Rochester’s Medieval Mystery

DSC_0383-b-72dpiWhen researching medieval pilgrims for my story The Baker’s Boy, I was struck by the many facets of what resembled an early form of the tourist industry.

The subject of my research was William of Perth, an obscure Scottish baker who, having met an untimely death outside Rochester, became not only its patron saint but whose shrine also provided a much-needed source of income for its Cathedral and Benedictine priory.

What fascinated me about William was how someone who would probably have been regarded as a complete foreigner about whom little or nothing was known, was catapulted to saintly stardom and whose shrine became a ‘must-see’ for pilgrims.

Very little is known of William’s former life and what we have dates from a source printed some 300 years after his death. However, the reasons underpinning his celebrity probably have something to do with the rise of another medieval saint, Thomas Becket.

Formerly Chancellor of England, Becket had become Archbishop of Canterbury and famously opposed King Henry II’s attempt to subject ‘criminous clerks’ to the rule of secular law. Whether or not Henry actually ordered Becket’s death or, as he claimed, his words of frustration were wrongly interpreted as a signal for decisive action, Becket was subsequently murdered in Canterbury Cathedral by four of the king’s knights.

Following his death in 1170, Becket’s tomb rapidly became a focus of pilgrimage – a trend which can only have been strengthened by his canonisation in 1173. Although this was not the quickest canonisation – that distinction belongs to St Anthony of Padua who was canonised in under a year – Becket was, nonetheless, something of a ‘fast-track’ saint.

What probably accounted for Becket’s popularity was that he was contemporary, not a half-forgotten Saxon or Roman saint, but a man famous in his lifetime both for his status and his long-running conflict with the king.

Becket’s brutal death shocked a nation and, almost overnight, his tomb became a place of pilgrimage. The popular reaction to his death might well have resembled the extraordinary outpouring of grief on the death of Princess Diana.

Becket’s death had a profound impact on both the Cathedral and town of Canterbury, attracting pilgrims from all over Britain and Europe and becoming the focus of an early and lucrative form of tourist trade. It has been estimated that, in one year alone, some 100,000 pilgrims visited Becket’s shrine. They brought not only their devotion, but also their money.

To illustrate the wealth generated by medieval shrines, here is a contemporary account of Becket’s tomb: “the shrine appeared, blazing with jewels and gold; the wooden sides were plated with gold, and damasked with gold wire, and embossed with innumerable pearls and jewels and rings, cramped together on this gold ground.”

During the 12th century, Rochester Cathedral was confronted with serious challenges which could have resulted in its permanent decline. In 1137 and 1179, it suffered two devastating fires. Then, in 1199, Pope Innocent III imposed an unprecedented tax of one fortieth of all income on the clergy in order to finance a crusade. In the same year, a note in a contemporary text records an investigation into Rochester Priory’s debts.

It seems clear that Rochester was in financial difficulties.

In 1201, the untimely death of an unknown pilgrim just outside Rochester could well have saved the Cathedral and Priory from economic catastrophe.

Was the saintly cult of William of Perth modelled on that of Becket? It certainly seems likely.

Without doubt, William’s shrine was extremely popular. The Pilgrim Steps that led to his shrine have been so worn down by pilgrims that they are now preserved under a wooden frame. The funds raised from medieval pilgrims almost certainly contributed to the renovation of the Cathedral.

In this respect, it is tempting to see William’s career as contemporary medieval saint running in parallel with that of Thomas Becket. Sadly, their shrines both shared the same fate, being destroyed c.1538 as a result of Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries.

Additional Information

The Baker’s Boy is one of a collection of stories inspired by Rochester Cathedral, its history and treasures which appears in T. Thurai’s new book Barley Bread and Cheese. Click here

To learn more about Rochester Cathedral, click here

For T. Thurai’s website, click here

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