ngland's new class of people, which included artisans, guildsmen, landowners, lesser nobility, merchants, and freemen, was a force that had been growing in power ever since the Black Death had killed off most of the working population earlier in the century. Serfs and feudal-bound workers abandoned their old lives for paying jobs in the cities and freetowns, and for the first time in the history of England a man not born into power or money could live as fine as royalty - better, in some cases.
One of the favorite pastimes for this new group of people was to take a pilgrimage, which served the same function for Medieval man as does a vacation to the beach or Disneyland serves modern man. Although there were many popular spots - the pilgrimage center of Glastonbury being one example - the favorite of all was the cathedral in Canterbury that housed the remains of the beloved St. Thomas á Becket. The second centenary of the death of St. Thomas occurred in Chaucer's lifetime, and for the jubilee thousands of people took to the road, and there was even free food and drink for the traveler all the way from London along the south road to Canterbury.
Beside the body of St. Thomas, Canterbury had a lot to offer, enough to satisfy any pilgrim: the whole arms of eleven saints, the bed of the Blessed Virgin, some wool of Her own weaving, a fragment of the rock at Calvary, a piece of rock from the Holy Sepulchre, Aaron's Rod, a piece of the clay from which Adam was made, and other incredible exhibits.
It is ironic to note that a Bishop Simon Sudbury of London once overtook a band of merry-makers on their way to Canterbury and berated them by saying:
"Plenary indulgences for your sins by repairing to Canterbury? Better hope might ye have of Salvation had ye stayed at home and brought forth fruits meet for repentance!"
A young Squire from Kent, Thomas of Aldon, angrily spoke back:
"My Lord Bishop, for that you have thus spoken evil of St. Thomas and are minded to stir up the minds of the people against him, I will give up mine own salvation if you do not die a most shameful death!"
Eleven years later, Bishop Sudbury, then archbishop of Canterbury, was slain by the rebellious peasants led under Wat Tyler, for his involvement in an unpopular poll tax.
The murder of Thomas á Becket
Pilgrims Passing To and Fro © James L. Matterer
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