President Joe Biden and the First Lady had a busy schedule on their visit to Britain last week for the G7 meeting. In reality they had little time for sightseeing, but allow me to indulge your imagination for a moment and suppose they took a short break from business. With Marine One at their disposal to fly them north-east to the cathedral city of Worcester, their helicopter would have touched down on the green grass of Worcester county cricket field alongside the River Severn.

The author and the Dean of Worcester in the cathedral grounds.

Now add the writer of your Camino Postcards to the scene, for I wait in the cathedral grounds together with the Dean of Worcester, ready to give them a guided tour. As we wait for the Bidens to arrive, the Dean is curious to know how I persuaded them to come to his cathedral; so I told him they were keen to learn more about this example of Catholic pilgrim history in the Holy Year when the feast of Saint James (25th July) falls upon a Sunday. Sure, we could relate any number of stories in a guided tour of Worcester cathedral, a place particularly associated with Saint Oswald, Saint Wulfstan, and other great Anglo Saxons, but in this Compostela Holy Year, I will take our distinguished visitors—and you kind readers—to visit the life of just one pious Catholic man: the ‘Worcester Pilgrim.’

These Postcards from the Camino have taken us to places on the Way of Saint James in Spain and France, but a pilgrimage starts from home. For one particular pilgrim in 1423, the Camino started right here in Worcester, England. His name was Robert Sutton and we begin his story at the burial place of his remains, marked by a stone in the cathedral floor.

The author at the grave of the Worcester Pilgrim with a replica of his 15th-century pilgrim staff.

A cathedral is a house of prayer, so that is how we will begin: “Lord, grant eternal rest to your faithful servant Robert Sutton, a merchant of this city, who set out from here in 1423 to walk to Santiago de Compostela, on a pilgrimage of penance, gaining the indulgences promised by Holy Mother Church for himself and for his loved ones. Ultreïa et suseia! May he walk peacefully along the paths of your eternal Kingdom. Amen.”[1]

In 1987 the burial remains were discovered during maintenance work on the cathedral foundations and there were some striking clues that helped identify the deceased. He was buried with a distinctive medieval pilgrim staff (known as a bourdon), with remaining traces of purple dye; knee-high leather walking boots of a style recognizably worn by pilgrims; and crucially, a small cockleshell was found alongside the skeleton, indicating a pilgrimage to Compostela. The site of the burial, within the cathedral, indicated a person of some local importance and it has also been suggested that this was the location of a statue of Saint James in the cathedral, which would have been destroyed in the English Reformation. So these were sufficient clues for archaeologists and historians to begin their work to identify the pilgrim, and the purple dye on the pilgrim’s wooden bourdon was a very unusual clue. When his remains were re-interred in the cathedral floor twelve years later (sadly without his pilgrim’s accessories, which are now on display in the crypt), a complete picture of his identity had been built up[2] and a historically authentic description of his foot pilgrimage to Compostela provided.

The Worcester Pilgrim’s grave.

To summarize what we know, Robert Sutton was a merchant of the city of Worcester, a dyer by trade, which accounts for the use of purple to dye his pilgrim staff. It was the most expensive color, which you would not purchase especially for this purpose, so it came from the dyer’s own stock. Old city records left a paper trail of his donations to Catholic institutes: the parish church of Saint Martin, the Franciscans, and particularly the Dominicans. Their house happened to be the meeting place of Worcester’s pilgrim brotherhood, to which Sutton gave his largest donation and this provided a further clue.

The only thing the paper trail did not reveal was why Robert Sutton left his home and his business and took to the road in 1423 on a journey on foot to Compostela. The historian Katherine Lack conjectures a family tragedy, the death of a child to smallpox, connected maybe with the pilgrim’s own deep sense of personal sin; and she suggests a momentary marital unfaithfulness, later deeply regretted. In those times, “Any devout and passionate man would feel the full weight of guilt upon his own conscience, and would seek help in addressing it.”[3] In following the path of confession and restitution through pilgrimage, his was a typical example of late medieval Catholicism. He set out on this punishing physical task of making a dangerous 4000-mile return trip, with all the threats of brigands, war, wolves, and the ever-present Black Death. This was an example of one layman’s complete Catholic commitment to penance.

A decade ago, I made that same journey myself, setting out from Robert Sutton’s grave at Worcester carrying an exact replica of his heavy pilgrim staff, weighing four pounds,[4] and I walked to Compostela. On the way, I put myself in his shoes and made many comparisons between his time in the 15th century and ours in the 21st, but these were mostly thoughts about Catholic piety between one age and another. One theme completely escaped my notice on that re-enaction pilgrimage. It has gradually emerged as I reflected further upon his time and ours: the relationship between the Catholic faithful and the culture wars of our times.

If I was indeed introducing the Bidens to the Catholic history of the Worcester Pilgrim—as posed by my introductory affectation here—I would tell them that the present religious ‘culture wars,’ in which they are now publicly caught up (over questions of ‘fitness’ for communion), are nothing new. In fact, these culture wars are quite minor when compared to the time of Robert Sutton. If we take the long view here, maybe we can find some surprisingly encouraging comparisons and contrasts that put our present-day troubles in perspective, for they are relatively slight.

In 1423 when Robert Sutton set off from Worcester to walk to Santiago de Compostela, England and France had been at war for 85 years. The great Henry V, who had won the battle of Agincourt not long ago (with the help of the famous bowmen of Worcester, it should be said, adding local color to our visit), had died the previous year and a new infant king Henry VI was sovereign of both nations. We are used to English history being told through its kings and queens, but when we stop for a moment and consider England as a powerful Catholic country—as it was before the Reformation—we need to consider the state of the Church to better understand the culture in our pilgrim’s time. A very bleak picture emerges, for it was a time of unparalleled culture wars!

As a pious Catholic, Robert Sutton had been born into the period of the Great Western Schism. From 1378 to 1417 the bishops residing in Rome and Avignon both claimed to be the true pope. These alternative cultures were joined in 1409 by a third competing line of popes in Pisa, where a failed Council to solve the original problem, but simply made it worse. If we think we have experienced a problem during the early 21st century with culture wars involving the majority who follow Pope Francis and a faction of dedicated hard-liners who remain more loyal to Pope Emeritus Benedict, it is nothing compared to the full-scale war that took place between supporters of Roman popes, Avignon popes, and Pisan popes; all aggressively competing for domination, excommunicating each other’s followers and engaging in frequent actual violence!

I am not a theologian nor even a Church historian, but a mere pilgrim and one who haphazardly followed my path through religious community life and pastoral work in city parishes. Experience tells me that the wider public imagination was once very much engaged by a book and a film regarding 14th-century culture wars. It was Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, setting the scene for the Great Schism and filled with the same apocalyptic obsessions that occupy many culture warriors of today.[5]

The Great Schism is to be found in any Catholic encyclopedia and I am not intending to summarize it here, but the interesting question is, how did it compare with a 21st-century culture war? My verdict: we are experiencing a mere skirmish in comparison. The man who would become Pope Martin V and end the Great Schism was ten years old when it began. Born in 1368, Martin was a contemporary of our Worcester pilgrim, and elected by the Council of Constance in 1414 to end the schism by dismissing all the competing popes. As the Worcester Pilgrim set off in 1423 to walk across England, France, and Spain to Compostela, he knew that every Catholic and all European countries were now obedient to one pope, Martin V. It must have been a great relief for him. Likewise, when I walked in Robert Sutton’s footsteps from Worcester to Compostela in the early years of this century, I saw a portrait of the one pope, Benedict XVI in the sacristy of every church or cathedral where I went to collect the stamp for my pilgrim passport. There was no question nor doubt of his rightful place. Sadly this would not be the same today.

It is interesting to note in passing that the culture wars question, Who is worthy to be pope? leads by a kind of natural extension to, Who is worthy to receive communion? As I bid farewell to my Worcester tourists, and the Bidens make their way back to Marine One, which is waiting in the cricket field, I wonder if both questions perhaps begin with an impossible burden of proof and an unrealistic demand for perfection, neither of which was the concern of the Catholic religion I converted to in the 20th century—and Robert Sutton was born into in the 14th century—as we trod those hundreds of miles to Compostela. We are told Saint Peter also was imperfect, and when Catholic pilgrims enter a church to assist at Mass, somewhere between home and Compostela, we go up to the altar as sinners, not as people who must prove we are saints in order to receive communion.


[1] Ultreïa et suseia! is the traditional Compostela pilgrim refrain, translating as “Let’s go forward” and some scholars suggest ultreïa was originally a form of exclamation—like alleluia!—when pilgrims finally reached the tomb of Saint James.

[2] Katherine Lack, “Dyer on the Road to Saint James: An Identity for ‘The Worcester Pilgrim’?” in Midland History, 30:1, 112-128.

[3] Katherine Lack, The Cockleshell Pilgrim (2003), page 22.

[4] Some photographs of the Worcester Pilgrim’s accessories: https://pilgrimagemedievalireland.com/2016/04/07/the-worcester-pilgrim-burial/

[5] Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose. (Il nome della rosa, Eco’s first novel, was published in Italy in 1980 and first published in English in 1983.) Set against the background of the Great Schism, Eco masterfully draws out the divisions of the time, then ties in the philosophical warfare within the Catholic Church to show that a secret manuscript about comedy by Aristotle could literally inspire the faithful to murder each other. If that’s not a culture war, what is?

Images: Header photo of Worcester’sGothic triforium and clerestory, Mattana, Wikimedia Commons; all other photos, the author.

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Gareth Thomas lives a solitary life in the mountains in Spain with his donkeys. A former aircraft engineer, Franciscan friar and geography teacher, he is a veteran of the pilgrim routes to Compostela and writes about the Camino de Santiago on his blog Equus Asinus (equusasinus.net).

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