As senior curator of medieval artefacts at the Museum of London, Alice was used to requests to speak on various aspects of early British history. This latest request was, however, unusual. The caller had explained that the Confraternity of St James’ would, at an upcoming conference, appreciate a presentation on medieval pilgrim badges. She had initially been hesitant – the word “Confraternity” bothered her slightly.  Perhaps this was some stuffy, paternalistic group of aged men. Quickly realising that, if that were the case, as a woman, they would not have asked her. So, she had agreed.

Now, looking at the rows of faces as she stood up to speak that cold January morning, she soon discovered her fears about the audience had been misplaced. Warming to her subject, she explained how early pilgrims could buy badges very cheaply, how they usually featured an image of the saint associated with the shrine being visited and how a surprisingly large number had been found in the Thames. But she had saved the most intriguing example to the last. Unique among the badges in the Museum’s collection, this one featured a baby. There were various theories, she explained, as to what it represented – perhaps St James or Christ as an infant. But what the image really was and how it found a resting place at the bottom of a London river would, she felt sure, forever remain a mystery.



It was, of course, many years ago but, thinking back, I remember the idea to travel to the holy shrine of St James at Santiago was our village priest’s. But allow me to introduce myself. My name is John Blackwoode and my hometown is Godwick, a small village in Norfolk. In the year 1348 the Black Death (as it came to be known) visited our remote part of the world and, in addition to most of the village, carried off Alvina, my wife of just eight years. As well as the pain engendered by my loss, I also suffered guilt and remorse. Rather pathetically, I had not been an entirely faithful husband. You see, my work as a carter took me to other local villages and so gave me more freedom than most. So, when temptation called, in the form of Aleida, an attractive woman some years younger than me, I succumbed. Our affair, if you can call it that, was snatched meetings and occasional sex in a summer field, but she seemed content with that and never asked for any deeper commitment. Aware in a deep, visceral sense that I was living in sin and wanting to break off the relationship, I had several times almost confessed to my wife but, in my weakness, I did not. Now it was too late.

For a man with no experience of married life, the priest at our local church was remarkably understanding when I finally plucked up the courage to confess all. Perhaps in the gloom of the confessional, my voice low to avoid being overheard by those waiting, he perceived my pain and turmoil. I had fretted for weeks before going, nervous about the response I might receive. He said that had he discovered my wrongdoing before, he would have been obliged to refer me to the church consistory court. The rule of the confessional applied, though, and he would not breathe a word. His next words surprised me: you will never obtain peace until you atone for your misdemeanour, so I strongly advise you to make humble pilgrimage to Santiago in Spain and there beg forgiveness at the tomb of the apostle James.

The sale of the small parcel of land in my name provided the funds I needed. Being childless and my parents both deceased (the plague again) I had no ties so, having received a blessing at the monastery in Reading, I found myself one May morning with a small crowd of pilgrims waiting to board ship at Southampton.

I can say with no equivocation that the following week and a half was the worst I have ever experienced. That feeling of wanting to heave my guts up with every roll of the ship will stay in my memory forever. I was keenly aware that the sea crossing was the most dangerous part of my journey, so it was with heartfelt thanks to the Lord that I stepped safely onto the quayside at Bilbao.

I had made several good friends while onboard ship and we gradually settled into a group of six who walked together for safety, staying each night at the same pilgrim inns. The staff I had fashioned for myself before leaving now became useful to fend off wild dogs and even the occasional boar. We looked out for each other, always alert to brigands who might attack or thieves who would cut our purses. Strangely, I found myself adapting to a routine of walking, eating and sleeping with my home troubles gradually receding from my mind. Thankfully, we met pilgrims coming towards us, going home, who could provide information on the dangers that lay ahead and the best places to stay.

It was in Leon, though, that the event occurred which was to change my life. About to enter the Basilica San Isidoro for evening mass, I became aware of a man who had collapsed on the steps leading to the Puerta del Perdón. Although in a dialect I did not recognise, I quickly realised his weak cries for help were in English. His face was grey, his hand when I reached out to help him, cold and clammy. I had seen these signs before. He clearly realised, as did I, that his chances of reaching Santiago were slim and he was now expending his last drop of energy to obtain an indulgence from the priests within. After much effort we reached the altar and a priest came. Shriven of his sins, I finally got him back to the inn and to a bed. I assumed that he would soon be asleep, but he wanted to talk. Eventually he slept and I fell into my own bunk, exhausted.

I knew as soon as I cast eyes upon him the next morning that he had passed from this world. Although I had to leave the burial arrangements to the authorities, my conscience felt eased by my having helped the man obtain the indulgence he had craved. But his words of the night before came flooding back. With trembling fingers, he had removed a badge from his cloak and thrust it in my hand – it bore an image unique to me, that of a baby. Gasping for breath, he explained that after many years of marriage his wife had been unable to conceive. Would I return the badge to his wife? His original plan – to touch the tomb of St James with the badge in the hope of a miracle on his return – was now in tatters.

My companions had gone ahead and I pressed on alone to Santiago in a daze, oblivious to the dangers I faced. Some weeks later I arrived and, to my great joy, was reunited with my friends in the Plaza. Within the cathedral, I found a quiet corner and begged forgiveness and absolution before the body of Our Lord’s apostle, James. But I felt God was not listening – had I journeyed all this way in vain? Bitterly disappointed, I nevertheless knew what my goal now must be.

I found her eventually – the dying man’s directions had been good. As I pressed the badge into her hand, it was clear from the pain written on her face that she understood why I had come. Her face downcast, a slight movement of her hand directed my gaze downwards and I saw, to my amazement, that she was with child. The man I had helped all those weeks before would now never see his own child.

It was now too late in the year for me to travel home safely. Home! It came to me with a jolt that the word had no meaning. Then I heard her speak, inviting me to stay. The leather tanning business she ran with her husband now needed someone for the heavy work.

Three months later she was delivered of a baby boy. He is now two years old and, as I write, is healthy. His mother and I grew closer and, as spring brought warmth after a bitter winter, we married. Being a father to the boy and a breadwinner has given me the sense I crave of having atoned for my past mistake. I know that one day we must travel to London and drop the badge from the bridge as its original owner had hoped to do.