PilgrimsSt. William of Perth at Rochester, and St. Thomas Becket at Canterbury may well have kickstarted the growth and development of tech economies of Rochester and Strood. Not personally of course, but by the hundred’s of thousands of pilgrims who passed through the Medway Valley and Rochester to visit the shrines of theses saints.

The story of pilgrims is largely told from the perspective of Christian history, art and literature. Little consideration seems to have been given to the economic benefits that pilgrims and pilgrimages brought to the areas through which they travelled or places they visited – none more so than Rochester and Strood. Covid 19 has highlighted just how important tourism is to many economies, and I suspect this was so 900 years ago – although the tourists would have been known as pilgrims back then.

During medieval times thousands of prosperous pilgrims followed the Pilgrims’ Way or Pilgrims’ Path through the Medway Valley, Kent. Some would have been heading for Canterbury via Rochester, or perhaps to a port to cross the Channel. In Medway their spending and offerings contributed significantly to the building of the cathedral, the establishment of Strood as a place independent of Frindsbury, and the maintenance / replacement of the bridge at Rochester.  

The Route

There were two main routes through Kent to Canterbury. One followed the Roman Road/Watling Street which I later refer to as the ‘A2 Route’. The other is known today as the Pilgrims’ Way. 

Roman Routes The Graphic 3 Sept 1921 Donald Maxwell

It probably started as part of a network of ancient trade routes that ran between the Kent ports and Winchester and London, some of which would have been utilised be Romans. Some of these ancient trackways can be recognised as hollow-ways as shown in the picture below. The path in the picture is part of the North Downs Way roughly north of Boxley. It’s now set deep in a hollow made through centuries of use. The antiquity of the track is further indicated by the old gnarled yew trees that line the path.

Hollow Way

The Pilgrims’ Way largely followed the south escarpment of the chalk North Downs. This route avoided the softer ground at the base of the downs which would have been susceptible to flooding and difficult to traverse in wet weather.

Within Kent the pilgrims who were travelling eastwards, would have crossed the River Darent at Otford and continued their journey via Kemsing on towards Wrotham. At Birling they could choose to head towards Cuxton and onto Rochester or continue on to Snodland/Halling where they could cross the river, and then head towards Burham. From there they could have travelled towards Kits Coty House and then onto Boxley where from c1146 there was an abbey that was able to provide accommodation. From the abbey they could have continued following the downs to Wye and then onto Canterbury.

Kits Coty
                                 Kit’s Coty House – probably passed by Pilgrims


Places along the route stood to benefit from the increasing footfall of pilgrims – if they provided essential facilities and had the right ‘attractions’. This blog aims to illustrate how the Church and communities, and I’m afraid those with criminal intentions benefited from the flow of wealthy pilgrims through the Medway Valley.


Impact of the Norman Conquest

Although the monastery at Rochester, set up by King Ethelbert with Bishop Justin in 604, had shrines to Paulinus (died 644) and Ithamar (died ?655?), they only had a minor cult following.

The economic importance of pilgrims and pilgrimages increased with the arrival of the Normans in 1066. France long before 1066 was a well established Christian nation with strong connections with the Pope. Before William of Normandy could contemplate making a military claim on the throne of Britain he needed or perhaps chose to get the Pope’s blessing.

William was aware that he was not in the Pope’s good books as he had married Matilda of Flanders without his approval – approval that the Pope would not have given on the basis of consanguinity – William and Matilda being too closely related.

In order to gain the Pope’s approval William agreed to return England to Christianity. It is possible that his agents overstated how heathen Britain had become in order to gain the Pope’s support. However the ‘offer’ to undertake a significant church building programme and to install his own people to run the Church, clearly won the Pope over; this though left William I with a huge financial commitment to be added to the cost of his invasion.

Although the Church owned a considerable amount of land – even before the conquest – from which it received a rental income, it was insufficient for the bishops to meet the new obligations placed upon them. One way to increase income was to attract more pilgrims. (This strategy is not that different to today. In 2018 Rochester Cathedral owned 43 properties, both commercial and residential, in Rochester. (Statutory Accounts 2018 ). The cathedral also hosted events such as crazy golf and the knife sculpture (2019), and the replica Moon (2020). These drew large numbers of visitors to the cathedral, many of whom made donations – and also spent money in the local economy.)

Moon and Angel

Dire State of the early Cathedral at Rochester

By 1066 the Anglo-Saxon cathedral that was on the site now occupied by the current cathedral at Rochester, was probably dilapidated and in need of replacement more than restoration. (Cobbles at the west front of the cathedral and tramlines inside mark out the apse of the Saxon church.)

Old Church layout

Inside Saxon Cathedral copy

Click Image to explore 3D CGI of the inside of the Saxon Cathedral at Rochester.

The building of a new cathedral at Rochester would have been expensive enough without it being dogged by ‘misfortunes’ and vandalism as highlighted within the following time sequence.

1088 – building started. Early on – probably under the direction of Bishop Gundulf – the remains of Bishop Paulinus were reinterred in a new ‘Silver Shrine’ inside the new cathedral. This could have been a shrewd business move as well as a populist decision. A spectacular shrine would have drawn pilgrims to the cathedral, and by honouring a Saxon saint William I would have been portrayed as being less of a conqueror (which he wasn’t known as until the 14th century) and more as an inclusive King of the country. {Newspaper reports in 1873 stated that footings of the 604 cathedral had been found along with two leaden coffins – one was assumed to contain the remains of Ithamar. There were no helpful markings on the second coffin. Its position though suggests it contained the remains of an eminent person (Kentish Mercury, 10 May 1873)}.

1133 – church was consecrated and dedicated to St. Andrew the Apostle, only for it in ….

1137 – to be destroyed by fire, which necessitated some rebuilding.

1170 – Thomas Becket was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral. Almost immediately stories circulated concerning miracles associated with his relics. Some of them unsurprisingly related to people from Rochester. I’ve not found dates for these miracles but there was Juliana of Rochester who was cured of her blindness when she visited Becket’s tomb (Women Pilgrims in Late Medieval England. Susan Morrison. 2000, p96), and probably somewhat later, Becket was credited with saving the life of Rodbertus (Robert) of Rochester. Robert had taken a day off school and went down to the River Medway to throw stones at frogs. Here he slipped into the mud and was feared drowned. However, he was brought back to life with a mixture of the saint’s blood and Holy Water. (Canterbury Cathedral. Keats & Hornak. 2018. p42). This miracle is portrayed in a window in Canterbury Cathedral.

Robert toad
               Detail from the Window of Miracles in Canterbury Cathedral. (Toads towards btm right).

Clearly compared with Thomas Becket, Rochester’s saints –  Paulinus and Ithamar – fell short of the mark when it came to miracles that benefited local people. 

Perhaps in an effort to address this, accounts of miracles associated with St. Ithamar began to circulate. One was of a terminally ill man who had not been cured by his pilgrimage to the grave of Thomas Becket and called into Rochester Cathedral on his way home. The monks thought he was so close to death they placed him near the shrine or St. Ithamar whilst Mass was said. Following the Mass the man who had been blind and in pain at the start of the service had fully recovered (Pilgrimage in Medieval England, p57).

1179 – major fire destroyed the cathedral / abbey and much of the city. Monks needed to move out.

1193 – Bishop Gilbert de Glanville, (Bishop of Rochester, 1185-1214) using resources from Rochester abbey, founded a hospital at Strood and a chapel dedicated to St. Mary on the Strood side of the bridge. Bishop Gilbert’s actions not only deprived the monks of Rochester of assets, they established a nearby competitor for the income that could be realised from the pilgrims. It is possible that the consequential loss of income necessitated the monks of Rochester to sell the silver shrine of Paulinus; other’s believe the silver from the shrine was taken by King John’s men during the siege of the castle in 1215. {Why Gilbert de Glanville did what he did is not known but it’s clear that he had not gained ‘permission’ from the St. Andrew’s monks. Tensions were such that representations were made to the Pope and fights broke out between the monks of the competing institutions. I wonder whether St. Andrew’s, as a monastic cathedral, was less responsive to the needs of the increasing number of pilgrims coming to Rochester, and the associated business opportunities? At Canterbury the monastery of St Augustine was close to but separate from the cathedral.}

1215 – cathedral used as stables by King John’s men whilst besieging the castle. They caused damage and took items of value.

1220 – Canterbury Cathedral ‘unveiled’ a magnificent and ornate shrine for Thomas Becket that had taken 30 years to construct. This, plus reports of an increasing and diverse range of miracles associated with Becket’s grave and prayers for his intervention, undoubtedly increased the draw of pilgrims to Canterbury.

Becket's Shrine                      Click on image of the shire of St Thomas Becket for a CGI Reconstruction 

1264 – Simon de Montford’s besieged Rochester castle. His men used and damaged the cathedral and destroyed cathedral property.

{Based on the events summarised above it’s not surprising that the second oldest cathedral in the country is so small what with so much needing to be spent on repairs as opposed to new construction.} 

‘Manna from Heaven’ for the Monastery of St Andrew’s

The financial position of the cathedral/monastery dramatically improved from 1201 following the murder of William of Perth on the outskirts of Rochester. 

St. William of Perth – a fictitious saint?
St William Frindsbury Church
Image of St William of Perth found on the walls of Frindsbury Church in 1883. It had been whitewashed over during the Reformation.

The story is that William of Perth who was a very pious man, and who was generous to the poor, rested at Rochester en route to Canterbury in 1201. On leaving Rochester his servant / companion / son (not sure which) killed him. A woman with mental health problems found him. She made a garland of flowers – possibly honeysuckle – which she placed on William’s head. She then placed the garland on her head and reported that she was immediately cured of her madness. This was reported to the monks at Rochester who probably heard the equivalent of ‘ker-ching’ and saw an opportunity to make Rochester a new and popular centre for pilgrimages. (The murder may have taken place close to what is now the Wisdom Hospice which was built on the site of St. Williams Hospital. It seems that people who died whilst on a pilgrimage could automatically be regarded as martyrs and worthy of veneration.)

The monks quickly arranged for the collection of William’s body and for it to be interned in the cathedral. He was probably initially buried in the crypt before a shrine could be constructed. It is believed that his shrine was a freestanding structure located in the centre of the transept. (Click on links for references.) (Courtauld Institute of Art (1987) Rochester Cathedral: Report on Conservation of the wall paintings; William of Perth tomb c. 1350 and Crypt Eastern end, South East bay and The Medieval Wall Paintings of Rochester Cathedral, Rochester Cathedral Research Guild, 2016.1    (Jacobs, B. D. (2005)

It was soon reported by chroniclers of the time that William’s shrine “glistened with miracles”. (Faith & Fabric, p38).

What the miracles involved is not reported, nor the ratio of male to female pilgrims that attended the shrine which could have given an indication of the types of miracles that were associated with William. Research suggests women were most likely to go on a pilgrimage for familial reasons or for relief from crippling diseases, and men for non-healing reasons (Women Pilgrims in Medieval England, p3). Whatever the miracles were news of them quickly spread and it wasn’t long before William’s shrine became (allegedly) the second most visited in the country – after that of St. Thomas Becket. {I’ve been unable to determine whether William of Perth was canonised. The Rev. Canon Matthew Rushton  says that William was canonised in 1256, but other writers state that although representations were made no Papal Bull appears to have been issued (Faith & Fabric, p38).

{Nor have I been able to determine the evidence for the claim that the shrine of William of Perth was the second most visited in the country. Many historians place shrines in Walsingham, Norfolk,  (“one of the holiest places in England”) as being in second place, after Becket, in terms of the amount of donations received. Walsingham may even have beaten Canterbury in the 15th Century. Walsingham was also favoured by female pilgrims. (Women Pilgrims in Medieval England, p16 /17.)}  

Whether William of Perth was canonised or not, his shrine was clearly one of high importance. Many bequeaths were made by Rochester citizens, and it was visited by Edward I in February 1300 who gave 7 shillings, and by Queen Philippa in 1352, who gave 1 shilling (Catholic Saint Newsand Faith & Fabric, p38). 

Perhaps in order to solicit more donations from pilgrims, Pope Boniface IX in 1398 granted a remission of 100 days to be spent in purgatory (an indulgence) to penitents who visited William’s shrine and gave a donation towards the maintenance of the cathedral. Whether the money went into the ‘building-fund’ or to purchase more land is undeclared but the monastery had a policy of land acquisition. (Faith & Fabric, p38).

Miracle or Placebo? 

Having a shrine would not have provided a sustained draw for pilgrims – unless accounts of miracles were refreshed, or as we will see later, people were compelled to visit shrines. 

The Church would have been aware that frequent reports of miracles would have been key to keeping visitor numbers up and encouraging generous offerings. Based on the ‘Silver Shrine’ and the ornate shrine of Becket it is clear that ‘theatre’ played a part in the pilgrim experience. The pilgrim experience at Rochester would have started the moment the pilgrim crossed the threshold into the pre-reformation cathedral. The contrast between their day-to-day life experiences and what they witnessed inside would have been extreme – even awe-inspiring or magical – with all senses triggered.

The pilgrim would not have been greeted by plain grey/fawn block-work of today but by vivid wall paintings and decorations. There would probably have been the smell of incense as well as music as there is evidence that the monastery had ‘song-boys’ (choristers) c1082, and may have had an organ by 1185 (History of the Choir School of Rochester Cathedral, James Strike. Rochester Cathedral Old Choristers’Association.)

The pilgrims would not have participated in a service as they would have today. The early pilgrims would have stood as pews were not introduced in the 14th and 15th century. (This could explain way the sick man who it was said was cured by St. Ithamar was laid by his tomb whilst was was said.) The pilgrims would not have directly participated in any service. It is most probable that they stood in the nave and witnessed through a screen a service conducted in Latin – rather like we attend a concert today – some though may have said prayers to themselves.

The ‘art’ adorning the cathedral would have been commissioned to glorify God, but it could have also contributed to what we recognise today as the placebo effect. The whole impact of the visit could have raised expectations of a cure – particularly in those seeking relief from pain. Any recovery no matter how it was brought about though would have reinforced stories of miracles and encouraged more pilgrims.

The best remaining example of medieval art at Rochester is a fragment of the “Wheel of Fortune”. Other images of early paintings and decorations, that can be found in the cathedral, have been included in Beverley Dee Jacobs’ Masters dissertation, 2005, “The Medieval Wall Paintings of Rochester Cathedral c1190 -1350”.  Understandably these have faded over the centuries but one perhaps can get a sense of how vivid they may have been by viewing the modern fresco in Rochester Cathedral that was painted by Sergei Fyodorov (2004).

Wheel of Fortune

Click on image of The Wheel of Fortune for more information

It has been suggested that the north and east minor transepts of the cathedral were built to accommodate the large number of pilgrims visiting the cathedral. (The Medieval Wall Paintings of Rochester Cathedral, Beverly Dee Jacobs, 2005, p6 (cited above). It seems though that the transepts were more likely to have been constructed as part of the rebuild that followed the devastating fire of 1179. It is also suggested that the offerings made at the shrine of St. William enabled the rebuilding of the vaulted Quire (Choir) and the Presbytery (Rev. Matthew Rushton cited above). 

It’s of little matter today as to how the donations/offerings were used. It is sufficient to recognise that they would have contributed significantly towards the cost of the of building, rebuilding and repairing of the cathedral at Rochester.

{Today St. William of Perth is the patron saint for adopted children. This may be because he adopted a baby that had been left on the steps of his local church. He named the child David. Some commentators believe it was David who murdered William.}

Detail from modern fresco in Rochester Cathedral by Sergi Fyodorov

St. Mary Magdalene Church, Gillingham, Kent

It was not just the cathedral that used accounts of miracles to draw in pilgrims. It is reported that St. Mary Magdalene church at Gillingham, Kent, held a figure of ‘Our Lady of Gillingham’ which reputedly worked (unspecified) miracles (The Gillingham Chronicles. Ronald Baldwin.1998, p125). This church would have been on or close to the route pilgrims, who landed at Gillingham having crossed the estuary from Essex, would have taken to pick up the ‘A2 route’ to Canterbury. In April 1294 Edward I travelled from Chelmsford to spend some time in Chatham & Gillingham before continuing his journey to spend Easter at Canterbury (Pilgrimages in Medieval England, p228). There is no evidence that Edward l visited St. Mary Magdalene but it evidenced that pilgrims crossed the estuary between Essex and Medway to make their way to Canterbury. 

St Mary Mag                                                    St. Mary Magdalene Church, Gillingham

Town & Church share Common Interests

From 1170 (the murder of Thomas Becket) to around 1540 (dissolution of the monasteries) pilgrims were important to the church and the secular economies of the Medway Valley – as well as Canterbury and its cathedral. 

The numbers passing through Rochester and Strood on their way to Canterbury, would have been considerable. Researchers at York University estimate that the shrine of Thomas Becket was visited by up to 100,000 pilgrims each year, BBC News, 7 Jul. 2020.  A very large proportion of these would have crossed the Medway Valley twice – once there, and again on their return trip. Many, perhaps the majority of pilgrims would have been wealthy, or they would not have been able to afford the undertaking of a pilgrimage – some undertaking several pilgrimages / year (The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England. p65). Further the poorer peasant classes even if they could afford to undertake a long pilgrimage, were probably not free to do so under the feudal laws of the country. They may well though have visited local shrines and made offerings.

Geographically Rochester and Strood were well placed to benefit from the pilgrim trade. It was on a main route to Canterbury, it had a bridge to cross the River Medway, it had the cathedral church with shrines, and there were, mainly in Rochester, facilities capable of meeting some of the needs of the pilgrim travellers. Commercially therefore the more pilgrims the Church drew to the area the more traders could make from providing for their needs. One such trader could well have been Simon Potyn who was the master of the Crown Inn. This inn was located very close to the current Crown Inn (ME1 1PT). Such was his wealth he was able to establish a hospital – St Catherine’s – in 1316 for those suffering from leprosy (History of Rochester, p449). Although I’ve found no evidence his business benefited from pilgrims it is highly probable as the Crown Inn was close to the bridge and the cathedral. Albeit indirectly, the spend of pilgrims could therefore have brought more benefits to the locale. {St. Catherine’s still exists today and is still part of the Richard Watts Charities.

Earlier, one has to wonder whether Bishop Gilbert de Glanville (Bishop of Rochester) was a rather astute businessman when in 1193 he made significant investments in Strood. Using money and assets of Rochester Cathedral/Monastery he built a hospital at Strood that became known as Newark or St. Mary’s Hospital. {Aldi supermarket is now on the site.} The hospital provided for local people who were weak or infirm, as well as travellers. In addition to the hospital, Bishop Gilbert also built housing and wharfs. The income from these developments was used to support the hospital and possibly the maintenance of the bridge for which the King and the Church were largely responsible. It was also directed that any profits were to go to relieve the poor. 

The investments made in Strood would only have been justified if there was real or potential demand for the properties and facilities that Bishop Gilbert developed. The increased availability of accommodation and the investment in wharfs would have undoubtedly brought more trade to the town – and where there’s trade you will find entrepreneurs. It’s therefore not unreasonable to speculated that the investments made by Bishop Gilbert were stimulated by the pilgrim traffic and made Strood a town in its own right rather than a hamlet of the parish of Frindsbury (History of Strood, p1). The investments would have also helped to diversify the local economy of Strood that was largely dependent on fishing.

Bishop Gilbert also built a chapel that was dedicated to St. Mary on the Strood side of the bridge. In addition to this being part of his Benedictine mission, I wonder if he spotted another income opportunity? St. Mary was clearly someone worthy of veneration. But had Bishop Gilbert also recognised that people may want to pray and make offerings before crossing what was a dangerous river – more about that below – and would also be prepared to pay for Masses to be said for those who lost their lives crossing the river? Smetham (History of Strood, p145) reports that Queen Isabella in 1357 entered the Chapel of St. Mary at Strood and offered an obligation of 6s / 8d (33p) in the honour of 11,000 virgins who had been massacred. The fact a queen visited and made an offering of a considerable amount, probably the equivalent of £250 today, suggests the chapel was of some significance. {The story of the massacre is now questioned but it was held to be true a the time of Queen Isabella’s offering. Historic UK. 

As much as these new facilities may have been needed, they competed with Rochester for the pilgrims’ money. To cope with this challenge and perhaps to pursue Bishop Gilbert for the return of their assets, the monks of Rochester needed to sell some of their silver, (https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/kent/vol2/pp121-126)  – which may or may not have included the Silver Shrine of St. Paulinus.

Rochester’s Notoriously Dangerous Bridge 

Pilgrims following the Pilgrims Way to Canterbury and who did not wish to visit Rochester, could cross the River Medway between Lower Halling and Snodland. {There probably would not have been a bishop’s palace at Halling if it was not well located for accessibility.} 

Bishops Palace Halling    Image of part of the ruins of the Bishop’s Palace at Halling, Kent, built 1077, but later modified / extended

People could cross by ferry, and may at times have been able to walk across on stepping stones. The river at this point would have been somewhat different to how it is today. It is reported that during the terrible droughts of 1113 and 1281, when the springs that fed the Medway dried up, it was possible to walk ‘dry shod’ between Strood and Rochester. (Nottingham Evening Post, 9 Sept. 1933, p8.) {Presumably when it was a very low tide.}

Prior to the 1390’s those who chose to travel via Rochester had the ‘joys’ of being able to take advantage of a very rickety ancient bridge or a risky ferry crossing over the turbulent waters of the Medway. There is no image of this bridge but one can get a sense of the design from the following images that include the Innsbruck coat of arms.  It seems though, to be accepted that the ancient bridge was a loose planked wooden deck supported on the Roman piers and did not have side rails to prevent people / horses falling off.

Roman Bridge
Image from Street Furniture – Esplanade Rochester
Represenation of bridge on Innsbruck Coat of Arms
Innsbruck Coat of Arms

The approach roads to the bridge would have taken a tremendous pummelling from the bridge traffic. One only has to look at mud filled hollows at the pinch-points near kissing-gates/stiles, when out on a ramble, to get a sense of the damage footfall can do. It is therefore not difficult to envisage how much worse it would have been on the approach to a bridge that was used by many more people as well as horses and carts. In wet/snowy and icy weather this must have made approaching the bridge very difficult if not impossible. {Not good for an economy dependent on people coming through Rochester/Strood in order to cross the river.}

Despite the importance of the bridge to the Church, local trade and the military, it seems those responsible for the approach roads were reluctant to undertake the essential maintenance. Eventually Edward III (reign 1327-1377) ordered the inhabitants of Strood to repair and improve the road on the London side of the bridge (Pilgrimage in Medieval England, p228). This order was probably issued in the interest of the military as the 100 year war with France had started in 1337, and the bridge was on a main route from London to the ports of Kent. 

Pilgrim traffic and tolls, respectively, damaged and helped maintain the bridges

This is not the place to go into the history of the bridge but its significance to this blog is that the church / parishes were principally responsible for its maintenance.

  • Pilgrim traffic would have placed an additional burden on the bridge. This traffic would have included individuals on foot or horseback undertaking a personal pilgrimage, and larger groups heading to the Holy Lands – perhaps with an escort of armed Knights Templars (solider monks) who from around 1230 had a ‘base’ at Temple Manor, Strood (English Heritage guide book). However, the tolls and ferry fees that the pilgrims paid also contributed to the maintenance of the ancient bridge, as well as the construction and maintenance of the new ‘medieval’ stone bridge. The monks of Rochester were permitted to keep a quarter of the tolls collected from those using the bridge or a quarter of the ferry fees when the bridge was closed. Later when the ancient bridge was in a perilous condition all the ferry fees were directed to the repair of the ancient bridge (Traffic & Politics, p35). Diana Webb in her Pilgrimages in Medieval England, p227, reports that ferrymen made exorbitant charges for a crossing – perhaps double the usual rate. {As at least a quarter of the ‘takings’ had to go to the church for the maintenance of the bridge, one has to wonder how concerned it would have been about exorbitant fees?}
  • The bridge has always been important to the military. In 1192 Rochester billed Richard I for 28s / 8d for damage done to the bridge by 84 horseman and 520 foot soldiers heading to the Holly Lands (Rochester – The Evolution of the City, p19). In 1276 King John ordered the Sheriff of Kent to pay Walter de Merton (Bishop of Rochester, 1274-1277, and founder of Merton College Oxford) 40s (£2) for the repair of the bridge. To this, Bishop Walter added some of his own money and followed the example of Bishop Gilbert and built houses which he let for rent. He used income from these properties to help maintain the bridge (Jervoise, 1930, The Ancient Bridges of South of England, p38). Again this would only have been a good investment if the population and economy of Rochester was growing or had the potential to grow.
  • Commercial traffic would have added a further load to the bridge as the economies of Strood and Rochester grew in response to the business opportunities brought to the towns by pilgrims.

Gambling with your life!

Prior to the 1390s people risked their lives whether they crossed the river at Rochester on horseback, by boat or over the bridge. The river at Rochester could be fast flowing with a tidal rise of around 18ft today. The narrow spans of the bridge would have increased the speed and turbulence of the water passing beneath the arches. The river was so treacherous near the bridge that Lambarde (Perambulations of Kent, 1570) states the Britons named Rochester Dwr-brif or Dour-bryf meaning ‘swift stream’, and William of Malmesbury in the 12th century described it as fluvio violentissino alluitur – basically a violently moving river; added to this danger was the ancient bridge that was poorly maintained, overloaded, and increasingly out of use. Pilgrims would therefore have often arrived at Rochester before 1390 to find the bridge closed for repairs or because of severe weather.

Boat on Medway
Modern image of rough water at Rochester. Flow wold have been faster near the ancient and medieval bridges with their narrower arches.

The ancient bridge had been in poor condition for centuries. By 1130 it could only be crossed by pedestrians, and horse-riders were advised to dismount. William, son of Lord Allington, chose not to dismount and drowned when his terrified horse leapt from the bridge. Tragic as the story is, the Church ensured it benefited. The horse was sold and the money raised was used to buy an ornament for the alter. In 1300 Edward l (Edward Longshanks) paid compensation of 12s (60p) to Richard Lamberd of Rochester in recompense for the horse that he had borrowed being blown off the bridge (Traffic & Politics, p35-36). {Presumably 12s was the value of horse at this time so could be one benchmark for comparing today’s values with the past.}

It was not just horses that fell from the ancient bridge. The records of 1261/3 state that Christina wife of Eymer of Gillingham fell from the bridge, and the records of 1292/94 state that John le Fevere lost his footing whilst crossing the bridge and drowned. The records of 1313/14 record that Ralf Lamb of Strood and Wulstan Edwyne both died whilst crossing the bridge at night. The records are unclear whether they fell when passing at a very narrow part of the bridge, or they had a fight (Traffic & Politics, p36). 

The alternative to crossing the river by the bridge seems to have been no-safer and may even have been more dangerous. It is recorded that 19 pilgrims drowned between 1277 and 1381 whilst crossing the river when the bridge was closed (Traffic & Politics, p39 n98). 

In 1277 Walter de Merton, bishop of Rochester, drowned whilst crossing the river in a boat (Rochester – The Past 2000 Years). Other accounts suggest he sustained a head injury when he fell from his horse whilst crossing the river. Either way he died because of an accident that occurred whilst crossing the River Medway by a means other than the bridge.

Weather and Peasants’ Revolt fatally break the bridge

The ‘death knell’ for the ancient bridge was finally sounded following unprecedented events of 1381. In February of that year the bridge piers were severely damaged by ice flows during the thawing of the river, and later in the year the Peasants’ Revolt significantly increased traffic on the ‘terminally damaged’ bridge as Wat Tyler’s men travelled between Rochester and London. (Becker, Rochester Bridge 1387-1865).

Clearly not having a bridge at Rochester would not have been in the interests of the town or church. It may have taken centuries to organise but the ancient bridge was eventually replaced with a new stone ‘medieval’ bridge in the 1390’s. Clearly this made crossing the river easier and safer, but there was still the issue of how it was to be maintained if it wasn’t to go the same way at the ancient bridge. 

Medieval bridge street
Image from Street Furniture – Esplanade Rochester

This is not the place to go into the details of the financial management of the bridge but the pilgrims and the Church had a part to play. Collection boxes were placed on the new bridge so transient users such as pilgrims could make donations towards its maintenance (Rochester Bridge: 1387 – 1856, p53). Clearly the early provisions made to fund the maintenance of the bridge, plus donations made by users, were insufficient as in 1489 the Archbishop of Canterbury, John Morton, offered 40 days remission in purgatory to anyone who made a donation towards the repair of the bridge. (Rochester – The Past 2000 Years).

Highway Robbery

Crossing the river at Rochester was not the only danger pilgrims and travellers faced as they made their way through Medway – there were highwaymen or waylayers. Pilgrims would have been good targets. They would have been easily identifiable and one could assume they were carrying a lot of cash or valuables. John English of Rochester, who was described as a common waylayer who operated between Rochester and Newington, was before the Court in 1316 for stealing goods valued at 40s (£2) from Simon Lodegrin of Gillingham (The Gillingham Chronicles, p19). Although Lodegrin was not a pilgrim, one has to suspect anyone could have been a target for John English and his like. {Nothing found as to his guilt or what penalty he could have faced, but it could have been death.}

Church seeks to diversify its income streams

The income the Church received from its investment properties, donations and offerings made at its shrines, proved insufficient for its requirements – or in some cases its greedy expectations. It may be a bit unfair to say, but it seems the Church found a way to ‘monetarise sin’. 

The Church had constructed and then perpetrated the idea of Purgatory as a place where the souls of sinners were held in torment until they had atoned for their sins. Capitalising on this fear the Church offered Indulgences as a means by which ‘sinners’ could remit all or some of the time their soul would have to spend in Purgatory. Most Indulgences seem to have involved making a payment to the Church or the undertaking of an activity that benefited the Church.

In 1095 the Pope dispensed the first Indulgences to those who fought in the Crusades. Later this was extended to those who helped fund the Crusades. Over time the awarding of Indulgences was extended to all those who could demonstrate they were ‘repentant’ by action or deed that tended to bring financial benefits to the Church.

The Church also incentivised acts that were beneficial to the Church’s finances. One means of doing this was to offer ‘time-off in Purgatory’ for specific actions. These included a pilgrimage to particular shrines/Holy places at which offering would be expected, or perhaps contributing to the cost of public works such as the maintenance of a bridge – such as at Rochester, (The Economics of Religious Indulgences, Alberto Cassone 1999).

In addition to what could be described as a voluntary ‘Indulgence Pilgrimage’ there were ‘Penitent Pilgrimages’. These were ordered by a Bishop as a means by which a sinner could avoid having time added to the period their soul would have to spend in Purgatory.

Bishop of Rochester ‘Champions’ Penitence Pilgrimages

Bishop Hamo de Hethe of Rochester (1319-52) seems to have been particularly keen on the use of penitent pilgrimages – particularly to atone for the sin of adultery. He though seems to have been proportional in matching the gravity of the ‘sin’ with the distance / frequency of a penitent pilgrimage. Clearly those directed to undertake pilgrimages had the means to do so. This raises the question as to whether the more painful/humiliating punishments, such as public whippings, that were ordered by the Church, were reserved for the poor? 

The following accounts of people ordered to undertake a penitent pilgrimage by Bishop Hamo are drawn from a number of examples provided by Diana Webb (Pilgrimage in Medieval England, p235-236).

Rochester’s Penitent Pilgrims

  • In 1325 John Mayde was ordered to undertake a pilgrimage to Santiago for committing adultery with his godmother. (Long, costly and difficult to arrange. Clearly this was a bad type of adultery!)
  • For the offence of adultery Henry Elham, a knight, was required to undertake pilgrimages for six years, and to annually provide a three pound candle to St. Andrews at Rochester, and to give alms to the poor.
  • Bishop Hamo seems to have been particularly displeased with Sybil, wife of Geoffrey le Brevetor of Rochester. In 1327 she admitted to wrongly accusing Joan, wife of William of Gillingham, of having an affair with a monk from Rochester. She was required to undertake three pilgrimages to Canterbury, and one each to Chichester and Bury. She was also required to provide what seems to be the obligatory candle to St. Andrews. Sybil seems to have got off lightly….
  • In 1320 Simon Heyroun was required to undertake annual pilgrimages to Canterbury for seven years and in the same period to visit three times each, Hereford, Bury and Walsingham. Heyroun was also required to feed the poor every Friday for seven years.
  • Bishop Hamo decided to make sure that William Covel, who was guilty of repeated adultery, could not hide amongst the honourable pilgrims. He ordered him to make pilgrimages to Rochester and Canterbury barefooted and naked apart from his trousers.

{There are records of people – particularly of women – paying for someone else to undertake a pilgrimage on their behalf. I wonder therefore how many of the above people personally undertook the required pilgrimages? A proxy-pilgrim could easily bring back the required evidence. Against this thought is that it would be obvious if someone wasn’t away from home for what could be a significant period; but would the Church mind so long as the offerings were received? I also wonder if there were quid pro quo arrangements with other bishops sending their penitents to Rochester?} 

The mixed blessing of Pilgrims & Pilgrimages

As described above the number of people visiting the shrine of St. William were significant. Some say the numbers were second only to that of St. Thomas Becket. Although the cathedral / monastery at Rochester, and the bishop needed the income brought by pilgrims, they had other religious and domestic duties to fulfil. This may explain the account of a one-way system being set up at Rochester. Pilgrims would have entered the cathedral at the side via what is known today as Black Boy Alley – previously the site of St William’s Gate, and later the Pilgrims’ Passage . The pilgrims then make their way past the shrine and then exited on the other side of the cathedral. This ‘control’ would have sped up the throughput and probably reduced the impact the pilgrims had on the life of the monastery. {As an aside, the church of St. Nicholas that stands next to the cathedral, was provided for the townsfolk in 1423 when the monks found the public attending the alter of St. Nicholas, within the cathedral, was an inconvenience.}

Cathedral + St Nicks
St. Nicholas Church built for the lay population a few metres from the Monastic Cathedral at Rochester

Monks & Nuns go on Pilgrimages

A number of religious houses were also inconvenienced by its members going on their pilgrimages. In 1344 Bishop Hamo tried to stop the nuns of Malling wandering around the country on the pretext of visiting friends or undertaking a pilgrimage. (Pilgrimage in Medieval England, p240.) 

Nunnery Malling
Ruins of the Nunnery at West Malling

It’s unclear whether Bishop Hamo’s ‘concerns’ were based on concerns for the morality or wellbeing of the nuns, or the disruption caused by the nuns being away from their duties. The wider Church though seems to have been concernedabout female pilgrims who claimed to belong to a religious order. In 1471 Chichele of Canterbury gave dispensation to a group of nuns who were unable to complete their pilgrimage; he was apparently happy to oblige as there was a well established principle of denying women who professed to belong to a religious order, from wandering around (Pilgrimage in Medieval England, p240). The reason for this is unclear. Literature of the time suggests that sex workers could masquerade as nuns but it’s also known that some female pilgrims disguised themselves as a man to avoid unwanted attention (Women Pilgrims in Late Medieval England. Eg., p48, 111). Up until the late 15th century more wealthy or high status women also faced the risk of abduction and a coercive marriage (bride-theft) to a man of lower status (Stolen Women in Medieval England, p82). It is therefore little wonder that some women chose to pay others to undertake a pilgrimage on their behalf – in life or following their death

{As some female pilgrims did disguise themselves I wonder if some may have felt the disguise of a nun would offer them more protection?  Would a male pilgrim, who may be seeking the intercession of a saint, really want to risk ‘upsetting’ the saint, or having time-added to the period his soul will need to spend in purgatory, by attacking a woman belonging to a Holy order?}.

Ediths Well
                   St Edith’s Well at Kemsing, Kent

However, it must has happened for a statute to be passed in 1285 forbidding the kidnapping of religious women (Stolen Women in Medieval England, p123). The Holy Well at Kemsing, Kent, that is on the Pilgrims’ Way, is dedicated to St.Edith who lived between 961-984. The story is that her mother Wilfrida was bride-napped from Wilton Abbey, Wiltshire, by King Edgar the Peaceful, who took her to his home at Kemsing. Accounts vary as to whether she was a nun or a resident of the abbey at the time. Edith was the product of this forced ‘marriage’. The story is that she lived at a covent at Kemsing but there is no record of there being a convent at Kemsing. It is more likely that Wilfrida returned to Wilton Abbey with her daughter. Wilfrida apparently went on to become the Abbess of Wilton Abbey. Edith became a nun. Soon after her death miracles associated with Edith’s grave were reported (British History Online – Houses of Benedictine Nuns).

The Not So Penitent Monks of Boxley Abbey

Pilgrims were vulnerable to exploitation. The Church held the promise of sanctuary, redemption and the prospect of miracle cures. And, just as today, people would go to inordinate lengths in the hope of being relived of pain or suffering. Sadly some members of the Church – such as the monks of Boxley Abbey – contrived to take advantage of this vulnerability.

Around 1146 the Cistercian monks established a monastery on the Pilgrim’s Way at Boxley, near Maidstone. It would have been passed by those travelling the direct east/west route, and those like William of Perth who headed southwards to pick up the Pilgrims Way after visiting Rochester.

Boxley Abbey doorway
Doorway within the ruins of Boxley Abbey

Below – Annotated plan of Boxley Abbey site dated 1892

Plan Boxley Abbey and surrounds

Compared to Rochester and Canterbury the abbey was small and had no ‘saint’ or shrine to attract pilgrims. It may have had a finger of St. Andrew that was encased in silver, but that was nothing compared with the likes of the shrines of Thomas Becket and William of Perth. However, perhaps intentionally, it was well located to provide accommodation for pilgrims.

The pilgrims were probably accommodated in what is now a large barn, visible from the footpath, and may well have attended Mass at St. Andrew’s Chapel now on Boarley Lane (TQ 75736 58645) – but previously named Pilgrims Way. {The chapel is currently undergoing restoration. The oldest parts of the building date back to 1484 (More info and images at can be found on the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings website, St. Andrew’s Chapel and The Old House.

Boxley Barn
Barn at Boxley Abbey. The upper windows suggests the building had been more than a barn

The monk probably could not charge for accommodation but hoped for donations. The income received from providing accommodation and from collections made at Masses would have been limited and probably seasonal. By the 1360’s the financial position of the abbey was dire.

Monks of Boxley Abbey find their USP (Unique Selling Point)

Perhaps to compete with the two cathedrals of Kent, Boxley’s monks had to find a unique selling point that could draw more pilgrims to their abbey and encourage them to make generous offerings. 

The research of Elizabeth Eastlake, 2015, (PhD Thesis 2015) found that the financial position of the abbey dramatically improved from 1365, (PhD thesis, 2015; and by 1524 William Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury, was describing the abbey as a Holy place with many miracles. How? Why? 

St. Rumwold and the Rood of Grace come to the ‘rescue’

What follows is a description of a possible deception perpetrated by unscrupulous monks of Boxley Abbey; they were at the time of the Reformation accused of coning money out of the pilgrims. Further, it seems the significant increase in the abbey’s fortunes enabled the monks to adopt a lifestyle far in excess of that expected of a member of the Cistercian order.  Although the monks spent significant amounts on providing for their own comfort this would have benefited the local economy – including builders and those who supplied the provisions that the monks were unable to provide for themselves.

Statue of the baby St. Rumwold

The story of St. Rumwold is as amazing as the alleged qualities of the statue belonging to the monks of Boxley. Rumwold only lived three days in 662. During that time he learnt to speak, requested to be confirmed and delivered a sermon. How or why a Kent abbey should have an icon of a saint from the midlands is unknown. As the statue was not listed on the abbey’s inventory of 1352 it could have contributed to the improved fortunes of the abbey from around 1360.

Boxley’s wooden statue of St. Rumwold could only be lifted by those who had lived a pure life. Proof of purity may have been necessary before a visitor would be allowed to go on to view the Rood of Grace. When the abbey was dissolved in 1538, as part of Henry Vlll’s Reformations, it was found that the statue was held in place by a removable pin. Is it therefore possible that the ‘removal’ of the pin was dependent on how generous the monks felt the visitor had been?

Lambarde (Perambulations of Kent, 1571) reported that many chaste virgins and honest married women often left the abbey with blushing faces, and leaving, without cause, doubts in the minds of onlookers that they had lived a wanton or unclean life – all because they had not sufficiently stretched their purse strings.

Rood of Grace – Miracle or Mechanical Marvel?

Assuming purity had been demonstrated with the lifting of St. Rumwold, the visitors progressed to see the Rood of Grace for which the abbey had become famous – indeed it was sometimes referred to as the “Abbey of the Holy Cross of Grace”. Again, presumably, dependent upon the generosity of the offering, the figure of the crucified Christ on the rood screen would move. It is said that it could also adopt postures that showed whether it was pleased or displeased with the offering made.

With the dissolution and destruction of Boxley Abbey it was found that ‘certain engines and old wire’ were in place that enabled a puppeteer monk to control the figure of Jesus. The discovery of the Boxley ‘cons’ perpetrated on honest pilgrims was used by Henry to justify his Reformations.

Eastlake’s research discovered accounts of Boxley Abbey. The following table of ‘takings’ illustrates how lucrative the statues, and especially the Rood of Grace (Holy Cross), had been to the abbey.


1376 1378 1380 1385 1390 1404 1405 1408
£0 £23 10s £224 10s £120 £30 £59 13s £78 22d £52 9s

£6 13s 4d

{The years where income fell seem to align with outbreaks of the plague. As with Covid 19 income would have fallen as a consequence of reduced footfall and possibly the monks socially isolating or dying of the plague. Also, 1381 was the year of the Peasant Revolt – could that and its aftermath have had an impact on visitor numbers? 

According to the Bank of England Inflation Calculator, £10 in 1400 would be the equivalent of £11,092 today. This suggests donations received in 1378 could roughly equate to £2.5m. It’s no wonder, judging by the outgoings recorded in the abbey’s accounts, that Boxley’s monks were able to live a ‘highlife’!

It is unclear how much Archbishop Warham knew of the devices used at Boxley Abbey. When the abbey was closed the abbot claimed to know nothing of them. It is also possible that Warham was uncritical of the claims as there was a strong rivalry between him and Cardinal Wolsey. This was largely acted out via competitive building – Warham with his Otford Palace and Wolsey with Hampton Court – so it could have extended into who had the holiest places!

I have found other references that suggest that it was well known that the Rood of Grace was a mechanical marvel and people paid to see just that. If this was the case then Henry VIII’s men may have chosen to misrepresent the Rood of Grace to suit their mission; that though does not excuse the locking device that secured St. Rumwold to a plinth, and how the monks chose to spend their ‘windfall’.}

The killing of the “Goose that laid the Golden Egg” – 1538

By the 16th century the theologian Erasmus and friend of Henry VIII, was concerned about abuses perpetrated by clerics within the Catholic Church. He was also highly contemptuous of pilgrims and pilgrimages. Erasmus was concerned about people masquerading as pilgrims and those selling fraudulent relics. He was also concerned that clerics had turned shrines into tourist destinations and had commercialised pilgrimages with the selling of souvenirs – such as at Canterbury where badges were sold that included an ampullae of water that was said to contain a trace of Thomas Beckett’s blood – one hopes it was a homeopathic trace and not just water from the well! (South London. Walter Besant. 1912.

This ‘conduct’ along with Henry VIII seeking to discredit Rome, and the Exchequer’s need for money, all helped drive the reformation of the monasteries. Surprisingly, the monks of Boxley were not punished for their ‘deceptions’ but John Hilsey, Bishop of Rochester, took the Rood of Grace on a tour. It, with its wires and engines, was displayed and denounced as a fraud in Maidstone market (1538) – and probably other places. It was finally burned along with other statues of Roman Catholic saints in London.

By 1540 the ‘pilgrim trade’ was over. Shrines were destroyed or defaced, and relics discredited. It is thought that the shrines of Paulinus, Ithamar and William at Rochester were destroyed in 1538 (Faith & Fabric, p185). Protestants were disinclined to undertake pilgrimages and the attractions that could have drawn visitors had been destroyed or defaced, and wall paintings whitewashed out. The Golden Goose was dead!

Following the reformation, churches and Rochester Cathedral fell into decline. Not only had their assets been taken they had lost what could have been, for some Holy places, a highly lucrative income stream. In the 1720s Daniel Defoe wrote of Rochester: “There is little remarkable in Rochester, except the ruins of a very old castle, and an ancient but not extraordinary cathedral(Daniel Defoe, A tour thro’ the whole island of Great Britain

Pulling thoughts together

Judging by the amount of money taken at Boxley Abbey it is clear there was wealth within the pilgrim community. Considering this, with the possibility that the shine of Thomas Becket attracted around 100,000 pilgrims per year, and a significant number attending the shrine of William of Perth, pilgrims and pilgrimages were highly significant to the economy of Kent.

More specifically to us in Medway, donations and offerings made by pilgrims helped fund the repair and construction of the cathedral. Similarly, although the pilgrim economy contributed to the overloading of the ancient bridge, fees, tolls and offerings paid by pilgrims helped with its maintenance, and the construction & maintenance of a new bridge. The requirements of pilgrims for accommodation, food and provisions probably encouraged Bishops Gilbert and Walter to invest in the infrastructure that helped Rochester and Strood to expand and diversify.

As the ancient bridge at Rochester seems to have been in an appalling state of repair for centuries, I’m wondering what the drivers were for its repair and eventual replacement? Clearly the King had an interest for military purposes in maintaining a direct route from London to Dover, but is it possible that the construction of ‘competitive’ bridges at Aylesford and Maidstone may have also provided impetus to constructing a more reliable crossing at Rochester.

The bridge at Aylesford was constructed around 1240 and the medieval stone bridge at Maidstone was probably built some time in the 14th century. If these bridges were more reliable than the Rochester crossing I suspect pilgrims who were not so keen to risk their lives / pay exorbitant ferry fees to visit the shrine of William of Perth, may have stayed on the Pilgrims Way. This would have benefited the economies of Maidstone and Aylesford – at the expense of Rochester and Strood. {The Carmelites had also established The Friars at Aylesford in 1242 so was a potential competitor for the pilgrim trade.}

How much has changed?

Centuries may have passed but in some ways little has changed. Many of us still undertake journeys of emotional significance – but not always to a religious site. We may go to where we first met or proposed to our partner, or a place where we feel closer to a lost loved one or an event. In 1917 a shrine was created in the Jesus Chapel (North Transept) at Rochester. Here local people would visit in remembrance of a loved one lost in the Great War (5 Jan 1917, Diss Express, p8). Many people still travel today to churches and shrines as tourists where they make donations or purchases – and contribute to the wider local economy.

Churches may no longer present themselves as places where miracles occur, but they still put on events to encourage people to visit – the hope being that visitors will find something spiritual during their visit – and make a donation or purchase from the shop or cafe.

At a time when there were no medical cures it’s not surprising that people sought the help of a saint. Some still do so today with pilgrimages to, say, “Our Lady of Lourdes”.  Others will raise loans or set-up ‘JustGiving’ pages in order to take a loved one ‘on a journey’ to a doctor or healer when there is no local ‘cure’ available. 

Learning from the Past?

The Church is still a significant property and landowner, and its decisions can still have an impact on the nature of a town, or community. Indeed Archbishop Welby in 2021 set the Church on a mission to help solve the housing crisis and to build stronger communities.

Justin WebyClick on image of the Archbishop of Canterbury to hear more of the Church’s plans to table the housing shortage

He will probably facilitate this through use of the Church’s significant landholdings of 200,000 acres of land (not all will be suitable for development) and properties that could be converted into housing. He may also be hoping the cost of maintaining the churches and cathedrals will be significantly covered through donations, bequeaths, collections and entrance fees.

The ambition of Archbishop Welby in 2021 may be a bit different to that of Bishop Gilbert in 1193, but could their methods and outcome be very similar? Perhaps also there’s something to be learned from the ‘pilgrim offer’ of 500-900 years ago. Interest in pilgrimages seems to be returning, and the Cathedral at Rochester has demonstrated that their ‘attractions’ can draw  people to Rochester. Just as 500+years ago the increased footfall benefited both the Church and the secular economy.

Geoff Ettridge aka Geoff Rambler

17 March 2021

Reading and Sources:

England in the Age of Chaucer. William Woods. 1976

Everyday Life of Medieval Travellers. Marjorie Rowling. 1971

Faith & Fabric: A history of Rochester Cathedral, 604-1994. Ed. Yates and Welsby. 1996

History of Rochester. Frederick Francis Smith. 1928

History of Strood. Henry Smetham. 1899

Pilgrimage in Medieval England. Diana Web. 2000

Rochester Bridge: 1387-1856. M. Janet Becker. 1930

Rochester – The Past 2000 Years. The City of Rochester Society. 1999

The History of England’s Cathedrals. Nicholas Orme. 2017

The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England. Ian Mortimer, 2008

Traffic & Politics, Rochester Bridge, AD 43-1993. Ed. Yates and Gibson. 1994

The Ancient Bridges of the South of England. E. Jervoise. 1930

Women Pilgrims in Late Medieval England. Susan Signe Morrison. 2000