Via Francigena – The Road from Canterbury to Rome

By Paul Severn (January, 2019)

The Via Francigena (hereafter VF) was originally a Roman road, and more latterly a pilgrim way from Canterbury to Rome. The majority of it is in France, hence the name. In recent weeks my life has ‘intersected’ with the VF on three occasions and I took this to be a sign that I should write something about it for IoW CHS.

My first encounter was in book form. For Christmas, I was given The Crossway by Guy Stagg which is an autobiographical account a man’s 5500km walk to Jerusalem via Rome, and on the first part of the route he follows the VF. The book is not only a travelogue but also deals with mental illness from which the writer has suffered. The writer is not a religious man but he stays mainly at monasteries and has (and reports) many conversations with monks, nuns and others. It is a good read which I would recommend to CHS members (published by Picador).

My second intersection with the VF is connected to booking a few days away in the summer in Continental Europe. It is a place to which I have wanted to go for a number of years, a sort of place of pilgrimage, and just happens to lie on the VF. Look out for VF part II in the autumn when I will report on my visit.

And then thirdly, my sister telephoned me recently out of the blue asking if I would like a few days away in Spain. She has to drive the car of her parents-in-law from Surrey to Northern Spain (don’t ask, it’s a long story) and wondered if I would like to come along for the ride and do some of the driving. I have agreed to this proposal and although we will be travelling along motorways, not pilgrim footpaths, the first part of our journey south, about as far as Dijon, will be approximately along the route of the VF.

Our route will take us from Calais, south to St Omer, one of my favourite places in France where I have frequently holidayed, and then further south to Béthune. This is another special place for me as one of my closest friend’s great-grandfather, who fell in the First World War, is buried there. This was discovered by my friend’s brother when he was researching the family tree and so it was that we went to visit. We reckon that we were the first people ever to make a deliberate visit to the final resting place of Private Robert Henry Roberts of the Devonshire Regiment. Here is also the place to commend the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission who do an excellent job in maintaining these graves.

South again, via Arras, to St Quentin where we will spend the night. Saint Quentin (31 October) was a third century missionary who was the son of a Roman Senator and went as a missionary to evangelise the Belgic peoples. He was martyred for his faith, and there are legends of terrible tortures, but his body was recovered and is interred in the cathedral that bears his name. My Rough Guide tells me that this is an uninspiring Gothic basilica, whose main virtue is its sheer size! More interestingly to a mathematician, there is apparently a “maze in the paving of the nave designed for penitents to figure out on their knees.”

Continuing south we will pass by Reims, which I visited last year and which was once the home of the seminary where our Island martyrs, Blessed Robert Anderton and Blessed William Marsden studied to be priests. If you haven’t seen it, my IOW CHS booklet on this pair is still available.

A little further south again the route will take us not far from Pontigny. This again is a place that I have delighted in visiting several times, for it is the place where St. Edmund of Abingdon (16 November), co-patron of our Diocese, is buried. Saint Edmund (c. 1175-1240) was born in Abingdon and studied at Oxford University. The story goes that he was teaching logic and was showing his pupils a three-circle Venn diagram. Apparently, he had a vision of his late mother, Mabel, who wrote in the three circles ‘Father’, ‘Son’ and ‘Holy Spirit’ and Edmund gave up logic and trained to be a priest! This trefoil motif is his symbol and can be seen in various places including Portsmouth (Catholic) Cathedral. He was a very able man who became treasurer at Salisbury Cathedral and eventually Archbishop of Canterbury (before the Reformation just to be clear!) St. Edmund was on a journey to Rome to visit the Pope, no doubt following the VF when he died, and he was buried in the great Cistercian Abbey at Pontigny. It is a semi-deserted place now, but again well worth a visit.

Interestingly St. Thomas of Canterbury to whom our churches at Cowes and Newport are dedicated also took refuge (from Henry II) in the abbey in 1164. Moreover, Pontigny is barely a stone’s throw from the world famous Chablis wine region and indeed if you buy Chablis from Vignobles Angst, there is a line drawing of the abbey on the label!

Chablis is the northernmost end of the Burgundy wine region and so the next part of the journey is the best bit! The countryside is beautiful, vines cover the sides of the valley and signposts point to the names of little villages which are also the names of fine wines. Indeed, I have been amazed to see farmers out early in the morning tending and clipping their vines: they care for them as though they were prize roses or carnations, but when you think of the prices that the top wines command you can understand why. The Burgundians were not all drunkards though and there are some very fine abbeys and churches in the region too. Cluny is perhaps the most remarkable place, but there are also notable abbeys at Fontenay, Vezaley, Citeaux and of course Taizé, home of the late Brother Roger who founded Taizé, and of course the popular chant.

Around Dijon the VF turn south-east heading towards Switzerland. It passes along the north side of Lake Geneva, and then up over the Alps and down into Aosta in Italy, where St Anselm, another Archbishop of Canterbury and famed for his ‘ontological argument’ for the existence of God was born. The path then continues roughly down the west coast of Italy to Rome.

At the Dijon point we shall stop following the VF for we are headed for Spain and must head south-west, down through Lyon, Montpelier and Perpignan before crossing the Pyrenees into Spain. This part of France is what I like to think of as St Anthony of Padua territory for he came and preached here in Albi (against the Albigensian heresy), at Arles and at Puy en Velay (famous for its lentils!). Today there is sadly little or no evidence of Anthony’s presence in this part of the world. Further north at Brive, near Limoges, there is the Franciscan house that Anthony founded, but of course for the ‘full experience’ a trip to Padua is necessary and that’s another story altogether.

Paul Severn
January 2019