Reprinted from Newsletter 99, dated 2001 May–June

Pilgrim monk returns to Abbey entrance as a sculpture

A sculpture. A man with short hair wearing a tunic rides a horse and looks down at a child. The child looks up at the man and is holding out an apple.

A child has an apple for Brother Sigeric’s mule on the pilgrim road. The sculpture by Heather Burnley, three-quarters of life size, now stands outside St Patrick’s chapel in the Abbey.

In 1996 the Council of Europe designated the medieval pilgrim route from Canterbury to Rome as “European Cultural Itinerary Nº 1”. This was part of a campaign to enhance existing tourist attractions and to encourage Europeans to explore their common cultural heritage for the Jubilee Year of 2000.

Over the last few years this long-neglected route has received increasing attention from councils and church commissions, art historians and tourist agencies. A thousand miles long and a thousand years old, this ancient road is a natural focus for a millennium celebration.

To Don Amos Aimi, Vicar in Curia to the Bishop of Fidenza, it seemed the perfect subject for a collection of watercolours. These would record what can be seen along the route today and, as an itinerant exhibition, could follow the route to celebrate the year 2000. He invited the British watercolourist Jannina Veit Teuten to paint the pictures. She produced around 140 paintings and drawings in two and a half years.

The sculptress Heather Burnley of North Wales proposed a group of statues, three-quarters of life size, as a foil to the pictures: a child encounters the archbishop as he rides his mule along the pilgrim road.

In AD990 Sigeric, Archbishop of Canterbury, travelled to Rome to be ordained. The interesting thing about Sigeric is that he wrote, or caused to be written, a journal or diary of part of his journey back from Rome — the first known written record of the route, what is now called the Pilgrims’ Way, or in Italy, the Via Francigena, from Rome to Canterbury.

Sigeric writes of his meeting with the Pope in Rome and that they had lunch together. He stayed in Rome for only two days but managed to visit some 20 churches within that time. It is not recorded in the diary, but it is presumed that there was some kind of mass or ceremony for the conferring of the pallium—a sort of cloak which the Pope personally gave to a new archbishop as a sign of office.

Sigeric recorded all the 79 places where he stayed overnight on his journey back to England. We are fortunate that Sigeric’s diary survived (the original is in the British Library). The mention in the diary is no more than eighteen lines of close-written text. It records no personal experiences.

Rather, it is a series of lists: of Popes who had been in power up to the time of John XV, of the churches Sigeric visited in Rome and of the places where he stayed in Italy, Switzerland and France on his journey. The diary gives us to understand that Sigeric stayed at the Schola Anglorum while in Rome. This was a hospice founded by pious Anglo-Saxon kings in the eighth century. It eventually grew into Rome’s first English colony.

Sigeric lived for only four more years. While he was Archbishop of Canterbury, he, as Dunstan before him, gave advice to the Crown, but he was not a good adviser! After the defeat by the Danes at Maldon, Archbishop Sigeric counselled King Ethelred to purchase peace for £10,000. This was the foundation of the Danegeld, a tax which soon became annual. It was a bribe to the Danes to keep the peace, but it served only to encourage them to invade again.

Sigeric was a learned man and made an important collection of books. This valuable library he left in his will to Canterbury Cathedral. Elfric the Grammarian dedicated his homilies to Siric (Sigeric), having translated them from “the books of the Latins” into ordinary conversational language for the edification of the unlearned who are acquainted “with this tongue only” (English). Archbishop Sigeric was obviously pleased with them: he desired them to be read in all the churches of the land.