Jacobean Holy Year 2021 meets 1423 in Saint-Jean-d’Angely

Day 42 of Walking Out of the World, in which the virtual pilgrimage in this Jacobean Holy Year of 2021 meets the ‘Worcester Pilgrim’ Robert Sutton, as he too arrives in Saint-Jean-d’Angely, in the Jacobean Holy Year of 1423.

(Previous post: Days 40 & 41 Into the Charente Maritime.)

Happy New Year! The Way of Saint James brings the roads of Europe together, converging in common culture and tradition, recalling centuries of European exchange long before the modern period. Such integration was often inspired by Catholic ideals: Benedictine, Carolingian or the 13th century Franciscan and Dominican scholars who began our universities in Oxford, Paris and Cologne. We celebrate that and work for a Europe-wide vision, regardless of setbacks caused by the cultural hooligans of our times, even if we never live to see it fully flower again in our lifetime. Once more we must close the monastery gates and guard the culture!

Centre de Culture Européene Saint-Jacques de Compostelle, in the old Abbaye Royale in Saint-Jean-d’Angely

It is 2021 and it is also 1423 on this virtual pilgrimage. In both years it is a Jacobean Holy Year. This means the 25th July Feast of Saint James falls on a Sunday. Planning your timing is important on a pilgrimage and the plan has been to arrive in Saint-Jean-d’Angely on New Year’s Day 2021 to meet up with Robert Sutton, the Worcester pilgrim, arriving here on his route from Cherbourg, also in that Holy Year of 1423. From now on we share the same route to Compostela and we are walking in the Jacobean Holy Year.

My route from Worcester – carrying a replica of Robert Sutton’s bourdon – only coincided with his route for the first day, along the river Severn heading south. We both stayed overnight in Tewkesbury. Robert stayed in the guest hall of the Benedictine abbey that night in 1423. I stayed in the campsite, which then would have been the abbey fields. Then we went in different directions: he towards Bristol to enquire about ships to France and I towards Oxford. He later made his way across England towards Southampton and I to the port at Newhaven, as we took our different routes through northern France (see route via Southampton-Cherbourg in 1423 and route via Newhaven-Dieppe in 2021). These routes from the mapy.cz site give walking distances – i.e. minus sea crossing distances – which I have compared on the graphic below.

I have walked just 77 kilometres more – or roughly two days’ walk – even though Robert Sutton’s sea crossing put him further south. I was very suprised when I compared the two routes because they show a very little difference in the walking distance from Worcester. (Of course this is a digital approximation based on the mapy.cz walking distances between towns on both routes. None of these route planning sites are very clever at mapping actual foot routes!) We are now slightly under halfway to Compostela. In eight days time I shall collect the stamp in my credencial from Moustey, which marks exactly another thousand kilometres to go.

Today our routes meet for the first time since Tewkesbury, in town of Saint-Jean-d’Angely. This was an important visit for mediaeval pilgrims because it had the relic of Saint John the Baptist’s head. There is a kind of irony that I will finally be meeting up with Robert Sutton for the first time here. For I set off from the stone near the altar in Worcester cathedral where his bones were laid to rest again in 1999, but he was headless, like John the Baptist, for the remains when dug up in 1987 had been disturbed by earlier works in the cathedral.

So we set off from Worcester: Robert Sutton in 1423 and on this virtual pilgrimage we are halfway to Compostela and it is New Year, the start of the Jacobean Holy Year 2021.

His “special staff that was imbued with mystical significance in mediaeval minds,” according to Katherine Lack in The Cockleshell Pilgrim, will now meet the replica I am carrying, here on New Year’s Day in 2021 in a Jacobean Holy Year, in Saint-Jean-d’Angely. So, as I walked into the ruins of the abbey, I was looking for a man with a similar bourdon. Someone in his early thirties and about my own height, for he was tall in his day and I am of average height. Wearing knee-high leather boots, a woollen pilgrim smock and cape, and a small leather scrip. Probably a wide-brimmed pilgrim’s hat too, although the headless corpse in the tomb had not furnished any details of his headgear.

He was sitting on a bench within the ruins of the abbey. Robert Sutton was complete with his head – to my relief – and in fact a good head of hair under his Compostela pilgrim’s hat. His leather scrip was in his lap and he held onto the straps of it. These weeks on the road had taught him that anyone approaching from behind might be a brigand. I walked around him, so as not to startle him by speaking to his back. The bourdon with the twin-pronged base was propped against the bench next to him, and he was looking up at the arches with their empty windows and weeds growing between the stones.

“Robert Sutton?” I eased the rucsack off my back and lowered it to the ground. I rested the bourdon against it and I offered him my hand. How did people shake hands then? Was it the right gesture? He cocked his head to one side, reached out and gripped my fingers. “This staff, this bourdon is a copy of your own. Look it has the same iron fork.”

“Good day to you, sir,” said the Worcester Pilgrim. I had only pictured him as a sixty-year-old headless skeleton with arthritis, whose bones had been analysed by experts. So it was difficult to adjust to this younger, muscular figure in front of me who was half my age. He looked at the replica. “It is a remarkable detail, sir, that yours has an iron fork like this one made in the forge in Worcester, to my exact orders.”

“I repeat, sir,” I replied. “This bourdon is an exact copy of your own. Made by a Worcester priest. His wife wrote your history.”

He looked quite blank. “I have no history,” he said. “Until I return. If God wills that this sinner return alive from Compostela to Worcester and in good health, then my history may start afresh and I might continue my business and prosper. But now I have no history until I return. And then, who can foretell? ‘Do well and have well, and God will receive your soul.'”

“Piers Plowman,” I said.

“That’s right, Langland thus spake the Truth in it.” Robert Sutton rested one boot upon the other, and both boots looked in very good condition, like mine. We had walked our first thousand miles and our boots were well chosen. “So you too came from Worcester?”

“I did, sir,” I said. “It was because of you I came from Worcester, otherwise I would have set out from Westminster, so it put many extra miles on my journey, but I thank you for it. If I had not walked in your time as well as my own, then the journey would not have been the same.”

In what time do you walk?” he asked, not sounding too disconcerted by the concept that we were conversing as time travellers, or pilgrims who had walked out of the world. “Here in France they have been at war with England four score years and more. It is the year of Our Lord fourteen hundred and twenty-three.”

“I know,” I smiled, “and King Harry who won the field at Agincourt is barely cold in his grave now, in your time; but I walk in 2021. It is also a Holy Year of Saint James. We have been at peace with the French for forty years, but have just begun a new time of arguments! Was it ever thus?”

“Look at this abbey in ruins,” said Robert Sutton. “They told me I would find it abandoned, for it is fifty years since the English were driven out of here and this place became the devil’s land. This is what I had been led to expect, but where is the head of John the Baptist? Who knows where the relic is hidden now?”

“This is a much later ruin,” I said. “After your time and before mine. It looks a like a seventeeth century ruin. They rebuild many times. Sometimes when there is vandalism, they call it a ‘Reformation’, and then they vandalise it again and call it a ‘Revolution’. You and I, pilgrim, we just pass through and sit in the ruin for a while. Did you really want to see the head of John the Baptist?”

He shook his head. “I have seen many marvels and were it not that my poor wife asked me to pray for our dear lost child at the shrine of Saint John in Angely, I would gladly have walked by. We have another thousand leagues to walk to Compostela and there will be many other wonders. I must go forward: there is a pilgrim hospital south of the town and I will stay there tonight.”

Robert Sutton the Worcester Pilgrim stood up, energetically propelling himself to his feet with a strong right arm pushing on the bourdon resting across the bench – and he threw the strap of his scrip around his shoulder and slapped me on the arm, asking, “Where will you spend the night here?”

“Camping Val de Boutonne in Saint-Jean d’Angely,” I said, “down by the river on the way out of town. Places for pilgrims to stay are different in our time than in yours, so we cannot lodge in the same place. In my time there is no pilgrim hospital south of the town.”

“Happy New Year,” he said. “We pilgrims always meet again, further along the road to Compostela.”

“Adieu. We shall see each other,” I said. “Ultreïa!”

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