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How did those Canterbury pilgrims hear at the back…?

There is something that has always puzzled me about Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: if there were up to thirty pilgrims (which is what’s reckoned) how on earth could one of them (at a time)tell a tale that the other twenty-nine could hear?

In the text Chaucer has his pilgrims point out places they’re passing, so it would seem the stories were being told as they rode along. But someone at the back of the cavalcade couldn’t possibly hear someone at the front. Could they? I can only conclude that the tale-telling went on when they halted at the wayside, or stayed somewhere overnight.

Or…someone had a medieval megaphone!

Detail of mural by Ezra Winter illustrating the characters in the Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. Carol Highsmith Archive.
Canterbury Pilgrims by Paul Hardy

The White Rose Of Mortimer?


Most historians now accept that, while the white rose of York was a heraldic badge used by the house of York during the Wars of the Roses, the origins of the red rose of Lancaster can only be traced back to Henry VII.1 After his accession to the throne in 1485 and marriage to Elizabeth of York he effectively invented it when he created the bi-coloured red and white Tudor rose, which symbolised the union of the houses of Lancaster and York. But what about the origins of the white rose of York?

The Welsh Marches – Yorkist Heartland

It is hard to over estimate the influence their Mortimer ancestry had on the Yorkists and their claim to the English throne. The Mortimers were descended from Lionel, duke of Clarence, the second surviving son of king Edward III, whereas the Lancastrian kings of England were descended from his third…

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A 1950’s Kids’ Book with a Different View

We tend to think of anything relating to Richard  III prior to the last  forty years to be biased towards traditional views, with the exceptions of Josephine Tey’s novel, Paul Murray Kendall’s biography, a few other novels like Patrick Carlton’s Under the Hog, and the early  ‘defenders’ such as Buck, Markham and Halsted. Children’s books in particular seem to tow the Shakespearean line, with illustrations of shadowy, black clad, limping uncles menacing angelic golden haired children depicted as little more than toddlers. Royal Children of English History  by  famous author E. Nesbit was one of these, containing not only the More-inspired story of the princes finished by a line  that went something like ‘he (Richard) was killed at Bosworth by a much better man, as he throughly deserved.’ (She seemed unaware that Henry Tudor placed a young child, Edward of Warwick, into the Tower shortly thereafter. There were also references to ‘the great Henry VIII’ and a story that made Edward of Lancaster seem to be a young child going into battle rather than a young man).

However, there were exceptions:  in the 1950’s a softcover book for children appeared Mediaeval Britain Told in Pictures by C.W. Aime. This book covered the medieval era  but used the medium of art rather than text, with the drawing based of portraits and illustrations of the day. We see pilgrimages and we see the burning of Lollards (older kids’ books tenders NOT to skirt around such things) and we have the wedding of Henry VI to Margaret of Anjou, an armoured Richard Duke of York…and even the  murder of Edmund of Rutland at Wakefield (who tends to get forgotten in favour of Edward of Lancaster.) Sopeaking of which, the book goes on then to illustrated Edward IV’s reign including a scene in which  the King strikes Edward of Lancaster who is then murdered by his men.

This is where it gets interesting. Under the caption there is no mention of Richard having any involvement at all, despite the overwhelming Shakespearean influence of the time. The blame seems to be laid firmly at Edward’s door. The next page features drawings of both Edward V and Richard III and facsimiles of their signatures…and not a mention of  murders in the Tower, hunchbacks,  smothering, dolorous babes or usurpation.

Instead at the bottom of the page is a very interesting comment : ‘The brief reigns of Edward V (1483) and Richard III (1483-1485) are important chiefly as transition periods introducing the Tudor Despotism.’

An unusual opinion in that particular era especially in a book primarily intended for children–but certainly a refreshing one.



Pilgrimages Then & Now

The topic of pilgrimages recently came up & I thought to write about the history of & recent resurgence of one of the most popular pilgrimages in the Middle Ages, the Camino de Santiago. There are many different routes leading to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain, but the most popular is the one almost all of them (except the trail out of Portugal) meet up with at some point: the Camino Francés.

The Camino de Santiago actually traces a much earlier path called “The Milky Way” which led to the end of the Earth (or Finisterre), but most pilgrims stop at the Cathedral in Santiago to pay respects at the tomb of St. James the Greater. During the Middle Ages, only 2 other pilgrimage routes were more popular: the one leading to Rome, & the one leading to the Holy Land.

Pilgrims came from all over Europe, at all times of the year. The more well-to-do were able to make their pilgrimages in the spring to fall, while the poor would most likely only get permission from their lords to go in the winter.

Vast numbers of pilgrims’ hospitals were established all along the route, and it was for the most part guarded by the Knights Templar. Remnants of Templar churches can be found all along the Camino Francés, most notably the round church at Eunate, just outside of Pamplona. None of the medieval hospitals are in operation as such today, but you can walk past ruins of them all along the Way. While the pilgrims’ hospitals are now gone, you can still find lodging in many convents & monasteries along the way, & even in some churches. Given the size of the ruins I have seen of these hospitals, however, I’d have to guess that the numbers of pilgrims they served were huge.

The pilgrimage to Compostela was widely known in England. Chaucer’s Bath of Wife made a pilgrimage there, according to the “Canterbury Tales,” while in real life, Earl Rivers made his own way to Santiago. It is unknown if Richard III ever journeyed to Spain, but he did make pilgrimages to Canterbury, Walsingham, & other religious sites in England. However, even today, the journey is not easy. It is physically, mentally, & spiritually grueling, & many times the hardest thing you have to battle is your own inner voice suggesting that you quit. Unlike medieval pilgrims, however, modern pilgrims do not have to contend with battles between Moors & Christians or worry about bandits stealing their horses.

At several places along the Way, pilgrims then & now encounter places made famous by the tales of Charlemagne & romanticized in “The Song of Roland.” In fact, the Valcarlos Route over the Pyrenees follows the route taken by Charlemagne & Roland, and ends at a small village called Roncesvalles (Ronceveaux in French), which has greeted pilgrims & held daily masses for them for over 1000 years.

If you want to get a feeling for how medieval people lived, or see first-hand places & things that Richard III would have been familiar with, walking the Camino Francés is a good way to do it. The towns you walk through, especially the smaller ones, are still on their medieval footprint. In areas where fighting was heaviest, the towns are situated on tops of steep hills, always a welcome site after a long, hot day’s walk, I can attest.

At the end of your journey, you reach the Cathedral in Santiago & are rewarded with your own Compostela with your name written in Latin on it, so long as you can prove you walked the last 100 kilometers. You are also allowed to give the statue of Saint James that sits behind the altar a hug, & then descend into the crypt where his coffin is. Being a few feet from the grave of someone who knew Jesus is a heady experience today, so you can imagine how medieval pilgrims felt about it. All pilgrims, ancient & modern, do get to use the scallop shell as their personal device or on their coat of arms, if they have one. Unlike medieval pilgrims, however, modern pilgrims do not get time off for good behavior from Purgatory or other indulgences.

There are many good online sources where you can research & plan your own Camino, if you feel called to go.

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