Journeying to Canterbury

Although there were many relics of saints at Canterbury before 1170, at both the Cathedral and St Augustine's Abbey, it was only after the martyrdom of Thomas Becket in that year and following the many miracles performed at his tomb that the city became the most popular pilgrimage destination in medieval England. Following the translation of Becket's relics to a new shrine on 7 July 1220, this feast became the most important time for pilgrims to visit, although pilgrimage was common throughout the sunnier months of April to September when the roads were less muddy and the weather more pleasant.

During the Middle Ages thousands of pilgrims came on a journey to Canterbury each year to visit the shrine of Thomas Becket to pray and seek help for their problems. Many would come long distances, including from all over Europe. Some would come on foot, while those who could afford it might ride on horseback. Travellers would often pass through Canterbury on business or on their way to or from the Continent, and it was normal to pray or give thanks at the shrine of Thomas Becket for a safe journey.

Map of medieval Canterbury
Map of medieval Canterbury

Journeying to Canterbury from within Britain

The road from London to Canterbury was the most popular route. London was where Becket had been born, and he was the patron saint of the city as well as featuring at a number of important civic sites. London was also an important crossing-point for the River Thames, so pilgrims from all over England would gather in Southwark south of London Bridge to make the journey to Canterbury in groups.

In the later Middle Ages the route was so popular with pilgrims from London that horses could be hired for set prices at points along the way. This is the road that Chaucer's pilgrims took in his Canterbury Tales of the late 14th century.

...specially from every shires ende
Of Engelond to Caunterbury they wende
The hooly blisful martir for to seke
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.
(Specially from the ends of every county
Of England to Canterbury they travel
To seek the holy blissful martyr
Who helped them when they were sick)

Chaucer, Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, 15-18

Journeying to Canterbury from Europe

Thomas Becket was popular all over Europe, and his shrine at Canterbury was one of the most important in the Christian religion. There are records of pilgrims coming from all over Europe, including France, Germany, Italy, Iceland and Hungary. We even know of some who came from as far away as India.

Canterbury lay on the main road between London and the major sea ports of Sandwich and Dover. Important foreign visitors would land at these ports and go to the shrine of Thomas Becket on their way to London.

'[Three pilgrims] came from India to Jerusalem, and stayed there for several years, and have come to Rome in order to visit the basilicas of the Apostles Peter and Paul and other basilicas, and intend to visit the church of St. James in Compostela and the churches of St. Mary, Finistére, Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy, and St. Thomas of Canterbury in England, and then to return to Jerusalem, and thence to India.'
Letter of Pope Innocent VIII, 1489


Remains of a saint or articles which have been in contact with a saint and in which some of the saint's power is believed to reside. 

Thomas Becket

 English Archbishop (Archbishop of Canterbury from 1162) and martyr, famously murdered by knights at Canterbury Cathedral after a dispute with Henry II. Miracles were soon recorded at his tomb. Canonised in 1173, his shrine became one of the most popular pilgrimage centres in Christendom. Patron saint of London with St Paul.


Refers, in this context, to the act of moving the body or other relics of a holy person.


City in the south east of England; the seat of England's senior archbishop, who is also bishop of the diocese of Canterbury. It was here that St Augustine of Canterbury (d.609), who had been sent by Pope Gregory the Great to convert the English in 597, established his ecclesiastical headquarters. In the Anglo-Saxon period Canterbury's monasteries were places of learning and artistry. After the Norman Conquest the cathedral was magnificently rebuilt by Archbishop Lanfranc and embellished by Archbishop Anselm. The martyrdom of Archbishop Thomas Becket in 1170 added to the cathedral's prominence as a place of pilgrimage and the east end of the church was dramatically remodelled in the Gothic style.

Canterbury Tales

A work by the Middle English poet Geoffrey Chaucer composed between the 1380s and the early 1390s, the Canterbury Tales comprises a description of a group of pilgrims making the journey from Southwark to Canterbury and the tales that they tell to amuse and edify each other. The work includes both verse and prose tales and appears to be unfinished, in that there is no explicit account of the pilgrims reaching Canterbury or returning. This work, which survives in various versions, was popular in the late Middle Ages and inspired several sequels, such as the fifteenth-century Tale of Beryn.