The Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham
~The 11th Century English Shrine Restored in the 2O’ Century~
It was in 1061 that the first shrine dedicated to the honor of the holy house of Nazareth was built at Walsingham, England. For nearly a thousand years its Shrine has stood, in good days and in bad, in splendor and in ruins, to remind Christians of what took place in that holy house at Nazareth and to honor the Blessed Virgin Mary, the village girl who became the Mother of God. So closely was her name associated with this Norfolk village that she was, and is, called by the title of Our Lady of Walsingham.
The traditional story of Walsingham tells how Richeldis de Faverches, the lady of the manor, saw a vision of the Blessed Virgin. She was told to build a shrine in honor of the holy house at Nazareth, and to build it near a spring of water, which miraculously appeared. Many other stories were attached to the beginnings of the shrine by later generations, but the fact is that Richeldis built a small wooden shrine, and pilgrims started coming to Walsingham. People found that God and the things of God seemed very real to them here. They found that they prayed better and prayer was answered. They believed, too, that wonderful healings and blessings came to them when, with faith, they used waters of the well. It was a simple age, but we are told that God gives great blessings to the simple and the humble.
In the twelfth century, pilgrims began to come from further afield and also from the continent of Europe. Pilgrimage was very much in the air, with the thought of the Holy Land and the crusade to win it back very much in everyone’s minds. Everyone could not go to Palestine, and Walsingham, with its holy house, became known as England’s Nazareth. Men came here to make a spiritual pilgrimage to the place where the angel appeared to Blessed Mary. No longer was it only simple peasants who came. Richard Coeur de Lion was the first king to visit the Shrine. Edward I had a great devotion the Walsingham and came here many times and his successors followed in his footsteps along the Walsingham Way.
Meanwhile, the Augustinians had built a house and a great church. The Shrine was never inside their church, but close to it, and in later years Richeldis’s little wooden house was replaced by a new building of stone. The Shrine and the Priory attached to it became rich from the many gifts of pilgrims. Offerings of gold and silver were frequent; candles burnt as a continuous prayer for the kings of England and for many of their subjects. They loved to make bequests in their will for the upkeep of the Shrine, and many records tell of its splendor in those days.
The last king to come as an official pilgrim was Henry VIII. He walked barefoot, so it is said, from East Barsham Manor before making his devotions here. Later, when his marriage affairs became complicated and he wanted money, he was only too willing to seize the opportunity to destroy the Shrine and to uses its wealth for himself and his followers. The Shrine was destroyed in 1538, and the image of our Lady of Walsingham was taken to London and burnt at Chelsea. The Augustinian Priory and the Franciscan house were suppressed in 1539; those who were prepared to resist, including Nicholas Mileham, the sub-prior, were executed in a field on the edge of the village.
Gradually, all the great church buildings of Walsingham fell into ruin. A private house, now called the Abbey, was built on part of the site of the old Priory. Only the east wall of the Augustinians’ church remained, and even the exact site of the Shrine was forgotten. The parish church remained as a sign of the splendor that had been, and the little chapel of St. Catherine in the parish of Houghton (the Slipper Chapel), although used as a farm building, still stood to mark the last stage of Walsingham Way. We can feel something of the sorrow, which the faithful of those days felt, in the words of a poem written by Philip Howard:
Bitter, bitter of to behould
The grasse to growe
Where the walls of Walsingham
So stately did shewe.
For three and a half centuries it seemed that Walsingham, its Shrine and its pilgrims were a memory from the past. No doubt, as the Pilgrim Hymn says, “A thin stream of pilgrims still walked the old road”, but for most people there was nothing but some not too romantic ruins in an obscure part of England.
In 1897, interest in Walsingham began to revive. A small pilgrimage of Roman Catholic came here from King’s Lynn, and a Miss Charlotte Boyd bought the little chapel of St. Catherine with the intention of restoring it to religious use. In 1934 it was restored as a center for Roman Catholic pilgrimages.
In 1921, a new parish priest came to Walsingham, Alfred Hope Patten. He thought it was his calling to restore devotion to Blessed Mary in Walsingham and to bring back the pilgrims. In 1922, a statue of the Blessed Virgin was carved, based on the only remaining representation of the original statue. It shows Blessed Mary seated on a high-backed throne, with a simple crown, a lily as a scepter, and her Son sitting stiffly on her arm, his hand raised in blessing. How closely it represents the original statue nobody can tell, but it has now become the form associated with the devotion to the Mother of Christ, Our Lady of Walsingham. This was placed in the parish church and the spot where it stood is still marked by a small statue. Pilgrims started coming again, at first in small numbers. They were sure as their forefathers had been, that prayer offered here seemed to be answered in a very special way and the reputation of Walsingham spread once more.
In 1931, a new church was built to receive the statue. It was to be placed inside a new Holy House, built according to the measurements, so far as they were known, of the Öriginal. This is now the center of devotion in Walsingham, and to this little chapel on the 15th October, 1931, the statue of Our Lady of Walsingham was transferred, amid great rejoicing. Only the part of the Shrine church immediately around the Holy House was built — a line in the floor some two or three feet beyond the Holy House marks the extent of this first building. Seven years later, in 1938, the choir and nave to the church, with the chapels and sacristy, were added. Fr. Hope Patten, the restorer of the Shrine, died in 1958 and the cloister, which opens on to the garden on the left-hand side of the church, was built as a memorial.
When the church was built many fascinating discoveries were made. A group of cottages stood on the site, but digging the foundations revealed ancient remains, believed by experts to have been part of the original Shrine or its surrounding buildings. A cobbled courtyard was discovered, such as Erasmus had described, in front of the Shrine. A well of Saxon masonry, apparently deliberately filled up with rubbish dating from Tudor days, was also found, and not unreasonably those doing the work concluded that they had discovered the site of the original Shrine. Modern archaeological opinion seems to indicate that it was on the other side of the (modern) road, within the grounds of Walsingham Abbey. However, the present Shrine stands fairly close to the original, and the well is used in the blessing of pilgrims.
From small beginnings, the number of pilgrims has gown vastly. Every week-end from Easter until the end of October, organized pilgrimages are held. In addition to Mass and Communion, and other prayers and devotions, there is a torchlight procession each Saturday evening in the Shrine grounds. The greatest days are the Spring Bank Holiday when the National Pilgrimage takes place and thousands of people from all over England and Wales come, and the 15th of August. At the National Pilgrimage, there is a procession through the streets of the village, which are packed with pilgrims and visitors, making a magnificent scene. Many parties of Orthodox Christians – Greeks, Cypriots, Russians, Serbs and others, come in the course of the year, and pray or celebrate their liturgy in the Orthodox Chapel in the Shrine. They always take part too, in the National Pilgrimage.
Once a year, there is an ecumenical pilgrimage, with Christians of many allegiances— Anglican, Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Free Church, all united in their devotion to the Son of Mary who is the center of the Christian religion, in veneration for his Mother arid in gratitude for this holy place which has meant so much to English Christians through the centuries.
In the quiet season, retreats, conferences and courses of instruction are held and individual pilgrims and small parties come at all times. They come, too, from America, Australia, Africa — from all over the world, in fact, and statues of Our Lady of Walsingham are set up in parish churches, cathedrals, and homes all over the world. Christian people associate themselves with the devotion, which always goes on here, and with the faith, which built and restored the Shrine.
To visit Walsingham, to see its sights, to pray in its shrines and churches, is to take part in a great act of faith. It is to be reminded of the pilgrimage through time to eternity, through life and death to God, which we all make. lt is to see something of the power of prayer, for here countless pilgrims have been certain that their prayers have found an answer, It is to be reminded very vividly of the wonderful thing that happened in Mary’s house at Nazareth when THE WORD WAS MADE FLESH AND DWELT AMONG US.