THE LAY OF WALSINGHAM
by Dominic de Souza
A quiet woodland dale in Norfolk harbours what used
to be the thriving mediaeval shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham.
Fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, kings and commoners
travelled to its holy soil in the spirit of pious pilgrimage. When
came the twelfth century of the Year of Our Lord, Walsingham was the
greatest shrine in the world in honour of Our Lady. It ranked among
the four greatest shrines at Jerusalem, Rome and Compostella.
At the time, the Seljuk Turks had seized control of
the Holy Lands by violence. Christians found it virtually impossible
to reach the hallowed places. Although the pilgrimage to Rome was
seen as the most beneficial, it was much safer and simpler for
royalty, nobles and ordinary folk to follow the `Walsingham Green
Way' and visit the national Shrine. Walsingham became so famous
throughout the lowly hovels and majestic castles of Merry England
that, according to the English Chronicler, Holinshead, practically
everyone visited the shrine at least once in their lives.
This tale begins in the eleventh century, five years
before William the Conqueror led his Norman conquest into England.
The Lord of the Manor and Earl of the Marches of Walsingham had just
died. He left his Saxon wife, Richeldis de Faverches, to care for
his son Geoffrey. Richeldis nurtured a deep faith in God and
devotion to the Blessed Virgin, and was well known for her good
works in care and generosity.
The `Walsingham Ballad', the earliest surviving
record of the Shrine's foundation (c. 1465), tells us how Our Lady
graced Richeldis with a vision in 1061 AD. The noblewoman was
spiritually transported to the town of Nazareth. With holy awe,
Richeldis beheld the dwelling where the great Mystery of the
Annunciation had taken place and where the holy family had lived for
nearly thirty years of Our Lord's life. Our Lady intimated that She
wished this holy house to be rebuilt in England:
"Do all this unto my special praise and
honour. And all who are distressed or in need, let them seek me
here in that little house you have made me in Walsingham. To all
that seek me there I will give my help. And there at Walsingham
in this little house shall be held in remembrance the great joy
of my salutation when Saint Gabriel told me that through
humility, I should become the Mother of the Son of God."
From this vision of Our Lady comes the enduring
devotion of the English to the Annunciation, 'the root of mankind's
At the spot where the vision was seen, a lively
spring gushed forth full of healing properties, thus dispelling any
doubts in Richeldis' mind. Instantly filled with zeal, she gathered
workers together and organized the materials according to the
specifications Our Lady had given. No attempt was made to follow the
Palestinian style of dwellings. The structure was designed as a
wooden, Saxon building of rectangular shape, with four small turrets
and a crowning central tower of wood.
According to the legend, Our Lady appeared to her
three times, each time confirming her request. But Richeldis was
faced with a dilemma: where to place it? Tradition tells us that one
morning her question was answered: she was alerted to a miracle in a
field close by. A heavy dew had fallen during the night. Nothing was
dry, except two roughly equal patches of grass the exact size of the
house. Richeldis chose the patch closer to a well, and the workers
went to work with a will.
By the end of the first day, they returned
dispirited and disappointed. No matter how hard they tried, the
walls of the Holy House refused to fit as they should. Nothing
worked. Richeldis was too troubled to sleep, and she spent all night
seeking heavenly guidance through a vigil of prayer.
During the night, strains of music entered her room.
Entranced, she followed the singing and found it led her to the
construction outside. To her delight and wonderment, she was just in
time to glimpse the sight of angels fleeing a small five-pointed
building. The Holy House had been completed to perfection.
In the morning, the incredulous masons and
carpenters agreed that it had been miraculously built. It was as
'solid as a rock' on its new foundations, for the angels had also
moved it two hundred feet away to the other patch of dry grass.
Skilled craftsmen were commissioned as swiftly as
possible to carve a statue of Our Lady. In the guise of mediaeval
statuary, Our Lady was enthroned on the Throne of Wisdom and crowned
as the Queen of Heaven and Earth. She herself was a throne for the
Christ-Child, Who was represented holding out the Gospels to the
world. Her right hand pointed to Him, and He extended His arm in a
double gesture of blessing and protection of His Mother. Each part
of the statue was rich in symbolism, such as the seven rings on the
throne standing for the Seven Sacraments, which Henry VIII defended
so gallantly centuries later, and the flowering lily-scepter which
she held in her right hand. It symbolised her Perpetual Virginity,
and, in the teachings of the Cistercian saint, Bernard of Clairvaux,
that She is the Flower of the Rod of Jesse.
Marvellous miracles, cures and answers to prayers
followed, all carefully recorded by the Augustinian monks and
Grey-Friars, who settled themselves in a Franciscan friary in the
village. Pilgrims came to the Shrine to pray and sprinkle themselves
with the holy waters.
Richeldis passed away in 1145, leaving the estates
to her son. But the Lord Geoffrey de Faverches burned with a desire
to take part in the Second Crusade and to see the true Holy House of
Nazareth for himself. He departed, leaving the Holy House and all
its grounds to his chaplain, Edwin. He instructed Edwin to establish
a religious order to care for the chapel of Our Lady.
Edwin brought in the Augustinian Canons who vastly
improved the condition of the shrine. Five years later, the canons
built a priory next to the Holy House and they stood side by side
for centuries, until the Shrine was encased in a stone building for
its own preservation. Soon it could be entered only by a door from
within the candle-lit church.
Devotion and popularity increased under the wealthy
patronage of royalty. Each king from Richard the First to Henry the
Seventh came to pay homage. Two hundred years later, the canons
erected a much larger priory, the ruins of which still can be seen
to this day.
A final pilgrim chapel was built along the
Walsingham Road in 1340, a full mile from the Shrine. It was called
the 'Slipper Chapel' and dedicated to St Catherine of Alexandria,
the patroness of pilgrims. Her tomb lies in the monastery on Mount
Sinai, within the Basilica of the Annunciation. Pilgrims would
remove their shoes at the chapel and walk the Holy Mile of
Walsingham barefoot. In this way, kings, nobles and ordinary folk
entered England's Nazareth to worship their heavenly King and Queen
together with their subjects.
In his earlier years as the Fidei Defensor,
Henry VIII frequently visited the Shrine. He made many trips to
plead with Our Lady for a male heir with his wife and queen,
Catherine of Aragon.
In Europe, wars and death brooded on the horizon as
the enemies of Christendom plotted its destruction. Martin Luther
rose in Germany as a 'reformer', slandering the Pope and condemning
all rights of hierarchy and order.
England was not to remain merry for long. In 1538,
twenty years after his last visit, Henry VIII saw to the
proclamation of his Oath of Supremacy, thereby tearing England from
the Holy See of Rome. The Protestant Revolution exploded on the
continent. Needing funds, Henry turned and crushed any opposition
from the monasteries and religious orders. Walsingham was one of the
first to capitulate to the king's commands, and the canons who
surrendered the Walsingham lands were awarded generous pensions.
Only two canons refused. They were promptly martyred.
But Henry and Cranmer were not satisfied. Accusing
the shrines of idolatry, the soldiers of the king pillaged the holy
places of England and Wales, carting the statues and sacred articles
back to London. In 1538, military divisions were sent into
Walsingham to destroy it. The canons and Grey-Friars tried to defend
the shrine, desperately pleading their immunity. All in vain. The
priory was torn down, the buildings ravaged. The monks and canons
who continued to resist were hung, drawn and quartered on a field
now known as Martyr's Field.
Bitter, bitter, O to behold
The grass to grow
Where the walls of Walsingham
So stately did show.
(The Wrecks of Walsingham,
attributed to Saint Philip Howard)
Together, Henry and Cranmer caused the gruesome
deaths of thousands of Catholics. The English revolution was forced
upon the people in a reign of terror, and as a result of Luther's
pervading influence, Marian devotion waned. The revolt mounted.
Catholicism fled underground in England, the possession of the
shrine passing discreetly from one family to another.
"The images of our Lady of Walsingham and Ipswich
were brought to London, with all the jewels that hung about them,
and diverse other images both in England and Wales, whereunto any
common pilgrimage was used, for avoiding ‘idolatry’, all of which
were (publicly) burned by Thomas Cromwell." John Stow, 1538 AD.
Christendom, gutted by confusion and heresy,
struggled to withstand its enemies of both soul and body. Catholics
held fast to the ineradicable promise of Christ whereby the gates of
hell would never prevail against the Church.
Weep, weep, O Walsingham
Whose days are nights,
Blessings turned to blasphemies,
Holy deeds to despites.
Sin is where Our Lady sat,
Heaven turned into hell,
Satan sits where Our Lord did sway,
Walsingham, oh farewell!
(The Walsingham Lament,
anonymous Elizabethan ballad
Henry died in 1547, bereft of
the smile of the Holy Lady of Walsingham whose guidance he had so
Nothing remained of the razed shrine. Picturesque
ruins blackened with age, wood softened and rotted. The Slipper
Chapel deteriorated into dusty disuse, and took on many roles over
the tumultuous centuries. It became a cow-shed, a forge, a
poor-house, a cottage.
But then, hope rekindled and Our Lady returned like
the Morning Star.
Just as the Shrine began with a wealthy woman, its
restoration also began with another wealthy woman, Charlotte Boyd.
In 1863, seventy eight years after the Act of Emancipation in
England, she took interest in the derelict wreck of the Slipper
Chapel and was able to persuade the Lee Warner family to sell all
they would give. She hired architects and masons from Cambridge to
rebuild the chapel, and in 1894, converted from Anglicanism to Roman
Catholicism, quickly afterward restoring it as a place of Roman
She appointed it as a place 'of prayer and
penitence for unity in England'. Before she died in 1906, she
donated it to the Benedictines of Downside abbey. They cared for it
until 1934, when it was given to the Diocese of Northampton.
The Anglicans did not remain far behind. In 1921,
Father (Alfred) Hope Patten ignited Anglican interest and was
inspired with the idea of making a new statue, based on the seal of
the medieval priory. Before his death, a new Holy House was built
and encased within a pilgrimage church, just as in times of old.
Charlotte Boyd's efforts were the catalysts that
re-established pilgrimages to Our Lady of Walsingham. Under the
approval of the Pope in 1934, the bishops of England and Wales
designated Walsingham as the National Shrine of Our Lady. Twenty
years later, the papal delegate, Archbishop O'Hara, crowned the new
statue of Our Lady before a crowd of tens of thousands.
Walsingham once again embraces thousands of pilgrims
who journey from the farthest reaches of the earth to pray at the
feet of Our Lady. The Shrine is full of memories of the olden days
when Richard II gave England to Her as Her dowry in Westminster,
1381 AD, days when reigning Christendom was once nourished by the
graces of the Queen of Heaven.
The final verse of Richard Pynson's Ballad of
Walsingham goes as follows:
Walsingham, 'in thee is built New Nazareth'
Where shall be held in a memorial
The great joy of my salutation,
First of my joys, their foundation and origin
Root of mankind's gracious redemption,
When Gabriel gave me this news:
To be a Mother through humility
And God's Son conceive in virginity.
O England, you have great cause to be glad
For you are compared to the Promised Land,
You are called in every realm and region
The Holy Land, Our Lady's Dowry.
In you is built new Nazareth,
A house to the honour of the Queen of Heaven
And Her most glorious Salutation
When Gabriel said at Old Nazareth,
Ave, this same joy shall here be daily and for
O gracious Lady, Glory of Jerusalem
Cypress of Zion and joy of Israel
Rose of Jericho and star of Bethlehem
O glorious Lady our asking not repel
In mercy all women ever thou dost excel
Therefore blessed Lady grant thou thy great
To all that thee devoutly visit this place.