Walsingham: England's Marian shrine

by frankbeswick

Founded in Anglo-Saxon times it was ruined at the reformation, but now is reborn.

English Mediaeval Catholic culture was rich in shrines, religious art, pilgrimages and festivals. Some shrines were prominent across Christendom, attracting pilgrims from beyond England's borders. One such shrine was Walsingham, which attracted kings as pilgrims. But the reformation ended all that and the shrine with its attendant Abbey was allowed to decay into ruins. But in the nineteenth century a revival of Catholic culture took place, and the stage was set for the return of pilgrimage. Walsingham was reborn.

Photo courtesy of AdinaVoicu of Pixabay


In 1061, or more likely 1131,  Richeldis de Faverche, a woman  blessed with  faith and cash, had a vision of Our Lady. In this vision the Virgin Mary took her to the house in Nazareth where she had dwelt. with the Holy Family and enjoined her to build a replica in her native Norfolk, in eastern England. Having chosen a site the builders set to work, only for the edifice to collapse as it could not be sustained by the wet soils of Norfolk. They tried again  ,but failed. Richeldis spent the whole night praying and lo and behold next morning the house was erected on a different patch of ground. The builders said angels must have built it. Hmm, But the house was built. 

The site became popular, reaching the status of fourth most important Catholic shrine behind Jerusalem, Rome and Compostella. An Abbey was erected and various small chapels sprung up, one of which was the Slipper Chapel, where pilgrims took off their shoes so that they could walk the last mile to the shrine barefoot. There were some hostelries for pilgrims to stay while they completed their devotions  Walsingham was at the centre of a pilgrim network. There were set routes along which pilgrims walked, which would be policed by the local authorities to prevent robbery. Along this network there were hostels for pilgrims to stay overnight and find something to eat. The hostels were run by monks and/or nuns from local abbeys and convents. 

Kings and queens visited Walsingham. King John's son, Henry the Third, said to be a pious man, unlike his father, visited the shrine on several occasions, and so did the younger Henry the Eighth before he went rogue and destroyed the monasteries. At the centre of devotions was the shrine with an oaken statue of Mary, an image venerated across Christendom. If you  read my article on Wizzley, the mystery of the Langham Madonna, you will find that the image may have survived the reformation by being replaced by a substitute, which was ceremonially burned by the Protestant reformers and may now be in a museum.

But in the sixteenth century Walsingham fell to the Reformers, who stripped the shrine of valuables and desecrated the sacred images. Pilgrimage was forbidden as were Catholic devotions. A few years after this vandalism an old Catholic woman from Walsingham was punished by being put in the stocks for saying that the image of Mary still works miracles as it did in happier times. Had she let slip that the image still survived? We know not. But the buildings fell into ruin, some of the stones were reused as i materials. Walsingham was to all intents and purposes gone, except for a haloed folk memory in the Catholic community.  


But while Protestantism was imposed forcibly on the English nation, Catholicism lingered and there were always those who had a Catholic spirit. In the nineteenth century Catholics were emancipated and the hierarchy was restored in 1851. A slow process of rebuilding was beginning. The Oxford Movement was born to restore the Catholic traditions of the Church of England and spearheaded by Cardinal Newman, a convert from the Church of England, began to establish Catholic traditions in the country

Newman did not have a role in the restoration of Walsingham, that honour goes to Hope Patten, the vicar of the place, but he built on the work of Charlotte Boyd. Charlotte suffered tragedy, for she lost five siblings and both parents in a relatively short time, but the loss freed her for charitable works, her work being aided by a further inheritance from a very rich relative. She never married, but devoted her considerable wealth to aiding the poor, especially orphans, and restoring religious buildings fallen into disuse and disrepair. She tried to purchase the site of Walsingham Priory,but was refused, so she restored the Slipper Chapel and returned it to the Catholic Church In 1896, when it was renamed St Catherine of Alexandria, the patron saint of pilgrims.

But the bulk of the changes were made by Reverend Hope Patten, who in 1921 became vicar of Great and Little Walsingham and the adjoining village of Houghton, where the Slipper Chapel is located. A devout Anglo-Catholic and supporter of the Oxford Movement he soon began introducing Marian devotions into the parish worship and organizing pilgrimages from London. After this he had a statue made in imitation of the original statue of Mary which was still depicted on the parish's seal. The statue was placed in the parish church. This annoyed the Church of England bishop, his superior, who was not a fan of Marian devotions. Patten complied with his bishop and had the statue moved to the Slipper Chapel until a home could be found for it. But his aim was to include it in a replica of the Holy House that he was rebuilding. The house became a great success with pilgrims and in the 1930s was extended. It has now become the national Church of England shrine to Our Lady.

The devotions at Walsingham have gone from strength to strength and there are now Catholic, Church of England and Russian Orthodox churches in the village. Yet there is opposition as Protestants often attend pilgrimages to protest that honour to the Virgin Mary is blasphemy and idolatry. These tend to be a small  minority. They vocally protest at the processions and the use of religious images, but the protest is centred on their objection to prayers to saints and particularly Mary. There is in July an annual pilgrimage from Sri Lanka composed mainly of Catholic Tamils from Sri Lanka, for the cultus of Our Lady of Walsingham has become very popular in that country.


Walsingham Today

The shrine has developed something of an ecumenical character, as it is attracting pilgrims from a variety of traditions. Members of Protestant/Evangelical churches do not attend or visit, but traditions that value Mary are well represented. Non-Christians can visit and pray. 

The shrine has undergone development and it is a pleasant place to visit. Visitors can pay to enter the abbey gardens with their abundance of snowdrops that bloom in Spring. Paying is not exorbitant and serves to maintain the gardens, which are expensive to run. There are riverside walks that follow the banks of the small river that runs through the village. Walks like these are ideal locations for meditative prayer and reflection. Many pilgrims say the rosary while walking along the riverbanks 

The shrine includes an outdoor area for performing the stations of the cross. The stations consist of fourteen wooden crosses, each of which is composed of wood brought from a different area of Britain and each station marks one step in the account of the Way of the Cross trodden by Jesus on his way to crucifixion at Golgotha/Calvary. There is a fifteenth station to supplement the traditional fourteen which marks the resurrection of Jesus. The stations of the cross have an important role in devotions in Holy Week, the week leading up to Easter. 

The Slipper Chapel was in 2015 awarded the status of a minor basilica by Pope Francis. A basilica is an important church which is not a cathedral. St Peter's at the Vatican is a basilica, a major one, rather than a cathedral, as it is second to St John's at the Lateran, which is the Pope's official seat of authority and therefore his cathedral as bishop of Rome.. From a place for depositing shoes to a poor house for the impoverished, a forge and later, after the Reformation stables, it has come a long way. But we must remember, Christ was born in a stable at Bethlehem. 


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Updated: 11/14/2023, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick 14 days ago

Yes. It is a long journey, but an enjoyable trip.

DerdriuMarriner 14 days ago

The last sentence in the last paragraph of the second subheading, Restoration, indicates that "There is in July an annual pilgrimage from Sri Lanka composed mainly of Catholic Tamils from Sri Lanka, for the cultus of Our Lady of Walsingham has become very popular in that country."

Is the pilgrimage all the way from Sri Lanka to Walsingham?

frankbeswick 14 days ago

IIt is known, but not widely.

frankbeswick 14 days ago

IIt is known, but not widely.

DerdriuMarriner 15 days ago

Money perhaps had to have been left since Find a Grave includes Charlotte Pearson Boyd (March 21, 1837-April 3, 1906)!

Brian Edward Ventham -- perhaps as genealogist? perhaps as collateral-line relative? -- introduced her into the Find a Grave website Sep. 2, 2018.

Is it widely known that Charlotte Boyd, who died in London, was born in Macau?

The Boyd grave, as plot 3038, locates in St. Mary's Roman Catholic Cemetery, Kensal Green, London Borough of Brent, Greater London, England.

frankbeswick 15 days ago

I don't know if any money was left at her death, and I have no knowledge of her will. Certainly, a will is necessary for anyone with assets.

DerdriuMarriner 15 days ago

The second paragraph in the second subheading, Restoration, discusses Charlotte Boyd's altruism, humanitarianism and philanthropy.

Were there assets and money left by the time of her death? If so, would a will have ensured the altruistic, humanitarian, philanthropic continuance to her good works?

frankbeswick 15 days ago

Hope is nowadays very uncommon as a male name. IT's use goes back t,o the seventeenth century when people named their children after virtues..

DerdriuMarriner 16 days ago

Your second subheading, Restoration, focuses upon someone with an unexpected -- for me -- first name.

Is Hope common as a male first-name? On this, western-pond side I know of it as a feminine first-name!

frankbeswick 17 days ago

No. They came from all parts of the country.

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