Sunday, 22 February 2015

"The Golden Legend" - The Apostle James in Compostela and Reading

The pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela features prominently in one of the storylines of my novel, Omphalos, and this is the first of a number of posts in which I will explore aspects of the pilgrimage.

The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Photo: Luis Miguel Bugallo Sanchez (licensed under GNU).

Compostela and Canterbury were among the most important destinations for pilgrims in the Middle Ages, but there is an important difference between them. There is no doubt that Canterbury's patron saint, Thomas a Becket, was murdered in the cathedral, or that the shrine visited by pilgrims up to the time of the Reformation contained his physical remains. It is, by contrast, very uncertain whether Compostela's patron saint, James the Greater, was ever there in life, or that any part of his remains is actually present in the elaborate shrine to him which pilgrims visit to this day.

The Shrine of Saint James at Compostela. Photo: Luis Miguel Bugallo Sanchez (licensed under GNU).

The Saint James in question was a fisherman on the Sea of Galilee, the son of Zebedee and Salome who, with his brother John, was called by Christ to join the Apostles. According to The Acts of the Apostles, he was executed by "Herod" (most scholars agree that this was Herod Agrippa, and that the execution took place in 44 AD). The Bible says nothing about him ever having visited Spain, but local tradition holds that he did so, somewhat unsuccessfully, gaining only nine converts before returning to Judea.

Saint James depicted as a pilgrim at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Photo: Simone Ramella (licensed under CCA).

According to 12th Century sources, his body was, following his martyrdom, either brought by his followers to Spain, or (in the so-called "Golden Legend") translated there miraculously in a stone boat. It was not discovered, however, until the time of King Alfonso II (791-842 AD) and his bishop, Theodomir, who was led to the site by mysterious flickering lights, and confirmed the remains (we know not on what basis) to be those of Saint James.

These 12th Century sources (I'll have more to say about them in the weeks to come) also have Saint James appearing to Charlemagne (a contemporary of Alfonso) and inspiring him to liberate Spain from the Saracens. Saint James was even supposed to have appeared on horseback, sword in hand, to intervene on the Christian side in the (fictional) Battle of Clavijo, but, as a priest points out in my novel, "Saint James was a fisherman. He never held a sword in his hand in life and, if he rode any creature it would have been an ass."

Saint James "The Slayer of Moors," from the Codex Calixtinus, a 12th Century document in the library of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Photo: HombreD Hojolata (licensed under CCA).

It is possible that the Spanish cult of Saint James (he has been the patron saint of Spain since the 12th Century) was invented in the 9th, 10th or 11th Century in order to supplant another cult, that of Priscillian, a local man who had been executed under the Christian Emperor, Magnus Maximus (Priscillian, who promoted gnostic texts alongside the canonical scriptures, would have been considered a heretic by churchmen of the Middle Ages).

Intriguingly, a mummified hand, which has long been believed to be of the same Saint James, currently sits in a Catholic Church at Marlow in Buckinghamshire. In 640 AD (a full two centuries before Bishop Theodomir's supposed discovery in Spain), this was apparently in the possession of the Bishop of Torcello, in Venice. By 1046 it had passed into the hands of the Holy Roman Emperor, and was brought to England by the Emperor's widow, Matilda (the daughter of Henry I), who gifted it to Reading Abbey.

The supposed hand of Saint James from Reading Abbey (image is in the Public Domain).

Throughout the Middle Ages, Saint James welcomed pilgrims at Reading, just as he did at Compostela, and worked miracles in both places. This would not have troubled the Medieval mind unduly: it was not unusual for the relics of a saint to be dispersed to several locations and, if he could exist in Heaven and still intervene on Earth, why should he not be able to do so in more than one earthly location?

Reading Abbey. Photo: Chris Wood (licensed under CCA).

In 1539, with Thomas Cromwell's agents at the gates, the monks of Reading placed the hand in a chest and hid it in the abbey walls. It was rediscovered in 1786, by workmen building Reading Gaol.

Whatever the real identity of the Reading hand, or of the remains contained within the shrine at Compostela, it is clear that most Medieval pilgrims took for granted the truth of the stories they were told about the relics, and believed in their miraculous powers. Where deliberate fraud was involved, it was likely to have been known about only by a tiny number of individuals, who took their secrets with them to their graves.

As to the question of why an English pilgrim would walk all the way to Compostela to seek the intercession of Saint James, when he could more easily seek it in Reading, some may have been motivated to travel through foreign lands by a sense of adventure and curiosity, whilst, for others, the journey was a penitential one, with short-cuts leading inevitably to Hell.

Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, the last French town a British pilgrim to Compostela would pass through before crossing the Pyrenees. Photo: Theklan (licensed under CCA).

The longer the journey was, the more opportunities there were to seek intercessions from other saints. A Londoner on the road to Compostela in the 14th Century would almost certainly have visited the shrine of St Thomas at Canterbury before embarking for France at Dover, and, when he stopped at Tours to seek the intercession of Saint Martin, he might well have shared a meal with a Spanish pilgrim, for whom Canterbury was the ultimate destination.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon.


  1. I found this so interesting. My husband and I go frequently to Galicia and often take the flight from Madrid to Santiago. We've been in that cathedral, and at one point I want to walk part of the road. (The road also runs through a French village where my nephew lives just outside of Geneva, and another strand comes from Portugal.) I've order your book, Omphalos, by the way, and look forward to reading it soon.

  2. I've just heard that the skeleton of a man with early stage leprosy has been found in the cemetery of the lepers' hospital of St Mary Magdalen in Winchester. He was buried with a perforated scallop shell, which means he had made the pilgrimage. The surprise is in the date: 1070-1100 - about 50 years before any previous reference to the pilgrimage.