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Pilgrimage and the Devil in a Boot

11 March 2022

Medieval pilgrimage was popular in the 12th and 13th centuries. Hence, the popularity of Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales‘. This is a story about a group of pilgrims on their way to the shrine of Thomas a Becket in Canterbury Cathedral. One of the routes to Canterbury passed through West Wycombe from the West Country, a village set up by the church, at Winchester, as a rival to the nearby Chepping Wycombe market town. There is still a 15th-century building that housed passing pilgrims in the village [dated by dendrochronology]. This post is not about Canterbury but a village in mid Bucks, North Marston, 4 miles from Winslow. It concerns John Schorne, the rector of North Marston. He had previously been a vicar or rector elsewhere but in his later life he became closely connected with the Buckingshire village, where the church later became associated with his veneration and attracted a lot of pilgrims.

John Schorne’s most famous act was to imprison the devil in a boot. A boot as in one of those leather contraptions you put on your feet. It came about when he is said to have exorcised an epileptic woman, casting out the devil within her. It was considered by some parties that epileptic fits were a sign of demonic control. I suppose the villagers, at the time, and afterward, were quite happy with this explanation – but was it the devil himself or one of his minions, a demon, trapped by the rector in the boot. However, it is possible this explanation of the boot came about in later generations, and was encouraged as pilgrims could purchase a badge in the village depicting the rector and the boot. Was the tale designed as a way of filling the coffers of the local church? At  one stage North Marston was the third most popular pilgrimage destination.

John Schorne was not just a miracle healer but a performer of another miracle. During a drought he tapped the ground with his staff and a spring of water bubbled forth – which never failed, or froze over. These miracles of water gushing forth from the ground are more commonly associated with the early Christian saints, and seismic phenomena. The origin of the tale is interesting but the spring itself was strongly associated with healing properties.

The church at North Marston became associated with pilgrimage and so did the spring, which developed into a holy well. This was after the rector died in 1314. A shrine was built in the north chancel. However, many miracle healings were said to have occurred at his tomb and this also became a revered shrine. Similarities exist with the shrine of Saint Alban at St Albans  abbey church, and the tale about a thorn tree at Glastonbury. So lucrative was the pilgrim trade that in 1478 the bishop of Salisbury obtained a lincense from the Pope to have the shrine and tomb moved to ‘where he so pleased.’ It ended up at St Georges Chapel in Windsor, in what became known as John Schorne’s Tower. In North Marston only a statue of John Schorne was left behind, holding a boot, erected in the chancel. In spite of this the village still had the holy well, attributed to the rector, and fed by a spring. For centuries, physicians around about would include water from the well in their medicinal concoctions, hoping for a miracle cure.

To add to the myth that developed around John Schorne, in 1835 several nearby villages suffered from an outbreak of cholera. North Marston went unscathed without a single fatality. In 1861 a woman fell into the well and drowned. Subsequently a wall was built to prevent this occurring again. As late as the 1930s the well was the principle supply of water to the village, but progress and piped water eventually reached North Marston. See for example https://mkheritage.org.uk/archive/jt/tw/docs/115.html … and https://heritageportal.buckinghamshire.gov.uk/Theme/TBC516

John Schorne came to North Marston in 1283, or thereabouts. It may have been a bit later as there was a rector of Monks Risborough in the 1280s with the same name. Schorne was an Augustinian Canon who was sent by Dunstable Priory, which may negate the Monks Risborough link as that was closely bound up with a different diocese. We are told at another link that the holy water of the spring or well was reputed to cure the gout. This can lead to very powerful pain in the joints, particularly in the feet. In the medieval period the pain was sometimes described as ‘the devil in the boot’ which is how Schorne is depicted in various images. Therefore the waters of the spring or well were alluded to ‘as taking the devil out of the boot.’ One can only assume it was the healing waters that were commonly associated with healing, rather than the miracles of John Schorne – but why spoil a nice story.

Schorne’s bones and his shrine were both moved to Windsor but the holy well was fixed to North Marston. It continued to attract pilgrims into the 16th century, when catholicism was replaced by protestantism. Pilgrimage became much less popular but it is interesting that King Henry VIII, who was responsible for the Dissolution, came twice to seek a cure for his gout. See also https://northmarstonhistory.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/John-Schorne-Storyboard-final.pdf … The well was renovated in 2005. North Marston has an active historical society. The water itself is chalybeate. Such waters or springs became fashionable and were  known as Spas. Chalybeate springs are impregnated with salts of iron, having a taste derived from those  salts. Chalybeate springs became renowned as health springs such as the spa at Tunbridge Wells in Kent. The water here had iron carbonates, magnesium carbonates, calcium sulfate, magnesium chloride, sodium chloride and potassium chloride. Bath is also a spa and derives its health giving waters from three separate springs full of minerals that are chalybeate, and with a history going back at least to the Roman period. See  also https://www.romanbaths.co.uk for the geology of the springs. Malvern in Worcestershire is also a spa, as is Buxton in the Peak District. Many other chalybeate springs failed to become popular. See also Records of Bucks volumes ii and iii, available free to download at the Buckinghamshire Archaeology web site at www.bucksas.org.uk/articles.html

At https://ritualprotectionmarks.com/2021/11/27/master-john-schorn-the-rector-who-conjured-the devil-into-a-boot …. which concerns the manner of conjuring a devil into a boot. Was this due to exorcisms, or did the idea come from his ability to cure gout? Even the ague, which is a medieval word for malaria, was said to be cured.

Other shrines in Britain associated with pilgrimage include Canterbury and Thomas A Becket, Walsingham in Norfolk, Glastonbury and St Albans. See also https://www.northbuckswanderer.com/2020/03/the-devil-gets-the-boot.html

John Schorne was also associated with Steppingley in Bedfordshire prior to North Marston, from 1273-1282.

See for example https://bedsarchives.bedford.gov.uk/CommunityHistories/Steppingley/John-Schorne.aspx … and https://www.steppingley.org/history … and here the devil is described as ‘the demon of pain’ which alludes to the gout, that primarily affects the feet. In the case of Good King ‘Enery that would have been too much rich food to blame, rather than the devil. Steppingley was unfortunate in that the farmland was not too good for arable and it was subsequently, mostly absorbed into deer parks which at the time were popular with the aristocratic elite. These parks, however, have sometimes survived, not perfectly but as reasonable areas for walking and exploring. That is another story as it is bound up with the Norman conquest and the love of the invaders for hunting, a practise that excluded the peasants and lower orders from eating meat from wild animals. Hence, the long war between poachers and gamekeepers during the Middle Ages right into the modern world. It lies at the root of the Robin Hood tales.

At the Records of Bucks link we learn a little more. For example, Richard Beauchamp, the bishop of Salisbury, was appointed Dean of Windsor in 1478, and obtained a licence from Pope Sixtus V to remove it wherever he pleased. Accordingly, it ended up at St Georges Chapel in Windsor Castle. There is another twist in the tale as shortly before 1478 the vicarage at North Marson was aquired by a convent. North Marston was provided with another parsonage in Northamptonshire, just over the border, which was appropriated by the College of Windsor. However, pilgrimages to North Marston continued for many years after the removal of the shrine, as it was the chalybeate spring or well that was famous for healing. That could not be removed. The pilgrims were variously voluntary people who were interested in an act of devotion or a cure, for the ague or  gout, or as an act of penance for alleged heresy or some such crime in the eyes of the church. Each pilgrim offered a gift to the saint, usually money, even in the time of Cromwell. At this time an image of the rector was removed as idolatrous and ended up in London for whatever fate befell of it, an unknown.

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