To Be A Pilgrim? Searching for St Olav
Updated: Mar 11, 2020
On the banks of the River Thames lies a cathedral that almost goes unnoticed. Stumbled upon by the curious, on their way from Borough Market to The Globe Theatre lies Southwark Cathedral.
Its more august neighbours: St. Paul’s Cathedral, and Westminster Abbey, on the north side of the river often take the limelight, whilst Southwark Cathedral is relatively unknown. It has often been a staging post to somewhere else. It’s position as the church ‘over the river’- the Priory Church of St. Mary Ovarie and St. Saviour- has meant that people pass it by. As one of the most important medieval buildings in South London, it lies just beside London Bridge as the last place of worship before you enter London from the south, or the first place you encounter as you leave the city across the bridge. Yet it often goes unnoticed.
If you enter the cathedral, you will find much that will touch heart, mind and spirit. The focal point of the cathedral is the high altar. As walk towards it, you will see an impressive stone-carved reredos (the name given to a large altarpiece or decoration behind the altar in a church). You would expect to see images of saints and bishops in various poses of reverence; and you won’t be disappointed. Yet in the top left-hand corner stands a warrior, with sword and shield. He doesn’t look very holy or reverent. Instead, he seems to be looking out to the middle distance- watching out for some kind of trouble. He is too tall and muscular to be David and too small to be Goliath. So, who is he, and why is he honoured in stone in this way?
Every working day of the week, thousands of people pore out of London Bridge Station. Many of the them on to Tooley Street. Few of them would be aware of the etymology of the name. Tooley is a corruption of the name of a church which once stood upon the site. St. Olave’s Church Southwark was a church named in the Doomsday Book (1086), and only became redundant, and then demolished in 1926.
The muscular warrior in the South Cathedral reredos is the same Olave and patron saint of the church. In the United Kingdom, he is relatively unknown, but in the Scandinavian countries, he is a man of renown and said to be the father of a nation. How he became a saint, became a patron of a London, riverside church within 60 years of his death and the father of a nation will be the story that we explore.
Southwark and its cathedral have numerous connections to the theme of pilgrimage. Most famously, Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales begin in Southwark, as the pilgrims set off from The Tabard Inn, once located on Borough High Street, from where pilgrims set out. The inn was owned by the diocese of Winchester on land controlled by the Priory. Archbishop Thomas Becket stayed in Southwark just weeks before his dramatic murder in Canterbury that sparked the centuries of pilgrimage now being revived. My pilgrimage was to seek to travel in the footsteps of St. Olav. To do this, I would first pilgrim from London to Rouen, in Normandy.
For me, the themes of pilgrimage in the 21st century, Southwark and Olav combine with providence and synchronicity. One of my recreational passions has been on-road and off-road cycle-touring. So, I was excited to hear that a Pilgrim’s Route had been created by the Eurovelo, spanning 5100 km from Santiago de Compostela in Spain to Trondheim in Norway; encapsulating many historic cathedral cities en route.
Secondly, the life of St. Olav impacts upon the cathedral in Southwark as well as our partner cathedrals (with which we are ‘twinned’) in Bergen, Norway and Rouen, France. It could also be argued that Olav’s life had a significant impact upon the national life of this nation at a formative and turbulent time. How it did, and who he was will be the pilgrimage that I begin.
To find out more about Olav’s history in England and Normandy, and Jay's own pilrimage journey, please click on Jay’s blog here