James Rice: A 15th century Irish pilgrim to Santiago de Compostella

The names  and stories of the vast majority of  medieval pilgrims  have gone unrecorded in the Irish historical sources but thankfully there  are some  exceptions to this rule.   During the 15th century, two  pilgrimages of a Waterford  man  called James Rice to the shrine of St James at Santiago de Compostella were recorded in  contemporary sources.

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St James Cathedral Santiago de Compostella

Who was James Rice?

James Rice was born into a wealthy Anglo-Irish merchant family in the port town of Waterford in 15th century.  The exact date of his birth is known but  the name chosen by his parents suggests they had a devotion to St James whose cult from the 12th century onwards enjoyed great popularity across Europe.

We know also that James’s father Peter Rice  held the office of Mayor of Waterford on two occasions the first in 1426-27 and the second in 1427.  Following in the footsteps of his father,  James also  became a politician and held the office of Mayor of Waterford a staggering  eleven times.

Like the majority of people living in medieval Ireland,  James would have performed many pilgrimages  throughout his lifetime.  He  would have visited  local and regional pilgrim sites perhaps heading to Ardmore,  Co Waterford or to Lady’s Island in Co Wexford.   Unfortunately local and regional pilgrimages  tend not  to be recorded in contemporary sources as they were seen as everyday  occurrences.

Long distance pilgrimages  were very expensive and would have been beyond the finances of  most ordinary of people. Therefore to embark on a long distance pilgrimage was a rare and significant occurrence and when undertaken successful brought prestige to the pilgrim.  Being a man of means James Rice was able to  go on at least two long distance pilgrimages that we know of  to the shrine of St James at Santiago do Compostella in Spain.  To give you some idea of the  expense of such  a journey,    Irish pilgrims making the return journey from Spain to Ireland  on-board the ill-fated ship the  La Mary London  in the 15th century paid seven shillings and six pence per head  just for the return leg of  the journey (1400 miles sea voyage).   This was the equivalent  of several weeks wages for an average working man.

So why go all the way  to  Santiago  when there were many pilgrim sites closer to home?  At a basic level James Rice probably had  a great devotion to his namesake St James who was one of the most popular saints in  Ireland.  Santiago was also a high status pilgrim site,  one of the most popular pilgrim destinations in the  medieval  world,  attracting vast numbers of pilgrims from across Europe. It was  also associated with miracles and  it was a place where  indulgences could be obtained.

Pilgrimages to Santiago

In  1473 James made his first pilgrimage to Santiago.  At the time he held the position of  Mayor of Waterford.  His pilgrimage was recorded as he was vacating his office for the duration of the pilgrimage  and protocol required that he applied for permission to parliament to appoint a deputy mayor in his absence.  His request was  granted and  he embarked on  pilgrimage.

As Waterford was a port town  with trade links with France and Spain its likely James travelled by boat to the port of Corunna and then headed  on foot to Santiago. Having arrived at his destination he  would have found somewhere to stay.  Most pilgrims spent the night  in a vigil within the  cathedral in front of the high altar. The next day pilgrims  attended mass and  during the ceremony they presented their  offerings.  Pilgrims would also have made confession and  obtained  certificates of pilgrimage in the Capilla del Rey de Francia.  There are no records detailing James experiences but he must have visited the relics of the saint and perhaps even purchased some souvenirs.  From the 12th century scallop shells were sold to pilgrims in the cathedral square and a small number have been found in Irish medieval burials.

 

Ten years later Rice decided to go on a second pilgrimage to Santiago in the year 1483.  1483 was the Jubilee year at Santiago. In 1181  Pope Alexander III granted jubilee years to the shrine, whenever the feast of St James fell on a Sunday.  Pilgrims  who came at this time  received a plenary indulgence (a remission from all sin) once they made their confession, attended Mass, gave a donation for the upkeep of the shrine, and undertook to perform good works.

Rice was again in public office as the Mayor of Waterford.  The Statue Rolls of the Irish Parliament record that prior to his departure  on pilgrimage, Rice’s made a formal requested to take up the pilgrim staff.  Permission was granted  to embark on his  second pilgrimage under the proviso that the mayor and  the two bailiffs who accompanied him were to appoint replacement deputies acceptable to Waterford city council for the duration of their absence ). The names of his bailiffs were Patrick Mulligan and Philip Bryan.

Prior to departure on this second pilgrimage Rice commissioned a chapel dedicated to St James and St Catherine  connected to Christ Church Cathedral  in Waterford.  The chapel was  consecrated in 1482 (Bradley & Halpin 1992, 119).  Following the completion of his pilgrimage James returned to Waterford where he lived out the rest of his days. He was eventually laid to rest with the chapel in an elaborate  tomb. The chapel was later taken to extend the cathedral yard and moved into  the nave of the  Cathedral church.

 

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Tomb of James Rice

 

The tomb consist of a  chest  with images of saints carved on all sides.  The apostles are found on the north side; James the minor, Thomas, John, James the Major, Andrew and Peter and on the south side:  Matthias Jude, Simeon, Matthew, Bartholomew and Philip.

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St. James Major (N. side, 3rd from W. end of the Rice tomb taken from the Edwin Rae Collection TRIARC http://hdl.handle.net/2262/56205

The west end of the tomb bears the images of St Margaret of Antioch, the Virgin and Child and St Catherine of Alexandria.  The east end depicts St Edmund the Confessor, the Holy Trinity and St Patrick.  An elaborately carved  cadaver  lies on top the tomb. It is wrapped in a shroud knotted at the head and feet  which has fallen open.

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Image of Cadaver from the Edwin Rea Collection TRIARC  http://hdl.handle.net/2262/56072

Frogs and toads are emerging from the body which is surrounded by  a Latin inscription that translates as

Here lies ‘James Rice,one time citizen of this city,founder of this chapel,and Catherine Broun, his wife.

Whoever you may be, passerby, Stop, weep as you read. I am what you are going to be, and I was what you are.

I beg of you, pray for me ! It is  our lot to pass through the jaws of death.

Lord Christ, we beg of thee, we implore thee, be merciful to us!

Thou who has come to redeem the lost condemn not the redeemed.

 

James Rice is just one of many  Irish people who  went on pilgrimage to Santiago  its likely if he had not been in office at the time of his  pilgrimages they would have gone unrecorded.

References

Bradley, J. and Halpin, A. 1992. The topographical development of Scandinavian and Anglo-Norman Waterford City. In (eds) Nolan, W. & Power, T.  Waterford History and Society Interdisciplinary Essays on theHistory of an Irish County.  Dublin: Geography Publications, 105-130.

Connolly, P. (ed.) 2002. Statue Rolls of the Irish Parliament, Richard III-Henry VIII. Dublin: Four Courts Press.

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

 

 

 

 

3 comments on “James Rice: A 15th century Irish pilgrim to Santiago de Compostella

  1. rotharroutes says:

    Reblogged this on Rotharroutes and commented:
    Great read. Fascinating undertaking on those times.

  2. adhmad58 says:

    Great post. Shared in FB!

  3. Kay says:

    Another interesting read.

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