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Journey: Pilgrimage

An assembly from the Culham St Gabriel archive

Suitable for Key Stage 2


To look at the history of pilgrims and pilgrimages and the benefits that can come from making a journey.

Preparation and materials

  • There are several ways in which you can add visual and dramatic interest to this assembly. For example, in the ‘Assembly’, Step 3, where the history of pilgrimages is being described, the scene could be brought to life by being dramatized. Alternatively, a child could be dressed as a medieval pilgrim and asked to walk on at the point where the clothing is described in the ‘Assembly’, Step 6.
  • Research any places of pilgrimage or holy wells in the local area so that these can be mentioned in the ‘Assembly’, Step 4.
  • Have available the song 'Two of us' by The Beatles, played from after the opening comments by John Lennon! 


1. Do you know what a 'pilgrim' is? What do we mean by the word 'pilgrimage'? Has anyone got any ideas?

2. Most pilgrims go on a journey to a particular holy place hoping that, when they return home, they will be in some way different. How do you think a pilgrim might be different at the end of the journey from when he or she started out?

3. Hundreds of years ago, many people were forced to go on pilgrimage.

In the Middle Ages, there weren't prisons like we have today, so people found guilty of a crime were sent on long journeys to holy places. They had to collect a signed letter proving that they had completed the pilgrimage, otherwise they weren't allowed back to their homes. For instance, many Scottish criminals were sent – on foot – to Cuthbert's shrine in Durham, which is a long way away and at that time there were not the roads and paths we have today, so it was a very difficult and dangerous journey. Murderers had to wear chains and had the murder weapon chained to them as well.

It was hoped that when they came back they would be sorry for their crimes.

To give you an example of what this was like, imagine that, say, you haven’t done your homework. Your punishment for this crime is to walk to a school 20 miles away, with your books fastened to a chain around your neck. Then you have to return, with the books still chained round your neck, with a signed certificate proving that you completed the journey to the school. If you don't make the journey, then the books will stay round your neck.

Would you ever not do your homework again?

4. Many other pilgrims – in fact, most of them – went on their journeys freely. They often went because they were ill and hoped that God would heal them if they prayed at a shrine.

The most famous shrine people go to today for the same reason is at Lourdes in France. Every year, thousands of people travel there and hope that by making the journey and praying to Mary they will be made well.

In the past, there were many such places in Britain people would walk to in the hope that they would receive healing and help. Often these places had a holy well nearby. Do you know if there is or was a holy well or place of pilgrimage near here?

Mention any places you found out about in your preparation.

5. In the Middle Ages, the most popular places to go to were Rome, Santiago de Compostela in north-western Spain and Jerusalem. Why do you think people wanted to go to Jerusalem?

Next to going to heaven, it was the place where they could feel nearest to Jesus because he had lived there. They could actually see some of the places that they had read about in the Bible.

6. If you were going to Jerusalem, what kinds of clothes would you wear? What do you think medieval pilgrims wore?

They wore a kind of uniform that consisted of a coarse woollen tunic, a pouch for money, a stout stick and a hat with a broad brim – a bit like a Mexican hat.

When they came home, they would pin badges to their tunics to show where they had been. For example, a cockle shell badge showed the person had travelled all the way to Spain to the shrine at Santiago de Compostela, where it was said there were relics of James, one of Jesus’ disciples, in his tomb there.

7. Jerusalem is a long way away. Even today, it takes a few hours to fly there, but how would the medieval pilgrims have got there, some 800 years ago?

They would have travelled most of the way by foot. It was hard and very dangerous. They often wrote a will before they left as many pilgrims never made it – they were robbed or enslaved or killed.

If they decided to do the last part by ship, then the conditions were just as bad. They were given a small space on the deck to sleep on at night, rats ran over them and, if they were lucky, they weren’t attacked by pirates. Life on ship, according to one English pilgrim:

is right smouldering hote and stynkyng.

Despite all of this, many thousands of people did go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

8. What do you think? Would you have gone on pilgrimage?

9. The point of going was to come back a different – better – person than they had been when they had set out. For others, despite the great dangers, the main point of their journey was to have a holiday – to go somewhere new and exciting and have adventures. In fact, the word 'holiday' comes from ‘holy day’ – a special day, connected with church festivals – but there's nothing much holy about most of today's holidays!

How many people have been on a holiday recently or away for a weekend, perhaps? Where did you go? Was there anything holy about your holiday? 

Time for reflection

Let's close our eyes and be quiet for a moment.

Think about the best holiday you have ever been on. It might have been somewhere a long way away, it might have been just to your granny's or a play scheme in the local park. Think about the place you went to and try to remember the sights and sounds and smells and the food you had.

What made the holiday special? Was it the place you went to? Was it beautiful? Was it exciting? Was it by the seaside or in the country? Was it in the north – somewhere wild and mountainous? The south or abroad – warm and sunny?

Say a ‘thank you’ to God for the good gift of his beautiful world that we can enjoy.

Who were the people who were with you on holiday? Did you meet anyone new? Did you visit members of your family?

Say a ‘thank you’ to God for all the special people in your life.

As you go about your day at school, try to remember all the good things that you were given by your holiday or visit.

Finally, say a ‘thank you’ for having a home, too. It is exciting to go somewhere new, but it's also really nice to come back somewhere familiar.


'Two of us' by The Beatles

Publication date: April 2015   (Vol.17 No.4)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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