After two weeks of cycling in France, from chateau to chateau with my daughter Lucy we were reluctant to leave the Loire and head up to Paris. We decided on a medieval cathedral visit to enrich the soul and so we found ourselves at Chartres. This is probably the finest Gothic cathedral in Northern France.
CHARTRES CATHEDRAL rises above the wheat fields of France like a giant ocean-going liner. A pair of asymmetrical towers give it a quirky, lopsided look as you gaze at the West Front with its highly decorated facade. It is easy to imagine the sense of accomplishment that early visitors felt when they arrived here at this great centre of worship dedicated to the Virgin Mary. We can’t help but feel slightly overwhelmed at this medieval masterpiece.
This holy place has been a destination for generations of pilgrims. Devout Christians would walk from Paris south-west towards Chartres to pay their respects to Mary – the mother of Jesus. In medieval times every place of worship had to have a really good relic – ideally something belonging to a saint or martyr – to attract visitors. This could be a piece of clothing, jewellery or even a body part. Fingers, toes and teeth would do the job nicely. A relic was something that pilgrims would travel for hours to see and to touch. At Chartres the relic was the Sancta Camisa. This is the gown said to have been worn by Mary when she gave birth to Jesus. It was often believed that these relics had miraculous powers, including healing the sick, changing a person’s fortunes or providing good luck. Hopeful pilgrims would come from miles around.
We climbed to the top of the North Tower of Chartres Cathedral. It’s a long, spiral ascent up increasingly narrow and worn stone steps. At the top of the tower there is a circular walk way that affords views from every compass point. We can see for miles across the flat agricultural plains. We are brushing shoulders with saints, gargoyles and miscellaneous bishops carved generations ago. Algae and lichen cling to the stone, gently reducing it over centuries, particle by particle, back to dust. The view from the North Tower gives perspective and helps us to understand the enormity of this cathedral and the challenges involved in its construction. Much of the church that we see today was built in a relatively short period of about 30 years after the great fire of 1194. It is incredible to think that just one hundred years after the Norman Conquest of Britain in 1066 buildings like this were being erected almost simultaneously on both sides of the English Channel in both Chartres and Canterbury.
As well as being a place of worship Chartres Cathedral was also a centre for trade. In the Middle Ages the cathedral was the focal point of the town with different commercial activities taking place around each door or portal. Textiles were sold around the north transept, while meat, vegetable and firewood sellers would gather at the south porch. Money-changers (an essential service at a time when each town or region had its own currency) had their benches near the West Door and sometimes in the nave itself. Wine sellers would ply their trade in the nave, although 13th-century ordinances record them being banished to the crypt from time to time. Each morning workers would gather outside the cathedral in search of daily work. So if you needed a carpenter, metal-worker or painter you’d head for the cathedral and recruit a worker for the day.
CHRISTIANITY developed as the main religion of the Roman Empire from 313 AD onwards when Constantine, the Emperor, under pressure from his mother Helen, passed the Edict of Milan. This allowed Christians to worship freely within the Roman Empire. Pilgrimage was encouraged by the church from the early days. In the Middle Ages Pope Urban II encouraged ‘men of god’ to take up arms and march to the Holy Land in an attempt to reclaim the ‘holy sites’ in the name of Christianity. This was effectively a call to arms against the Turks and Arabs of the Levant and the eastern shores of the Mediterranean. It was also the birth of the ‘Crusades’. The idea of a pilgrimage or religious journey is first recorded in a descriptive manuscript known as the Itinerarium Burdigalense which dates from around the 4th century. It is a detailed description of a journey from Europe to the ‘Holy Land’ by an early Christian traveller. However the notion of the ‘Crusades’ and the military objective of reclaiming land in and around Jerusalem was a later Middle Ages phenomenon.
The Cathedral at Chartres is filled with statues, symbols and artefacts that tell stories from the Bible to worshippers who, generally, could not read. The stained glass windows of Chartres depict tales from the Old and New Testaments. There are tales of prophets, saints and of course the life of Mary to whom the cathedral is dedicated. Our guide is the exceptional Mr Malcolm Miller. Mr Miller has dedicated his life to the study of the cathedral and the symbolism within it. He first arrived in Chartres in 1958, as a student, and has been offering tours ever since. That is a period of almost sixty years. Mr Miller has written many of the guide books about the cathedral and is the acknowledged world expert on the stained glass windows. Now in his eighties he shares his exceptional knowledge of the stones and glass of Chartres with a wry humour and sparkling wit.
Inside the church is a labyrinth. A circular spiral of stone that covers the centre of the apse floor. In medieval times devout pilgrims would drop to their knees and progress towards the altar across the spiral of stone, literally on bended knee. In fact if you look at the stones closely you can see that the stones have worn unevenly, perhaps as the result of numerous pilgrims shuffling across this spiral on their knees. For many pilgrims Chartres Cathedral was the first stop on a long journey all the way to Santiago de Compostela in Northern Spain. Santiago in Spanish translates to St James. James was one of Jesus’ Apostles and Compostela was his final resting place.
PILGRIMS – I love the idea that these pilgrims were creating the earliest ‘travel itineraries’. As a tour guide and traveller this appeals to me. The idea of travelling a pre-determined route day by day to discover the stories, buildings and personalities along the way. I think this also explains my desire to head straight from Chartres via the White Cliffs of Dover to Canterbury. An opportunity for me to compare these two great pilgrimage sites, two great cathedrals, the first French and the second English. Effectively I’m following in the footsteps of the Norman knights, heading north to discover what lies beyond the sea.
On leaving Chartres I travelled to Paris to drop off my daughter Lucy. From there it was north through Picardy and the Valley of the River Somme to the Pas de Calais and the English Channel. It was just me. In a fit of nostalgia I’d booked myself onto the cross channel ferry from Calais to Dover. I love this short sea crossing which takes about 90 minutes. As soon as you leave the French coast you can start searching the horizon for the White Cliffs of Dover. The body of water here is only about 12 miles from France to England. A short distance and yet a distance that has defined British-ness and British national identity for the last two hundred years. In the winter months visibility is poor and the cliffs loom out of the brooding, swirling mists like a toothless giant lurching towards you. In the summer blue skies are more common and the cliffs are visible almost as soon as you leave France. It is fascinating to approach Britain’s watery mooring across La Manche to see “La perfide Albion” gradually come into focus. Perfidious Albion is a term frequently used to express anti-British sentiment. It originated in France as a dismissive expression for Britain and her duplicitous and unreliable (in the eyes of the French) inhabitants.
From Dover it’s a half hour drive up from the coast to Canterbury and the ecclesiastical hearth of the Anglican Church. It is easy to imagine medieval knights making their way through Kent from the channel ports up to Canterbury in search of lodgings and a hearty roast dinner. I also think of Chaucer and his Canterbury Tales, written in the 1380s. These tales written in English, rather than Latin, tell of a group of pilgrims making their way from London to Canterbury to visit the tomb of St Thomas Becket. Thomas was Archbishop of Canterbury in the 12th century. A pious and devout man he made the mistake of seriously upsetting Henry II, King of England. Henry dispatched a group of loyal knights to Canterbury to reprimand Thomas. The visit resulted in the murder of the Archbishop of Canterbury, whilst he was praying in his own cathedral. This terrible act of violence within a holy place infuriated the Pope in Rome. Thomas was canonised and elevated to saintly status. It is now more than eight centuries since Thomas was murdered in the cathedral.
CANTERBURY – As I drove up to Canterbury from Dover I was curious to see Canterbury Cathedral and to observe the ‘visitor experience’ here in Kent. I hadn’t been to Canterbury in years, I found somewhere to park quite easily and I walked through the narrow streets to the cathedral. You enter the cathedral precincts through a beautifully preserved medieval gate. The city and the church are intrinsically linked together, in immediate physical contact with one another. The first thing I notice is that you have to pay to get into Canterbury, £12– to be precise. Whilst Chartres is free of charge. I proceed across the manicured lawns to the cathedral; stately, elegant, imposing. As I go inside two ladies in brightly coloured sashes welcome me and offer information. The church is full of people, there is a priest leading a small group in prayer. There are curates in the aisles available to chat to visitors. School groups from Spain and Germany throng the pews. This cathedral is living and vibrant. It is trying very hard to be relevant. In the crypt a sign informs me that there is a church service for French Protestants daily at 3 pm (in French). Interestingly and almost certainly coincidentally Canterbury too suffered a catastrophic fire in the late 12th century, just like Chartres. So much of what we see today dates from about 1174.
The cloisters are beautifully preserved and filled with memorial plaques to people who have served and contributed to the cathedral. There is a local lady called Mrs Babington who volunteered for years and is remembered here. There are plaques to numerous army officers like Major Simon Willard who was instrumental in the settlement of the British colony of New England in the 17th century. There’s a detailed map of the cathedral and cloisters hanging on the wall. Overall I’m impressed by the inclusive and welcoming reception that visitors receive. The smiling ladies tell me that Canterbury receives more than one million visitors a year. No wonder they are all smiling one million multiplied by twelve, that’s £12 million quid revenue just on visitor entrance fees.
I’m not convinced by the creation of ‘The Martyrdom’ which is the site where Thomas Becket was slain. Is this really necessary? This place used to be marked by a simple stone. Now the site has been emotionally charged with a small altar and metal sculpture. Yes we all know that the Arch Bishop was murdered here in the cathedral. TS Eliot tells us that. Does the ‘site’ need to be quite so bathed in pathos? Personally I’m not convinced, not convinced at all!
So, have I enjoyed and learned from my own personal pilgrimage from France to England? I really have. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed visiting the Cathedral of Chartres and then a day and a half later the Cathedral of Canterbury. It has been quite eye-opening. It has made me think about the pilgrims travelling across Europe from the early Middle Ages onwards. It has made me think of the thousands of craftsmen who created these cathedrals, often working for decades on the same building. I’ve observed Chartres with its incredible stained glass and its grandeur. I’ve observed Canterbury with its cloisters and homely feel.
Of course there is only one Mr Malcolm Miller and he lives and works at Chartres. I’m sure there are experts at Canterbury too but I didn’t meet them. Although I did receive a genuine and friendly welcome. For now my pilgrimage is over. It’s back to the car and I’m heading up to London. As I drive thorough the Dartford Tunnel under the Thames and up to the East End where I’m meeting my husband I think about France and England. The long history of rivalry and sometimes co-operation that has defined and shaped our two nations. I think about expressions like ‘La Perfide Albion’ and I can’t help feeling just a little bit proud. I actually don’t mind if we Brits have been annoying the French for years. After all they say that a little healthy competition is a good thing!
- Mr Malcolm Miller is an expert guide at Chartres Cathedral
- His knowledge of Chartres is based on more than fifty years of guiding there
- This is a link to Chartres Cathedral web site
- This is a link to the website of Canterbury Cathedral
- The Canterbury Tales were written by Geoffrey Chaucer from the 1380s until the end of his life in 1400. They are a collection of stories about a group of pilgrims heading from London to Canterbury. The stories are unique because they were written in English rather than Latin or French. The stories were unfinished at the time of Chaucer’s death.
- In 1478 William Caxton published the Canterbury Tales for the first time.
- Caxton introduced the printing press into Britain and was probably the first English-born retailer of books. He was a merchant, traveller and diplomat. A true European.
- In the late 1930s Ezra Winter was commissioned by the Library of Congress, USA to create a mural for the North Reading Room (John Adams Building) of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
- Then in 2020 in the Library of Congress, the Youth Poet Laureate read one of her poems to a rapt audience, once of whom was Dr Jill Biden. Just a few months later at the inauguration of President Joe Biden, the young poet, one Amanda Gorman, captivated audiences globally with her poem ‘The Hill We Climb’. I like to think she was inspired by the mural of the pilgrims on the wall above her making their way to Canterbury. With thanks to Ezra Winter.
- You can see what Amanda Gorman is up to on Instagram @amandascgorman
- For more on journeys why not look at some of my other articles: From Monaco to Pisa with love…..
- Or London to Paris – a day in the life of a tour guide
- Or Travels with my dog!
- Or Life’s not always a bed of roses – the Brenner Pass in May!
With thanks to:
- Salley Vickers (novelist) who inadvertently rekindled my interest in Chartres Cathedral with her beautifully written novel ‘The Cleaner of Chartres’. Salley Vickers
- Mr Malcolm Miller – the most learned tour guide I’ve come across in years.
- Steven Clarke for his brilliant book ‘A Thousand Years of Annoying the French’.
- To my daughter Lucy for always being up for the next big adventure.
- 14-08-2106 – Cheshire, England
- 05-02-2021 – updated