In 1987 during excavations of the base of the south tower at Worcester Cathedral, a very unusual burial was uncovered. According to the excavator
to our surprise, the first indication of a body was the appearance of two leather toe-caps poking up through the soil. We continued to excavate with greatcare and finally revealed the body of a fully clothed person wearing woollen garments and knee-length leather boots.. . . Beside the body lay a long wooden staff, with a double-pronged iron tip… (Lubin 1990, 5).
A 15th century date has been suggested for the burial. Unfortunately the head and neck of the skeleton had been removed with the insertion of a later burial but otherwise the rest of the body remained in good condition. The physical remains of the skeleton suggest this was a male of stocky build approximately 5 feet 7 inches in height. He was buried fully dressed in woollen garments and knee-length walking boots. As noted above, beside the body was a wooden staff and a perforated cockle shell. The staff was made of ash wood and had a double pronged iron spike at one end and a traces of a horn tip at the other. The staff was coated in a purple paint. The paint was made by mixing ‘bone-black with a costly dye called kermes, made from the bodies of female oak-gall producing insects’. Kermes was an expensive dye and not widely available (Lack 2005, 114). The burial has been interpreted as that of a pilgrim due to its dress and the presence of a perforated cockle shell within the burial. Other pilgrim burials have been recovered in Ireland, Britain and the Continent, identified by the presence of a pilgrim badge or ampullae within the burial but it is the survival of clothing and pilgrim equipment within the Worcester burial that makes it unique. Lank believes the cockleshell is not a specific emblem for a particular shrine ‘merely a general symbol of pilgrimage’ (Lank 2005, 116). The pilgrim staff and satchel, known as a scrip were a key component of the pilgrim equipment and had a practical function but also came to have a special symbolic significance as signi peregrinationis / signs of pilgrimage. By the late 11th century special ceremonies existed for long distance pilgrims, where the staff and scrip were blessed and presented to the pilgrim from the altar. The ceremony normally took place before the pilgrim departed on pilgrimage. With this in mind it’s not surprising the staff was included within the burial and was likely placed within the burial as a symbol of past pilgrimage.
Osteological analysis of the skeleton suggests that the man had done a great deal of walking during his life, and wear on the joints especially his left his shoulder, elbow and hand, was consistent with someone having exerted continuous pressure on a staff while walking. The man was in his 60’s at the time of death and suffered from sever arthritis making movement painful. Following his death he was dressed in clothing typical of that worn by pilgrims at the time. His boots were cut down the back to fit his legs which were likely swollen at time of death. The clothing and staff marked the burial clearly as a pilgrim and perhaps he was dressed this way to be more easily recognisable on judgement day. The burial within the cathedral also suggests he was a wealthy man.
There is a compelling case that the pilgrim may be Robert Sutton who died in 1454. Sutton was a Dyer and Baliff in Worcester, so would have had access and funds to use the rare purple pigment that was used for the paint on the staff. In his will he also requested to be buried within the cathedral (Lank 2005).
The artefacts recovered from the burial are now on display at Worcester Cathedral. These artefacts provide physical link to this medieval pilgrim, while also shedding light on pilgrim attire and burial customs.
Worcester was also an important pilgrim shrine to find out more about its links with Irish pilgrims see my post https://pilgrimagemedievalireland.com/2014/01/21/irish-pilgrims-and-the-medieval-shrine-of-st-wulstan-at-worcester/