Why Do People Make Pilgrimages to Canterbury?

In Geoffrey Chaucer's 'The Canterbury Tales,' the characters are on a pilgrimage to Canterbury because it was the seat of the Church of England.
... Jupiterimages/liquidlibrary/Getty Images

The tradition of taking a pilgrimage is not exclusive to any one faith. Believers from many faiths have journeyed to locations that played important roles in shaping their religion’s history and doctrine. One of the Five Pillars of Islam urges believers who can afford to do so to take a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their lives. Many Christians, regardless of denomination, journey to the Holy Land, to sites like Bethlehem, Nazareth and Capernaum, and members of the Jewish faith frequently journey to Israel as well. There are other places that have gained particular religious importance, because of the history that occurred there and the effect those events had on church history and doctrine. One such place is Canterbury in the United Kingdom.

1 St. Augustine

In 597, Augustine and 40 monks were sent by Pope Gregory to evangelize the Anglo-Saxons in England. In the territory of Kent, Augustine was received by King Ethelbert, a pagan who was married to a Christian, Bertha. Ethelbert gave Augustine a small church in Canterbury and within a year, the king converted to Christianity. Augustine commissioned the construction of the Canterbury Cathedral, and in 602 he became the first Archbishop of Canterbury. After a massive fire, the cathedral was rebuilt in 1070.

2 St. Thomas Becket

Because of St. Augustine, Canterbury became an archdiocese, but it was more than 500 years later that Canterbury became the site of a massive pilgrimage. In 1170, Thomas Becket, who was the Archbishop in Canterbury at the time, was murdered inside the Cathedral walls. Becket quarreled with King Henry II over the power of the church and the rights of the clergy. The king is said to have cried out in rage, “Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?” Four knights, taking him at his word, entered the cathedral during vespers, confronted Becket and murdered him at the altar. Three days after his murder, there were accounts of several miracles, which were attributed to his martyrdom, and after Pope Alexander III canonized Becket in 1173, pilgrims flocked to Canterbury to visit Becket’s shrine and make prayers for miracles of their own.

3 The Pilgrims' Way

About 200 years after the death of Thomas Becket, Geoffrey Chaucer began writing "The Canterbury Tales," the stories of individual pilgrims in a group journeying to St. Thomas Becket’s shrine Pilgrims traveled many roads to reach Canterbury, but perhaps the most famous is the 120 mile trail between Winchester and Canterbury, two-thirds of which is identifiable today.

Many pilgrims journey to Canterbury, either as a destination or as a stop during a pilgrimage to other sites, such as Santiago de Compostella in Spain or the Via Francigena.

4 Pilgrimage for Justice: 2012

The Canterbury Cathedral holds 2,000 services annually, and regardless of their own religious affiliation, some literature and history scholars and enthusiasts go to Canterbury as a re-creation of Chaucer’s work. In June of 2012, the Pilgrimage for Justice took place, and event participants spent two weeks walking 62 miles from London to Canterbury. Evoking the ancient pilgrimage Christians took to St. Thomas Becket’s shrine, the Pilgrimage for Justice welcomed modern-day pilgrims to march for social change. Inspired by difficult economic times, Occupy Faith, the organization behind the event, sought to draw upon the tradition of people who took pilgrimages at times of crisis.

Amanda Graber has been a writer and editor since 2009. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in numerous publications. As an editor, she has worked for both a commercial magazine and a children's literary agency. Graber holds a master's degree in writing and publishing from DePaul University.