southampton and from there more or less followed Belloc’s path. He stopped at Harbledown to dismount from his horse, and at St. Dunstan’s church he put on a sack and walked barefoot. When he came to Becket’s tomb he was, at his own request, whipped by each of the bishops, abbots, and monks. The king stayed for a day and a night at the grave, his head thrust into an opening designed so that the coffin could be touched, and he left Canterbury with a small bottle of the blood of his former friend. In his wake came pilgrims by the thousands. Two of his sons would follow his humiliating example: young Henry, whom he had attempted to crown during his lifetime, and Richard the Lionhearted, who stopped here on his way to the crusades, and again on his way home after having been a hostage in Austria.
For the next fifty years pilgrims made a point of venerating three places in the church: the scene of the crime, called “The Martyrdom,” where an altar had been constructed called “The Altar of the Sword’s Point,” the high altar where Becket’s body had lain over night, and the crypt where he was buried. The tip of the sword that killed him was saved and exhibited as a relic; the actual blood-stained stone on which he died was cut out of the floor and sent to Rome. Eventually the makeshift grave was replaced by a masonry tomb. Two large openings in each side allowed the faithful to be closer to the saint, and it was through one of these that Henry II had thrust his head.
A fire in the cathedral the year after Henry’s visit damaged much of the area above the tomb and when rebuilding began it was decided to expand the Trinity Chapel above Becket’s grave and to build there a new shrine. On a summer day in 1220, fifty years after the murder, the new shrine was dedicated and, with great pomp and circumstance, Becket’s remains—his “relics” since he was a saint—went into it. This “translation” of the corpse, as they called the exhumation and movement of the body of a saint from one place to another, would thereafter be venerated each year on July 7th.
Since Becket had not been embalmed in any way, all that was left to move into the new shrine were bones, and at least some of them did not get translated into the new shrine. The head and the severed cap of the skull were each kept in separate jeweled reliquaries. At least some bones went to Rome and to other shrines, and for years one could see various parts of Becket around Europe. (A tooth, for instance, was in Verona.)
Two monks from Canterbury went on to positions at other monasteries and brought relics of Becket with them. Benedict, the Abbot of Peterborough, arrived at his new post in 1179 with two bottles of blood, clothes that had belonged to the Archbishop, and stones from the floor where Becket fell. Roger, the Abbot of St. Augustine’s monastery, just around the corner from the Cathedral in Canterbury, received his new post by agreeing to their request to bring with him a portion of the skull of the saint. Weirdest of all, there are at least three arms attributed to him, in Florence and Lisbon. That pub outside the wall, the “Archbishop’s finger” took on new meaning.
Whatever bones were left to be moved were put into an iron chest called a feretrum and placed in the shrine. There are a number of good descriptions of what the shrine looked like and it was fabulous. Henry III, whose grandfather’s life was so entwined with Becket’s, and who was to invest so much of his own energy in improving the shrine of Edward the Confessor at Westminster, was present for the translation. The feretrum with the relics was carried by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton (whose grave site is reputed to be on St. Martha’s hill near Guildford).
No other graves were allowed into the holiest place in the cathedral, adjacent to the shrine, until the death in 1376 of Edward, the Prince of Wales, known as “The Black Prince.” Chaucer probably knew him since he was the son of Edward III, and the brother was John of Gaunt. As a young man Edward gained a reputation for heroism in two battles in France—at Cressy and Poitiers. When he returned from the latter battle in 1357, he stopped at Canterbury to make his offerings of thanksgiving at the tomb of St. Thomas and then continued on to London through Harbledown where he visited the well that is now named for him (and probably also saw the famous shoe of Becket).
On a later campaign to Spain, the Black Prince contracted an illness which killed him, at the age of forty-five, on the 8th of June 1376. His death was a blow to the nation. There had been every expectation that he would inherit the crown and rule as a wise and seasoned veteran. His father, Edward III, was by then coming to the end of a fifty-year reign. His son, Richard, was just a boy. His brother, Chaucer’s patron, John of Gaunt, and his nephew (who would become Henry IV after deposing and murdering Richard), had designs on the throne. The battle for power that began then between the two branches of the family—popularly known as the “War of the Roses”—would divide England for the next century.
Edward asked to be buried in Canterbury Cathedral, but not in so prominent a position as he was given. When Chaucer visited the cathedral, the tomb of the Black Prince was there, his effigy shining gold and his shield coat and gauntlets hanging above him. On the opposite side of the shrine, Henry IV designed a place for himself and his queen. Such was the powerful attraction of Becket that Henry IV placed himself for eternity adjacent to the uncle whose son he had murdered. They are the only members of the Royal family interred here.
The shrine was the focus of any pilgrim’s visit. There were four parts to it: the six-foot high base made of pink marble, the bejeweled and gold-plated wooden ark which held the feretrum, a gold mesh covering onto which particularly rich pilgrims could attach jewels and other precious and valuable offerings, and a painted wooden cover which could be lowered over the top to protect the valuables and raised again by a rope and pulleys.
We get our best description of it from Erasmus, who was here in Canterbury before he made the visit to Harbledown described earlier. (He and his friend John Colet were travelling in the opposite direction from me.) Making the usual rounds of the church, they stopped first at the site of the murder. “On the altar is the point of the sword,” wrote Erasmus, “with which the head of the most excellent prelate was cleft, and his brain stirred, that he might be the more instantly dispatched. The sacred rust of this iron, through love of the martyr, we religiously kissed.”
The two proceeded then down to the crypt. “There was first exhibited the perforated skull of the martyr, the forehead is left bare to be kissed, while the other parts are covered with silver. There also hang in the dark the hair shirts, the girdles and bandages with which the prelate subdued his flesh; striking horror with their very appearance.” Back upstairs in the choir, an enthusiastic guide unlocked the reliquarie and began to bring out the treasures to show the polite Erasmus and his skeptical colleague.
It is wonderful to tell what a quantity of bones were there brought out: skulls, jaw-bones, teeth, hands, fingers, entire arms; on all of which we devoutly bestowed our kisses; and the exhibition seemed likely to last for ever, if my sometime unmanageable companion had not interrupted the zeal of the showman.
When an arm was brought forth which had still the bloody flesh adhering, he drew back from kissing it, and even betrayed some weariness. The priest presently shut up his treasures.
Erasmus then describes the shrine.
A wooden canopy covers the shrine, and when that is drawn up with ropes, inestimable treasures are opened to view, the least valuable part is gold; every part glistened, shone, and sparkled with rare and very large jewels, some of them exceeding the size of a goose’s egg. The cover being raised we all worshipped. The prior with a white wand pointed out each jewel, telling its name in French, its value, and the name of its donor, for the principal of them were offerings sent by sovereigns and princes.
Among the famous stones was a diamond called the “Regall of France,” which was given by King Louis VII. After the destruction of the shrine, Henry VIII, who was one of the last visitors to the shrine before it was destroyed, had this stone set into a ring which he wore on his thumb. In 1520 when he was still a devout Catholic, Henry made a pilgrimage to Canterbury with Emperor Charles V. It is clear from Erasmus, visiting just a few years earlier, though, that the pilgrimage was already dying. Most of the relics were a sham and they knew it, Henry simply made it all official.
When Henry went on his rampage to destroy the Catholic church in England, the shrine of Becket was a particular target. The image of his ancestor, Henry II, prostrating himself before the shrine of the man who had betrayed him was sickening to Henry VIII. Becket was the ultimate traitor. Thomas More was nothing compared to Becket—he had never plotted against his king. 368 years after the death of the archbishop, Henry VIII instituted legal proceedings against Becket and condemned him. Thereafter he was not to be venerated, called a saint, depicted in images, or described in books. In 1538, at Henry’s command, the shrine was destroyed, the relics burned and scattered in the wind.
In January 1888, archaeologists working on a survey project in the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral discovered an old skeleton. This, in itself, was not a surprise since church crypts are usually full of skeletons, but this one was unusual for three reasons: it was buried in the place where Becket had lain for the fifty years before being translated to the shrine, it had obviously been buried very quickly, and it had been buried not as a corpse, but as a pile of bones. Could Becket’s relics have survived the destruction of the shrine? Could the monks of Canterbury, knowing that the Royal Commissioners for the Destruction of Shrines were on their way, have replaced Becket’s bones with the bones of an ordinary mortal and moved the saint’s bones to a safer spot? Could the Commissioners have balked at the thought of actually destroying the relics and collaborated with the monks to hide them?
A local surgeon, W. Pugin Thornton, laid out the bones and inspected them. A local dentist examined the teeth. The skeleton was that of a very tall man who had died at about the age of fifty a long, long time in the past. So far, much like Becket. Thornton was also a practitioner of phrenology, a popular pseudo-science of the period, and so he was also able to discern from the size and shape of the skull that the man who used it had been of “large perceptive qualities, much intellect, indomitable energy, the power of arrangement and management, but unworthy of trust.” Still like Becket, if read from the Church of England perspective.
Thornton published a little booklet called Becket’s Bones, which included photographs of the remains. There is the skeleton, all laid out. There is the skull with a whopping big wound in it, as if made by a sword blade. Hmm, rather Becket like. And there are the arm bones, connected to the hand bones, connected to he finger bones; and the thigh bones connected to the shin bones, connected to the ankle bones, connected to the foot bones. In fact, there are just too many dry bones to be Becket if one believes, as I do, that many of his parts had to have been distributed during the great age of relics in Medieval times. How could he still have two arms if his other three arms were in Italy and Portugal? (Okay, there was that papal bull about the spontaneous regenerative power of relics, but that was just bull.)
One source contemporaneous with the translation says that Archbishop Langton kept some of the small bones out at that time. That would be perfectly consistent with church practice at the time, especially since these were relics of unquestionable authenticity. There doesn’t seem to be anything that would have prevented subsequent archbishops from opening the shrine either. The feretory was a locked iron box, but there must have been a key to it. With all those kings from here and there visiting, who’s to say that they didn’t get their souvenir bone before they exited the church.
And even though the wound in the 1888 skull was whopping, the skull was all there. It’s pretty clear from the testimony of eyewitnesses to the murder that the cap of Becket’s skull was severed right off; and clear from the testimony of pilgrims, including Erasmus, that at least two parts of the skull were not in the shrine anyway, but were mounted in reliquaries for separate veneration.
But a lot of folks wanted those bones to be Becket’s. And if not those bones, then maybe some others buried elsewhere in the Cathedral. There are a few mysterious graves in the church, some of unknown origin, some of dubious provenance. I picked up a book in the Cathedral gift shop called The Quest for Becket’s Bones, by John Butler, and used it to guide me to each of these sites for a good look. One of the interesting contentions over the years has been the notion that Becket’s bones do still exist, and that a secret society (probably consisting of only three people) guards the information, passing it to a new member only at the death of one of the previous members.
Exactly one week after I arrived back home, the London Sunday Times published a half-page article, complete with color pictures, with the big-print headline: “Becket’s bones ‘kept secretly at Canterbury for 460 years.’” Joannie sent it to me and I read it with amazement. It seems that one of the three guys had confessed to the secret. The bones in question were not the ones exhumed in 1888 and debated for the next 50 years, but others, also buried in the crypt, which had been secretly exhumed and examined in the 1940’s. This skeleton had no hand, which sounds more likely for a saint whose relics were scattered around, but there are still more questions than answers.
According to Cecil Humphrey-Smith (who acknowledged this information only upon the death of his godfather, Julian Bickersteth, who was a canon at the cathedral), the discovery “was kept secret because the cathedral authorities were opposed to the revival of the cult of Becket and because two canons did not want to see Canterbury overrun by tourists.” According to the Times, Humphrey-Smith, a Catholic, “justified his decision to speak openly about ‘the Secret’ after so long. ‘St. Thomas has a part to play in restoring England to its ancient faith.’” he said. The dean of Canterbury Cathedral responded by saying, “The weight of evidence is that Becket’s bones are not in the cathedral. The weight of evidence is that they were destroyed at the Reformation.” The weight of evidence, the burden of proof, the ancient faith, the power of the thing. Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones.
The comment about the tourists was an interesting one. Would the cathedral get more visitors if they still had the bones of Becket? Even without them there are nearly two million visitors a year. If the bones were suddenly discovered there would certainly be a leap in visitation, but it would probably settle back down to the regular huge crowd before long.
Do we need relics at the turn of the second millennium? There is certainly a pervasive cult of celebrity death in England and America today which may be the modern analog. The death of a famous person, or a violent incident that becomes famous through the media, creates a pilgrimage site that is instantly covered with a mountain of flowers, messages, stuffed animals, and images. The individuals who put them there have no personal connection to the victim, their connection is cultural, something shared through the larger population. I think that is very close to what the connection was to relics. They were imbued with their power by a common agreement to accept them as special, and when the acceptance declined so did the power. Today the media is the church that defines our saints, but that does not mean that the feelings of connection, the profound grief, the sense of sharing in a larger loss, are not real.
And why do they continue to come to Canterbury? John Simpson, the Dean of the Cathedral addresses that question in the brochure every visitor gets upon entrance. They come, he says, “to see its magnificent architecture; because of its historical associations; because it is one of the glories of England, of Europe, indeed of the world.” It is so much a part of the collective culture that people go to Canterbury Cathedral because they feel they should if they are tourists; this is a tourist destination, every guidebook says so.
Joannie made a trip back to Canterbury Cathedral with me later and was bothered by all the tourists milling around, but I loved it. Tourists have always been part of the experience. Even in Chaucer’s day, Canterbury Cathedral was getting 200,000 pilgrims annually, but they have always detracted from the experience of their fellow tourists. The poet T.S. Eliot hated the thought that people went there without knowing why thy did so.
For wherever a saint has dwelt, wherever a martyr has given
his blood for the blood of Christ,
There is holy ground, and the sanctity shall not depart from it
Though armies trample over it, though sightseers come with
guide books looking over it; ...
Therefore, O God, we thank Thee
Who hast given such blessing to Canterbury.
“Murder in the Cathedral”
When I had recovered myself after sitting and weeping for a time, I went out to be among my comrades, the throng of fellow pilgrims and tourists milling about the place. Immediately outside the little chapel in which I sat was the site of the murder. There is a small stone table there, made from pieces of the medieval “Altar of the Sword’s Point,” and above it hangs a very modern sculpture of three iron swords. It took me several minutes to decide if I like it or not, and in the end I decided that I do like it, very much.
Before I began to follow the ancient path by which pilgrims walked around the church, I visited a special exhibition called “Canterbury and Becket: The Power to Inspire.” It was good luck for me that this exhibit coincided with my visit to Canterbury, because in it were actual Becket relics, borrowed by the Cathedral from other institutions for a six-month period. Here was a bishop’s mitre said to have belonged to him, now owned by Westminster Cathedral, the Catholic cathedral in London. Here also was a tunic he had worn, sent at the time of his death to Rome and kept ever since by the church of Santa Maria Maggiore in a fabulous reliquarie. Another reliquarie was the centerpiece of the show; recently purchased at auction by the Victoria and Albert Museum, it is an enameled box or “chasse” showing scenes from Becket’s life and death. It has long been empty but must have held an important relic at one time and is the biggest and best example of some fifty that are known.
There was also a wooden bowl with a crystal set into it which had come from Becket’s shoe. This shoe was the one that Erasmus had kissed at Harbledown but that his companion, John Colet, refused to kiss having finally had his fill of relics. When the shoe fell apart, the crystal was remounted in this bowl and it still belongs to St. Nicholas’ Hospital in Harbledown. This exhibit also had some chunks from the shrine, and a wonderful range of pilgrim badges and ampullae from the shrine. (As a gift, Joannie bought me a reproduction in sterling silver of the most popular badge, showing the mitred head of Becket.) The exhibit put me in exactly the right frame of mind to reenter the cathedral from the cloister. This was where Becket had entered it on the night of the murder.
I made my way down to the crypt and when I came back up and circumambulated the nave. There are a number of very interesting monuments in the main body of the church, my two favorites were those to the Hales and Thornhurst families, for very different reasons. The Hales monument is a wonderful work of maritime art. A fabulous alabaster carving of an Elizabethan ship is in the background and a corpse, in full armor and with its hands folded in prayer, is being lowered over the side by two sailors; this young man died on an expedition to Spain. His father committed suicide in the River Stour and that awful deed is depicted in a painting very beautifully worked into the monument below the ship carving. Before all this horrible activity, an alabaster woman kneels in prayer. I think she must have been the wife of the suicide and the mother of the burial-at-sea, both named James Hales.
Thomas Thornhurst and his wife both look remarkably relaxed in the effigies on their tomb. She looks like she just fell asleep, one hand resting lightly on her chest, the other on a book. He lies beside her, resting up on one elbow, and holding his coat of arms. I’m sure they must often have lain in bed this way, she reading, he in full armor admiring the family crest. The strangest part of this monument is their three little children, a son and two daughters, each kneeling on a cushion and holding his or her own skull. Dem bones.
I had finally been through every part of Canterbury Cathedral except that part which I had travelled so far to see. It was with some trepidation that I made my way up to where the shrine had been. The stone steps have been worn by the tread of a million pilgrim feet into hard waves. At the top of the steps, the golden shrine of Henry IV and his bride momentarily draw the eye away from the place that is the destination of the pilgrimage, but then there it is.
I stood and looked at the vacant tiles. This is what I had come for, this spot. The ceiling was impossibly high above me, sunlight streamed through the stained glass giving the air a marvelous glow. Did it matter that the shrine was gone? That the relics were destroyed or so well hidden that they will never be discovered? Had I really come for them? It was the moment of truth.
I had always thought that the power was in the thing, in this case the relics. But the absence of them was also powerful. It was much more effective to look at the vast empty space in Canterbury Cathedral that had held the shrine with Becket’s remains, than it was to see the reproduction shrine of St. Swithun in Winchester, or even the real shrine of Edward the Confessor at Westminster.
The power was there. The pilgrimage was worthwhile. I had hoped to find a connection with the past and in this spot, where hundreds of thousands had preceded me for eight hundred years, I felt the power of the pilgrimage. It was spiritual without being religious; it had as much to do with the human spirit as with the spirit of God. I reached into the empty space and touched something larger than my own experience. It was wonderful. I was overcome with emotion.
My month in England had passed. I would go home the next day and resume my “real life.” I had no regrets that the adventure was over. The goal had been this spot and in this spot I found resolution, even though my quest had always been hazy and ill-defined. I would think for months to come about what the resolution was. Was it that I had completed a physical challenge that had filled me with self doubt? That was certainly a big part of it. But I also felt that desire, however it is defined, that had propelled the medieval person to escape for a time from the usual to the unusual. If the purpose of a pilgrimage was to seek some sort of spiritual and emotional fulfillment, then I had arrived at the destination.
It is worth noting here, at the very end, that the Wife of Bath and the rest of her party never stood in this spot, never felt this resolution. The book was not completed and consequently neither was their pilgrimage. They are forever frozen on the road just outside Canterbury’s west gate. They got as far as Harbledown without taking the last few necessary steps to bring them here. I felt sorry for her about that. I no longer felt sorry for anything else about her though—she had been a worthwhile companion, a good foil. If Chaucer could not bring her here, maybe I could.
Near where Becket’s shrine stood was a rack of devotional candles and I lit one for her. “For Alison,” I though, as the wick of the candle grabbed the flame from the match. “What a Dame!”
What that Aprille with his shoures sote
The droghte of Marche hat perced to the rote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendered is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe course y-ronne,
And smale fowles maken melodye,
That slepen al the night with open yë,
(So priketh hem nature in hir corages):
Than longen folk to goon pilgrimages
(And palmers for to seken straunge strondes)
To ferne halwes, couthe in sondry londes;
And specially, from every shires ende
Of Engelond to Caunterbury they wende,
The holy blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath hopen, whan that they were seke.
The Canterbury Tales