The Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, by Father William Reany, DD

Our Lady of WalsinghamHail! Jesus’ Mother, blessed evermore,
Alone of women God-bearing and Virgin,
Others may offer to thee various gifts –
This man his gold, that man again his silver,
A third adorn thy shrine with precious stones:
For which some ask a guerdon of good health,
Some riches; others hope that by thy aid
They soon may bear a father’s honour’d name,
Or gain the years of Pylus’ reverend sage.
But the poor poet, for his well-meant song,
Bringing these verses only – all he has –
Asks in reward for his most humble gift
That greatest blessing, piety of heart,
And free remission of his many sins.1

In the days when England professed the Catholic Faith, she had three patron saints: Our Lady, Saint Peter, and Saint George. From the earliest times, Our Lady and Saint Peter were her chief patrons. As is well known, devotion to Mary, the Mother of our Divine Redeemer, is an essential part of Catholic Faith. There is only one God. There is only one Saviour. There is only one true Church. In like manner there is only one Mother of God. She is one and unrivalled; no creature can approach her incomparable dignity. Very fittingly therefore are the words of the Canticle of Canticles applied to her: “My perfect one is but one” (vi. 8). That devotion to the Mother of God flourished exceedingly in this land of ours in pre-Reformation days is a fact which cannot be gainsaid. In the early morning, the sound of the bell invited the faithful to the ” Marye Mass “; and as the day began so it ended with Mary’s praise. The glorious Lady-chapels of our ancient cathedrals and parish churches were the especial centres which the clients of Our Lady were wont to frequent. Here were her altars, and here, year in and year out, services were held in recognition of her supreme position in the order of creatures – save our Saviour’s Sacred Humanity.

“The world,” writes Lecky in his History of the Rise and Influence of the Spirit of Rationalism in Europe,2 “is governed by its ideals, and seldom or never has there been one which has exercised a more profound and, on the whole, a more salutary influence than the medimval conception of the Virgin. For the first time woman was elevated to her rightful position, and the sanctity of weakness was recognised as well as the sanctity of sorrow. No longer the slave or the toy of man, no longer associated only with ideas of degradation and of sensuality, woman rose in the person of the Virgin Mother into a new sphere, and became the object of a reverential homage of which antiquity had no conception. . . .

“The moral charm and beauty of female excellence was, for the first time, felt. A new type of character was called into being, a new kind of admiration was fostered. Into a harsh and ignorant and benighted age this ideal type infused a conception of gentleness and of purity unknown to the proudest generations of the past. In the pages of living tenderness which many a monkish writer has left in honour of his celestial patron; in the millions who, in many lands and in many ages, have sought, with no barren desire, to mould their characters into her image; in those holy maidens who, for the love of Mary, have separated themselves from all the glories and pleasures of the world, to seek, in fastings and vigils and humble charity, to render themselves worthy of her benediction; in the new sense of honour, in the chivalrous respect, in the softening of manners, in the refinement of tastes displayed in all the walks of Society – in these, and in many other ways, we detect its influence. All that was best in Europe clustered around it, and it is the origin of many of the purest elements of our civilisation.”

The Founding of Walsingham

Of the many famous sanctuaries which abounded in England and Scotland and which pilgrims of high and low degree were in the habit of frequenting, one of the most popular was the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, situated a few miles from the sea in the northern part of the county of Norfolk. Indeed,” Our Lady of Walsingham” may be said to have been a household word; while the road from London to Walsingham, via Waltham, Ware, Newmarket, Brandon, and Fakenham, by which the pilgrim travelled to Our Lady’s Shrine, was known as the Palmers’ Way and the Walsingham Greenway. It was about the year 1061 that Our Lady is said to have appeared to Richeldis de Faverches of the manor of Walsingham and instructed her to build a little sanctuary in a spot she would indicate in honour of the mystery of the Annunciation.3 At the same time, Our Lady is said to have shown Richeldis a model of the Holy House of Nazareth and to have intimated that her sanctuary at Walsingham should be made according to the same model and dimensions. Subsequently two wells suddenly emerged in one of her meadows, in consequence of which Richeldis began to build close by. Tradition says that unseen hands moved the foundations two hundred feet further west, and that angels helped to complete the wooden structure. It measured twenty-three feet and a half by twelve feet ten inches; and it contained a seated wooden figure of Our Lady, which, according to tradition, “miraculously appeared” in the completed shrine. Be this as it may, it was venerated by the faithful for nearly five hundred years. According to Erasmus, who visited the Shrine in 1511, the figure of Our Lady was of small proportions, remarkable neither for size, material, nor execution. “A small image is produced of no extraordinary size, material, or workmanship.” The chapel was pierced by two small doors, one on either side – the only means by which the shrine was lighted, save by the light of numerous lamps and candles, the offerings of the devout.

“It was probably on the above account that the extraordinary veneration and devotion became associated with the place”; for, says Harrod,4 “whatever uncertainty may still exist about the precise date of the construction of the chapel, there can be none as to its having been the great source of attraction which drew pilgrims from all parts, and made the Priory one of the richest in the world. Almost from the foundation of the Priory up to the Dissolution, there was an unceasing movement of pilgrims to and from Walsingham. . . . The image of the Virgin in the small chapel, ‘in all respects like to the Santa Casa at Nazareth, where the Virgin was saluted by the Angel Gabriel,’ was the original, and continued, to the Dissolution, the primary object of the pilgrim’s visit.” This, then, was the casket and the image of Our Lady, the jewel which attracted men’s attention to so great an extent that this shrine of Our Lady rivalled that of Loretto.

The Priory of Walsingham was founded during the episcopate of William, Bishop of Norwich, who occupied that see from the year 1146 to 1174. It originated with Sir Geoffrey de Faverches, the son of Richeldis, who, on his departure on pilgrimage for Jerusalem, granted to God and Saint Mary, and to Edwy his clerk, the chapel which his mother Richeldis had built at Walsingham, together with the church of All Saints in the same town, and certain portions of land, with the intention that Edwy should found therewith an order of religion.5 Robert Earl of Clare and Robert de Brucurt, in charters addressed to the Bishop of Norwich, gave additional lands for the support of the church, thereby confirming the foundation, and handed over the custody of the shrine to a Prior and the Canons Regular of Saint Augustine.6 In 1420, the Norman church was succeeded by a decorated minster; and between 1460 and 1480 a massive western tower was erected. The cloister was a square,7 each side of which measured fifty-four paces.

The Shrine of Kings

Soon after the foundation of the priory of Walsingham the journeys of pilgrims to and from the shrine began. The fame of the “English Nazareth” spread far and wide, the sanctuary of Our Lady of Walsingham taking its rank with the foremost shrines in Europe. To honour Mary, then, Englishmen of all classes and professions, as well as strangers from other countries, journeyed to Walsingham, which became the Shrine of Kings. In the year 1248, it was visited by Henry III; but the pilgrimage first attained its extraordinary popularity in the reign of Edward I. “It was known,” says Thomas Walsingham,8 “that he did abide under the protection of the God of heaven. For once, while he was a young man, he chanced to be playing at chess with a knight in a vaulted chamber, when suddenly, and without any occasion, he rose and went away; when lo! an immense stone, which would have crushed him if he had remained, fell at the very spot where he had been sitting. On account of this miracle, he very heartily honoured Our Blessed Lady of Walsingham, to whose favour he attributed his escape from this danger.” This event was the occasion of his first visit to Walsingham in 1280. The Feast of Our Lady’s Purification in 1296 found him again on pilgrimage to Walsingham,9 where,” en la chappelle de Notre Dame.” he swore “to perform and fulfil all matters and things contained in the instrument of alliance between him and the Earl of Flanders.”

Edward II went to Walsingham in 1315 and Isabella of France in 1332. Edward III, besides going himself to the shrine at Walsingham in 1361, granted in the same year out of his treasury the sum of £9 as a gift to John, Duke of Brittany, for his expenses in going on pilgrimage to Walsingham;10 and later in the same year to his nephew, the Duke of Anjou (one of the hostages of France), he gave licence to be absent for a month from London, for his health and disport,11 “towards Saint Thomas of Canterbury and Our Lady of Walsingham.” The same monarch, three years later, on 20 February 1363-4,12 sent letters to the wardens of the marches towards Scotland, directing them to give safe conduct to David Bruce, King of Scotland, to be accompanied by twenty knights, then intending pilgrimage to Walsingham. Henry VI in 1455 paid his devotion to Our Lady here. In May, 1469, Edward IV and his queen made a pilgrimage thither, as we read in a letter from James Hawte to Sir John Paston:13 “As for the King, as I understand, he departs to Walsingham upon Friday corn vii night, and the Queen also, if God send her health.”

Henry VII, having spent Christmas at Norwich in 1486, “from thence went in manner of pilgrimage to Walsingham, where he visited Our Ladies Church, famous for miracles, and made his prayers and vows for help and deliverance.” In the following summer, after the battle of Stoke, “he sent his banner to be offered to Our Lady of Walsingham, where before he had made his vows.”14 Again, in 1505, King Henry VII visited the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, on this occasion being accompanied by his son Henry, who was destined to succeed his father as Henry VIII. Here it is interesting to recall that King Henry VII directed that a kneeling figure of himself wrought in silver and gilt should be made and offered to Our Lady of Walsingham.

And now we come to the last royal pilgrim who tendered his devotion to the Immaculate Mother of God at her shrine at Walsingham. He was none other than King Henry VIII, who arrived on 19 January 1511, in all probability to return thanks for the birth of a son which had taken place on the previous New Year’s Day. According to Sir Henry Spelman,15 the king halted at Barsham, where he dismounted, and walked barefooted into Walsingham, in which place he prostrated with great reverence before the image of the Virgin Mother. He afterwards presented the image of Our Lady with an offering worthy of his kingly rank, a great and rich collar of balasrubies. In the May of the same year, as appears from a manuscript of payments by the Keeper of the Privy Seal signed by the King’s hand, the sum of 6s. 8d. was paid, to Mr. Garneys for the King’s offering. Finally, the well-known letter written by Queen Catherine of Aragon16 to King Henry VIII announcing the victory of Flodden Field over the Scots concludes by telling him that she was then on her way to Walsingham” and now goo to Our Lady at Walsingham that I promised soo long agoo to see.”

Desiderius Erasmus, the celebrated leader of the German humanists and author of Morice Encomium” – The Praise of Folly – made a pilgrimage, in fulfilment of a vow, to the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham in the year 1511. It was on this occasion that he left at the shrine as his offering the set of Greek verses translated at the head of this article. Thirteen years later he wrote his colloquy on pilgrimages, wherein he describes the churches of Walsingham Priory; namely the Priory Church and the wooden chapel of Our Lady around which “the new Work” of stone had been erected but not completed. The two wells to which he refers still exist. He tells us that Walsingham “is the most frequented place throughout all England “; that “the Church is well ordered and handsome “; and that, having first addressed Christ, he saluted Our Lady with the following prayer: “0 only of all women Mother and Virgin, most happy Mother, most pure Virgin! Now we impure visit thee pure, we salute thee, we worship thee with our poor offerings: may thy Son grant to us that, imitating thy most holy manners, we also may, by the grace of the Holy Ghost, be enabled spiritually to conceive the Lord Jesus in the inmost soul, and once conceived never to lose him. Amen.”

The Dissolution

But “the Holy Land of Norfolk” was destined to be made desolate. In 1534 the Act of Supremacy was passed by Parliament; and on September 18th of the same year Richard Vowell, the Prior, Edmund Warham, the Sub-Prior, and twenty canons of the Priory of Walsingham subscribed their acknowledgment of the Royal Supremacy. Then came the armed resistance to the royal policy known as the “Pilgrimage of Grace.” “The suppression of the abbeys,” says Cardinal Gasquet, “was felt to be a blow to religion – no less than a hardship to the poor, and a detriment to the country at large. The royal supremacy was looked upon as founded only on Henry’s whim and as a pretension without precedent in history, while the renunciation of papal authority was held to be subversive of the principle of unity in the Christian Church, and the first step towards diversity of doctrine and practice.”

The subsequent collapse of the second Northern Rising strengthened the power of the Crown and consequently rendered easier the prosecution of the royal policy in ecclesiastical affairs. “In April, 1537,” Cardinal Gasquet continues, “the popular discontent manifested itself in a serious way in Norfolk. Men met in the streets of Walsingham and ‘condemned the suppression of so many religious houses in which God was well served and many good deeds of charity done.’ Some thirty or forty men of the district were seized and tried. They were charged with saying that ‘if they could get any company they would make an insurrection as well as for the staying of the Abbeys putting down as for reformation of gentlemen for taking of farms.’ Their object was to take Lynn and to seize and fortify Thetford and Brandon bridges. A special commission sitting at Norwich Castle on May 22, 1537, tried and found them guilty. Amongst them were two Augustinian canons of Walsingham, Nicholas Myleham and Richard Vowell, a cleric of Walsingham, William Younger and others. The Augustinian canon Myleham was executed at Walsingham on Wednesday, May 30, 1537.

“Although no general seizure of the shrines of the saints was attempted by Henry till the year 1538, as early as May, 1537, the duke of Norfolk was directed to remove that of Saint John at Bridlington About the middle of the year 1538 general orders were apparently dispatched to the officers of various counties, directing them to repair to the several churches within the limits of their jurisdiction and effect the demolition of every noted shrine. Under cover of a pretended zeal against superstition, they were directed to take away ‘the shrine and bones with all the ornaments of the said shrine belonging and all other relics, silver, gold and all jewels belonging to the said shrine . . . and see them safely and surely conveyed unto our Tower of London.’ Further they were ordered ‘to see that both the shrine and the place where it was kept be destroyed even to the ground.'”

Walsingham was visited by the Commissioners of Thomas Cromwell, the King’s Vicar-General, the principal one being Sir Richard Southwell, the grandfather of Robert Southwell, the Jesuit Martyr-poet who was executed in 1596. Prior Vowell and five of the canons signed a deed on August 4th, 1538, handing over the monastery and its lands to the King. The deed of surrender is preserved in Westminster Abbey. The priory destroyed and the shrine dismantled, its site was sold by order of Henry VIII to Thomas Sidney for £90. In the general pillage there was taken away the venerated image of Our Lady of Walsingham, the central object of English devotion at that place for centuries, to be burnt at Chelsea. This seems to have occurred in the year 1538. Charles Wriothesley, in his Chronicle17 says that it was “in the moneth of July, the images of Our Lady of Wallsingham and Ipswich were brought up to London with all the jewelles that honge about them, at the Kinges commaundement, and divers other images, both in England and Wales, that were used for common pilgrimages, because the people should use noe more idolatrye unto them, and they were burnt at Chelsey by my Lord Privie Seale ” – Cromwell – to whom Halle18 the Chronicler gives the credit of the destruction. “In Septembre,” he says, “by the speciall mocion of the Lorde Cromewel al the notable Images unto the whiche were made any speciall Pilgrimages and Off erynges, were utterly taken away, as the Images of Walsyngham, Ypswiche, Worcester, the lady of Wilsdon, with many other.”

Of the venerable Priory of Walsingham only a few ruins remain above ground, notably the beautiful western gateway; but of the replica of the Holy House nothing remains. The Elizabethan ballad, “A Lament for Walsingham,” expresses something of what the people of Norfolk felt at the loss of their glorious shrine:

In the wrecks of Walsingham
Whom should I choose
But the Queen of Walsingham
To be guide to my muse?

Then, thou Prince of Walsingham,
Grant me to frame
Bitter plaints to rue thy wrong,
Bitter woe for thy name.

Bitter was it, O, to see
The silly sheep
Murder’d by the ravening wolves
While the shepherd did sleep.

Bitter was it, O, to view
The sacred vine,
Whilst the gardeners play’d all close,
Rooted up by the swine.

Bitter, bitter, O, to behold
The grass to grow
Where the walls of Walsingham
So stately did show.

Such were the worth of Walsingham
While she did stand;
Such are the wrecks as now do show
Of that so holy land.

Level, level with the ground
The towers do lie,
Which with their golden glittering tops
Pierced out to the sky.

Where were gates no gates are now, –
The ways unknown
Where the press of friars did pass
While her fame far was blown.

Owls do shriek where the sweetest hymns
Lately were sung;
Toads and serpents hold their dens
Where the palmers did throng.

Weep, weep, O Walsingham,
Whose days are nights –
Blessings turn’d to blasphemies,
Holy deeds to despites.

Sin is where our Lady sate;
Heaven turn’d is to hell;
Satan sits where our Lord did sway
Walsingham, O, farewell!19

As this paper began with lines by Erasmus in her honour it may well close with his prayer to Our Lady of Walsingham, which runs: “O Virgin Parent! who with thy maiden breast hast been thought worthy to give milk to Thy Son Jesus, the Lord of heaven and earth, we beseech thee, that, being purified by His blood, we also may attain to that happy childhood of dove-like simplicity, which, guiltless of malice, fraud, and deceit, earnestly desires the true milk of the Gospel, until it grows into the perfect man, to the stature of the fulness of Christ, whose happy communion thou enjoyest for ever, with the Father and Holy Ghost. Amen.”

– article from The Tablet, 18 August 1934

  1. When Erasmus made a pilgrimage from Cambridge to Walsingham in 1511, he left as his offering at Our Lady’s Shrine a set of Greek verses expressive of his piety. The original is to be found in a collection of his works made by Frobenius in fol. Basil, 1540, tom. V, p. 1109. The above English version is taken from Desiderius Erasmus; Pilgrimages to Saint Mary of Walsingham and Saint Thomas of Canterbury, translated by John Gough Nichols, F.S.A. Second Edition (London, 1875), pp. 101-2
  2. London, 1910, volume 1, chapter 3, page 78
  3. Richard Taylor, Index Monasticus, London, 1821, p. 26. An anonymous old English ballad, which was composed about 1460, is preserved in the Pepysian library and gives us the whole story. See The Archceological Journal, Vol. XIII, London, 1856, pp. 115-116, also Francis Blomefield’s Essay towards a topographical history of the County of Norfolk, continued by the Rev. Charles Parkin, A.M., Vol. IX, London, 1808, pp. 274-281, and William Camden’s Britannia, translated from the edition published by the author in MDCVII by Richard Gough, F.A. and R.S.S., London, 1789, Vol. II, pp. 112, 113.
  4. Henry Harrod, F.S.A., Gleanings among the Castles and Convents of Norfolk, Norwich, 1857, pages 157-8
  5. Dugdale’s Mona sticon Anglicanum, London, 1846, volume 6, part 1, page 71
  6. The Canons Regular of Saint Augustine followed a rule founded on the instructions of Saint Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, and approved at Rome by councils held by Popes Nicholas II and Alexander II. In England, in the sixteenth century, they possessed more than one hundred and seventy houses, two of which (Waltham Cross and Cirencester) were mitred Abbeys
  7. Itineraria Symonis Simeonis et Willelmi de Worcestre, Cantabrigiae, 1778, page 336
  8. Chronica Monasterii S. Albani. Thomae Walsingham quondam Monachi S. Albani, Historia Anglicana. Edited by Thomas Riley, M.A., London, 1863, volume I, A.D. 1272-1381, page 9
  9. T. Rymer, Foedera, Tomus II, pages 748-750. Dom H. Philibert Feasey, 0.S.B., Our Lad ye of Walsingham, Westonsuper-Mare, 1901, page 21
  10. T. Rymer, Foedera, Tomus VI, page 315
  11. T. Rymer, Foedera, Tomus VI, pages 324
  12. T. Rymer, Foedera, Tomus VI, pages 434-435
  13. The Paston Letters, A.D. 1422-1509, Edited by James Gairdner, London, 1904, volume 5, number 714
  14. Francis Bacon, Lord Verulam, The Reign of Henry VII, London, 1870, pages 285 and 287
  15. Sir Henry Spelman, Kt., Icenia: sive Norfolciae Descriptio Topographica, London, 1727, pages 149-150
  16. Henry Ellis, Original Letters, illustrative of English History, First Series, volume 1, London, 1824, page 89
  17. Charles Wriothesley, Windsor Herald, A Chronicle of England during the reigns of the Tudors from 1485 to 1559. Edited by William Douglas Hamilton, F.S.A. (Camden Society, London, 1875), volume 1, page 83
  18. Edward Halle, Hall’s Chronicle, collated with the editions of 1548 and 1550. Edited by Sir H. Ellis (London, 1809), page 826. John Speed confirms the presence of Cromwell at the burning. See John Speed, The Historie of Great Britaine, Third edition (London, 1632), page 1026
  19. The Ballad on Walsingham is in a small quarto volume in the Bodleian Library, apparently, says Mr. Chappell, in the handwriting of Philip, Earl of Arundel (eldest son of the Duke of Norfolk) who suffered in the reign of Elizabeth. The Ballad was published in the Gentleman’s Magazine, May, 1839. The modernised version given above is found in Rev. P1′. E. Bridgett’s Our Lady’s Dowry, pages 308-9