History of the Via Francigena

People have been making pilgrimages to Rome since the fourth century when , with the Edict of Milan in AD313, the Roman Empire became Christian, unleashing a veritable flood of pilgrims anxious to visit the tombs of Saints Peter and Paul in the city. These early pilgrims were aided in their undertaking by the well-maintained infrastructure of Roman roads and the network of mansiones (inns for travellers) at intervals along the way, as well as by the frequent termae (Roman baths) to be found in many places along the route.

Gradually, however, the numbers of pilgrims swelled to such an extent that the existing accommodation no longer sufficed, and as early as the fifth century, dedicated pilgrim ‘hospitals’ (places where hospitality was offered to travellers, both the sick and the well) began to be built. These early pilgrims had no linguistic abilities, as they were able to convey their needs in Latin (a language spoken only by clerics). As early as the ninth century, phrase books appeared, with the most important everyday vocabulary provided in the languages of the countries or areas the pilgrims would pass through.

Pilgrims along the Via Francigena. 12th-century bas relief from the Duomo di San Donnino, Fidenza

However, with the Barbarian invasions of the sixth and seventh centuries, pilgrim life became much more difficult. Roads and bridges ceased to be maintained, inns and other accommodation were not kept up, and in areas no longer under Christian rule pilgrimage became increasingly dangerous, with pilgrims beset by bands of robbers, barbarian invaders and pirates during sea crossings, to say nothing of storms, wild animals, lack of food and sickness, and the pilgrim was not at all sure he would reach his destination, let alone return home in one piece.

All these trials and tribulations are well documented in writings from the sixth century onwards, and many pilgrims wrote accounts of their experiences, recounting the everyday happenings as well as the dangers of the route. One of the earliest of these was the English monk Gildas the Wise, who went to Rome in AD530. The two journeys made by St Wilfred, in 666 and again in 673, are also well documented, while the first ‘tourist guide’ to Rome, the Salzburger Reisebuch, was produced as early as the seventh century and listed all the places a pilgrim should be sure to visit. The Einsiedler Manuskript of AD750 went a step further, providing the pilgrim, in addition, with ten ‘tourist walks’ round the city to take in the principal sights of ancient Rome.

Sigeric and the first guidebook

The first real ‘guidebook’ to the Via Francigena route from Canterbury – and the one which has had the greatest influence on subsequent pilgrim journeys – was made at the instigation of Sigeric ( known as Sigeric the Serious!) Archbishop of Canterbury, when he went to Rome in AD990.

Sigeric’s time as Archbishop coincided with the struggle for control of England between Anglo-Saxons and Danes, which generally meant that the Danes had to be paid off in order to prevent them from causing trouble. There is a record of Sigeric being one of the group of advisers who persuaded King Ethelred to buy off the Danes in 991, and there is also evidence that Sigeric had to take similar action himself in 994 to prevent Canterbury Cathedral from being burned down.

Like all his predecessors, he went to Rome to receive his pallium – a white woollen stole/scarf with six black crosses on it that formed his seal of office – from the Pope.


Sigeric went there with a considerable retinue, in 79 daily stages, spent 3 days in Rome, during which he dined once with the Pope and visited 23 churches, and then set off back home again. On the return journey, he asked his secretary to write up a description of the route, the result of which is a list, in Latin, of those stages and where they spent the night (the manuscript is now in the British Museum)

Manuscript of Sigeric’s journey to Rome in the British Museum

This ‘guidebook’ became the basis for future journeys to Rome made by pilgrims from Britain and places along the way, and fixed what is sometimes referred to as the ‘Sigeric route’, the one which has become known today as the Via Francigena.

Statue of Sigeric the Serious in Glastonbury Abbey

One of the first people to remedy some of the practical difficulties of this route was the Merovingian Queen Brunhilde who, towards the end of the sixth century, organised repairs to the Roman road system in her domain, from the Channel coast down to Therouanne, Arras and beyond. Although it is now a tarred road for the most part, this route still bears the name Chaussee Brunehaut (‘Brunhilde’s Road’ ), and modern pilgrims follow or shadow it for a considerable part of their journey through northern France.

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