Tale of Pilgrimage To The Shrine of King Edward 11: Gloucester Cathedral


I read somewhere once that a Pilgrimage is as much about the journey within as it is the geographical journey we make. In my own experience this is very true. There is something very spiritual that occurs in this space between spaces, this journey we take where we think we know what our destination is and the reason why we wish to go there, that morphs into something very different to what we expected. It can take months and even years to fully absorb the changes that take place within us, culminating from that experience. It is almost a year since I stayed at Walsingham. I had not really intended to go there. I was actually en route to my family in Norfolk and had decided to stay in the Cotswolds, to see for the first ever time some of my family history on the ground, visit the places where my ancestors had lived and wanted to visit Gloucester Cathedral which one of my early ancestors founded. I flew down to Bristol, picked up my hire car and drove down to a B&B I had booked which sounded lovely at the time…and hated it! The atmosphere was all wrong, it was a beautiful property but I ended up confined to my room at 7pm by the landlady who made it quite clear she did not appreciate her guests being out after about 5pm, or sharing any part of the house other than the bedroom they were allocated. So, no sitting room, no walk in the garden and so on. As I sat in my cold draughty room, all the memories of being at boarding school and at countless residential care assignments came flooding back and I felt lost, lonely, abandoned and wondered why I had come at all. So this is the start of the pilgrimage, the journey to Walsingham when I had not even thought of going. Because I was booked for Gloucester. Best laid plans and all that!!

The next day I escaped very early to Gloucester Cathedral and loved it.  I took around 300 photos and was lost in the beauty of its space and stained glass and history. Pushing aside any thoughts of returning to my gloomy attic room at the B&B  which I had booked for 4 nights, I just enjoyed Gloucester utterly. Here are some photos of that visit.

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For about 70 years after King Edward 11 death, this became a site of pilgrimage. The shrine was richly jewelled, royal family members sent precious stones, jewellery, a gold ear and heart, all of which probably hung from the shrine. King Edward 111 sent a model ship, made of gold which may have sat on the plinth at the front of the tomb. It is comforting to meditate upon what this pilgrimage meant to so many of them back then and to in a sense join with them as travellers through time, kneeling on the cold stone just as they did nearly 700 years ago. We human beings share all the same trials and troubles that our earlier ancestors did, pain, ill-health, worry about family members or work, war, hunger, love, death…their petitions would not have been so different from our own.   In 1378 Edward’s great-grandson King Richard 11 held Parliament here at Gloucester Cathedral; in those days Parliament moved around the country and was held where the King called it, rather than being in one fixed place.

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For those early visitors to Gloucester what a sense of awe and wonder they would have encountered as they entered such a space and light filled building, which contrasted so starkly to their own dark dingy homes filled with wood smoke and with no glass in their windows to reflect any light. This building in contrast would have been literally flooded with brilliant light. Cathedrals had acres of glass… The journey to a building such as this would have made them feel that they had a nearly reached heaven itself, that the monks and priests had somehow managed to touch God and win his approval, to be living in such a magnificent place as this. These men must be truly blessed by God. The sense of profound awe and indeed magic would have been overwhelming, with the smells of incense and chanting of the monks and their belief would grow that miracle cures could be gained, that their lives and families lives could be improved, that transformation of the humblest to the highest could be had through the mysterious knowledge and conversation between priest and God on their behalf. Very often their own local priests were ill educated themselves, but these men, these monks here in these magnificent places must have seemed like a whole world apart from their own reality. Their senses were flooded just like mine when I went into the Vatican; colour was everywhere. The walls were painted in bright reds, oranges, blues, greens and medieval people loved colour. Their own clothes were far more colourful than our own nowadays. The ritual was theatre that drew them in, it was a stage where one could be a part of it if one knew those chants and routines, the ritual almost invites you, pulls you into wanting to be on the inner circle of its magic. It is a bridge inviting, charming you to cross it, or stay outside of it, forever slightly on the outside if you do not.

Pilgrims all had one overriding goal in mind as they made their journeys; the remission of sins. The penitential pilgrimage as a remission for sins began in the 6th century, it was unknown to the early church where the perpetual sinner was simply excluded and could only gain readmittance on promising to lead an almost monastic existence for the rest of his days. The whole notion of penance was transformed by the Irish missionaries. Pilgrimage was much favoured by the Irish as a spiritual exercise. Public penance which often meant pilgrimage was imposed for public sins with overtones of scandal, notably sexual offenses by clergy. Rayond of Penaforte, a canonist wrote that penance was a useful punishment for” those scandalous and notorious sins which set the whole town talking”, when they were committed by layman the penance was described as ‘solemn’, when by clergy as ‘public’. Going on your pilgrimage was also a penance for sinning openly. In the province of Cologne a synod in 1279 recommended pilgrimages in cases involving any self-indulgence of any sort.

For those whose sins were well concealed or venial, the penitential pilgrimage remained an act of personal piety, voluntarily undertaken. After the end of the 10th century growing numbers of the humble as well as the mighty performed distant pilgrimages to expiate crimes that weighed on their consciences. The times were changing. From the end of the 10th century penitents were usually absolved and reconciled with the Church immediately after confession. Thus arose the new distinction between sin and punishment. Sin was now expunged by confession, punishment was to remain to be suffered in Purgatory. So pilgrimage was seen as an act that could lessen by good works, the amount of time to be spent in Purgatory.

And we can see these differences between what became the penitential pilgrim and the earlier Celtic wanderers of an earlier age who simply had a certain destination in mind, travelled there and returned home to resume a normal life. Now pilgrimage became a serious business of atonement with flogging along the way, and dragging of heavy burdens, fasting, lack of care for the physical body  and so on. Indeed I was surprised to find through family history research that many of my own ancestors died whilst on long pilgrimages to or from Jerusalem, attempting to atone presumably for their perceived sins. Pilgrimages for some of these souls became a development of the penalty of judicial exile, never staying more than one night in a place, destined to eternally wander. In the words of the Penitential of St Columban he was to be ‘like Cain a wanderer and a fugitive on the face of the earth, never to return to his native land.’

Well for me, it was not that dire. I still had to return to the landlady from Hades tonight, but I could at least visit the last two family history places I wanted to touch base with, Rodborough and Painswick beforehand; and then I could plan my escape.

Photographs (C) Stephanie 2012

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