Hearsay 9 Pilgrimage

The local Women’s Institute knew of Dominic Robb’s interest in history and had recently asked him to talk. He had agreed and the subject would be 'The Pilgrims of the Dart.’

The idea of a religious pilgrimage goes back to ancient times.  The Greeks visited the temple of Apollo at Delphi, and Roman temples attracted visitors who hoped for spiritual or physical cures.  Since the very early days of the Christian Church, pilgrims have visited the shrines of saints. Pilgrimages were a popular pastime in the Middle Ages. People decided to go to improve their chances of salvation, to gain the healing touch supposedly found in the relics of saints.

Pilgrimages were also taken to avoid the shame of publicly confessing their sins at home, or just because they wanted to travel, meet new people, and perhaps escape the drudgery of their daily lives.

  The very first Christian pilgrims were the shepherds visiting Bethlehem closely followed by the Three Wise Men. It took another 1000 years or so for the pilgrims from Devon to set sail for Santiago de Compostela where they sought atonement for their sins at the shrine of Saint James.

This is James, the son of Zebedee and called by Jesus to follow him when he was mending his nets beside the Sea of Galilee. He was there at the Transfiguration and in Gethsemane, and was one of Jesus's closest friends during his ministry.

His last biblical record is in Acts 12 1-2.

“Now about that time Herod the King stretched forth his hands to vex certain of the church. And he killed James the brother of John with the sword.”

A dozen or so years after Jesus’s death, Herod the Great’s grandson, Herod Agrippa, ruled. It was he who murdered James.

That was as far as Dominic had gone in his current research. However, as he made his notes he was allowing himself to be diverted. Whilst he had rejected Christianity he still found it a fascinating subject historically, and realised just how little he had known of his religion as a convert. He would also soon realise how much was built on flimsy foundations.

He read on. When the apostles divided the known world into missionary areas James got the Iberian peninsula. 7th and 8th century documents talk of the belief that James spent some years preaching in Spain before returning to Jerusalem and martyrdom.

Robb shook his head as he read the following: ‘James’s body was carried down to the coast and there he was put into a stone boat which with the support of Angels and the wind took him to Padron in northern Spain. It was here that the local queen Lupa provided an oxen drawn carriage to carry the body to a marble tomb. Then the site was forgotten for 800 years until a hermit called Pelayo was led by a vision to the spot where the relics were authenticated as Saint James by the local bishop. The country at the time was under the threat of invasion by Moors. The discovery proved quite a boost to the morale of the Spanish Christians. A church was built to secure the sacred bones and the town that grew up around it was called Santiago de Compostela (St James of the Field of the Star).

The reputation of the relics thus established, people from throughout Europe flocked to the site. The symbol of the pilgrim became the scallop shell, something that arose from the story of how a horse and rider plunged into the sea when the body of the apostle first arrived in Spain; miraculous intervention saved the rider's life and as he emerged from the sea he was seen to be  covered in scallop shells which fell away as he rode off into the distance.’

“How could those poor buggers be taken in? How could anyone believe it? AD 44, James killed by a sword in Jerusalem, then turns up in Spain. Why? What's the point? What's God trying to say? And those poor sods plodded from here all way to Spain, and no one said stop. And Dart folk are so level headed. Didn’t anyone say this is barmy?”

In that frame of mind, Dominic Robb came to understand more about those pilgrims and the human condition then. He peeled away the civilising layers to reveal the core of their lives which held precious little except hope for a better afterlife. But even then there was the prospect of eternal hell unless you stayed within the embrace of the Church. It was a neat trick the religious leaders had played not at all what had been intended by Jesus he was sure. They had used their imaginative skills to build up a vast empire of fear and conformity, as they committed word of mouth into the written word and transformed it into irrevocable dogma.

“But religion, true religion, cannot be straightjacketed by a set of words. It is like describing a half grown tree. It is only true for that moment,” he mumbled to his imaginary audience.

“And so our weary pilgrims will, at the end of their journey, gaze on the cathedral doors of St James at Santiago de Compostela. There they will pray and then climb the steps by the altar to embrace the seven hundred year old Most Sacred Image of Santiago and kiss his bejewelled cape. Then confession and High Mass will provide the final climax to their pilgrimage."

A few more notes were necessary. Hard evidence in the shape of stone carvings. A direct legacy of the Dartmouth pilgrimages. Things you can touch, untainted by time, only worn away.

In around 1130 Oliver of Merlimond took such a pilgrimage and Hugh of Kilpeck had probably been on one too. When they returned they brought back with them all kinds of new ideas based on what they saw in the Cathedral of Santiago. It is likely they took with them stonemasons and on the return to England their heads would be full of ideas and their sketchbooks full of drawings. It became known as the Herefordshire School of sculpture and in churches throughout Herefordshire Gloucestershire Worcestershire and Shropshire wonderful stone carvings of dragons, bug-eyed beasts and the like can today be seen as Christian and pagan ideas blend in these ancient churches.

The talk went down well with the ladies of Dartmouth. He told them where they could see into the minds of the medieval masons, at Kilpeck on the south door of the Church of St Mary and St David, on the Arches at Shobdon, and his own favourite, the font of St Michael’s, Castle Frome with Jesus and Green men.

Mrs Steer then proposed a vote of thanks and added, "Had my husband been alive all those centuries ago he would probably have been one of the captain's of those sailing ships. It would have been right up his street. Perhaps he would have taken Mr Robb with him to entertain the pilgrims en route."

A few of the ladies laughed. Maybe they had been on one of those ‘History Afloat’ excursions.

After a cup of tea and cake, as he was about to leave, he felt a tap on the shoulder.

"Mr Robb, I just wanted a personal word. Barratt asked to be remembered to you. He says to tell you he still laughs when he thinks of those, what you call them, acting do’s on the Compton?".

"Acting the fool more like, but yes Mrs Steer we did have fun. Please send my regards back. I like your hat."

"Oh, that one. Thank you. By the way he said to tell you he's heard that his paddle steamer will be leaving us in the next few days. She’s finally off to Kingsbridge."