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Shrines and Pilgrimages Before the Reformation

During the Reformation, writes Christine King, Tudor agents demolished many venerated shrines, and made great use of the frauds and trickeries that they claimed to have detected.

There are a few modern books on the shrines of medieval England; and, given the fascination of the subject, it is perhaps surprising there are not more. Such sacred places of pilgrimage may be divided roughly into five categories. First came those founded before the Conquest. Often built on an ancient holy spot, they usually contained the bodies of missionaries, bishops, founders or martyrs.

Of shrines of saints founded after the Conquest there were two groups, those enclosing the relics of canonized saints, and those containing the bones of uncanonized unofficial saints like Simon de Montfort, whose cult was unsuccessfully attacked by both Church and Crown. The shrines of the Virgin Mary, the most important being at Walsingham, belonged to the fourth category. The fifth, which I discuss here, held relics of a miscellaneous kind.

A shrine is usually defined as a holy place housing the relics of a saint; and the word may be applied either to the actual tomb, often richly decorated, or to the building in which it was preserved. The shrines described here are unusual in that none contained the bones of a holy person. Their objects of veneration were as varied as a working model of the crucifix, a relic of the Holy Blood, a piece of the true Cross, and the statue of a bearded woman; and they provide the historian with a special source of information about mediaeval worship and popular religious belief and behaviour.

Indeed, if there is an equivalent in the study of pre-Reformation England to the ‘social history’ of the Industrial Revolution, then this is it. These shrines, moreover, were frequently mentioned in sixteenth-century Protestant invective; and ‘revelations’ of the trickery alleged to have been practised there provide a good example of Tudor propagandist methods.

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