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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.