Exploring the Pilgrims’ Way in Winchester


Western School, Winchester near St Cross – (note the blue Tardis!)

Last week, while walking one morning into town from the countryside to the south, I came across a delightful event. A party of perhaps 75 school children, and their teachers, were walking from the great Hospital of St Cross up through the water meadows to the cathedral as part of a religious studies field trip. The children were wearing costumes of medieval pilgrims.

Walking along with them for a while I was reminded of how there have been similar flows of pilgrims to Winchester from the time of King Alfred to modern times with tourists coming from around the world, but now perhaps with less clear intentions. Until the railways were built most were coming on foot, often in such groups.

I also had a message from an Australian guest who had completed   a pilgrimage from Winchester to Canterbury in fifteen days last winter.

From reading about the shrines of the city as well as the journeys made from Winchester it is clear the city was the greatest pilgrimage centre of Britain.

Hospital of St Cross and mugs used for the Wayfarer’s Dole


At St Cross pilgrims, who might have arrived from the continent, as wayfarers, were given the dole – bread and beer, which are still offered to this day in token form, the celebrated ‘Wayfarer’s Dole’. The ancient horn cups used by the pilgrims, made from horse’s hoof and cow’s horn, are on display. The pilgrims could also stay the night in the ‘Hundred-Mennes Hall’. Although St Cross was founded in 1136 as a home for helpless old men, not a hospital in the modern sense, its care of pilgrims shows the essence of hospitality. For a long period St Cross was in the hands of the knights of the Order of St John, the Hospitallers who guarded and provided accommodation for the pilgrims and crusaders travelling to the Holy Land. The brothers still have  badges with the emblem of the pilgrims’ cross.

Often the Saxon kings set off from Winchester on pilgrimage to Rome and there was a hospital there for English visitors, paid for by a tax to raise "Peter’s Pence".


In the City Museum I found on display some of the tiny pilgrims’ badges, as well as one of their shells. (The shell was the symbol of St James of Compostella, the patron saint of all pilgrims.)  The museum sells as a souvenir a modern replica of one of the badges of St Giles the patron saint of crippled people, His name was strongly linked to Winchester, with St Giles Hill and its great medieval fair.


The smith who makes these souvenir badges from pewter, i saw at work in the Outer Close during the Hat Fair 2006.


  The Dorchester Cross, in Winchester Cathedral

Another historic pilgrimage was made by Bishop John Taylor in 1979  from Dorchester-on-Thames, carrying the cross which is kept in the cathedral.  From 634AD this former Roman to wn was the original seat of the first Bishop of Wessex Birinius who established the church at Winchester in 648, the year before he died. The new Winchester church may have been the first stone building in Britain since the Romans left. In 679 the Bishops moved their seat to Winchester and in 690, when Wessex feared attack by the kingdom of Mercia, the Saint Birinius’ remains were brought from Dorchester to what is now called "Old Minster" probably the first Winchester shrine, to be visited by pilgrims for eight hundred and fifty hundred years.  


Close by to the museum, one can see the grave of St Swithun, outside, then one day moved in the old Minster. This was visited by pilgrims for two hundred years until the new Norman Cathedral housed a new shrine.  Sadly this was trashed by the agents of Henry VIII, and today’s memorial was only made in 1962.  Many pilgrims coming to the cathedral were sick and hoped for a cure by St Swithun.  Every time there was such a cure the monks had to enter the church to give praise, perhaps sixteen times a day. They became annoyed at being woken three times a night, but St Aetholwold insisted they should continue. There are detailed descriptions of cures by Lantfredus, a monk from Fleury. These have recently been published in English (‘The Cult of St Swithun’ – Winchester Studies).



St Swithun, and the gravestone    Sign showing the Old Minster and the modern shrine in Winchester Cathedral in the Retrochoir

The pilgrims who came to venerate St Swithun (d. 862) at first buried outside, then moved into the old Minster, probably went on to see the tomb of St Alfred in the New Minster specially built as a resting place for the King and his family, until the move in to a new abbey at Hyde on the edge of the city.

"Winchester became the principal place of pilgrimage in England, with pilgrimage routes from all over the country converging on the city. However, following the death of Thomas a Becket in 1170, his shrine at Canterbury became more important, attracting pilgrims from across Europe; those who travelled from the south coast would have wanted to visit both of these shrines if possible." (HCC)

Visitors to the Norman’s new monastery cathedral had to came in by a side door so as not to disturb the monk’s many services. The shrine (ie box of Swithun’s remains) was high on a wall, behind the altar screen, and the barn-like retrochoir behind was built to accommodate the pilgrims who crawled through a small hole beneath the shrine. However the monks following the Rule of St Benedict offered real hospitality with food given from the Abbots Hall and accommodation in the Pilgrims Hall, the earliest hammer-beamed building in England. (dated to 1295). The Pilgrims Hall is attached to Pilgrim’s School and can be visited during term time.



Exterior and interior of Pilgrims Hall, near the Deanery, Winchester Cathedral Close. No 10 The Close, once a hall for pilgrims.


There was also a Pilgrims’ guild or society in Winchester for hosting pilgrims, with a house to accommodate them. (John Adair ‘The Pilgrim’s Way" perhaps like the youth hostel we have no longer?  Another hostel was in the Close "Strangers Hall", the undercroft (basement) still survives in No 10) and the Hospital of St John is still in the Broadway.


St Johns House  and St Johns Church in St John’s street, Winchester

Perhaps the guild was like a tourist office? In the tourist office today you can get the details of the many long distance routes coming into the city, including the Pilgrims Way, proudly marked in St Johns Street on the gate of the church, the oldest parish church in Winchester. This was the first stop on a unique year long pilgrimage from Winchester to Canterbury arriving just before the Millenium. A trail guide to the "St Swithuns Way" is published for the first 34 miles between Winchester and Farnham where it  connects with the national trail the North Downs Way

So, for one thousand three hundred years visitors have been coming to Winchester, and townspeople  must have been welcoming and feeding them, just as I do today. Could it be that this rather English form of hospitality – bed and breakfast – had its origins here? 

* "Pilgrim’s Society" is the name of a shadowy organisation of world leaders and organisations aiming to strengthen US and UK relations.

** Dorchester-on-Thames is at the eastern end of the North Wessex Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, which touches Whitchurch and Andover, both about 15 miles from Winchester

*** There is an organisation, in the diocese of Brighton and Arundel which organises an annual pilgrimage – A and B Walking 

**** The greatest European pilgrimage route is the Way of St James, with many routes heading to the shrine of the apostle St James in north-west Spain,  

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