The year 1170, England: Four knights swung swords at Thomas Becket, kneeling before the Canterbury altar. One hit the stone floor with such force that the iron point broke off. Another cut Becket’s skull in two.
While the knights looted Becket’s home, the monks who had observed the murder mopped up the blood with cloth and prepared the body for the nearby crypt. Under his ecclesiastical robes, they discovered a hair shirt, a true sign of a dedicated monk, which was infested with worms and lice.
Yes, the monks agreed, Becket had the mark of both saint and martyr. Earlier that day he had asked his brethren three different times to flog him to show how he suffered for Jesus, the Holy Savior, and when the knights demanded that he pledge allegiance to the king of England, Henry II, Becket stood by the church: “God’s will be done,” he said, in his dying breath.
Neither Greek nor Shakespearean tragedy surpassed this fate of Becket, for he and Henry II were once best of friends—as entwined as a river to its banks. But when the king made Becket the archbishop of Canterbury, the highest papal post in the land, with the belief that his friend would obey the crown and suppress the power of the church, their friendship burned to ashes. Henry II wondered aloud if no one would rid his kingdom of this problem, and the four knights took his words as orders, mounting for Canterbury to right the wrong with iron.
The very night that Becket was killed, the miracles began. A townsman wiped blood from the cathedral floor and ran home with it to cure his paralyzed wife. In the weeks that followed, twenty more miracles were claimed, as believers began wearing ampoules of “the water of Thomas,” which contained traces of Becket’s blood. The cloth used by the monks to mop up the blood was mixed with water, which was sold for three hundred years following Becket’s death.
Miracles even began to occur in France, Italy, and Germany. Canterbury monks—five had witnessed and recorded the killing—traveled to Rome to tell the pope himself what they had observed. Becket was canonized only three years later.
Henry II, directed by the pope, paid penitence by walking barefoot through Canterbury. Once inside the cathedral, the king knelt before Becket’s resting place and was flogged by more than one hundred monks. He promised to build a monastery in honor of his slain friend and continued to kneel as the townspeople entered the church to behold that even the mighty crown of England could not escape the heavy foot of God.
Three of the knights who killed Becket paid penitence by trekking to the Holy Land. The fourth tried to cleanse his soul by creating a countryside maze, a symbol of man’s pilgrimage through life. Such intricate networks of passages were sometimes built in churches so people could walk them in a matter of minutes.
Fifteen years after Becket’s death, no less than seven hundred miracles were recorded in the presence of the saint’s relics. In 1220 the body was moved from the crypt, where it had been since shortly after Becket’s murder, to Trinity Chapel, a shrine glittering with jewels, gold, and silver. When the shrine was destroyed by King Henry VIII, 318 years later, one of those prized jewels, a blue diamond, was set in a ring that the king wore.
While a trip to Becket’s shrine granted the most blessed nothing less than a miracle, it was said to help purify all, making shorter their obligated time in purgatory before entering the Kingdom of Heaven. For this reason, thousands journeyed to Canterbury each year. The number of pilgrims visiting the shrine in the Middle Ages was so great that their knees wore thin the stone floor where they prayed before the pink marble monument. They stuck their hands through its arched windows to touch the sacred coffin. It contained the body and lice-infested hair shirt, but the severed part of his head was now stored in a gold and silver reliquary in another section of the church known as the Crown of Saint Thomas.
But for medieval pilgrims to journey to Canterbury, sixty miles south of London, they risked their lives. Pilgrims’ Way (see the accompanying map) followed ancient Roman roads that led through thick forests with criminals ready to rob, rape, swindle, and murder.
A pilgrim in the Middle Ages also had to be on constant guard against witches, giants, Cyclops, fairies, and most certainly the Devil himself, who could appear in many forms, including in the very relics sold along Pilgrims’ Way to protect travelers. One could buy such holy items as a piece of the rock where Jesus stood upon ascending to Heaven, straw from his manger, splinters from his Cross, his tears in a bottle, a feather from an angel, or even the tip of the Devil’s tail. These medieval souveniers were believed to have various curative or preventative powers.
No trinket or vial of holy water held the power of a visit to Becket’s shrine, though. Becket’s shrine held England’s most treasured relics, and visitors filled the cathedral’s coffers with offerings. Other churches competed with Canterbury for pilgrims’ gold and silver by claiming that they, too, housed parts of Saint Thomas. How could the same relics appear in two places at once? Well, that simply further proved the power of relics to perform miracles by multiplying.
By the late Middle Ages, treks to Becket’s shrine had become, for some, excuses to take vacations and see new sights. Geoffrey Chaucer was keenly aware of how these travels had mutated into a blending of the sacred and the secular. Addressing the complexity of such pilgrimages, he wrote The Canterbury Tales, one of the most enduring pieces of literature written in the English language. If an afterlife exists, one can’t help but ponder whether Becket, seeing the events he set in motion, looked down on England from Heaven as he prayed or laughed until his sides hurt: royalty, power, politics, friendship, betrayal, murder, martyrdom, miracles, penitence, pilgrimages, theft, and classical literature—all of these elements interwoven are the makings of bigger-than-life history and drama.
I first learned of Pilgrims’ Way as a senior at the University of Alabama, majoring in English. I had postponed the required course on Chaucer until the last semester because I dreaded having to read aloud portions of The Canterbury Tales in Middle English. Nonetheless, when I studied the Tales, they made me wonder what it would be like to walk Pilgrims’ Way. Traveling, meeting interesting people, hearing their stories, and maybe even finding a miracle stirred my imagination.
During this same time I had fallen in love with a redhead in Oklahoma City, and some weekends I would hitchhike fifteen hundred miles round-trip just to spend Saturday night with her. Often those who gave me rides told stories from the deepest parts of their hearts. Some needed to confess to lighten their souls, while others longed for answers through conversation. A few just wanted to hear themselves talk and assumed that their stories entertained. Whatever their motivations, their tales revealed who they were. They and I were a bit like the characters in The Canterbury Tales, travelers who found fun, excitement, and sometimes meaning in sharing our lives.
In a way I became a professional pilgrim. By the age of twenty-six, I had thumbed enough miles to circle the globe five times and met people from all walks of life, including Mr. Universe and a group of the Hell’s Angels. Through them I found a rare intimacy that fed my soul.
During those years I lived in Chicago, New Orleans, Oklahoma City, San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, and Denver. I worked as a weight-lifting instructor, a carpenter, an artist’s model, a waiter, a librarian, a journalist, a farmer, and a junk dealer. Thumbing from city to city, I sometimes told stories in exchange for meals from those who gave me lifts.
My life on the road was exhilarating, but it didn’t quell the unrest within my soul, the feeling that I had not found my true calling.
The more I traveled, the more I came to realize just how much I loved my home in the Appalachian Mountains of Fort Payne, Alabama. While I had always felt a strong bond with my Cherokee ancestors, I found myself thinking about how home had been taken from them.
In 1838 seven thousand armed U.S. soldiers forced eighteen thousand Indians from their log cabins in the South. Four thousand Indians died as the soldiers marched them nine hundred miles (through the heart of winter) to Indian Territory, now Oklahoma. The dead were buried in shallow unmarked graves along this Trail of Tears.
I began to feel compelled to honor my Indian heritage by telling the world about the Trail of Tears. I wrote a screenplay. My contemporary protagonist, a Cherokee who had a vision that he must take a pilgrimage, walked the trail in reverse from Oklahoma to Alabama to bring home the spirits of those who had died on the forced march. If he didn’t fulfill his mission, he would never find peace.
Although the movie was never made, after six months of trying to sell the screenplay, I suddenly realized I had to become the protagonist in my own script. The story I had written was a map for my own mission in life. This was the way I could truly honor my ancestors—by walking their path and reliving their experiences of loss, exile, and resettlement. And I would show how their memories lived on.
From my hilltop I could see into the lush valley between Lookout and Sand Mountains with its meandering creek. Sequoya, the most famous of all Cherokee, lived near the stream in the 1820s, when he invented the Cherokee alphabet. His mother was Indian, but his father was a British officer. Sequoya was the only man in history to invent an alphabet by himself, the only alphabet invented in the past five thousand years. The giant redwoods in California were named after him, a man who had longed to empower his people with the ability to read and write that they might better protect their culture. While I would not write my own experiences on the Trail of Tears in Cherokee, I would protect and honor their spirits and culture with my writing.
In 1989 I sold almost everything I owned and took a Greyhound bus to Oklahoma to begin walking the trail. For two months I hiked from dawn until night and slept mostly in fields and woods, though strangers sometimes offered food and shelter. All along the trail, winding across seven states, people from all walks of life gave me items—an arrowhead, a silver cross, and other objects sacred to the givers. These gifts were meant as offerings to those who died on the trail in 1838 that they might rest in peace. But they were also a means by which those I met could be part of my journey.
Excerpted from Walking to Canterbury by Jerry Ellis. Copyright © 2003 by Jerry Ellis. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.