General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales

by Geoffrey Chaucer

Start Free Trial

Why do the characters go on a pilgrimage in The Canterbury Tales' General Prologue?

Quick answer:

The reason given for the pilgrimage in the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales is to visit the shrine of St. Thomas Becket. Becket was a Christian martyr who was believed to have special healing powers.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

At the time Geoffrey Chaucer wrote the General Prologue and the twenty-four stories in The Canterbury Tales, pilgrimages—journeys to sacred places undertaken as an act of religious devotion, an act of contrition for the forgiveness of sins, or to seek a miraculous cure from an illness—were a fairly common occurrence in medieval Europe. The shrines to which the pilgrims journeyed usually exhibited relics of saints or other holy persons, such as bones or personal items—some even claimed to display the nails and pieces of the cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified.

The ultimate place of pilgrimage was the Holy Land, particularly the sites associated with Jesus Christ at Bethlehem, Nazareth, and Jerusalem. The journey to the Holy Land was arduous and could be very dangerous, but there were many other sacred sites to which pilgrims travelled that didn't require such a difficult journey. Rome, Santiago de Compostela in Spain, and Notre Dame in Paris were popular pilgrimage destinations for Europeans.

Enterprising individuals organized less arduous and significantly less dangerous pilgrimages for Londoners and other religious believers in the British Isles to local shrines in England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, including shrines at the major cathedrals of St. Albans, St. Andrews, and St. David's.

In the General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales, the narrator, who is Geoffrey Chaucer himself, tells the reader that he's spending the night at the Tabard Inn in Southwark, a fairly lawless suburb of London located on the south bank of the Thames across from the City of London, and known in medieval times as a notorious center of "entertainment."

The narrator intends to make a pilgrimage alone to Canterbury to visit the shrine to St. Thomas Beckett at Canterbury Cathedral, where it's believed that Thomas Beckett, Archbishop of Canterbury, was murdered in 1170 by four knights at the suggestion, or possibly at the order, of King Henry II.

The Tabard Inn was a popular gathering place and stopping-off place for pilgrims on their way to Canterbury from London and other parts of England.

That evening, a group of pilgrims who are also going to Canterbury arrive at the Tabard Inn.

There came at nightfall to that hostelry
Some nine and twenty in a company
Of sundry persons who had chanced to fall
In fellowship, and pilgrims were they all
That toward Canterbury town would ride. (General Prologue, 23–27)

The narrator is apparently asked or allowed to join the group, which plans to set out for Canterbury early the next morning.

So had I spoken with them, every one,
That I was of their fellowship anon,
And made agreement that we’d early rise
To take our way, as to you I’ll devise. (General Prologue, 31–34)

"The Beckett Way," a modern reconstruction of the pilgrims' journey to Canterbury from Southwark—where only the inn yard of the Tabard Inn still remains—can be found at

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Religious pilgrimages were very common in pre-Reformation Europe. The faithful would gather from miles around to converge on shrines, where they would pay tribute to a saint or other important religious figure by offering up gifts, often quite expensive ones. It was widely believed that by doing this, pilgrims would receive less time in Purgatory, or that they would be cured of some illness or other.

It is the latter reason that has drawn Chaucer's pilgrims to Canterbury in The Canterbury Tales. As Chaucer tells us in the General Prologue:

And specially, from every shires ende

Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,

The hooly blisful martir for to seke,

That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.

In other words, pilgrims travel from far and wide to the shrine of the “holy, blissful martyr”—that is to say, St. Thomas Becket—to pray for healing and offer praises to him for helping them through illness.

St. Thomas Becket was a very popular saint in medieval Europe. He was once the Archbishop of Canterbury, the most senior churchman in England. After he fell out with King Henry II, a group of Henry's knights went to Canterbury Cathedral, where they brutally murdered Becket.

Fifty years after Becket's death, Canterbury became the location of a popular shrine. Pilgrims, such as the ones in Chaucer's tale, would come from miles around in the hope that they would benefit from the saint's alleged healing powers.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

This answer can be found in the first 18 lines of the prologue. The poem's narrator tells readers that as spring comes along, people enjoy traveling and going on pilgrimages. The narrator then gives a specific example. He says that people from England enjoy going to Canterbury to visit Saint Thomas Becket. They are visiting to see the the relics at Canterbury Cathedral.

Then do folk long to go on pilgrimage,

And palmers to go seeking out strange strands,

To distant shrines well known in sundry lands.

And specially from every shire's end

Of England they to Canterbury wend,

The holy blessed martyr there to seek

Who helped them when they lay so ill and weak

This is why the various travelers are all gathered together at the Tabard Inn. It is suggested that since they are all traveling to the same location, they should all travel together. To make the journey more pleasurable, a story telling contest of sorts is suggested by the Host. Each traveler will be given the opportunity to tell multiple stories. The pilgrim that tells the best story will win a dinner at the tavern upon return.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Geoffrey Chaucer, in his General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, introduces an array of characters who have stopped at an inn on their way to Canterbury. The purpose of their trip is religious; they are going to pay homage to the the blessed martyr, Thomas a Beckett.  

And specially from every shire's end

Of England they to Canterbury wend,

The holy blessed martyr there to seek

Who helped them when they lay so ill and weak.

Though each of the pilgrims has a different degree of devotion to the martyr, they are all going to express their gratitude for his help in their lives.

Ironically, the innkeeper has turned the table on this holy pilgrimage, and because of his proposed wager they each have a chance to win something. Now the journey is about that rather than about the holy martyr. 

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial