The Via Francigena is an ancient land route between Canterbury in England and Rome in Italy. More truly a network of connecting paths than a formally-designated road, it passed through England, France, Switzerland and Italy.
In medieval times it was an important route for travelers and pilgrims. To pilgrims heading to Rome, it was called the Via Romea; to those heading back from Rome, the Via Francigena (“The way of the Franks”).
The route that today is usually called the Via Francigena was first mentioned in the third century, and is Europe's oldest route of pilgrimage. After leaving England, it winds through Arras and Rheims in France, Lausanne in Switzserland, before reaching Tuscany and some of Italy's most beautiful landscapes, and moving south to Rome.
In recent decades it has received increasing historical research, publicity and physical maintenance, and is now attracting more hikers and recreational cyclists during the summer months.
After the Roman emperor, Claudius Caesar, led the second Roman invasion of England in 43 AD, a network of roads was built to connect Rome with the Britannia (England). Canterbury (in Latin, called Durovernum) lay on Watling Street, at an intersection that connected the heart of Britain to the vital ports of Dover and Richborough, and to the military and trade routes running through Gaul to Rome.
The connection between Rome and Canterbury was further elevated in importance in 596 AD when Pope Gregory the Great responded to a request from Ethelbert, the King of Kent, to dispatch Christian missionaries. An Italian Benedictine monk, to become known in history as St Augustine of Canterbury, led the mission by walking from Rome to Canterbury. He succeeded in converting the King and 10,000 of his subjects. St Augustine [this is not St Augustine of Hippo] was consecrated as the first Archbishop of Canterbury, and in 601 AD was granted formal jurisdiction over the church for the whole of Britain.
The route to Rome became a thoroughfare for clerics, royalty and pilgrims, and also for members of the public. Pilgrims would make their pilgrimage to the resting places of St Peter and St Paul, and often continuing by land and sea to Jerusalem. The Via Francigena became the most important pilgrim route in medieval Europe.
This route from Canterbury to Rome has had many names: Via Romea, Lombard Way, Iter Frabcorum, and the Frankish Route, but by the end of the 9th century it was most often identified as the Via Francigena. The name "Via Francigena" is first mentioned in the Actum Clusio, a parchment in the abbey of San Salvatore (III) al Monte Amiata-Tuscany in 876 AD. The route became increasingly more popular after the institution of Holy Years by the Catholic Church in 1300.
Images (at right):
Picture 1: A Via Francigena logo.
Picture 2: Walking the Via Francigena.
Picture 3: The Via Fracigena in a city street, marked on a lamp post.