Along the King’s Highway

I have done a great deal of traveling in the past few months: October saw me in Cleveland, Ohio, and New England; November brought me to the Hudson Valley of my birth and earliest years; and in February and March I was first briefly in Naples, FL, and then London, Vienna, Budapest, and Bratislava. Along the way, I saw relatives and old friends and made new ones, revisited old haunts and discovered new wonderful places. All the while, Autumn turned to Winter, and Winter at last to Spring. When my wanderings began, Hallowe’en was looming; now it is Mid-Lent, and I am looking forward to seeing Laetare Sunday’s Old Rose vestments.

All of this movement through space and time has caused me to reflect on people, places, and things no longer with us — from my parents to Boston’s Locke-Ober Restaurant to Pepperidge Farms’ Hunters’ Soup. More than that, to think upon the present, and the future as epitomised by my younger relatives and the children and grandchildren of my friends. Indeed, my whole life has been a long journey across five continents and as many decades — with over half of a sixth completed as well.

When I was little, and we lived in New York, my family and I would drive around on Sundays after Mass, and explore the hidden nooks and crannies of Westchester and Fairfield Counties — our purview did not extend to Jersey! My father was a history buff, and so we sought out colonial taverns and forts, churches and cemeteries, with which those favoured regions are well-blessed; usually we ended the day with dinner at such long-vanished eateries as Armonk’s Log Cabin Restaurant or Norwalk’s General Putnam Inn. In these meanderings we often came upon short stretches of road labelled “King’s Highway” — usually detours from faster and many-laned thoroughfares. The named fired my imagination, conjuring up as it did visions of pilgrims and bandits, and messengers of the faraway King — whomever that King might have been! Thoughts of Robin Hood and “The Highwayman” were inevitable for one who came from as literary-minded a family as mine!

In later years, of course, I learned that these topographical remnants were pieces of an original “King’s Highway” that Charles II had ordered laid out from Boston to Charleston to link his colonial capitals. In time, it was extended to Portsmouth, NH, in the north, and Savannah, GA, to the south. A spur ran down to New York City, which in those days lay at the southern tip of Manhattan Island. It ran over the King’s Bridge (which gave its name to the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx), and as Broadway, ran down to Bowling Green, with its equestrian statue of King George III and the little crowns on its iron fence — fence and pocket park remain to-day, though statue and crowns are gone.

There were other King’s Highways scattered around the colonies, though. Old Cape Cod — lauded by Patti Page in the song of that name (first recorded before the Singing Rage had ever set foot there) boasts one, Highway 6A, which was the Cape’s section of Massachusetts’ own colonial King’s Highway running from Boston to Plymouth to Provincetown, to allow the Pilgrims access to their new capital after the larger Province annexed them in 1692. His Majesty’s Province of New York also dubbed addition routes in his name. One serviced what is now the Borough of Brooklyn, in King’s County; another ran straight north from the King’s Bridge at the Bronx to Albany and so on to Schenectady. Along a short section of its length in Sleepy Hollow, Ichabod Crane made his fearful flight from the Headless Horseman. And this is typical; so far from the Medieval imaginings of my childhood, the King’s Highways of the Thirteen Original States are potent reminders of the romance of the Colonial and Revolutionary eras. Indians and settlers, Loyalists and rebels — just about everyone Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, or Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote about prowled those routes which we either pass over so quickly to-day or else spend a pleasant afternoon exploring.

Of course, the English were not the only Europeans to use the concept in America; in the 1730s, my own ancestors laid out the Chemin du Roy from the Montreal area over one hundred and seventy miles to Quebec City along the north shore of the St. Lawrence. But my first encounter with a non-English version of the concept came when we moved to California: El Camino Real!

To be sure, California had the local equivalents of the characters who carved out the Eastern roads — the Indians, rancheros, soldados de cuera, and all the other colourful trail-blazers into the wilderness; but where the English pushed their frontier forward primarily for profit and adventure, the Spanish, like the French, had another goal: the Salvation of Souls. And so, for all that California’s King’s Highway was paid for by the Spanish Kings — initially Carlos III, hence the statues of him in Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, and San Francisco — it was St. Junipero Serra who set the ball rolling. Under him and his successors, El Camino Real linked not only ranchos and presidios, but a chain of twenty-one missions from San Diego to Sonoma. If, as noted, the British King’s Highways gave us the thrilling tales of Irving and Cooper, the California highway gave us Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona and Johnston McCulley’s Zorro. The eastern roads inspired the Colonial Revival in art and architecture, but El Camino Real gave us the Spanish Colonial, Mission, and Monterey styles. As against the Hudson River School (which I do love), we may offer California Plein-Aire.

Nevertheless, as I got older, I learned that California’s was only one of several Caminos Reales. One ran from St. Augustine, FL to San Antonio, TX (the “Old Spanish Trail”); another linked Los Adaes, in modern Louisiana with San Antonio, Laredo, and Mexico City; a third connected Santa Fe, NM, with El Paso and ultimately Mexico City. If not quite bathed with the same sort of late 19th-early 20th century romance as is California’s, they were travelled by the same sort of people — including Saints. Nor did the Spanish limit their creation of Caminos Reales to the future United States: such roads also linked Mexico City to Veracruz, Guatemala City, and Acapulco as well. Indeed, they were also found in Cuba, Yucatan, Panama, and Peru — wherever Spain’s Church and Crown held sway, such highways were forged for the safe passage of Faith and commerce. Not too surprisingly, the Portuguese had their own Estrada Real linking Minas Gerais, Rio de Janeiro, and Sao Paulo in Brazil.

Common to Spanish, French, and British Monarchs alike, the whole notion of the King’s Highway was not a creation for the New World, but arose in old Europe long before the Reformation. Differing from country to country, the “King’s Highways” or “Royal Roads” tended to be major transportation routes — often built on crumbling Roman Roads — upon which the King’s messengers would travel from one part of the Kingdom to another. There might be changes of horses at stated intervals or even inns and taverns — in Denmark, these were by Royal appointment. The “King’s peace” was a particularly important concept — and those who broke it, for example by “playing robber on the King’s Highway” were subjected to particularly unpleasant punishments if caught. In England, such were the Great North Road and Watling Street; the French King took charge of all the major highways in his realm. But perhaps the most famous were those that crossed the centre of Europe under the initial aegis of the Holy Roman Emperors — the Via Regia and Via Carolingia.

But these Royal roads were not maintained solely for Royal officials and merchants plying their wares. No, Medieval Europe had a third — and if anything, more important — category of travellers: pilgrims. Then as now there were minor shrines to apparitions of Our Lady and the Saints, Eucharistic and other miracles, and wonder-working images all over Europe. There were important sanctuaries such as those of St. Thomas of Canterbury and St. Giles. And then there were Compostela, Rome, and the Holy Land. An astonishing network of Caminos de Santiago throughout Western Europe served the first named; the Via Francigena dealt with the second; and the dangerous road to the Holy Land was generally the one followed by the First Crusade, if one had not the fare to go by sea. Facilitating pilgrimage was more important than commerce or even government business (although these latter two employs did not suffer noticeably through the attention given pilgrims).

What has all of this history and nostalgia to do with us to-day? Quite a bit, really. Pilgrimage has certainly been rediscovered, and not just by Catholics. Certainly Santiago’s paths have never been more travelled than now, and the Council of Europe has specially marked routes of pilgrimage for devotees of St. Martin and St. Michael the Archangel. In Scandinavia, the pilgrimage to St. Olav’s shrine has been revived, as have a number of shrines in Great Britain, most especially those of St Alban and St. David — to say nothing of Walsingham and the Catholic and Anglican shrines at Willesden. Even the pilgrimage to the Lutheran Church of Wilsnack, Germany — site of the Eucharistic Miracle that led Jan Hus to break with the Church and so prepare the road for the Lutheran revolt — has been resurrected.

Indeed, the American who travels to any place where the Faith has formed the countryside is liable to bump into amazing sanctuaries completely unexpectedly — and not just in Rome, where seemingly every church shelters at least one Saint or miraculous statue. In this last round of travelling, I discovered the baroque shrine to the Sorrowful Mother of God at Maria Lanzendorf near the Vienna airport, on the old Via Regia. Seven panels recounted as many visits to the site by remarkable figures: St. Luke, Marcus Aurelius, King Arthur, the Frankish Princess Erintrudis, Charlemagne, Leopold V, and a returning Crusader named Kilian Rausch. The shrine was beloved of the Emperors Joseph I and Charles VI, and the Empresses Maria Theresia and Elizabeth (the latter Franz Josef’s tragic consort “Sissi”). For all my knowledge of Austria, I had never heard of the place, and quite literally blundered into it. From Ireland to the Urals — and, indeed, throughout Latin America, the Philippines, northern New Mexico, southern Louisiana, and elsewhere, your road may well lead you to such discoveries — if you let it. Nor need such discoveries be limited to those regions — one may see a corner of the Eternal in nature, in art — or in the actions of other people we encounter.

Indeed, as J.R.R Tolkien’s character Frodo Baggins recounted of his uncle Bilbo in Lord of the Rings, “He used often to say there was only one Road; that it was like a great river: its springs were at every doorstep, and every path was its tributary. ‘It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door,’ he used to say. ‘You step onto the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.’” This is a point emphasised in verse by the various versions of Tolkien’s poem “The Road Goes Ever On” in both LotR and The Hobbit, and it is well-worth remembering, for we are not really wandering aimlessly in space and time, regardless of how things may appear to us. By virtue of our baptism, we are perforce pilgrims, even if we do not realise it. Moreover, Christ is indeed King of all — the baptised and the unbaptised, the Christian nation and the heathen — regardless of whether they acknowledge it. All roads, whether across the map or through the calendar, are King’s Highways. If we refuse to try to serve Him, then we shall follow that fallen angel who claims to be Lord of this world instead. But the King’s Highway, whichever byways it may lead us through and whichever Sovereign’s banner we fly, inevitably takes us all to the same spot — the point of our departure from this world, and our own dispositions thereat. It is against this dread moment that we regularly ask the Blessed Virgin Mary to “pray for us now and at the hour of our death.” For the King’s Highway wends its way also through time as much as space — through the feasts and seasons of the Liturgical Year, the days of each week, and, indeed, the hours of each day — whether we mark Matins, Lauds, Prime, and the rest or not.

As he did with so many other things, G.K. Chesterton fully understood the deeper significance of the road in human life. So he ends his poem “The Rolling English Road” with the declaration that we shall:

walk with clearer eyes and ears this path that wandereth,

And see undrugged in evening light the decent inn of death;

For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen,

Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green.

Indeed there are. May we, as this Lent draws to a close, bear in mind that we should all strive to be pilgrims walking along the King’s Highway — and remember that for the King Himself, that road narrowed to pass through the Via Crucis, and then opened wide enough again to encompass the Resurrection, the Ascension, and at last Heaven, from whence He still descends daily to all the world’s altars. Please God, may all our roads be Royal, and may we follow Him thereto.