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People > Pilgrims



This 16th-century English oak panel shows a man riding on a plumed horse.  The background of this small panel is decorated with punchwork all over, except at the bottom where acanthus leaves sprout to indicate the local vegetation.  The rider’s feet are in stirrups and he turns towards the onlooker with pride to show a pilgrim’s badge, the proof that he has successfully completed a pilgrimage. 


A medieval pilgrim was expected to venerate holy relics in shrines and cathedrals on the way to a principal site such as Jerusalem, Rome, Canterbury or Compostela.  The wealthy pilgrim rode a horse while the poor had to walk.  Pilgrimages contributed to the economy of the towns and villages along the main routes where hostels and inns were required and others were able to make a living selling souvenirs.  Clerics often performed the role of the modern travel agent by organizing pilgrims into a company, planning the whole trip and providing armed soldiers to protect them on dangerous routes, making it a relatively safe way to travel and see the world.  Some pilgrims, however, had pilgrimages imposed upon them by priests as a penance for crimes committed.  Once the pilgrim had reached his destination he could buy a badge in lead or pewter, a lead ampulla for holy water or oil and at Canterbury a small flask containing drops of water reputedly mixed with an essence of the blood and brains of the murdered St Thomas à Becket.  Henry VIII brought the medieval pilgrimage to an end with the English Reformation.