Great Britain is home to one of the world’s great literary traditions—and literature is a terrific way to frame your tour through the island. In this first of four literary lectures, reflect on the work of two of Britain’s most-prized poets, Chaucer and Shakespeare. Retrace the pilgrims’ path of The Canterbury Tales, visit Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre beside the River Thames, and more.
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A Literary Pilgrimage: Trace the Path of The Canterbury Tales
Britain is a fine place for literary tourism. Many of its best poets, playwrights, and novelists are strongly associated with particular places. Enough of these places survive that you can get a strong sense of the author in question by visiting their homes, or the places they commemorated in their writing.
The place to start is with Geoffrey Chaucer and The Canterbury Tales. Canterbury was a medieval pilgrimage site because Archbishop Thomas Becket had been martyred there, having been killed in 1170 on the orders of King Henry II and canonized by Pope Alexander III in 1173. Becket’s Shrine was destroyed during the English Reformation, but we know where in the Cathedral it stood—a single candle still burns there every day.
Chaucer’s pilgrims start near Southwark Cathedral, just south of the River Thames. Southwark is a beautiful building and it was already there in Chaucer’s time, though in his day it was part of an Augustinian priory. A Chaucer window was added to the cathedral in 1900, showing the pilgrims starting on their journey to Canterbury.
It’s now possible to make an off-road walk nearly all the way from central London to Canterbury—about 90 miles. This is the Pilgrims’ Way, one of many long-distance footpaths worked out by hikers and cooperative local governments in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
Canterbury itself is a distinguished market town, improved since the days when, as a student, I worked there on the hop harvest in the 1970s. Houses from each of the last four centuries are still common, and the cathedral still soars over everything else.
Shakespeare’s England: Stratford-upon-Avon and London
Shakespeare is the next obvious candidate, chronologically, for any literary traveler. Here the trail is both thick and thin. It’s thick in the sense that the entire town of Stratford-upon-Avon lives and breathes the idea of Shakespeare, and would be desolate without him. It’s thin in the sense that Shakespeare himself remains a bit of a mystery.
Stratford is a pretty Midlands town where you can punt along the River Avon and stroll through extensive parks. There are plenty of fine Elizabethan-era, half-timbered, black and white houses in the old streets. What makes Stratford stand out, however, is the fact that it’s the home of the Royal Shakespeare Company.
It’s possible, in Stratford, to visit Shakespeare’s birthplace, a 16th-century cottage, fitted out with period furniture. Minstrels play guitars in the garden on fine days, costumed actors help set the scene, and guides explain what we do know about his early life and family connections. Anne Hathaway’s cottage, nearby, is a house of similar vintage where his wife grew up.
Stratford is only half the story, of course. Like so many other provincial Englishmen before and since, Shakespeare left behind his Midlands home and achieved greatness in the capital city. The transformation of London over the centuries means that nothing much remains that he would have recognized, except perhaps one or two churches and the Tower of London. There’s a large statue of [Shakespeare] at Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, from the 1740s, and another from the 1870s in Leicester Square, heart of London’s theatre district.
More important than the statues, the construction of a replica of his Globe Theatre on the South Bank of the Thames in 1997 has revitalized Shakespearean performance in a style he would recognize. Seeing a play at the Globe is one of the things you must do in London, however short your stay.
Another way of catching a breath of Shakespeare is by visiting the many English and Scottish places he mentions in the plays. In Macbeth, the three witches begin by hailing Macbeth as Thane of Glamis, then predict that he’ll soon become Thane of Cawdor, and eventually King of Scotland. Glamis and Cawdor are real places in Scotland.
Shakespeare’s history plays are particularly rich in allusions to British places. Many of the court scenes in Richard II take place at Windsor Castle, one of the places in Britain no visitor should miss. It’s been built, rebuilt, and rearranged constantly over the centuries, but it still radiates power and authority from its hilltop site.
At the end of Richard II, the king is murdered in Pontefract Castle, Yorkshire, now a stately ruin. Pontefract, or Pomfret, is also used in Shakespeare’s play Richard III as the site of another murder.
Other key scenes in Richard III take place at the Tower of London, notably the murder of the two young princes, one of whom, Edward V, is the rightful king. That play’s climax comes with Richard’s death at the Battle of Bosworth Field. Bosworth Field is a real place, too, about which I spoke in our lecture on Tudor England. When the Shakespearean battle is over, the survivors go with the new king, Henry VII, to Leicester. In Leicester itself, in 2012, the remains of Richard were unexpectedly discovered beneath a parking lot, a great archaeological discovery.
Pilgrims and Progress: John Donne and John Bunyan
One of the great churchmen and poets from the era of James I was John Donne. He was a student at Hart Hall, Oxford, from the age of 11. Donne is famous for the inventive love poetry of his early years, with its surprising metaphors. In “The Flea,” for example, he reproaches his beloved for not sleeping with him and says that a flea, which has sucked blood from each of them, is luckier. Later in life, Donne wrote profound religious poetry, captivating sermons, and deeply spiritual meditations.
Donne’s memorial is in St. Paul’s, a carving in stone of himself, in the form he imagined he would take at the Resurrection. It’s one of few carryovers from the old St. Paul’s Cathedral to the new, built by Christopher Wren in the late 17th century.
Another major literary figure of the 17th century was John Bunyan, who published The Pilgrim’s Progress in 1678. He was imprisoned for 12 years in Bedford jail, for preaching without a license, where he put the years to good use.
Some biographers of Bunyan have identified places around Bedford that correspond to the slough, the hill, the pillar of salt, and so on, showing his capacity to transfigure the ordinary objects of his world into things of transcendent importance. Rather than track them down one by one, it’s better to go to the Bunyan Museum in Bedford, which has gathered many of his manuscripts, his violin and flute, the anvil he used as a metalworker, his chair, and even the stoneware jug in which his family brought refreshments to him in jail.
Interactive Map of All Locations Mentioned in This Lecture