In the footsteps of Dover's medieval pilgrims

Most people know the Maison Dieu (Dover Town Hall) as a popular events venue - a magnificent, if slightly faded, building which has hosted weddings, dinners, concerts and beer festivals... But delve a little deeper and you’ll discover a long and fascinating history. Maison Dieu Engagement Officer, Martin Crowther, reveals how recent discoveries are opening a window on its medieval past and how these are being celebrated as part of an exciting new pilgrim festival across East Kent.

The gruesome murder of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170 shocked Europe, but it also had long-lasting implications for Dover, with thousands of pilgrims crossing the Channel to visit the shrine of the newly canonised saint. Tired and sometimes seasick they were looking for somewhere to stay. At first, many were put up at Dover Priory, but in about 1200 a new building opened its doors in welcome. This was the Maison Dieu, or House of God, founded by Hubert de Burgh and run by Augustinian monks to look after poor pilgrims.

Dover's Maison Dieu © DDC

Tantalising glimpses of this medieval hospital (place of hospitality) still survive in a building that has been much altered and extended over more than 800 years of continual occupation, and which has seen it reinvented as a Victualling Office for the Royal Navy, a town hall, a prison and a popular events venue.

At the Kent Pilgrims’ Festival, which runs from 21 to 25 September, you will be able to explore the building, including the magnificent medieval Stone Hall and meet characters like the Master of the Maison Dieu, poor pilgrims, a tiler and an ampoller (a pilgrim badge maker). 

Sign up to create your own decorated medieval pilgrim tile in a workshop run by Karen Slade (aka Kate the Tiler). Only three examples of this rare tile are known - two badly worn examples in parish churches in East Kent and a third complete example discovered beneath the cloisters of Canterbury Cathedral in 2014. The design is of a crouching medieval pilgrim, leaning on their staff and gazing heavenwards, perhaps at the end of a long hard day on the road, or with a bad back, looking for a miracle cure. This is a great conversation piece for anyone lucky enough to make one, or a unique Christmas present. 

There’s also a colourful, family-friendly pilgrim trail on Saturday 24 September with 8 historic venues to explore, creative activities and a free pilgrim medal for children who get their trail sheet stamped at 3 or more locations. The idea is to share and celebrate a rich and often hidden heritage in a town which is too often passed through, but is bursting at the seams with historic sites, characters and stories.

Making a pilgrim tile © DDC

One such historic gem is the tiny St Edmund’s chapel. Dedicated by Bishop Richard of Chichester in 1253, it became a site of pilgrimage when he died shortly afterwards at the nearby Maison Dieu and was made a saint. His heart and internal organs were buried in a small chamber called a cist in the chapel. It’s believed medieval pilgrims left holey stones (flint pebbles with holes in them) as an offering.

You will also be able to find out about recent archaeological discoveries, including over 60 rare fragments of decorated glass unearthed by The History Diggers, the Maison Dieu’s very own team of volunteer archaeologists, in a community dig in April 2022. Dating from c.1190, these are original pieces of stained glass from the medieval Stone Hall. Designs include flowers and foliage, including three-leaf (trefoil) decoration. Several fragments of medieval Caen Stone window tracery were also discovered, some charred and burnt salmon pink by the heat of a devastating fire that engulfed the Stone Hall in 1789.

Come along to chat to paintings’ conservator Rebecca Gregg as she repairs and retouches a fine portrait of St Martin of Tours, the patron saint of Dover, in a pop-up Conservation Studio in the Maison Dieu Stone Hall.

St Edmund's Chapel, Dover © DDC

One of my favourite activities, though, is watching pilgrim badge maker Colin Torode of Lionheart Replicas cast ‘signs’ of St Thomas Becket, just as happened in the streets of Canterbury 800 years ago. There’s something magical, one could even say primeval, watching molten metal being poured into a mould, then seconds later it being opened (to gasps of awe from the crowd) to reveal a shiny, intricately detailed badge of a saint.

These badges were popular souvenirs to show off your devotion and just how many pilgrim sites you’d visited. The Wife of Bath in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales had quite a collection! No doubt pilgrims returning through Dover had badges to show off and stories to tell and although we live in hope, we haven’t found an original one yet. Modern replicas however can be bought for as little as £5.

Colin will be casting badges at the event, including those of St Thomas, St Martin and St Mary - to whom the Maison Dieu was dedicated in medieval times. Local people will know Ladywell, one of the streets outside, but fewer will realise it’s named after a holy well, dedicated to Mary, the mother of Jesus, which was in regular use until Victorian times.

And if the thought of all this activity makes you thirsty, the Kent Pilgrims’ Festival is launching new beers in celebration of pilgrim routes in Kent and the ancient Via Francigena pilgrim route from Canterbury to Rome. Two of the beers are being brewed at the Breakwater Brewery beside the River Dour in Dover.

By popular public vote the Kentish Golden Ale has been called Maison Brew, a fitting tribute to the building that looked after so many medieval pilgrims. The Continental-style lager is more intriguing. It’s called Sigeric, after Anglo-Saxon Archbishop Sigeric the Serious who walked from Canterbury to Rome, a foot-slogging distance of some 2000 miles, to receive his pallium (or seal of office) from the pope. Sigeric survived and left an itinerary of his visit, which enables us to trace his exact route. He was lucky. One of his predecessors died of exposure in the Alps!

Kent Pilgrims' Festival

Pilgrimage of course is a common thread across all major world religions and is as popular today as ever, with people of all faiths and none embarking on pilgrim journeys for a host of different reasons, from religious devotion to coping with loss, or for health and wellbeing. A special exhibition of world pilgrim photos From the Camino to the Hajj at Dover Museum tells this story and is open until 31 December. Artwork by The Creative Pilgrims, a group of local artists inspired by pilgrim routes and stories in Kent, is also on display at Dover Museum and St Mary’s Church in Dover.

Click on the link to find out more about all the Kent Pilgrims’ Festival events and learn more about Dover’s historic Maison Dieu and the ambitious National Lottery funded project to conserve and repurpose this magnificent building to community here.  

With thanks to all those who have made this inaugural Kent Pilgrims’ Festival possible including Kent Downs AONB, the Confraternity of Pilgrims to Rome, Maison Dieu, White Cliffs Country, Dover District Council, St Mary’s Church, Charlton Church, the Creative Pilgrims, Dover Museum, Dover Big Local and local community partners.

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