The Pilgrimage of William Wey to St James of Compostella

Patricia Quaife

Among the few surviving accounts by English pilgrims of their journey to Santiago de Compostella in the Middle Ages is that of William Wey, which appears in his Itineraries written in the 1460s at the priory of Edington in Wiltshire.

William Wey, who was born in Devonshire in 1407, was a fellow of Exeter College, Oxford and at the time of his Santiago pilgrimage in 1456, a fellow of Henry VI’s new foundation of Eton College. Having obtained the express licence of “his king and founder” to make the pilgrimage, he left Eton on 27 March 1456 and reached Plymouth on 30 April. Was he on foot? – he gives no indication. From Plymouth he set sail on 17 May for Corunna, arriving four days later after what we must assume was an uneventful voyage. He does not tell us how he travelled to Santiago or how long it took, but from the dates he gives it appears he may have spent more time at Corunna than in the city of St James. He arrived safely back in Plymouth on 9 June.

In 1458 and 1462 he made pilgrimages to the Holy Land, after which he became a monk at the Augustinian priory of Edington. Here he completed a record of his travels – including an elaborate seven-foot long map – which is now in the Bodleian Library at Oxford. In 1857 the Roxburghe Club published Wey’s account of his travels under the title: The Itineraries of William Wey … to Jerusalem AD 1458 and 1462 and to Saint James of Compostella AD 1456, edited by B. Bardinel. His pilgrimage to St James and his observations on what he found there are not well known as this section of the Itineraries is written in Latin. The sections on his two pilgrimages to Jerusalem are written mainly in English, prefaced by a verse introduction in English. I am not aware of any published version of his Compostella journey in English and so we must be grateful to James Hogarth, an Edinburgh member, for providing the translation that follows.

William Wey gives very little detail of the actual journey from Eton to Corunna and thence to Santiago, apart from noting that the sailors took down one sail of the ship shortly before arriving at Corunna. As a Bachelor of Theology, and later monk, he is interested in the ecclesiastical establishment of the Cathedral of St James, and the vestments worn by its clergy. He attended Mass on the feast of the Holy Trinity and recalls that six Englishmen were chosen to carry the canopy over the Body of Christ.  Among the geographical and historical information he provides on Spain is the defeat, in 1456, of the Saracen king of Granada by the king of Castile and León and how the former’s crown was sent to Santiago, there to be placed on the statue of St James on the high altar on this same feast day of 22 May. Later in his narrative he relates two miracles experienced by English pilgrims, gives an account of the life and death of St James, his miraculous return to Padrón and a list of relics and indulgences.

William Wey died in 1476 – twenty years after his pilgrimage to Santiago – at Edington priory where a Chapel of the Holy Sepulchre housed the treasures he brought back from his travels, particularly from Jerusalem. The exterior of the Priory Church of St Mary, St Katharine and All Saints is today much as Wey would have known it. Little evidence remains of the first church on the site, but in 1352 its rebuilding commenced and it was consecrated by the Bishop of Salisbury in 1361. Although nothing remains of the priory itself where William Wey spent the last thirteen years of his life, the fact that we can still visit the church where he would have spent part of each day somehow brings him and his 1456 pilgrimage to Santiago a little closer.

From Bulletin No 39 pp 21 – 22 June 1991

 For more information about William Wey see – The itineraries of William Wey, edited and translated by Francis Davey – published in 2010 by Oxford University Press.

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