Pilgrimages and the Feast of St Edward
The present form of the National Pilgrimage to the Shrine of St. Edward, on the Saturday nearest to 13th October, seems to have started in 2008. Westminster Abbey has celebrated the Feast of St. Edward on 13th October for many centuries, with processions to the Shrine allowing people to pray there, but not with the number of other activities that happen now.
In medieval times pilgrims, maybe more those who were sick who hoped prayers to the Saint would cure them, could get special permission from the monks to visit the physical Shrine to pray. The area called in recent years “The Shrine” is actually properly the Chapel of St Edward the Confessor with the Shrine being the tomb containing his bones. The monks would have received any offerings from them there. The worn stones in the niches in the Shrine base are where they knelt so they could put their hands up to the stonework nearest the saint’s coffin.
Pilgrims would have been allowed to enter, at a time of day when the monks were not holding services, only via the west door of the north front (where visitors enter now to pay by card - the main north door was the royal entrance), to go round the ambulatories and to the Lady Chapel (the one before Henry VII’s chapel was built in 1220) and back. They could see the ambulatory sides of the royal tombs and glimpse the Shrine if they did not have permission to go into this chapel. They could not visit any other areas of the church. Those with permission to enter St Edward’s chapel would go through the doors from the Sacrarium area, by the Cosmati Pavement, as there was no other access to the chapel at that time.
In monastic times only the nave area up to the Quire screen could be used by the general public for prayer, as there were various altars in this area then. So public entered via the great west door and pilgrims via the north. Once the monks left, pilgrims turned into tourists who had to pay to enter the royal chapel section of the Abbey.
In medieval times it was common for pilgrims to try and take a souvenir of the shrine to keep as a kind of relic that would continue to provide the power of the saint in their home. As the shrines began to be destroyed by the pilgrims the idea came about to produce souvenirs for them to take away that would not include breaking off a piece of the building. This started the tradition of pilgrim badges, made from metals such as pewter and depicting symbols related to the saint the pilgrims were visiting. This tradition died out in England in the 16th century following the reformation of the church and the move to Protestantism which rejected such forms of idolatry.
We have brought back this classic tradition by creating a range of small pilgrim badges perfect for anyone wishing to take away a souvenir from their pilgrimage for the Feast of St. Edward. You can view and purchase our selection here.