Pilgrimage in Medieval Waterford

This blog post is a brief review of the evidence for pilgrimage in the town of Waterford during the late medieval period. The information comes from a paper I am working on about  the archaeological evidence for pilgrimage in medieval Ireland.

Medieval Waterford

During the late 1980’s large areas of the medieval and Viking town of Waterford were excavated and the results published in the much sought-after book Late Viking age and medieval Waterford : excavations 1986-1992. These excavations were hugely important and have provided vast amounts of information, answering questions about how people lived and how the city grew and developed over time.  The majority of the artefacts from the excavations are on display in the Waterford Museum of Treasures. The  museum is a fantastic place and I would highly recommend a visit if you’re in the area. The many beautiful and rare artefacts on display show the domestic, military, trade and religious life of the medieval town of Waterford. Among the items on display are two tiny artefacts which provide evidence of personal devotion and pilgrimage.


The medieval town of Waterford by Rubicon’s Sara Nylund.

The  artefacts in question are pilgrim badges purchased by medieval pilgrims who lived in Waterford.

Pilgrim Badges

From the beginning of Christian pilgrimage continuing to modern times, pilgrims  have been bringing home mementoes of their pilgrimage for example earth/dust from the saint’s tomb/grave, holy oil or water from the shrine but it was not until the 12th century that souvenirs were mass-produced and sold to pilgrims.

The badge  was  the most popular type of pilgrim souvenirs.  They were made of  made of lead or pewter making them cheap to manufacture and very affordable. Each badge was  decorated with  an image relating to the shrine it was sold at for example the  badges from the great shrine of Canterbury  depicted St Thomas á Beckett or scenes of the saint’s martyrdom.

To date there is no definitive evidence that  pilgrim souvenirs were produced at Irish shrines but the recovery of pilgrim souvenirs from urban and burial excavations across  Ireland tells us many Irish pilgrims were engaged in long distance pilgrimage abroad during the later medieval period and purchased souvenirs as mementoes of their pilgrimages.

Pilgrimage and Waterford

Waterford like other Irish  port towns  had strong links with pilgrimage. There would have  been  a constant flow of pilgrims embarking on and returning from foreign pilgrimage via the wine  and trade ships. Some of these pilgrims would have lived within the town walls, others came from the surrounding hinterland and some travelled long distances to reach the port. Most of the pilgrims who left Waterford are anonymous. We do not know who they were or where they went on pilgrimage.

One Waterford citizen whose pilgrimage was recorded was the  Mayor of Waterford James Rice (1467-1486).  Rice made two pilgrimages to the shrine of St James at Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain in the 15th century. The first pilgrimage was made for the Jubliee year of 1483.

Archaeological Evidence of Pilgrimage from Waterford

Analysis of the two badges found in Waterford suggest they were produced on the Continent.

One of the badges is circular in shape. It was made of a tin-lead alloy and depicts the face of a bearded man, probably St John the Baptist. Similar style badges have been discovered at London and Canterbury. It is likely that the English and the Waterford badges represent the relic of the head of St John the Baptist, which was removed following the sack of Constantinople in 1204  to Amien Cathedral in France.  This relic was a major draw for pilgrims throughout the medieval period. Today it continues to draw pilgrims mostly from the Orthodox church but on a much smaller scale.

The badge was found in the backyard of a 13th century sill-beam house which may suggest someone who lived in the house had acquired the badge on pilgrimage and lost or  thrown it away at a later date.


Pilgrimage badge depicting the relic of St John the Baptist Head found during excavations of Medieval Waterford. Image (c) of Waterford Museum of Treasures.

The second badge  is extremely interesting.  It is unique with no other example of its type found elsewhere. It is  rectangular in shape and depicts the death of an unknown saint who is tied to a tree while a man with a hooked stick/bar  beats him. The badge bears the inscription  + SIGL/LVM: IONANNI/S: CRVCIFIX/I: A IVDEIS: P (the seal (or sign) of John, crucified by the Jews at P). The design and style of the badge suggests  that it was produced in France but  its exact origins are unknown. This badge  was also found in a 13th century context in association with a domestic setting.


Pilgrim badge from unknown shrine on display at the Waterford Museum of Treasures.

Although countless Waterford pilgrims travelled within and outside of Ireland on pilgrimage the majority leave no trace of their journey. The discovery of these badges is very exciting. The badges provide additional destinations of  Irish pilgrims  not recorded in any of the historical records.  The badges also mark pious acts  carried out by  two of the citizens of Waterford. They are  personal items owned, touched and worn by the pilgrim who purchased them and provide information on the devotion to the saints. While it is generally accepted that  pilgrimage was an important part of medieval life, most pilgrimages go unrecorded and it is only through the discovery of artefacts such as pilgrim souvenirs that we can answer some of the many questions pertaining to pilgrimage in medieval Ireland.


Hurley, M. F. 1997. Late viking age and medieval Waterford: excavations 1986-1992. Waterford: Waterford Corporation.

McEneaney, E. (ed.) 1995. A History of Waterford and its Mayors, from the 12th century to the 20th century. Waterford: Waterford Corporation.

Rubicon Heritage, 2012. Recreating the Earliest Image of an Irish City: The Waterford Charter Roll




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s