Medieval Pilgrimage on the Isle of Wight

(contributed by Ralph Hodd of Ventnor)

Pilgrimage was an integral part of Medieval piety; for some this would mean partaking in devotions at a local shrine, whilst for others it might involve a lengthy and potential dangerous journey to a distant pilgrimage centre, either in another part of England or even as far away as Jerusalem. Often such an undertaking would be in response to a perceived need to obtain forgiveness for sins committed that might be an obstacle to a person’s eventual admission to heaven. On the Isle of Wight pilgrimage was certainly a familiar aspect of Medieval Christian life, but it is unlikely that apart from the local veneration of images in some of the parish churches, there were any significant pilgrimage locations that would have drawn pilgrims from further afield. It is, however, likely that the experience of pilgrimage over longer distances was not entirely uncommon among the people of the Island.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a suggestion was actively promoted that in earlier years pilgrimage took place to a shrine of Our Lady of Whitwell. The village, as its name suggests, was the location of springs that fed wells of clear water, and such places have been noted locations of devotion stretching back to pre-Christian ages. A trackway leading from a well near to the church to the coast at Puckcaster Cove is known as the Cripple Path and this has been interpreted to mean a pilgrim trail. At the height of the Anglo-Catholic movement during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, there were pilgrimages to Whitwell with the intention of making devotions to the Blessed Virgin. The parish church there is jointly dedicated to her along with the German saint, St Rhadegunde, and pilgrims from districts beyond the Island visited here in organised pilgrimages. However, it has not yet been shown from surviving archival or archaeological sources that Whitwell was a medieval pilgrimage centre. No church records exist today that refer to devotion to Our Lady of Whitwell. A will made by Andrew Payne in 1524 does record a bequest of £13 6s 8d to buy a bell for the chapel of Whitwell and a further £5 ‘to bye a vestment of Our Ladye to sainte Radigunde awlter in the chapell’, but no specific mention of a Marian shrine is made. Archaeology has, as yet not produced any location or artefact clearly associated with pilgrimage at Whitwell. The existence of an ancient well, and the Cripple Path are perhaps the strongest suggestions of pilgrimage related activities and these certainly may be relevant in a wider interpretation of pilgrimage in the southern part of the Island.

Another village, Brighstone, does however, have some evidence of medieval pilgrimage. As early as 1211 a form of devotion began in this location centred on Simon of Atherfield. He was hailed locally as ‘a martyr to his wife’, having been murdered by her. The cult was probably based at the parish church of Brighstone, but it was quickly suppressed by the Bishop of Winchester who was the patron of the parish. He may have considered the cause of Simon to be rather dubious. Accounts for the bishop’s manor of Calbourne taken at Michaelmas 1211, indicate that the cult was sufficiently popular to have received £7 12s 1d in offerings at Simon’s tomb. Later, in the sixteenth century, the people of Brighstone continued to demonstrate an active sense of lay piety through participation in two religious fraternities; the Brotherhood of the Holy Trinity and the Brotherhood of All Hallows. The members of these guilds would have made provision for the maintenance of candles before the statues within the church and other devotional expenses, as well as supporting guild members in the various needs of life and death. It is perhaps in this context that John Daie in his will of 1534 left all his clothes to others, ‘except the best kerchief which I give to our ladye of Brixton’. His bequest was made in the year of Henry VIII’s declaration of the royal supremacy and it shows that, even at this late stage, the popular practice of the dressing of those images favoured by the faithful, was continuing. It is quite likely that, as the parish church was dedicated to St.Mary, a local devotion existed to her image, supported by the members of the local fraternities. Further evidence for participation in pilgrimage at Brighstone is offered by archeological finds, for in recent years at least four medieval pilgrim ampullae have been found in the Brighstone area. Over twenty-two of these lead objects intended to hold holy water have been found on the Isle of Wight (although, perhaps significantly, none as yet, have been found at Whitwell). Pilgrim badges are often another illustration of pilgrim activity, but so far none has been found on the Isle of Wight.

In England, Canterbury, Walsingham and Glastonbury were all major shrines, but for Islanders’, pilgrim destinations on the mainland involved difficult overland journeys, in addition to a sea crossing. Apart from the dedication of the Newport chapel to St.Thomas of Canterbury and a large letter W (presumably for Walsingham, but just possibly Whitwell) impressed on two of the recently recovered ampullae, there is little to suggest an Island association with any major English pilgrimage site. There are, however, a number of links with the major Spanish shrine of Santiago de Compostella and given the place of the Isle of Wight in relation to trade routes to Gascony and Northern Spain, this seems to have been a destination favoured by Island pilgrims. Throughout most of the Middle Ages an English export trade consisting mainly of wool was more than balanced by imports of wine from Gascony and Northern Spain. In the early years of the sixteenth century fleets of well over a hundred vessels would gather off the Isle of Wight before sailing south to collect the produce of the wine harvest. It was not uncommon for the masters of these vessels to make an additional profit by conveying pilgrims on the seaward leg of their journey to the shrine of St.James at Compostella. A reminder of this connection of the Isle of Wight with destinations to the south of the Bay of Biscay, is seen in the case of Walter de Goditon of Chale and his connection with the wreck of the ‘Ship of the Blessed Mary’ at Chale on 22nd April 1313. The ship was from Bayonne and the acquisition of casks of wine from the wreck by Walter and three other men resulted in heavy fines being imposed by a court in Southampton. It was not, however, Walter de Goditon who was responsible for the construction of the medieval lighthouse on St.Catherine’s Down. An episcopal licence dated 15th. October 1312 for the repair of attached hermitage suggests that the building of this early maritime beacon, pre-dates the wrecking of the ship in 1313. The existence of the lighthouse and its ecclesiastical connection indicates an earlier concern for the safety of vessels and their mariners and perhaps their pilgrim passengers. If Compostella pilgrims were present on vessels heading out or returning to the Island, the light of St. Catherine’s would have been a significant symbol on their journey.

It is perhaps significant that there are two specific references to an Isle of Wight connection with Santiago de Compostella and these add substance to the possiblity that this shrine held a particular attraction for pilgrims from the Island. At Santiago de Compostella, in the cathedral museum and treasury there is an English alabaster portable altar, said to have been gifted to the shrine in 1456 by John Goodyear, a priest of Cheil or Chale in Winchester Diocese. That year was apparently a Santiago holy year and perhaps the surname of the donor is more than a coincidence. John Goodyear was not the rector of Chale, but the quality of his gift implies that as well as being in holy orders, he was a man of some means. If Cheil is indeed, Chale, Isle of Wight, it may not have been difficult to obtain passage to Spain, given the pattern of the wine trade. A later, substantial reference to Islanders making pilgrimage to Santiago is made by Sir John Oglander in his Royalist Notebook. Although this was recorded in the first half of the seventeenth century, it contains anecdotal evidence about this practice from the early years of the sixteenth century. Sir John records that, ‘There was a great pilgrimage to St.James of Compostella in Portugal, whither many of our Island have foolishly travelled, either for their soul’s health (as they believed) or for their bodies. The Lady Worsley, wife to Sir James, daughter and heir to Sir John Leigh, was the last of our Island that underwent that pilgrimage. She carried many old women with her, and some young, of which lived in my time that have related the passages of their journey to me’. Given that it was the practice of the wine fleet to gather off the Isle of Wight, it is possible that Puckcaster Cove at Niton, provided a point of embarkation for pilgrims to Compostella as it was considered a suitable anchorage and landing place. This would perhaps offer an explanation of the suggested Whitwell element in the Island’s pattern of pilgrimage, since Puckcaster is the destination of the Cripple Path from that village.

It is the shine of St. James at Compostella that appears from those sources still available to us be the most significant consistent element in the practice of pilgrimage on the Isle of Wight in the middle ages. Realistically though, this would only have been an option for those of means. For less wealthy individuals, local places of pilgrimage may have been available within parish churches. Brighstone is the most likely identifiable contender for this practice and Whitwell may perhaps have been a location for devotions before and after a pilgrimage to Compostella.