John Price

Prepared for the Fifth British Postgraduate Conference

The Shakespeare Institute


3-5 July 2003

Of all the developments in English society over the period of the Renaissance, few left deeper footprints than the Reformation. In the space of a single lifetime England’s state sanctioned religion went officially from Roman Catholicism to Catholicism under the supreme headship of the English king, to a guarded Protestantism, a more radical Protestantism, a renewed and aggressive Roman Catholicism, and finally to Protestantism again, each of these shifts being accompanied by violence and persecution as successive rulers sought to control religious belief and worship. Exactly where the populous stood in relation to this governmental interference with their most cherished and solemn understandings is a matter of dispute.

One view, indeed for many years the accepted view, was that the collapse of the medieval church was something that enjoyed popular approval. One writer puts it like this

Like some impressive city perched on a quivering fault line, the edifice of late medieval religion rested on shaky ground. Beneath the deceptively calm and firm exterior, a complex series of imperceptible movements were building up pressure, mounting strain to breaking point.[1]

More recent investigations however, and here Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars must be mentioned, have offered a different understanding, suggesting that late medieval religion was neither decadent nor decayed, but was a strong and vigorous tradition, and that the Reformation represented a violent rupture from a popular and theologically respectable religious system.

This paper seeks to engage with this debate by examining the theatrical texts of Early Modern England. There is of course little point in searching for overt endorsements or criticism of reformed theology; The Master of the Revels, acting as official censor, had responsibility for ensuring that nothing resembling religious debate should be allowed a hearing. Instead, I will be examining references to one aspect of Catholicism, namely pilgrimage, and considering how this was presented on the stage. References are often fleeting, but nevertheless do offer a measure of insight into how one aspect of a faith, supposedly suppressed out of existence, may have retained some purchase on the belief systems of Renaissance England.

The practice of pilgrimage is often associated merely with the veneration of relics, but I would like to suggest, there was much more to it than that. The most famous description of Pilgrimage is, of course, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and simply reading the prologue is enough to immerse oneself in what was a celebration of fellowship, a collective act of redemption, vividly in tune with the Catholic theology of a community at prayer. He writes:

Wel nyne and twenty in a compaignye,
Of sondry folk, by aventure yfalle
In felaweshipe, and pilgrimes were they alle,
That toward caunterbury wolden ryde.[2]

Eamon Duffy suggests many other purposes for pilgrimage which he defines as the seeking of the sacred outside of ones own immediate locality[3]. These include helping the believer locate ritual in a wider context, providing a temporary release from ordinary living and offering an opportunity for self examination and enhanced self knowledge. Theologically, pilgrimage embodied many aspects of Catholic belief which the Protestant church would disavow. One was the notion that praying to saints was worthwhile because they could intercede with the almightily on behalf of the supplicant. Another, is the endorsement of the material world implicit in the idea that holiness could located in physical objects and localities. Above all, pilgrimage invoked the Catholic theology of grace, the idea that an individual could earn merit by their own actions and self abasement and thereby contribute to their own salvation.

It is not surprising then to find that such a potent symbol of Catholicism was emblematic of the major act of Catholic resistance in the early Days of the Reformation which was known as the ‘Pilgrimage of Grace’ and took place in 1536. Two years later, pilgrimages, hitherto discouraged, were formally banned by the injunctions of 1538 which forbade ‘wandering to pilgrimages, offering of money, candles or tapers to images or relics, or kissing or licking the same’. Eventually, the Thirty Nine Articles drawn up in 1571 included a declaration that

‘The Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, Worshipping and Adoration, as well of Images as of Relics, and also Invocation of Saints, is a fond thing, vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.’[4]

Nevertheless, the idea of pilgrimage seems to have remained an important component of religious thought, even within the reformed church. When Walter Raleigh believed he was about to be executed in 1602 he is credited with having written the poem known as The Passionate Man’s Pilgrimage. The first stanza reads as follows:

Give me my Scallop-shell of quiet,

My staff of faith to walk upon

My scrip of joy, immortal diet, My bottle of salvation,

My gown of glory, hope’s true gage,

And thus I’ll take my pilgrimage.

These lines invoke many of the icons of pilgrimage; the scallop shell being the symbol of the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela and by extension all pilgrimage. The scrip, bottle, staff and gown being other motifs that always figure in medieval depictions of pilgrims. We can however, see that Raleigh is, in a sense, positioning himself between the old and the new faiths. While invoking the spirit of humility and simplicity which he finds in the iconography of pilgrimage, in this poem the journey has been internalised and is a metaphor for the inner life of the Christian man. The symbols of pilgrimage are only important for what they represent – quiet, faith, salvation – and so this can equally be seen as showing a Protestant theological understanding.

This theme of internalisation of pilgrimage was taken further by George Herbert in his religious poem in 1602, The Temple and, most famously by John Bunyan in A Pilgrims Progress towards the end of the Seventeenth Century. This religious allegory takes the process of the internalisation of pilgrimage to its logical conclusion, ostensibly describing a physical journey, but in fact referring to the thoughts, impulses and temptations that populate the minds of the Christian individuals. The motif of pilgrimage was also used by writers such as Samuel Purchas to describe journeys to the new world, so it does appear that it remained an important concept, well into late Renaissance England.

Turning to its representation on the stage, pilgrimage is certainly a concept which permeates many of the works of Shakespeare, no less than twelve plays containing some reference, and frequently in a positive context. Rather than enumerate these one by one, I have identified three types of reference which I deal with in turn.

Firstly, I would like to consider the most obvious use of the term, as a metaphor for a defining series of events, or indeed a journey, which leads to moral growth. For instance, Othello, in recounting how he courted Desdemona by romancing about his past, says that

To draw from her a prayer of earnest heart

That I would all my pilgrimage dilate.[5]

Similarly, in King Lear, Edgar recounting his final conversation to the dying Gloucester, recalls how he

ask'd his blessing, and from first to last

Told him my pilgrimage:[6]

The theme is also present in an early play, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, where Julia reflecting on her journey in pursuit of her lover Proteus, declares that a

true-devoted pilgrim is not weary

To measure kingdoms with his feeble steps;[7]

This use of pilgrimage, as a metaphor for an arduous yet life-enhancing journey, is played out to the fullest extent in another rarely performed play, All’s Well That Ends Well.

The background is reminiscent to that in The Two Gentlemen of Verona in that the play centres around an attempt to track down an errant partner. In All’s Well that Ends Well, the heroine Helena is deserted by her new husband, who has gone fight with the army in Florence. In order to trace him, Helena adopts the guise of a pilgrim bound for Santiago de Compostella and appears in this dress in at least four of her five final appearances on stage. On her departure she leaves behind a letter, set out in the form of a sonnet, explaining her actions, the first lines of which read:

I am Saint Jaques' pilgrim, thither gone.

Ambitious love hath so in me offended

That barefoot plod I the cold ground upon,

With sainted vow my faults to have amended.[8]

I do not propose to venture up the critical cul-de-sac of asking why Helena should imagine that a journey from Paris to Northern Spain should take her into the heart of Tuscany. Instead, I would suggest that in considering the significance of this disguise in relation to Early Modern religious belief, it is worth reflecting that in this play, Helena plays a dual role, in the first half of the play as miracle worker which brings about her marriage and in the second as a pilgrim which redeems it. Both of these roles can be clearly identified with a Catholic understanding, and has led David Beauregard to claim that the a ‘Roman Catholic theology of grace informs the dialogue and action’ of the play. Apart from the references to miracles and pilgrimage, the play also refers to the last judgement, penitential vows, and vows by the saints. Above all the play reinforced these catholic references with by advocating a theology of what the play itself terms ‘inspired merit’[9] that is earning virtue from sacrifice, thereby setting itself in opposition to reformed theology. The pilgrimage journey then may be seen part as a coherent system of reference to catholic belief, embodied and endorsed in the person of Helena.

The second group of references identify the pilgrim with a idealised form of humanity – self-effacing, faithful, and honest. One example arises in Hamlet in Ophelia’s mad scene; when rejected by the Prince, who has of course, recently killed her father she declines into madness and communicates by singing snatches from old half-remembered songs, one of which is rendered.

How should I your true love know

From another one?

By his cockle hat and staff,

And his sandal shoon.[10]

In this passage she associates truth and constancy with the same iconography of pilgrimage already encountered in the poem by Walter Raleigh. There is a clear contrast here between the virtuous man of the song, an adherent of the Old Religion and the erratic character of her false love, Hamlet who, as we are constantly reminded, was educated at Wittenberg – the university of Martin Luther.

A similar use of the pilgrim image occurs in the history plays, where twice, the pilgrim’s walking staff is contrasted with the sceptre of kingly office. In Henry VI, Part II York complains the king’s ‘hand is made to grasp a palmer's staff / And not to grace an awful princely sceptre’[11]. At the pivotal point of Richard II, the King foresees his future as exchanging ‘My sceptre for a palmer's walking staff / My subjects for a pair of carved saints / And my large kingdom for a little grave,’[12] These references again recall Raleigh’s poem, associating a fall from power with enhanced holiness and the pilgrim image. In the specific case of Richard, notwithstanding his weary tone, this scene marks the start of moral rehabilitation which sees him endowed with a measure of tragic status by the conclusion of the play. The metaphorical exchange of sceptre for staff which he appears to dread, is a step towards both spiritual and dramatic salvation.

The third Shakespearean use of the pilgrimage motif, that of pilgrim as idolater, is the one most in tune with protestant theology and occurs in the Romeo and Juliet, in particular in the embedded sonnet that consists of the first words exchanged between the lovers. Romeo introduces himself, by saying

This holy shrine, the gentler sin is this:

My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand

To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.[13]

Juliet’s response is equally fulsome:

Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,

Which mannerly devotion shows in this;

For saints have hands that pilgrims' hands do touch,

And palm to palm is holy palmer’s' kiss.[14]

In explicating this text, the first point to understand is that Romeo’s name, to our ears unequivocally associated with the concept of romantic love, in fact means ‘pilgrim’, being derived from the pilgrimage to Rome. This image like behind the entire passage, as Romeo identifies himself as a pilgrim and Juliet as the object of his worship. The penultimate line of the sonnet ‘Saints do not move, though grant for prayers, sake’ makes a striking theological point, saying that saints only move in order to intercede on behalf of a supplicant, a statement totally at odds with the Thirty Nine Articles and reformed theology generally. Is it then fair to assume that the identification of Romeo and Juliet, the two characters who stand for honest feeling in the violent and divided world of Verona, with the language and belief of the Old Religion is an important identification of the playwright with such beliefs ? We should be wary of making such a judgement for other interpretations are certainly available. John Andrews offers the suggestion that Romeo’s regard for Juliet is a type of ‘cupidas’ – a form of pseudo-worship in which one’s deity is a creature rather than the creator. Thus Romeo is not giving vent to honourable love but to blasphemous idolatry; an accusation which could also be made against Juliet who later begs Romeo

… if thou wilt, swear by thy gracious self,

Which is the god of my idolatry,[15]

On this reading, the eventual death of the lovers in the product of their endowing their feelings with the same heresy that brought down the Catholic faith so this pilgrim reference may be interpreted as explicit criticism of the Old Religion rather than a implicit endorsement.

Moving beyond Shakespeare, the play containing the most comprehensive set of references to pilgrimage is, not surprisingly in view of the title, The Pilgrim by John Fletcher. Briefly, the action of the play is this: the hero of the play, the eponymous pilgrim, Pedro, adopts pilgrim dress and an austere way of life in order to make reparation for his father’s behaviour towards a rival, Rodrigo. He is pursued on his journey by a lover, Alinda and by Alinda’s angry father Alphonso. When Pedro encounters Rodrigo he finds he has become corrupted by the life of an outlaw, and as a ruse to murder Pedro, Rodrigo too dresses as a pilgrim. This devise however turns out to be instrumental in his conversion and all are eventually reconciled at the holy shrine of the Church of Segoria. The journey of the four characters, takes them through a forest and the madhouse, places of unbridled emotion and ungoverned imagination to eventual salvation in the sphere or reason and discipline. The images that dominate the play have already been examined in the Shakespeare plays, those of pilgrimage as a life enhancing journey and of the pilgrim as virtuous man. While Pedro lacks the imagination to engineer the denouement, it is his virtue and example which form the moral heart of this drama and opens the possibility of a meaningful resolution.

The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster is another play which resonates with the imagery of pilgrimage and the pre-reformation religious life of England. The important scene in this respect, also the fulcrum of the play is set at the Roman Catholic shrine of Loretto. Here unidentified pilgrims watch as the cardinal exchanges his holy apparel for a soldier’s armour and formally banishes the Duchess and her family who have themselves feigned a pilgrimage to a holy site. As in so many scenes in the play, the witnesses are important, acting as proxies for the audience, now identified as pilgrims, and therefore with the Duchess, that being her current mode of dress. The Duchess’s later murder which she resolutely accepts, when considered in conjunction with the respect she commands from her executioner, is reminiscent of an act of martyrdom. This line of development is brought to a conclusion in the churchyard scene in Act 5 when Antonio hears the now dead Duchess’s voice and sees a vision of her face in the ultimate symbol of the pre-Reformation era, a monastic ruin. It is as if her spirit inhabits and enlivens the old abbey, awakening the memory of her in a receptive Antonio. Additionally, the place itself evokes in Antonio, a sense of cultural loss expressed in his elegiac response to the ancient setting when he laments the transience of all earthly structures :

I do love these ancient ruins

We never set foot upon them but we set

Our foot upon some reverend history.

And questionless, here in this open court,

Which now lies naked to the injuries

Of stormy weather, some men lie interr’d

Lov’d the church so well, and gave largely to ‘t

They thought it should have canopy’d their bones

Till doomsday[16]

Here we find a strong element of mourning for the medieval church, remembering its beauty, comfort and stability. Antonio does so however, through the medium of inner reflection, which is itself part of the spirit and theology of the dominant ideology of Protestantism. This is perhaps a suitable note on which to bring this paper to conclusion. It illustrates how a new religious understanding can dominate thought processes without quite eclipsing the ideas and images of an important residual ideology. It explains I think why the pilgrim ghost continues to haunt the Early Modern stage, many years after it received its curtain call.

John Price

University College Worcester



Primary texts

Chaucer, G.
'The Canterbury Tales' in Abrams, M.H. (general editor) The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Seventh Edition, Volume One

Fletcher, J.
'The Pilgrim', edited Hoy, C. in Bowers, F. (general editor) The Dramatic Works in the Beaumont and Fletcher Cannon, Volume VI.

Raleigh, W.
‘The Passionate Man’s Pilgrimage’ in Gardner, H. (editor) The New Oxford Book of English Verse.

Shakespeare, W.
The Complete Works in Greenblatt S., Cohen W., Howard J.E., Eisaman Maus K. (editors) The Norton Shakespeare

Webster J.
'The Duchess of Malfi' in Kinney A.F. (editor) Renaissance Drama: An Anthology of Plays and Entertainments

Secondary Texts

Andrews, J.F.
‘Falling in Love: The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet ’, in Batterhouse, R. (editor) Shakespeare’s Christian Dimension: An Anthology of Commentary, pp 370-381.
Indiana University Press

Beauregard, D.
‘Inspiréd Merit – Shakespeare’s Theology of Grace in All’s Well that Ends Well’, in Renascence: Essays of Value in Literature. Volume 51. Part 4. Pages 218-239.


Diehl, H.
Staging Reform, Performing the Stage. Protestantism and Popular Theatre in Early Modern England
Cornell University Press

Duffy E.
The Stripping of the Altars
Yale University Press

Hicks, M.R.
Honor Conflicts and the role of the imagination in selected plays by John Fletcher and Lope de Vega.

O'Connell M.
The Idolatrous Eye

Sumption, J.
Faber and Faber


[1] Carlos Eire, War Against the Idols, p 9, CUP, 1986.

[2] Lines 24-27

[3] Duffy, p 191

[4] Article 22.

[5] 1.3.151-2

[6] 5.3.187-8

[7] 2.7.9-10

[8] 3.4.4-8

[9] 2.1.147

[10] 4.5.23-26

[11] 5 .1.87

[12] 3.3.150-153

[13] 1.5.90-93

[14] 1.5.94-97

[15] 2.2.154-5

[16] 5.3.9-17