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From Canterbury to Rome: The birth of the Via Francigena

There is a 10th-century manuscript in the British Library that has grown more and more important in the last 40 years. It is the travel diary of a Saxon archbishop, Sigericus, as he went from Rome back to his see, Canterbury, in 990 AD.

Where did this manuscript come from? Its history is rather eventful. The famously schismatic English King Henry VIII, openly at odds with Rome, ordered the suppression of monasteries and religious orders in 1541. Thousands of invaluable manuscripts were either destroyed or kept in private hands.

But there was one man, an antiquarian and librarian, who understood the value of Sigeric’s diary. His name was Sir Robert Cotton, and he devoted his life and fortune to collecting this kind of works: Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, or the Lindisfarne Gospels, would otherwise have been lost forever. His heirs donated Cotton’s library to England. In fact, a third of the British Library is made up of this important collection.

The cataloging of Sigeric’s manuscript at the end of the 20th century provided a solid basis for the planning and official recognition of one of the most important pilgrimage routes in Europe: the Via Francigena. In 1994, the Council of Europe recognized it as a European Cultural Route. 

pilgrims leaded to Rome
Fidenza Cathedral (Parma province): bas-relief with pilgrims on their way to Rome, located on one side of the right bell tower. 12th century.

This route is nicknamed “Sigeric’s Itinerary.” Does that mean that he “founded” the Via Francigena, as Alfonso II did with the Primitive Way of St. James? Not really. Sigeric was not a “forerunner” at all. His travel diary just helped us rediscover a route that was much traveled in his time and then forgotten, when the birth of modern nations, religious wars, rationalism and the Enlightenment pushed pilgrimages into centuries of oblivion.

As Veronica Ortenberg, a medievalist at Oxford University explains, before the Norman Conquest (1071), pilgrimages to Rome were extraordinarily popular among Anglo-Saxons. Many names of famous pilgrims are known: St. Dunstan, monks like Benedict Biscop and Wilfrid, kings like Caedwalla of Wessex, and many others traveled this way. Even Venerable Bede once wrote:

“Nobles and commoners, laity and clergy, men and women, spent some time in Rome.”


Going from Rome to Jerusalem to complete the pilgrimage by visiting the places associated with the life and death of Jesus was also rather common.

What we know today as the Via Francigena was not called that until the ninth century, according to documents of the time. Before that, it was known as the Via Lombarda or as the Chemin des Anglois –the “Way of the English”. At that time, the Via did not end in Rome, but went as far as Puglia, where the hardy medieval pilgrims set out for Jerusalem.

Canterbury pilgrims
The Canterbury Pilgrims Copper engraving printed on paper. William Blake (1810)

“Ad Limina Apostolorum”

Unlike Santiago de Compostela, which became a pilgrimage destination after the discovery of the Apostle’s relics in the 9th century, pilgrimages to Rome were frequent since Late Antiquity. The “Places of the Apostles,” the tombs of Sts. Peter and Paul, were popular destinations.

But for the Christian bishops of important cities, another reason compelled them to travel to Rome. Today, as in the past, being appointed as metropolitan bishop meant the imposition of the “pallium”: a woolen cloth with five crosses, handed over by the Pope himself.

Miniature of an archbishop of Canterbury, probably Anselm (11th century). He carries the pallium on his shoulders. Oxford’s Bodleian Library

The imposition of the pallium is indispensable. It symbolizes episcopal dignity and communion with the Successor of Peter. Since the 6th century, an archbishop could not exercise his ministry without receiving it. For Sigeric, the appointed Archbishop of Canterbury (the most important see in England) the journey was simply indispensable.

But what today can be solved with a pretty comfortable flight, in Sigeric’s time meant a difficult journey through the so-called “Roman roads:” the old roads of the Roman Empire (and which, as everyone knows, led to Rome).

So, it was quite common (as it is today) finding monks, bishops and archbishops from all over the then known world in the Eternal City, learning how to celebrate the liturgy, asking the Pope for advice or trying to get hold of some relic to take back to their country. The only novelty was that Sigeric was thoughtful enough as to record the stages of his journey –and that this text has come down to us.

Canterbury Cathedral


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