Follow the pilgrims’ progress

Geoffrey Chaucer began work on The Canterbury Tales about 1387. His idea was simple and timeless– “nine and twenty” pilgrims plus narrator would tell stories while travelling to and from the shrine at Canterbury. The pilgrims came from all walks of life. Their stories touched on universal human truths and foibles. Chaucer died in 1400, with 23 of the 29 tales completed. 

“In Southwerk at the Tabard as I lay
 Redy to wenden on my pilgrimage
 To Caunterbury with ful devout corage,
At night was come in-to that hostelrye
Wel nyne and twenty in a companye,
Of sondry folk, by aventure y-falle
In felawshipe, and pilgrims were they alle,
That toward Caunterbury wolden ryde.”
-from the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer.

Next April 16 is the anniversary of the supposed gathering of these travellers at the Tabard. To commemorate the date, costumed pilgrims will assemble at Southwark Town Hall. From there, they’ll journey to Canterbury, arriving on April 21.

It’s part of the 600th anniversary marking the death of the great English poet and author. This year and next, a variety of walks in the Loon and Canterbury areas will follow the footsteps of the merry band of pilgrims featured in the tales.

Shrine at Canterbury
Thousands of medieval pilgrims once trekked along the route from London to Canterbury, in southeast England. They travelled on horseback and foot to the shrine of Thomas Becket. It was these pilgrimages that inspired Chaucer to write his poem, the Becket.

The infamous murder of Thomas Becket took place in Canterbury Cathedral. In the convoluted medieval battles between state and church, Henry ll appointed Becket Archbishop of Canterbury, his “inside man”. Becket switched his alliance from the King’s court to the Church, which infuriated the King.

When Becket excommunicated the Bishops of London and Salisbury for supporting the King, the monarch was outraged. Four knights tracked Becket down and killed him while he was at prayer. The murder made a church martyr of the archbishop and the king made a pilgrimmage of apology to Canterbury. The rest is history. The cathedral city became a Mecca for English Christian piety-and the inspiration for Geoffrey Chaucer’s great opus.

The Canterbury Tales spread throughout England in the early fifteenth century. Scholars say their continued success comes from an accurate and vivid portrayal of human nature, unchanged over the 600 years since the author’s time.

For information on the Canterbury walks, contact the British Tourist Authority, 5915 Airport Rd., Suite 120, Mississauga, Ont. L4V 1T1; phone toll-free 1-888-847-4885, or visit their website.