The Road to Rome: in the Footsteps of a Medieval Pilgrim

The Road to Rome: in the Footsteps of a Medieval Pilgrim

By Mark Hassall

Confraternity of Pilgirms to Rome Newsletter (2009)

Introduction: My family comes from Cheshire and we used to have at home a book by J. P. Earwaker called The History of the Ancient Parish of Sandbach. Sandbach is in Cheshire – and in it lies the hamlet of Hassall, from which our family derive its name, as lords of the manor. In October 1401 a certain Thomas Hassall was presented to the living of St Mary’s Sandbach by the Abbot and Convent of Dieulacres in Staffordshire (“Delecray” means “God increases”). I imagine he was a member of the same family, presumably the younger son of the lord of the manor. Thomas must have been a very young man in 1401 because he was still parish priest in 1455, over half a century later, when he died and had to be replaced.  Now another odd thing about the career of young Thomas is that, less than a year after his initial appointment, on 12th August 1402, he received permission from John Burghill. the Bishop of Lichfield (Cheshire was then part of the Diocese of Lichfield) to go on a pilgrimage ad visitandum limina Sanctorum Petri et Pauli – to visit the shrines (literally “thresholds”) of the Apostles Peter and Paul. He was given eighteen months to do this from the day permission was given. It was this presumed family connection with Thomas that first inspired my own interest in pilgrimage and was the reason why, in spring 2002, some 600 years after Thomas set out on his pilgrimage, that I myself set out with a friend, Valeria Coke, to walk to Rome.

Burghill granted Thomas his licence at the Castle of Eccleshall in Staffordshire, one of the residences of the Bishops of Lichfield. The licence that Thomas received was not only a record in writing of the permission given him by the Bishop to vacate his parish but also served, so I believe, as a sort of passport – credencial is the term that we use on the Camino in Spain when heading for Santiago – which Thomas could show to prove that he was a bona fide pilgrim who, as such, merited aid from those he met on his journey. As far as I know no pilgrim licences from the fourteenth or fifteenth century survive, though their possible appearance is suggested by a secular pass of the period. This was issued in Bordeaux by the Black Prince in 1355 – the year before the Battle of Poitiers – to an archer, William Jodrell, who was returning from Gascony to England. It was written on a small strip of parchment in three lines of Norman French. In translation it reads “Know all that we, the Prince of Wales, have given leave on the day of the date of this instrument, to William Jauderel, one of our archers, to go to England. In witness of this we have caused our seal to be placed on this bill. Given at Bordeaux, 16th December in the year of grace, 1355.” The seal bears the royal arms “differenced with a label”, to use the technical language of heraldry, indicating that the Black Prince was King Edward III’s eldest son.

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