By Mark Patton
The 16th Century was a time of expanding horizons for people in England. Although very few found places on the ships travelling to the New World, most would have heard stories of these voyages, and many might have aspired to travel beyond English shores. The pilgrimage to Jerusalem had been an aspiration for pious Christians since the Middle Ages (Chaucer's fictional "Wife of Bath" had made three such pilgrimages), but was fraught with difficulty: not only was the journey itself perilous, but the city of Jerusalem was in Muslim hands, and Christian pilgrims were not always made welcome. For those with financial means, it became easier in the late 15th and early 16th Century, mainly due to the monopoly which the Venetian galley-owners managed to establish over the shipping routes, and to the success of these entrepreneurs in negotiating with the Muslim rulers of the Holy Land. These galley owners offered, in effect, the world's first package tours.
Remarkably, we have the account of one pilgrim who travelled to Jerusalem in 1517. Richard Torkington was the parish priest of Mulbarton in Norfolk, and owed his living to Sir Thomas Boleyn (father of Anne), who may have helped to finance Torkington's journey.
Torkington sailed from Rye to Dieppe on 20th March, and made his way on horseback through Paris, Lyon, Milan and Pavia to Venice. There he witnessed the Doge's symbolic "Marriage of the Sea," and the Corpus Christi Day procession. He boarded his ship, and was served "subtleties as confits and march panes, and sweet wines," finally setting sail on 14th June. The ship sailed down the Dalmatian coast, calling in at Crete, and arrived off the coast of the Holy Land:
"Saturday the xjth Day of Julii, a bout x or xj of the clocke at after noon, we had sight of the Holy Lande. Thanne the maryners sang the Letany. And after that, all the pilgrims, with a joyful voice, sang Te Deum Lawdimus, and thanked all mighty God that he had goven us such grace as to have onys the sight of the most holy lande."
They landed at Jaffa (Tel Aviv), and a messenger was sent to Jerusalem to fetch the Prior of Mount Sion, "As the custom ys."
"We war received by the Turkys and Sarraseyns, and put into an old cave ... ther scrivener ever writing owr namys man by man ... we lay in the same grotte or cave all nyght upon the stynking stable ground."
Asses were provided to take them overland to Jerusalem, stopping off for the night at the hostel in Rama (Ramallah). Eastern Christians (considered as heretics by Catholics such as Torkington) accompanied them along the way, selling food and drink, probably at inflated prices. Arriving in Jerusalem, they were received at the Franciscan Priory of Mount Sion, where they were given a meal before being taken to the Hostel of St James, close to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
On the following day, a Monday, the Franciscan friars led the pilgrims along the Via Dolorosa, pausing to pray at the Garden of Gethsemene. The highlight of the visit, however, came on the Tuesday:
"The Tewysday at vj of the clocke at after noon, that was the Evyn of Saint Mari Maudelain, we were admitted by the lords, Turkes and Mamelukes of the citie to entre in the Temple of the Holy Sepulchre ... the ffryers ... began, then, a very solemn procession. And at every station was showed unto us by one of the ffryers, the mysteries and holiness of the place ... they showed on to us ... the high altar ... in the very self place where our saviour, Christ ... appeared to his blessed mother ... on the left honde of the same high altar ... is the place where long remained the holy crosse of our saviour, Christ, after that Saynt Elayne found it, and now there remain none of it ... and also by vij or viij of the clocke in the morning, we had seyd all messe, and thane we refreshed us with wyne and bred and such other ... as we cowd get for awr money of the Turkes and Sarracens."
On his return journey, Torkington was taken ill, and was taken off the ship at Rhodes, to be cared for by the Knights Hospitaller. His account of his stay there is one of the fullest we have of the operation of the hospital in the 16th Century.
The 16th Century pilgrimage to Jerusalem will feature in my next novel, Omphalos, and Torkington will appear as a minor character (his written English is archaic for the time, and makes his voice relatively easy to characterise). His is one of a number of first-hand accounts that I used to reconstruct the pilgrimage: others include the account written by the German pilgrim, Arnold von Harff, who made the pilgrimage between 1496 and 1499; and the Italian cleric, Pietro Casola, who did so in 1494. Torkington was one of the last English people to make the pilgrimage, since the Reformation was already on the horizon, and would sweep away the spiritual assumptions on which it was founded.
Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores and An Accidental King, are published by Crooked Cat Publications. The e-book editions can be purchased from the Crooked Cat Bookstore, and the paperback versions from Amazon UK or Amazon USA.