The Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, England’s Nazareth (24th September)

Our Lady of Walsingham

An ancient and little-known English shrine dedicated to Our Lady is that of Our Lady of Walsingham. The first account of this shrine appears in a ballad published by Richard Pynson in the late 1400’s. The story goes that in the year 1061, during the reign of St. Edward the Confessor, Our Lady appeared in a dream to Richeldis de Faverches, a wealthy young widow in the area of Norfolk , northeast of London and near the North Sea . Richeldis had prayed for guidance in her desire to honour Our Lady in some special way, and she saw the dream as the answer to her prayer. Our Blessed Lady took her in spirit to Nazareth and told her to build a replica of the Holy House in Walsingham as a memorial to the Annunciation and, thus, the Incarnation, so that “all who beseech her help shall find succour there”.

Richeldis was obviously given the dimensions of the Holy House by Our Lady. Her dilemma was where to put it on her property. She prayed for guidance, and the next morning found two areas of dry ground, the exact dimensions of the Holy House. She chose the one closest to two wells and work commenced. Try as they might, the workmen could not get the wooden walls of the little Holy House to fit. Again, Richeldis prayed for guidance. The next morning she awoke to find the house miraculously moved to the second site — some two hundred feet away — and much more soundly built than any of the local workmen could have managed! Pynson’s ballad claims many miracles “too numerous to mention” to all the faithful who visited the Holy House.

In 1145, Richeldis’ son, Geoffrey de Faverches, was preparing to go on the second Crusade. Before doing so, he willed the Holy House and grounds, along with the parish Church of All Saints, to his chaplain, Edwin. The Augustinian Cannons were brought in by Edwin to help conduct the affairs of the shrine. It is believed that by the time the Augustinains took over, Walsingham had become a popular place of pilgrimage with the English faithful. About 1150 the Cannons build a priory and ministered to the local population as well as to visiting pilgrims. The shrine obviously increased in popularity because we know that two hundred years later, they erected a much larger priory. It must have been a very impressive complex, being 250 feet in length, eighty feet in width and made of stone brought in by sea from another part of England . The central tower had four gilded spires. In addition to the Priory church, there was a small chapel to St. Laurence, in which was kept a relic of St. Peter’s finger. This latter fascinating fact we know from — of all people — Erasmus, who came to Walsingham on pilgrimage in 1514. Erasmus was so impressed with the shrine that he composed a pilgrim’s prayer which is still in use today.

Because of the increasing numbers of pilgrims to the shrine, in the mid-fourteenth century the Chapel of Our Lady was erected to encase and protect the original Holy House. At the time, it was referred to as the “Novum Opus” or “New Work”. About the same time a statue of Our Lady was introduced into the Holy House next to the altar. What the appearance of this image of Our Lady of Walsingham was we can only guess. Erasmus referred to it as a “little image, remarkable neither for size, material or execution” … “in the dark at the right side of the altar.” Prior John Snoring was responsible for this expenditure of funds, which got him in trouble with the other canons for spending too much money. He was dismissed for this reason. It is sad today that the only part of the Priory remaining is the magnificent East Window; so whether the good Prior overspent or not, we must thank him for giving us this hint of the magnificence of the destroyed shrine. The fate of the Holy House, the relics and the statue we shall discover shortly.

As pilgrim shrines gained in importance, it was common for smaller chapels, shrines and stone crosses to mark the pilgrims’ way to their goal. Of course, the faithful came on foot, their journey lasting many months, sometimes years; so these markers encouraged them to continue on their way. So was built the Slipper Chapel in the mid to late 1300’s. This lovely little Gothic-style (also called “perpendicular”) chapel is just a little larger than dimensions of the Holy House — 28’6” x 12’5”. It marks the last stop on the way to Walsingham being exactly one mile from the priory. Most historians believe that it is called the Slipper Chapel from the habit of the pilgrims removing their shoes at this stop and walking the last mile barefoot. It could also come from the Old English word “slype” meaning “something in between” as it was between Walsingham and the outside world. The Slipper Chapel is dedicated to St. Catherine of Alexandria , patroness of pilgrims. Interestingly, the chapel was oriented so that on her feast day, November 25th, the sun rises directly behind the altar. Another interesting fact is that there is a chapel of St. Catherine one mile outside Nazareth which was maintained by the Knights of St. Catherine. No wonder Walsingham is called “England ’s Nazareth ”!

In the year 1226 news of the miraculous happenings at Walsingham reached royal ears in London, Henry III visited the shrine and granted the Canons the right to hold a weekly market and an annual fair. This Henry visited Walsingham thirteen times, and became a patron, giving many valuable gifts over the years including a gold crown for the image of Our Lady in the Chapel. The village of Walsingham grew around the success of the shrine as hostelries, eating houses and other business establishments catering to visitors sprang up. Indeed, the population of the village was at its height during the heyday of the medieval pilgrimages. A second religious order, the Franciscans, was given permission by Pope and King to erect a friary nearby in 1347, adding to the religious atmosphere of the little town.

Several English kings were devotees of the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. Henry III’s son, Edward I, credited Our Lady with saving his life as a youth. He was playing chess in a vaulted room, when for no apparent reason, he felt the urge to get up from his seat. Seconds later a large stone fell from the roof and landed on the very spot where he had been sitting. Henry VII was a patron and credited Our Lady with his victory in the Battle of Stoke in 1487. We may be astounded to learn that Henry VIII made a pilgrimage to the shrine in 1511 to give thanks for the birth of a son, Prince Henry. He gave several valuable gifts and when he noticed that the windows of Our Lady’s Chapel were unglazed, he gave the money needed to complete that work. There was no hint at this happy time of the impending disaster.

Henry VIII abandoned the Catholic Church to set up his own Anglican Church with himself at the helm, an act that in subsequent years under the Protestant reformers, unleashed a tsunami of destruction of all symbols of Catholicism in the so-called English Reformation.

This beautiful ancient Catholic shrine was desecrated, destroyed and lay dormant for centuries awaiting happier less bigoted times when it would be rebuilt once again.  St Philip Howard, a Catholic, ended his life in 1595 in the Tower of London, a martyr for his Faith. It is he who is believed to be the author of the Walsingham Lament , based on the experience of his visit to the ruined priory years before. Here are the final two verses of this eleven verse lament:

Weep, weep, O Walsingham
whose days are nights,
blessings turned to blasphemies,
Holy deeds to despites.
Sin is where Our Lady sat,
Heaven turned is to hell,
Satan sits where Our Lord did sway,
Walsingham, oh farewell!

Nowadays, centuries later and after the rebuilding of the holy shrine, both Catholics and Anglican Protestants pay homage here to the Mother of God in England’s own Little Nazareth.


[This is an adapted account of the Our Lady of Walsingham shrine from THIS source. For the full story of the destruction of Walsingham and its rebuilding, read on from Storm Clouds Gather..]

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