Pilgrims walking on the Via Francigena

The Via Francigena

The Via Francigena (‘the way of the Franks’) is an historic 2000-kilometre pilgrim way from Canterbury to Rome.

It follows the route described by Sigeric, Archbishop of Canterbury, on his journey back from Rome in AD 990 after receiving his pallium, or cloak of office, from Pope John XV.

Many would have made similar journeys, but Sigeric had the foresight to instruct one of his party to record the 79 stages or mansiones of the return to Canterbury. Sigeric’s De Roma ad usque Mare, which is preserved in the British Library, thereby forms the basis of today’s Via Francigena from Canterbury to Rome across southern England, France, Switzerland and Italy.

This historical route was revived and put back on the map in the late 1980s and early 1990s by a group of enthusiasts who faithfully followed Sigeric’s stopping places, only adapting his itinerary where the old Roman road had become a modern highway. The leading pioneer was Giovanni Caselli, an Italian medieval historian, who re-mapped Sigeric’s route in 1985 with the help of Italy’s Military Geographical Institute. The results of his reconstruction were published in Florence in 1990, the 1000th anniversary of Sigeric’s journey, as La Via Romea, Cammino di Dio. One of the driving forces of the revival was Swiss-Italian Adelaide Trezzini, and in 1997 she established the Association Internationale Via Francigena (AIVF). Paul Chinn, who would produce the much-used Lightfoot guides, also played a role in the revival, as did Alberto Alberti, who set up an Italian Via Francigena group.

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

Pioneers on the ground were as important, and perhaps none more than the ferryman of the River Po, Danilo Parisi. Danilo has been operating his ferry since 1998, and he has kept a record of every pilgrim journey on the four-kilometre stretch of river between Corte San Andrea on the north bank and his home Caupona Sigerico on the south bank at Soprarivo di Calendasco. Just two pilgrims signed his magisterial Liber Peregrinorum in 1998 when Danilo first revived the ancient river crossing, but his pilgrim log has grown each year since, and it now runs into several volumes and has become a treasure trove of information about the Via Francigena. In 22 years he has ferried some 9000 pilgrims.

The revival of walking to Rome was in part also a response to the astonishing surge in the numbers walking to Santiago de Compostela, and while travelling on foot to Rome.

The Via Francigena was made a European Cultural Itinerary by the Council of Europe in 1994 (in the same way that the Camino de Santiago was in 1987), and another group with local government and European Union funding, the European Association of Via Francigena (AEVF), was set up in 2001 to help foster development of the route. Our own Confraternity was founded in 2006.

Local associations in England, France, Switzerland and Italy have all taken a hand in way-marking the route – sometimes with mixed results.

Ferryman Danilo Parisi with his famous record of pilgrims who have crossed the Po River

Pilgrimage to Rome

Rome was traditionally the place of martyrdom of the two saints most closely linked with the founding and establishment of the Roman Catholic Church – the Apostles Peter and Paul.

The associations of the city with these two saints were so strong that from the fifth century pilgrimage to Rome was known as “ad limina apostolorum” – to the threshold of the apostles.

Rome, with its relics and links, was a focus of holiness where believers could come closer to God, and receive benefits, both physical and spiritual, temporal and eternal.

There have been pilgrims travelling to Rome since the second century, but numbers increased after the victory of Constantine the Great over Maxentius in 312, after which Christians could worship publicly.  Early pilgrims had the advantage of the well-maintained infrastructure of Roman roads.

The most popular route from northern Europe was down the Rhine Valley. But with the Barbarian invasions and the instability of Europe after Charlemagne, the pilgrim route became increasingly perilous, and from the early ninth century Santiago de Compostela came to replace Rome as Christendom’s most popular pilgrim destination.

Revival of Pilgrimage

Pilgrimage to Rome was revived when Pope Boniface VIII declared 1300 a Jubilee (Holy) Year, whereby a visit to Rome would merit a plenary indulgence, and with it a complete remission of sins.

Pilgrim numbers soared, and the practice of declaring Jubilee Years at intervals of 50 and 25 years continued to attract large numbers until the Reformation when the new Protestant churches turned their backs on the cult of pilgrimage.

Over the following centuries, however, the numbers of pilgrims to Rome crept back up – despite the vicissitudes of wars and revolutions in Europe – until, with the arrival of mass transportation in the early 20th century, visiting Rome had become a rite of passage for millions of Christians.

In the 2000 Jubilee Year, 25 million pilgrims visited Rome by one means or another, and a similar number during the Year of Mercy 2015-16. Today’s foot pilgrims have, therefore, swung full circle, making a conscious choice to travel under their own steam and at their own speed, on a journey in which not only the end, but also the means, are of great significance.

The old Via Cassia near Montefiascone