This flinty, far-flung village of half-timbered medieval cottages, five miles from the north Norfolk coast, holds the power to astonish in ways unlike any other sacred place in Britain. Over the centuries leading to the Reformation, the shrine at Walsingham was on a par with that of Thomas Becket at Canterbury. For this was the greatest Marian shrine in medieval Christendom, the Lourdes of its time. Millions made pilgrimages to ‘England’s Nazareth’ for the miracles that took place at the ‘Holy House’, a replica of the house at Nazareth where the archangel Gabriel announced to the Virgin Mary that she had conceived.
‘When you look in you would say it is the abode of saints, so brilliantly does it shine on all sides with gems, gold and silver’
noted the Dutch Renaissance scholar and writer Desiderius Erasmus after his visit in 1513. Little was Erasmus to know that Henry VIII’s Dissolution was round the corner, and that within 25 years the shrine would be desecrated and Walsingham abandoned as a place of pilgrimage. The truly astonishing chapter in this story, however, was still to come. I refer to the 20th-century regeneration of Walsingham as a sacred place with the magnetism to attract pilgrims in huge numbers. Yet, as a place of pilgrimage it bears painful scars from the violation that took place in 1538. I am not referring to the solitary arch, which is just about all that remains of the great priory which grew up around the medieval shrine. I mean the fact that today there are two Shrines of Our Lady of Walsingham in the town. One is Anglican, the other Roman Catholic.
Pilgrim crosses at the Slipper Chapel in Walsingham © Helena Wilding
The story starts in 1061 with the Lady of the Manor of Little Walsingham, Richeldis de Faverches, praying that she might undertake some special work in honour of the Virgin Mary. The prayer was answered through Mary appearing to her in a vision. Richeldis was whisked away in spirit to Nazareth, shown the house where the Annunciation occurred, and commanded to build its precise replica in her home village, to serve as a perpetual memorial of the miracle of Mary’s conception. The vision was repeated twice more, lest any detail of the house should escape her memory.
Taking craftsmen with her, Richeldis set about looking for a place to carry out the Virgin’s command and observed, in a meadow just outside the village, a rectangle next to a spring where the dew had left dry a rectangular space. As instructed, she had the replica built. William of Worcester, on pilgrimage some centuries later, recorded it as being ‘7 yards 30 inches long and 4 yards 10 inches wide’.
Snippets of precision such as this aside, historical facts about the intervening centuries are sketchy. However, it is known that after Richeldis’s time the ‘Holy House’ came into the care of the Augustinian Canons, a monastic order who were given papal approval to build a priory on the site. Walsingham’s reputation was mushrooming, with bountiful offerings left before the Virgin’s image and numerous miraculous healings and other works of wonder attributed to her. The shrine’s allure gained a further fillip with the gift, from a crusader back from the Holy Land, of a phial of ‘Mary’s milk’ – in fact, quite likely it was a solution of chalk dust from the floor of a Bethlehem grotto known as the ‘Cave of Our Lady’s Milk’.
Medieval pilgrims came from across Europe to ‘England’s Nazareth’, while the country as a whole became known as the ‘Dowry of Mary’ when Richard II ‘presented’ his Kingdom to her in thanksgiving for the grace she had bestowed on Walsingham. The Milky Way became known as ‘The Walsingham Way’; in addition to the obvious association with Mary’s motherhood, it is easy to picture the starry road of our galaxy guiding pilgrims on their way. Less predictably, the favour of the Virgin was also particularly sought by lovers. In an early, anonymous ballad consisting of questions and answers, a love-struck pilgrim plaintively appeals to the Virgin:
As you came from the holy land of Walsingham, met you with my true love by the way you came?
To which the Virgin replies assuringly:
Such a one did I meet, good sir, with angel-like face; who like a queen did appear in her gait, in her grace.
Kings and queens also made the pilgrimage. In fact, every monarch from Henry III (in 1226) visited the shrine, many of them several times during their reigns. The prize for persistent pilgrimage probably goes to Edward I who is recorded as having come at least 12 times. Henry VIII, the last English monarch seen in Walsingham, was a particular devotee having prayed here for the health of his infant son Prince Henry, by his first wife Catherine of Aragon. How differently the history of England might have turned out had this prayer been answered.
After Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn, Walsingham Priory was one of the first religious houses to sign the Oath of Supremacy recognising Henry as the head of the church. Dissenters, including sub-Prior Nicholas Mileham were hung, drawn and quartered. The king’s commissioners sacked the priory church and smashed the ‘Holy House’ to smithereens. The wooden image of the Virgin Mary was taken to Chelsea and ceremonially burned along with other statues, in the presence of Thomas Cromwell, the king’s chief minister. However, despite the desecration and closure of the shrine, belief in the sacredness of ‘England’s Nazareth’ was never completely stamped out. Not quite. A trickle of pilgrims still made their way to Walsingham, including Elizabeth I in 1578; and John Wesley who came in 1781 to preach in the Methodist chapel and surprised many in his congregation by lamenting the shrine’s destruction.
But by the end of the 19th century it would have been hard to make out even the faintest embers still glowing of the flames which had once lit up one of the greatest shrines in Christendom. This is why it is so remarkable that – on the eve of a century that was to witness a dramatic decline in religious observance and the corresponding rise of secularism – Walsingham was on the cusp of an extraordinary revival as a place of pilgrimage. The rebirth was to take the form of a pair of parallel impulses, fuelled by adherents of the Roman Catholic Church on the one hand, and the Anglican on the other. The consequence is that today Our Lady has two shines dedicated to her in Walsingham.
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