The emperor Constantine permitted Christians to legally worship in the Roman Empire in 313 after 250 years of persecution. In 335, he erected the Church of the Holy Sepulcher at the site where Jesus’ tomb was believed to have been.
Processions of pilgrims to the church, especially during Holy Week, began soon after its completion.
A woman named Egeria, a pilgrim from France, described one such pilgrimage which took place in the fourth century. The bishop of Jerusalem and about 200 pilgrims began "at the first cockcrow" at the site of Jesus’ agony on Holy Thursday night. They said a prayer, sung a hymn, and heard a Gospel passage, then went to the garden of Gethsemane and repeated the procedure.
They continued to Jerusalem itself, "reaching the (city) gate about the time when one man begins to recognize another, and thence right on through the midst of the city. All, to a man, both great and small, rich and poor, all are ready there, for on that special day not a soul withdraws from the vigils until morning," Egeria wrote.
Pilgrimages eventually took a fixed route from the ruins of the Fortress Antonia, where Pilate had his judgment hall, to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. That route through Jerusalem’s Old City gained acceptance as the way Jesus went to his death and remains unchanged today. It is known as the Via Dolorosa, Latin for the "Sorrowful Way."
Stops developed on the way to note specific events on the road to Calvary. In many cases, the pilgrims could only guess where some incidents took place because Jerusalem had been almost completely destroyed by Roman armies in 70 A.D.
The pilgrims brought back oil from the lamps that burned around Jesus’ tomb and relics from the holy places, and sometimes tried to recreate in Europe what they had seen in the Holy Land. The Moslem conquest of Palestine in the seventh century made such shrines more significant, since it made travel to the Holy Land dangerous.
Devotions to the Way of the Cross began in earnest after 1342, when the Franciscan friars were given custody of the holy sites in the Holy Land. The Franciscans have been closely identified with the devotion ever since; for years, Church regulations required a set of the stations to be blessed by a Franciscan when possible.
The number of stations varied widely, with some manuals of devotion listing as many as 37. The term "stations" in describing the Way of the Cross was first used in the narrative of an English pilgrim, William Wey, who visited the Holy Land twice in the 15th century.
Depictions of the events described in the Stations did not start becoming common in churches until Pope Innocent XI permitted the Franciscans in 1686 to erect such displays in all their churches. He also declared that all indulgences given for visiting the sacred sites in the Holy Land would apply to any Franciscan or Franciscan lay affiliate visiting a set of stations in a church.
Pope Benedict XIII extended that privilege to all the faithful in 1726. Five years later, Pope Clement XII allowed all churches to have stations and fixed the number at 14, where it has been ever since. In recent years, many churches have included the Resurrection as a 15th station. Benedict XIV specifically urged every church in 1742 to enrich its sanctuary with stations.