The Way of St James was the ancient route followed by pilgrims from northern and central Europe on their journey to the tomb of the Apostle St James (Santiago) at Santiago de Compostela in Galicia.
The route was lined by Romanesque monasteries, churches and chapels, hospices and hostels, many of which still survive, marking out one of the most important pilgrim routes in Christendom.
The pilgrimage to Santiago was initiated by the discovery of the Apostle's tomb in western Galicia around the year 813. According to church tradition James was sent to preach the Gospel in Spain, but after several years there returned to Palestine, where he was beheaded in A.D. 44 on the orders of Herod Agrippa. His disciples recovered his body and put it on board a ship, which, guided by an angel, sailed back to Galicia. There the Apostle was buried, and his grave was forgotten until in the early ninth Century it was rediscovered by a hermit, guided to the place by a star. Thereupon Alfonso II had a church built on the site, around which the town of Santiago de Compostela grew up. According to legend, at the battle of Clavijo in 844 the Apostle appeared riding a horse and led the Christian armies to victory over the Moors. Thereafter he was often represented on horseback as Santiago Matamoros, St James the Moor-Slayer. The first pilgrims from Europe began to make their way to Santiago in the middle of the 10th century, traveling through France and over the Pyrenees. Many of them were French, and so the way to Santiago also came to be known as the Camino Francés, the French Way. The heyday of the pilgrimage was in the 11th and 12th centuries, when the pilgrim route to the Holy Places in Palestine was blocked by the Turks. Thereafter the numbers of pilgrims declined, and the robbers, often disguised as pilgrims, who infested the pilgrim roads made the journey increasingly unsafe. When an English fleet commanded by Sir Francis Drake appeared off the Galician coast in 1589 the relics of the Apostle were hidden in a safe place - so safe that all knowledge of it was lost. At last, in 1879, the relics were rediscovered, and after their authenticity had been confirmed by Pope Leo XIII large numbers of pilgrims once again began to make their way to the Apostle's shrine.
The pilgrims flocked to Santiago de Compostela from all over Europe and from countries farther afield, most of them in profound piety, some in penitence for a sin or offence they had committed, and some false pilgrims also, such as the 15th Century French poet François Villon, who set out with the idea of robbing the true pilgrims. The pilgrims were easy to recognize. For safety's sake they usually travelled in groups, wearing a cloak and a broad brimmed hat with the scallop-shell which was the emblem of the pilgrimage and carrying a stout staff, a leather bag and a water flask. All along the pilgrim route they found churches and pilgrim hospices and hostels run by monks, mostly Cluniacs and Benedictines, around which there grew up in course of time inns, shops and workshops, and finally towns such as Puente la Reina and Santo Domingo de la Calzada. The pilgrim route, the accommodation for pilgrims along the way, the dangers of the journey and the dishonesty of innkeepers were described in the "Liber Sancti Jacobi" (in a manuscript known as the Codex Calixtinus), written by a French monk named Aimery Picaud in the first half of the 12th century, which related the legends about St James and gave a variety of practical advice for pilgrims: in effect a guidebook to the whole pilgrim route. Nowadays the pilgrimage is no longer an adventure: it is now possible to fly to Santiago, and much of the pilgrim route can be travelled by car. The numbers of pilgrims are greatest during a Holy Year: that is, when St James's Day (July 25) falls on a Sunday.
The Pilgrim Route
The Way of St James was not so strictly defined as the route shown on the map would suggest. There was an extensive network of routes running from east to west, though they tended to converge on the main route; and pilgrims might diverge from the route to visit some particular shrine on the way. There were four main routes through France. Three of them ran from Paris, Vézelay and Le Puy, joined at Ostabat, on the French side of the Pyrenees, and then crossed the pass of Roncesvalles into Spain; the fourth, starting from Arles, went over the Somport pass and joined the others at Puente la Reina. From here the main Camino de Santiago continued west for another 740km/460mi via Estella, Logroño, Santo Domingo de la Calzada, Burgos, León and Astorga to Santiago de Compostela. An alternative, more hazardous, route followed the Basque, Asturian and Galician coasts by way of Irún, San Sebastián, Bilbao, Oviedo, Betanzos and La Coruña to Santiago.