Wall Paintings ProjectPilgrimage


It has been suggested that one of the reasons why Lakenheath had so many different sets of wall paintings is that it was a rich parish. Painting a whole church would have been an expensive undertaking. Some people think that Lakenheath could afford to have the church repainted so many time simply because it had made a lot of money as a site of pilgrimage.


Medieval pilgrims would travel to holy and religious sites all over the country in search of salvation and enlightenment. However, pilgrimage was also a very good excuse for people to go travelling and see a few sites. Indeed, the word ‘holiday’ is actually derived from ‘holy day’. In the middle ages two of England’s most popular pilgrimage sites, Bury St Edmunds and Walsingham, were quite close to Lakenheath. In St Mary’s a separate side chapel was built to attract these pilgrims—and the money that came with them. In the chapel was a statue of the Virgin Mary that was reported to work miracles and for many years the church was a popular stopping off point for pilgrims travelling between Bury St Edmunds and Walsingham.

Pilgrimage was also a chance for people from all different backgrounds and classes to mix together. It was a time when many of the normal rules of society didn’t apply. As a result many senior churchmen disliked excessive pilgrimage and saw it as nothing more than excuse to have a good time.


Medieval pilgrimage wasn’t all fun though. It sometimes involved travel in dangerous areas, through difficult countryside, and it was a foolish pilgrim who didn’t make their will before setting out on their journey. The hazards were many. The forest roads could be home to thieves and wolves and many pilgrims were destined never to return to their homes. Hopefully, here in Lakenheath, things were a little more peaceful for the pilgrims arriving at St Mary’s.

Pilgrimage was officially banned by Henry VIII in the 16th century—at the same time as he outlawed statues and images. It is quite likely that the wall paintings at Lakenheath were white-washed over at  about the same time as the money bearing pilgrims, who had helped pay for them in the first place, stopped arriving.


More information on medieval pilgrims can be found at:-

Left: Medieval pilgrims make their way to the shrine of Thomas Becket at Canterbury.


Below: The dangers of the road. Medieval pilgrims use their staffs to beat off an attack by wolves.