The Camino de Santiago (Way of St James) is a network of ancient trails across Western Europe leading to the city of Santiago de Compostela, the capital of the autonomous community of Galicia in northwestern Spain, and the supposed final resting place of the body of St James the Great, a prominent disciple of Jesus Christ.

Exactly how his body came to be found in this remote corner of western Europe is open to debate. Some say his body was laid in a stone boat which sailed from the Holy Land via the Mediterranean, round the Iberian coast and up to present day Galicia, where it came inland via the Sea of Arousa, a small estuary leading to the present-day town of Padrón, some 40 km from where the cathedral of Santiago is found today. Some 800 years later, it is said that a hermit was guided by a bright star to a field where he found the saint's remains (the source of the name Compostela), and with the help of a local Bishop identified the body as that of St James the Apostle (Santiago Apóstol). 

At that time, the Iberian Peninsula was largely occupied by the Moors, despite the best efforts of the armies of Christian soldiers to drive them out. Historians cite the discovery of St James and his figurative alter-ego and war hero, Santiago Matamoros, as a much-needed beacon of hope for the Christians. With the building of the first cathedral over the tomb and the first monastic houses along the route, the pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela began. The most notable at the time was that of the King of Asturias, Alfonso II. Upon hearing that the body of an Apostle had been found in Galicia, he took it upon himself to walk from his stronghold in Oviedo to see for himself, travelling along what is now known as the Camino Primitivo.


From then on, pilgrims travelled from all over the world to Santiago (and back again!). Historical records show pilgrimages of such notable figures as St Francis of Assisi and Pope Calixtus in the 12th century, who then wrote about it, along with what's considered to be the world's first ever guide book - the Codex Calixtinus.  The Norfolk-born English mystic and pioneer, Margery Kempe, famous for her pilgrimages to Jerusalem and Rome, also made her voyage to Santiago in the early 15th century as a solo woman. And not long after her, William Wey made his sea voyage from England to A Coruña on what is now known as the Camino Inglés. These days, you can still have a walking tour of the city of A Coruña from a delightful man dressed as William Wey!

After the Middle Ages, pilgrimage to Santiago declined. It wasn't until the late 20th century when there was a revival in pilgrim study and publications written about St James and the Camino. Constance Storrs was one such academic who researched and wrote about 12th century pilgrimage from the British Isles to Santiago de Compostela. Indeed, she was the first person to be consulted when the CSJ was founded in 1983, and we still hold an annual lecture in her name. And with the dissemination of media like the film The Way, the Camino entered the public consciousness in around 2010, with new films, documentaries, and books being produced about it all the time. As such, the number of pilgrims being recorded at the Pilgrim Office in Santiago has gone from a few hundred each year to over 300,000 in the space of just a few decades.  

You can, of course, read up on the history and background of the Camino, St James, and associated topics from the plethora of books available in our library and shop. For a comprehensive list of suggested reading, click here

The global nature of the Camino is what marks it out from other long-distance walking trails.  One meets a huge range of pilgrims from all around the world, each one with their own story to tell… When the long history and tradition of the Camino(s) is added to this mix, plus the huge range of terrain encountered, the result is a unique experience.