Friday, April 11, 2014

An Englishman's Pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1517

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.

The Parish church of Mulbarton, Norfolk, where Richard Torkington served as priest. Photo: Evelyn Simak (licensed under CCA).

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:

The embarcation of the Doge for the "Marriage of the Sea." Anonymous miniature of the 16th Century (image is in the Public Domain).

"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."

The Jaffa Gate in the early years of the 20th Century (image is in the Public Domain).

"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."

           The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem (image is in the Public Domain).

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 Hospital of the Knights of St John, Rhodes. Photo: Jebulon (image is in the Public Domain).

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 blogs regularly on aspects of history and historical fiction at His novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon.


  1. Very interesting. A month ago I was in Jerusalem and frustrated by the hoards of tourists that made it so hard to think and feel and contemplate. What you describe sounds considerably more respectful. Makes me wonder which image (hoards of loud competing pilgrims/visitors) or respectful tours controlled by monks/priests was wthe rule during the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem. (The setting of my current novel.)

  2. It sounds far more respectful in Torkington's account than it does in Casola's. Casola talks about priests from rival traditions almost coming to blows in the rush to say mass at particular altars, about food and drink being consumed in the church and chamber-pots standing around (pilgrims spent 24-48 hours effectively locked-in). In the Middle Ages it would have been more difficult to get there, so I would imagine that there were fewer people.

  3. Fascinating! It definitely has a place in the history of tourism. Really, I would imagine that whether or not the tour was respectful would depend on who was running it. That's the case even now with regular package tours. And even this account has hints that maybe the locals made the most of the tourists' need for food and drink. I bet that food they bought was outrageously expensive and look at the night they spent on the smelly floor while awaiting the next leg of the tour. Where did you find this account? It's a sobering thought that the Reformation made such a huge difference to pilgrimage!

  4. One of the privileges of living and working in London is my access to the British Library. All of these sources are printed, but I also make use of the manuscript sources in my research. Casola's account is available in facsimile, through Amazon, on a print-on-demand basis. For Torkington's, however, I used the printed copy from George III's private library. The Reformation effectively ended British participation: pilgrimage in itself became a "suspect" activity, and travelling through Catholic lands potentially treasonable.


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