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The steps here lead to a place of prayer and pilgrimage and have been climbed by countless people over the centuries. Most of these pilgrims pausing here to renew spiritual strength of their journeys, were making their way to the shrine of St Thomas of Becket of Canterbury. Many would then go on to the port of Dover, on their way to Rome and the holy land.
From the early 1200s Rochester Cathedral also drew people to its own shrine, to William of Perth. William was a pilgrim himself and was buried here in the cathedral. After his death, miracles reported and he was made a saint.
Look underneath the protective wooden boards of these steps now. Can you see the stone treads are badly worn away? But they weren’t worn down by feet alone. The early pilgrims made their journey through the cathedral to William’s shrine on their knees. This idea may seem strange to you – that people would travel so far and enjoy such hardship to visit a shrine. Imagine what it would be like to crawl up these steps on your knees. The people of all faiths still go on pilgrimages today, sacrificing physical comfort in their search for spiritual answers. You could compare it to an Olympic athlete training hard for many years at great personal cost, to achieve a single goal.
St Augustine of Hippo, the early North African Bishop, captured the pilgrims overwhelming desire to seek God in this prayer: ‘You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they find rest in you’.
If you haven’t done so already, walk up the steps now and as you do perhaps think about how these treads symbolise the personal cost of pilgrimage.
In 1201, the pilgrim known as William of Perth, a baker from Scotland, was murdered as he made his way out of Rochester. A local woman who found his body appeared to be cured of her madness as a result, and the Rochester monks brought William for burial here in the cathedral where further miracles were reported.
A shrine soon developed in the area of his tomb. Money donated from pilgrims may have helped to fund the building work in the cathedral in the 1200s. Such money was seen as a gift of God. William’s shrine, however, along with other shrines to St Paulinus and Ithamar (early Bishops of Rochester) was destroyed at the great religious upheaval in the 1500s called the Reformation. It is possible the men’s bones were hidden elsewhere in the cathedral.
As you go up the pilgrim steps on the wall on the left. There is a brass memorial plaque to Colonel J. R M. Chard of the Royal Engineers. This is the Chard who as the younger lieutenant in 1879 won the Victoria Cross at the famous siege at Rorke’s Drift in what is now South Africa. Chard was in command of the besieged British Army post there and was the character played by Stanley Baker in the film Zulu.
The circumstances of that battle, in which an overwhelming Zulu army finally ended their attack and saluted the steadfast resistance of the British defenders, highlight the delicate threads of humanity that can still be preserved in war. So to, do the regimental flags known as colours hanging overhead at the top of the steps. Now over a century old, they came to the cathedral when the Chatham division of the Royal Marines was disbanded in 1950. As an embodiment of the spirit of the division, they represent the sacrifice that its members have made for their country and for each other.
Beneath the flags, against the wall, you’ll see two books of names in cases. These are memorial books kept by the Royal Marines. Every Saturday a group of ex-Marines gather here to turn the pages and to remember their fallen comrades in two world wars. It is another example of how the cathedral provides a special place for reflection.