England's Nazareth: the shrine at Walsingham

by frankbeswick

The pre-Norman Marian shrine at Walsingham is a pilgrimage site for Catholics and Anglicans

Much was destroyed by the vandalism of the English Reformation, but the ruins remained and so did the folk memories of a time when England was Catholic. For years the shrine at Walsingham lay derelict, but in the nineteenth century in the Anglo-Catholic revival spurred by the Oxford Movement some traditional shrines and practices were restored. In particular, the Anglican church began to rediscover devotion to Mary. This led to the first efforts to revive the shrine once considered one of the holiest in Christendom, Walsingham.

Image of Mary, courtesy of Teotea, from Pixabay

The Ancient Shrine

Bitter, bittter, O to behold, 

The grass to grow

Where the walls of Walsingham

So stately did stand

From a poem attributed to St Philip Howard

The saint was lamenting the devastation wrought by the Reformation, perpetrated by the over-enthusiastic royal commissioner for Norfolk, Roger Townsend, who gained control of the Austin Friars' priory at Walsingham and stripped it bare, leaving it a ruin.

But what was the history of this much loved shrine? Differences exist between historians. In 1959 Dickenson challenged the traditional date of 1061, saying that the founder, Richeldis de Faverches lived in 1130, but there seem to be errors. Traditionally Richeldis lived at the time of Edward the Confessor, who died in 1066, and as she was said to be an Englishwoman this fits ill with her having a clearly Norman name. This to me seems a normanization of a Saxon personage, in keeping with the propensity of the  English establishment to belittle our Saxon forebears.She has been recast as a member of the ruling class of a later period and misidentified with the real Richeldis de Faverches who lived in the 1130s.

Historian Bill Flint restores the  traditional date of 1061. He notes that the shrine was established at the behest of  visionary, Edith the Fair. Only one woman in England had that title, Edith Swanneshals, which means Edith Swan Neck, wife of Earl Harold Godwinson, later to become the last Saxon king of England. She was lady of the manor of Walsingham, in Norfolk, in the 1060s,so she fits in well with this view of the history of the project. She is sometimes called Rychold, a name that means rich and fair, but this name was later Normanised to Richeldis [which means rich and fair]  by later writers, so I believe that this Saxon earl's wife was the visionary behind the establishment of the shrine. 

The story goes that in 1061 the pious Earl's wife, the Saxon term for a countess, had a series of three visions in which Mary appeared to her to ask her to construct a  replica of the holy house at Nazareth as a memorial to the incarnation. After some unsuccessful attempts to erect the structure where Rychold wanted it, the story goes that it was erected by angels overnight at a nearby spot! It seems likely that the builders were spinning her a story, but the simple wooden structure remained and became one of the four main shrines in Europe after Rome, Canterbury and Compostella. 

Later on there were more buildings erected. Wayside stations where pilgrims would stop on the way were constructed, and the Austin Friars and later the Franciscans, built priories where the friars would provide care for pilgrims, who went to Walsingham inspired by Mary's promise that whoever prays there will not go away empty handed.

By the sixteenth century all seemed to be going well, and people were oblivious to the storm on the horizon. 

Destruction and Rebirth

In 1538 the royal commissioners arrived to strip the shrine and priories of their possessions. Any golden ecclesiastical vessels were seized to be melted down, books thrown away and worst of all  the ancient wooden statue of Mary venerated since 1061 was taken to London to be burned. The priories lost their lands and the shrine fell into decay. The abbot responsible for the shrine, Blessed John Beche, abbot of Colchester, was in 1539 hanged, drawn and quartered for his faith. His pectoral cross is in the keeping of Lord Clifford of Chudleigh,but is on permanent loan to the Benedictines of Buckfast Abbey  until there comes the time when there is another abbot of Colchester. 

Said St Philip Howard

Owls do shriek where the sweetest hymns

Lately were sung

Toads and serpents have their dens

Where the palmers did throng

But Walsingham was not forgotten,for many hearts beat in harmony with the probably Catholic Shakespeare who in sonnet 73 spoke of "bare ruined quiers [choirs] where once the sweet birds sung." As Eamon Duffy points out in Saints, Sacrilege and Sedition Catholicism lingered on in what has been claimed to be a Protestant nation. 

But the nineteenth century brought relief to beleaguered Catholics. Firstly, in 1829 Catholics were emancipated and regained civil rights, followed in 1851 by the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy in the UK. In the same century the Oxford Movement reinvigorated Catholic traditions in the Church of England.Some members of the Church of England began to think about devotion to Mary, and the English church began to revive its monastic traditions. Catholic monasticism returned. The scene was being set  for a revival of shrines.

In 1896 Charlotte Pearson Boyd managed to purchase the ruined Slipper Chapel, one of the way stations on the pilgrim route a mile from Walsingham. It was named thus because it was where the pilgrims shed their shoes to walk the last mile barefoot.She set about restoring it for Catholic worship. In 1897 the shrine received papal approval, essential in Catholicism as a defence against religious malpractice. 

The Church of England got its own chapel when the Reverend Alfred Hope Patten became vicar of Walsingham in 1921. A devout Anglo-Catholic in the tradition of the Oxford Movement he quickly instituted devotions to Mary in his local church and in a short time had erected a statue of Mary there. His more Protestant superior, the Bishop of Norwich, objected, but this played into Hope Patten's hands, for it enabled him to begin a rebuilding of the Holy House of Nazareth, the first Church of England [Anglican] shrine since the Reformation, a task in which he was aided by the Society of Our Lady, who represent and promote Anglican devotion to Mary. He finished this task in 1938.

During World War 2 Walsingham area was a military preserve, but Catholic GIs sometimes used the shrine. 

There were two more developments. The Orthodox Church established its own shrine at Walsingham in the 1930s. In World War Two some Orthodox prisoners used the shrine for their services In the  1960s the Russian Orthodox church bought the disused railway station at Walsingham  from the   town council and converted it into the church of St Seraphim. The other development was that in 2015 Pope Francis promoted the shrine to the status of minor basilica. A basilica is an important church that is not a cathedral. 

The shrine takes many pilgrimages very year. As I write it is having a Caribbean pilgrimage. Individual diocese make their own pilgrimages at various times. The shrine has not exactly reached its previous status, for Lourdes and Fatima make claims on pilgrims' time but it is quietly growing in popularity.  


The Annunciation
The Annunciation

Pilgrims and Shrines

England was a land with shrines and pilgrimages. Its literature includes the works of Chaucer, whose literature centres centre around a pilgrimage to the shrine of Thomas a Becket at Canterbury.  These sacred institutions were popular because they catered for the emotional and spiritual needs of the faithful, which the Reformation did not do. The Christian populace was deprived of the art and the ritual that had sustained its emotional life, and it is fair to say that religious life in England has never really recovered from the vandalism that was wrought. 

But what is the value of shrines, surely you can worship God anywhere?. Shrines are cultural artefacts, works of art that embody religious traditions and like all religious art put a vision into a visual form. They embody values, give visual form to  articles of faith, give expression to devotion,  foster it in others,  and they uplift those who visit them.Visiting a shrine is therefore an emotional  and spiritual experience which edifies he visitor.

Wayside shrines disappeared at the Reformation, but there was something of a revival after World War 1 when bereaved folk, of whom there were many,  erected some short lived shrines in the aftermath to the war. Some fundamentalist Protestants protested that these shrines smacked of Catholicism, but after a mob of angry folk hurled bricks at anti-shrine protesters the protests ceased.

Opportunities for pilgrimage were very limited for British Catholics, but while the tradition of pilgrimage was preserved most people could only attend local shrines, but slowly the tradition of making a journey of the body and soul was rekindled.Eventually, the Anglo-Catholic tradition in the Church of England began to revive pilgrimage and through people like Hope Patten pilgrimage to shrines of Mary began its slow renewal.  The various churches have their own pilgrimages, but there is a shared friendship among the pilgrims, for Mary's peaceful spirit permeates the site.True, the Bible waving protesters arrive in small numbers to harangue the pilgrims, who ignore them, but protest is the spirit of the age.

Am I confident of the future for Walsingham. Yes, I am. While the shrine did not withstand the depredations of a vicious tyrant, love for Walsingham and Mary spurred its rebirth. Destruction could happen again, but so  would rebirth. The religious consciousness needs the sacred feminine, and Catholicism caters for this deep-rooted emotional and spiritual need by elevating Mary, the mother of God, to a position of high esteem. That shrines and pilgrimages have been revived shows that they have deep roots in religious hearts,minds and souls.


Saints, Sacrilege and Sedition, by Eamon Duffy. Bloomsbury 2012

Updated: 07/02/2019, frankbeswick
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Mira on 07/10/2019

Thank you, Frank!

frankbeswick on 07/08/2019

Theologians base their thinking on the original deposit of faith, so no vision subsequent to the time of the apostles has theological authority. Visions enlighten recipients to truths already known or implicit in the original message.

In a discussion held a few years ago the Anglicans and Catholics accepted that the taking of Elijah into heaven without dying provides a possible model for the assumption of Mary, but only a possible one. The traditions of the Palestinian church were that Mary died and was interred, but when the grave was opened the apostles found that the body was gone. This suggests that she underwent a resurrection, as Christ did.

Mira on 07/08/2019

I miss having Mary as a more prominent figure in our Orthodox Church. But we do celebrate her on August 15 (The Dormition of the Mother of God) and September 8 (Mary's Birth). Am reading now about theological disputes about the Assumption, whether she was reborn before assumption into heaven, or whether she didn't die at all. I wonder, do you know of instances where these disputes were resolved through things like visions. I'm asking because many churches were built this way (as you mention here in the article with Edith) but from the little I've read on Christianity and scholasticism it seems to be that theologians didn't accept many visions into their arguments.

frankbeswick on 07/01/2019

The churches continued as churches of the Church of England. , for example the church at Ushaw where they found the vestments. Other buildings either were left to decay, smashed to bits or plundered for stone. I think that the church treated the destruction as a fait accompli.

blackspanielgallery on 07/01/2019

One thing I am not clear on is that when Henry VIII seized Catholic buildings, many had cloister sections. Also, many were churches. To remove a cloister status, or to decommission a church requires the performance of ritual. Apparently there was no time, and no one, to perform de-cloistering or decommission of a church. Has the Catholic Church addressed this?

frankbeswick on 07/01/2019

Yes, walking back barefoot to retrieve footwear was the norm. Nothing taken from the slipper chapel was returned. It was a minor site compared with the holy house, so little or nothing of great value was kept there. Very little was recovered from the plundering of the monasteries. Some people returned stuff that they had taken for safe keeping, but after the failure of the rebellions against Henry much of that returned stuff was lost.

One interesting item is that still missing is the lost library of the Scottish abbey of Iona, which was sent for safekeeping to the island fortress of Cairn na Burg Mor, in the Western Isles, but nearly a hundred years later when the Cromwellians took the fortress, the library was missing. Cairn na Burg Mor means hill of the big town.

At Ushaw in North East England in the nineteenth century a set of jewelled Catholic vestments was found behind a false wall in the Anglican church, where it had been concealed after the failure of the Pilgrimage of Grace, the northern Catholic rising against Henry the Eighth. This church had been Catholic before the Reformation.

DerdriuMarriner on 07/01/2019

frankbeswick, Thank you for the back- and front-stories and product lines. Did pilgrims walk back barefoot to retrieve their footwear from the Slipper Chapel? Did the recovery of the Slipper Chapel inspire return of anything taken from it?

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