Remembering English Saints in 2020: A Pilgrimage in Print

Stained glass window from Canterbury Cathedral depicting the cure of woman through prayer to St Thomas a Becket


2020 will be a year that lives long in the memory. 

For historians of the medieval saints, and at cathedrals and great churches across England, and for historians of the medieval saints, it began as a major anniversary year. The Association of English Cathedrals had declared 2020 to be a national ‘Year of Cathedrals, Year of Pilgrimage’. At Lincoln, this year marked 800 years since Hugh of Avalon, Bishop of Lincoln, was declared to be a saint, and at Hereford, 750 years since the canonisation of Thomas de Cantilupe. For Salisbury cathedral, this year is the 800th since the laying of the foundation stone, whilst at Bury St Edmunds, the abbey marks 1,000 years since its establishment by King Cnut. Meanwhile, Durham cathedral’s year of pilgrimage coincided with the launch of walking trails inspired by the lives of Saints Aidan, Cuthbert, Oswald, Wilfrid, Hild and Bede.

Bright roundel from a stained glass window.
Figure 1. Detail from St Mary’s, Bury St Edmunds

At Canterbury in particular, 2020 marks the 850th anniversary of the martyrdom of Archbishop Thomas Becket in the city’s cathedral, and the 800th anniversary of the Translation of St Thomas, when Becket’s remains were installed in their magnificent new shrine in the cathedral’s Trinity Chapel. Becket’s had been a cult with national and Europe-wide appeal, and – as Thomas was a Londoner by birth – his anniversaries were also set to be marked with exhibitions at the British Museum and Museum of London. In February, a celebratory event at the Mercer’s Hall in the City of London marked the beginning of what looked set to be a memorable year of commemorative activity.

And then there was Covid-19.

The national lockdown, restrictions on public gatherings, furlough, and all that came with Covid-19, postponed planned celebrations, exhibitions, conferences, and any other event designed to bring large groups of people together to commemorate the saints, to emphasise the values they are seen to have stood for, to focus on aspects of their lives that continue to resonate today, and to celebrate the major churches that grew up around their cults.

Not everything, however, has fallen into limbo. In this special issue of History, scholars present new research on the lives and cults of saints associated with major churches marking anniversaries in 2020. Spanning the medieval period, publication of this collection would originally have fallen towards the end of the celebratory year. It now begins the process of commemoration as we look ahead to the post-Covid world.

Our pilgrimage in print begins in northern England, with Fiona and Richard Gameson’s discussion of the composition of the written life of the Northumbrian saint, Bede, and examination of the way in which an elaborate medieval account could be constructed despite the lack of abundant historical evidence. Northumbria is also the focus of attention for Joyce Hill, who examines St Wilfrid, and his role in establishing a ‘Roman-style cathedral’ at Ripon, both in terms of the architectural setting Wilfrid created, and the religious activity that took place.

Moving to the Midlands, our journey then takes us to Lichfield, where 2019 marked the 1,350th anniversary of the consecration of St Chad as bishop of Mercia. Ranging from the seventh century to the English Reformation, Ian Styler’s consideration of Chad’s cult explores its reach and appeal for pilgrims within the Midlands and northern England.

Interior of Lichfield Cathedral. Stone arches flank an elaborately tiled floor.
Figure 2. Lichfield Cathedral, interior

Where these articles focus on a series of northern powerhouses – religious communities that developed as influential religious centres – based around the cults of their saints and the pilgrims they could attract, similar trends can be seen elsewhere. In the later thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, on the border of England and Wales, Hereford cathedral promoted and established a successful saint’s cult around Thomas de Cantilupe, for whom the surviving miracle collection is explored by Ian Bass.

In East Anglia, St Edmund, king and martyr, attracted the attention of English rulers during the central and later Middle Ages. This phenomenon is explored by Paul Webster, and could be seen in pilgrimages and gifts to the abbey of Bury St Edmunds, but also in taking the saint to war. King Edward I – who appears to have had a lively sense of how to make a community of monks feel important – on one occasion announced that the long-dead saint would join his Scottish campaign ‘to protect me and mine, and to conquer the enemy’. In a perhaps withering comment to one of his justices, he added that St Edmund ‘will come wearing flashing armour, much better prepared than you’!

Moving south, Tim Tatton-Brown takes us to Salisbury, exploring the dual development of the cult of St Osmund and the remodelling of the fabric of the city’s cathedral, in the era when the cathedral moved from Old Sarum to the new town of Salisbury. Here, an ‘unofficial’ shrine stood in the Trinity Chapel from the 1230s, a few years after efforts to canonise Osmund began, until the fifteenth century, when he was finally declared a saint and moved to another new shrine.

Last, but by no means least, John Jenkins and Louise Wilkinson explore the cult of perhaps the foremost northern European saint: Thomas Becket. In focusing on London, Jenkins takes us to the city of Becket’s birth, and the efforts of Londoners to claim the saint as one of their own. Association with Becket found a place in the very fabric of the city from an early stage in the development of his cult, for instance in the reconstruction of London Bridge, with its central chapel of St Thomas, from the late 1170s. From London, like Chaucer’s pilgrims, the Special Issue wends to Canterbury, considering Becket’s cult at its spiritual home. Louise Wilkinson explores evidence for the endurance of devotion to St Thomas in the thirteenth century among churchmen and royalty. If Becket had been King Henry II’s nemesis in the twelfth century, and whilst his cult had an enduring appeal to opponents of the crown, it was nonetheless a religious phenomenon that rulers knew they could not ignore. England’s premier saint therefore, ‘remained harnessed to the medieval English monarchy’.

Interior of Canterbury Cathedral. A candle burns on the tiled floor to commemorate Becket's death.
Figure 3. Thomas Becket’s shrine, Canterbury Cathedral

What Henry II would have made of continued celebration of Becket on the 850th anniversary of the murder in Canterbury Cathedral, is unknowable. Likewise Henry VIII, the Tudor monarch who swept away the cult of the saints in England. Perhaps both rulers might have taken a grim satisfaction in the way in which the events of 2020 have thwarted the best laid commemorative plans. But Henry VIII proved unable completely to sweep away the old religious practices. So too, Covid-19 will not keep us at home forever. The papers in this Special Issue, which once were scheduled to help bring 2020’s year of the saints to a close, now stand among starting points for revival of activity as events, exhibitions and conferences begin to become a possibility in the post-pandemic world.

Paul Webster is a lecturer at Cardiff University, where he coordinates the Exploring the Past adult learners progression pathway, a partnership between the university’s Division of Continuing and Professional Education and the School of History, Archaeology and Religion, where he teaches medieval history. His research focuses on kingship, piety, and the cult of the saints in medieval England. His principal publications include the monograph King John and Religion(Woodbridge: 2015) and a collection, co-edited with Dr Marie-Pierre Gelin (UCL) on The Cult of St Thomas Becket in the Plantagenet World (Woodbridge, 2016).

Banner image. Mattana. Detail from stained glass window, Canterbury Cathedral. A miracle performed by prayer. Available online with Creative Commons license.

Figure 1. John Salmon. Detail from stained glass window in St Mary’s Church, Bury St Edmond’s, Canterbury. Image available online with Creative Commons license.

Figure 2. Unknown photographer. Interior of Lichfield Cathedral, Staffordshire. Image available online with creative commons license.

Figure 3. Unknown photographer. Thomas Becket’s shrine, Canterbury Cathedral, Canterbury. Available online in the public domain.

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