On the path of pilgrims after a bloody murder

The murder of Thomas a Becket.

WHILE recognising that Thurrock has a bright and expansive future, we must never forget the foundations upon which the Borough has been laid. In the Thurrock Independent we regularly reflect on the Borough’s roots and the people, industries and organisations that made it what it is today. In association with Thurrock Local?History Society we highlight many of the old tales of Thurrock, some that have almost been forgotten.
THIS time SUSAN YATES, chairman of Thurrock Historical Society, looks at historical routes through the borough.

THERE have always been pilgrimages. Manchester United fans make the pilgrimage to Old Trafford. Rugby fans make the pilgrimage to Twickenham. The one which brought pilgrims through Thurrock was to Canterbury and the shrine of Thomas a Becket.

After the murder of Thomas a Becket, on 29 December 1170, Pope Alexander elevated him to sainthood. From then onwards his blood was deemed to have miraculous qualities and that touching it cured blindness, leprosy, epilepsy etc.

The monks got in on the act, creating a shrine for pilgrims to visit. It is claimed that the locals obtained pieces of cloth soaked in it and sold bottles of Becket’s blood to visitors. He must have had a lot of blood! The keeper of the shrine also gave out pilgrim’s badges that were stamped with the emblem of the shrine. A pilgrim’s nadge was unearthed in 1980 near the Mardyke it was estimated to be some 600 years old.

Pilgrims collected these badges to show where they had been on their travels.

This particular Pilgrim had been to Rome in the 13th century. It is the only complete example of this type of Pilgrims Badge found in England.
This badge was on display at Thurrock Museum but unfortunately the cabinet was broken into and the badge stolen.

The pilgrims came from all over the country but those from East Anglia tended to come through Thurrock. Some of the pilgrims would first stop at Walsingham in Norfolk then make their way south to the Thames.

The exact route they used is not known there were probably several. Being pilgrims they would have needed accommodation so would have stopped at religious establishments on the way and also prayed at churches en route for a safe journey.

This led to inns springing up on the pilgrim routes as the religious houses could no longer accommodate the volume of travellers.

The murder of Thomas a Becket led to pilgrims stopping for prayers at the church of St Nicholas of Myra in South Ockendon.

We do know they came via Brentwood where they visited the Chapel of St Thomas the Martyr. They would have travelled down through Great Warley, Warley Gap and the now Headley Arms to North Ockendon where they would have offered prayers at St Mary Magdelene.

The old road from North Ockendon village, which is now a public footpath, follows a line of telegraph poles and comes out at the rear of the Old White Horse public house. All pilgrims were heading towards the River Thames at one of its many crossing points.

Those on this route probably followed the road to South Ockendon village where they might have worshipped at the wonderful round towered church of St Nicholas of Myra whose earliest remains date back to the 12th century.

The Royal Oak would not have been around in the 12th/13th century and in fact in its earliest incarnation it was a house called Eldertons, after its occupier.

This 15th century house/inn is timber-framed and plastered, with a red plain tile roof. It has two storeys and cross wings at each end, which were formerly jettied.

There were older inns than the Oak. In 1769 there were the Kings Head, Red Lion, Crooked Billet and the Catherine Wheel.

In the 16th century the pilgrims would have passed the then new Quince Tree Farmhouse a timber framed house plastered and tiled with a jettied cross wing on their way to Stifford Hill.

In order to reach the river at West Thurrock the pilgrims would have proceeded to the River Mardyke crossing it at the appropriately named Pilgrims Lane.

Going on down Mill Lane to the river where the Sun Inn once stood and the ferry from Stoneness to Greenhithe operated. Before getting on the ferry they would have prayed for a safe crossing at St Clement’s church, then walked down to the river where they would have paid the ferryman to row them across the river to Kent for their onward journey to Canterbury.