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Relics & Pilgrimage in London
Big Business in Medieval & Tudor London

  • St. Edward the Confessor's Shrine in Westminster Abbey -  Nash Ford PublishingWhen holy men or women died, people thought that touching their grave, their dead body or their possessions would cure them of all sorts of diseases and afflictions. Some Christians still believe this.
  • The church where they were buried could apply to the Pope to have them made into a saint.
  • A saints' bones and belongings they once owned were called 'relics'. They were usually each kept in a beautiful casket of gold or silver called a 'reliquary'. This might be shaped like the relevant part of the body: a foot, an arm or a head!
  • Several of the monasteries in London had big relic collections. Parish churches & chapels might also have a single small relic.
  • Bermondsey Abbey had a stone cross that was supposed to have fallen from the sky!
  • Reliquaries containing major relics or whole bodies were placed on an elaborate & brightly painted stone monument called a 'shrine'.
  • This had holes or niches into which people could climb to get as near as possible to the saint's body.
  • There were two important shrines like this in London: St. Edward the Confessor at Westminster Abbey and St. Erkenwald at Old St. Paul's Cathedral. People also visited the tomb of Rahere at St. Bartholomew the Great. He was not officially a saint.
  • Individual bones were often swapped with other churches. There was a great trade in buying and selling relics. Many of them were probably fakes.
  • Churches with relics or shrines were visited by lots of people hoping for cures. They are called 'pilgrims'.
  • The visit is called a 'pilgrimage'. Pilgrims often travelled hundreds of miles on foot to visit shrines. They would stay at the abbey's hospitium when they arrived.
  • In return, pilgrims gave money to the monks or bishop who looked after shrines. They became very rich.
  • Pilgrims could sometimes buy 'indulgences' if they visited on special feast days. These were documents would let them off some or all of a penance (punishment) they might have been given when they confessed their sins to a priest. The Eastminster gave these out.
  • The pilgrims ofen took away 'pilgrim's badges' made of pewter as souvenirs.
  • The pilgrims of London were made famous by Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th century. He wrote a book about a group of them travelling to St. Thomas Becket's Shrine at Canterbury Cathedral. It is called the 'Canterbury' Tales'.
  • Pilgrims visited other places associated with saints too: like the chapel in the Hospital of St. Thomas of Acon (where St. Thomas Becket was born in Cheapside) and his chapel on London Bridge (which had a piece of the cross Jesus died on).
  • Holy wells were also popular: like St. Clement's Well (at St. Clement Danes), the Holy Well (at Aldwych), St. Chad's Well (near Gray's Inn), the Clerk's Well (at Clerkenwell) & St. Bride's Well (at Blackfriars). There were lots of others too.
  • King Henry VIII put a stop to pilgrimages during the Reformation. He had all the shrines & relics destroyed. Only St. Edward the Confessor's Shrine survived.



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