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Walsingham: England's Holiest Shrine

by John P. Seely

Little Walsingham lies hidden deep in the north corner of Norfolk, approachable only by narrow, twisty lanes flanked by high, thick hedgerows unchanged from the days when traffic went on foot or by horseback. Little Walsingham too, has changed little over the centuries. It still has its streets of medieval timber-framed, jetted buildings, its ruined abbey, its Friday Market Place ringed with Georgian public houses and hostelries, its Common Place and its shops selling religious mementos for pilgrims.

Walsingham Medieval Building

Walsingham -- actually Little Walsingham as there are two villages sharing the same name -- has a long and prestigious history. Once known as the Nazareth of England, it ranked alongside Rome and Jerusalem in importance as a place of pilgrimage. It was visited by all of England's kings and queens, starting with Henry III in 1226, up to and including Henry the VIII, who visited twice, in 1486 as a prince and in1511 as king. Henry the VIII was the last reigning monarch to visit as 20 years later, the abbey fell to the reformation, and today lies in ruins.

The origins of Walsingham as a holy site are lost to us. The earliest account is found in The Foundation of the Chapel of Walsingham by Richard Pynson, printed in 1465, possibly published for sale to pilgrims. Also known as the Pynson Ballad, it gives an account in verse of the events leading up to the building of a replica of the house in Nazareth where the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary took place.

Of this chapcll se here the fundacyon,
Bylded the yere of Crystes incarnacyon,
A thousande complete syxty and one,
The tyme of sent Edward kyng of this region.

The ballad goes to on to relate how, in 1061, the lady of the manor, Richeldis de Faverches, had a series of visions of the Virgin Mary, in which she was taken to the Virgin's house in Nazareth, told to memorize its dimensions and build an exact replica in Walsingham. This she proceeded to do after having chosen a site "Where neyther moyster ne dewe myght be fowne."

But there is trouble with the building and Richeldis prays for further guidance. During the night her prayers are answered. She had obviously chosen the wrong spot, for in the morning the house is found completed, but moved some 200 yards from its original site. This fact is confirmed by the artisans when they turn up for work that morning. They go even further, and claim that the quality of workmanship is beyond their capabilities. Word of this miracle got around; supplicants began making pilgrimages and Walsinghams reputation and importance grew.

Many seke ben here cured by Our Ladyes myghte
Dede agayne reuyued, of this is no dought,
Lame made hole and blynde restored to syghte,
Maryners vexed with-tempest safe to porte brought
Defe, wounded and lunatyke that hyder haue sought
And also lepers here recouered haue be
By Oure Ladyes grace of their infyrmyte.

Walsingham AbbeyIn 1150, the Augustinian Canons built the Priory of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, St Mary's Priory for short, next to the Holy House. The increasing number of pilgrims during the 14th century led to the building of a large church, enclosing the original wooden house in a stone chapel known as the Novum Opus. The site of the Holy House was excavated in 1961 and can be seen today in the ruins of the priory. All that remains of the priory is the wall containing the magnificent east window, ruins of the west porch, refectory, crypt and pool with twin wells. Most of the original high walls surrounding the priory grounds are still intact.

The Franciscan Friars, under the patronage of Elizabeth de Burgh, Countess of Clare, established a small Friary on the edges of the village in 1347. The friary also fell victim to the reformation, and the extensive ruins are visible from the road today.

The village of Walsingham developed in response to the increasing importance of the site. Hostelries and inns were built to serve the needs of ever more pilgrims. By 1252, the village had been laid out to a rough grid, pretty much as it is today. It was granted a charter to hold a weekly market on Fridays and a fair to be held once a year. Walsingham became England's holiest shrine and was visited by pilgrims from all over the British Isles and Europe.

The tiny Slipper Chapel, today a Roman Catholic shrine and center of pilgrimage, was built one mile south of the village as the last pilgrim chapel before Walsingham, and was dedicated to St Catherine. It was traditional to complete the pilgrimage barefoot from here, the "Holy Mile", hence the name of the chapel. Today the tradition is maintained but in the opposite direction. Pilgrims arrive in Walsingham and from the Friday Market Place walk barefoot to the slipper chapel. The road is very narrow, being barely wide enough for a car, and slightly below the level of the fields. About half way to the slipper Chapel a farm track off the road leads to a bridge over a fast stream, the River Stiffkey, and makes a delightful picnic spot.

Walsingham Slipper Chapel

Another important stop on the route to Walsingham was the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham in King's Lynn, 23 miles to the north, which was refounded by Pope Leo XIII in 1897, the year pilgrimages to Walsingham started again.

Walsingham didn't escape the reformation that swept England in the early 16th century. Under Cromwell's direction, control of the church and religious practice in England was wrested from Rome and passed to the King, Henry VIII, who was declared head of the Church of England. In so doing he gained almost absolute control over all aspects of English life. Sweeping reforms were made in many aspects of religious practice, including the dissolution of the monasteries which had anyway lost their importance, and become less places of religious life than self-serving corporations. In 1537, after several uncertain and fateful years in which shrines and churches throughout England were desecrated, statues destroyed, and lesser religious houses closed, the Priory and Friary at Walsingham were also dissolved, their lands passing to the crown. This was despite Walsingham being one of the first religious houses to sign the Oath of Supremacy in 1534, recognizing Henry VIII's marriage to Anne Boleyn, and accepting Henry as head of the Church in England. The Prior of Walsingham received a pension of £100 a year, but the sub-prior, who refused to sign the oath, was executed.

Walsingham Abbey Packhorse BridgeOnce the instability resulting from the reformation and counter-reformation passed, pilgrims slowly returned to Walsingham, but in far fewer numbers, and the priory was never reopened. Amon those who visited were Queen Elizabeth I in 1578, and John Wesley who preached there in 1781.

Walsingham itself continued as a market town and legal center. Quarter sessions were held here until 1861 and petty sessions until 1971. From 1773 the court was held in the shirehall, formerly a hostelry, actually built into the priory walls and it was at this time that many of the buildings received their fine Georgian façades. Today the shirehall is the visitor center and museum. The court is still there so you can wander around and try out what it felt like to be the magistrate (or the defendant). The rest of the small museum is a display on Walsingham as a place of pilgrimage and as an agricultural community. It's open from the start of April until the end of October and on weekends the rest of the year. The museum is also the entrance to the priory ruins and grounds, now owned by the Lee-Warner family. When the shirehall is closed you can get to the priory through the estate office during normal business hours.

Walsingham Today

Walsingham Slipper Chapel FountainToday the streets are full of visitors, business is booming in the hostelries and B&Bs whilst shops again sell statues of Our Lady of Walsingham and bottles for filling with holy water. Once more Walsingham is England's national shrine and thousands of pilgrims visit every year.

The slipper chapel was rescued from being a cattle byre and barn and presented to the Catholic Church in 1896, and on the 20th of August 1897 the first pilgrimage to Walsingham since the reformation took place. The slipper chapel is one of England's smallest churches, and certainly one of the most atmospheric. Around it has been built a pilgrimage center featuring a large central fountain. Visitors splash water on themselves and fill bottles to take back home. The annual pilgrimage in September is made by thousands of faithful from across the country.

Back in town, across from the priory ruins, the Anglican Shrine of Our lady of Walsingham has been built. This is a large complex set in attractive and peaceful gardens complete with artificial caves supposed to be a copy of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. The large church here contains a replica of the Holy House in Nazareth and a large statue of Our Lady of Walsingham. This has been declared the National Shrine of England and also receives thousands of visitors every year. The natural spring in the basement of the church is open to the public on Fridays. At other times the holy water is provided in buckets for drinking here or taking away.

Looking in the shop windows the visitor is surprised to find statues of the Virgin Mary, St Sebastian and St Francis, whilst inside the walls are covered in displays of prayers and petitions. And I know of know of no other shop in England whose front window carries a display of chalices, crucifixes and tooled leather cases to take the holy sacraments to those in need.

Walsingham Shrine ShopThe priory is a peaceful garden dominated by the ruined east window of the church. The grounds are a delight to wander through. Entering from the museum the east window is directly in front and the site of the Holy House inside the 15th century Novum Opus is to your left, marked by a wooden cross. Beyond the ruins are woods and meadows with footpaths throughout. The river Stiffkey passes though the woods and a small humpbacked bridge called the Packhorse Bridge crosses the river. By following the path you will come out of the estate onto a small lane, Sunk Road, which leads back into the village passing the Parish church of St Mary's and All Saints. This is a large, airy 14th century building with one of the finest fonts in Norfolk, which largely escaped damage during the Reformation. And how many churches have a four-poster bed in the chancel?

At the beginning I said that Walsingham was approachable only by narrow twisty lanes. This isn't quite true, as there is another, rather special, way. Riding the world's longest 101/4 inch (ten and a quarter)narrow gauge steam railway. Trains run a scheduled service to and from Wells-next-the-Sea, a 20-minute bone-jarring ride, but a unique way to make a pilgrimage.

Getting There:

Walsingham is in north Norfolk about 27 miles from Norwich along the A1067, turn right at Fakenham and follow the signs. To take the North Norfolk Light Railway, head for Well-Next-The-Sea (yes it's on the coast) between Cromer and Hunstanton.

More Information:

Walsingham Official Website


The Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham

Francis Walsingham

John Seely is a freelance writer living in Thailand, who returns regularly to England. He writes regularly for local magazines and has also been published in International Living, Transitions Abroad and Gonomad. Samples of his work can be found at http://www.johnpseely.com/Travelarticles.htm.
Article and photos © 2006 John Seely


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