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Walsingham Retreat

Walsingham: England’s own Marian shrine - an introduction
Matt Betts

Throughout many centuries of existence – either at the height of its power in the fourteenth century or today as a modern pilgrimage site – Walsingham is undoubtedly the pre-eminent shrine to Our Lady in England. The shrine was originally founded in the eleventh or twelfth century and continued in great strength until the dissolution of the monasteries in the sixteenth century by Henry VIII. Over the next few centuries, the shrine was left in a desperate situation of bad repair, but continued to interest many visitors, like John Wesley who wrote, “I walked over what is left of the famous Abbey….had there been a grain of virtue or public spirit in Henry VIII, these noble buildings need not have run to ruin.” However, there was a good resurgence of interest in the eighteenth century, allowing the shrine to become the present day shrine it is now, rather than an archaeological wonder, to many Christians. How did this all begin?

Going on pilgrimage is an important tradition in our Christian faith and dates back to the early church, when Christians visited Jerusalem and Rome. However, these journeys would always entail extreme danger and pilgrims would look closer to home and in England, Walsingham became one of the main places of pilgrimage.

In around 1061, during the reign of Edward the Confessor, the Lady of the Manor, Richeldis de Faverches had a series of dreams where Our Lady would visit her. In the dreams, Our Lady showed her the house in Nazareth, where the Annunciation took place and instructed Richeldis to build a replica of the Holy House at Walsingham, so that “all beseech her help and shall find succor there”. Most historians are unsure about the foundation date, but by the middle of the twelfth century we have our first written evidence with her son, Geoffrey de Faverches.

Geoffrey was about to go on a second crusade and in case he didn’t return, created a charter “granting to God and St Mary and to Edwin, his chaplain, in perpetuity The Chapel which my mother has founded in Walsingham in honour of Mary…together with possession of the Church of All Saints of the same village….to come into the possession of Edwin on the day for which I leave for Jerusalem.” Edwin later invited the Augustian Canons to look after the shrine and they started serving the pilgrims from 1169.

The shrine continued to flourish over the next few centuries and a number of miracles were attributed to the Shrine. One of the earliest miracles was connected to King Edward I who believed that Our Lady of Walsingham had protected him as a young man from being crushed by a large stone. He visited Walsingham twelve times in gratitude. Many other kings visited the shrine too, including Edward II, Edward III, Henry VI, and Henry VII. When Erasmus visited Walsingham in the sixteenth century, he described it as “graceful and elegant” and described the statue as “a small image, neither excelling in material or workmanship, but in virtue most effacious”. He added, “at the feet of the Virgin is a jewel [which symbolises] all filthiness, malice, pride, avarice, and whatever belongs to human passions.” These excesses were subdued under the statue’s foot.

However, the praise and devotion was cut off completely for many centuries with the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII who destroyed the shrine completely in 1537.

However, all was not lost, as interest in the ancient shrine continued unabated throughout the following centuries. An old saying stated that, “When England returns to Walsingham, Our Lady will come back to England”. This was not long in arriving.

In the early 20th century, as a result of the initiative of the Anglican parish priest of Walsingham, Father Alfred Hope Patten, the Anglican Marian shrine was re-established. The Catholic shrine was also founded at this time thanks to Miss Charlotte Boyd (1837 - 1906). During the nineteenth century, the famous Oxford movement believed that a restoration of religious life was imperative to help contribute to the revival of the Catholic faith in England. Boyd shared this view and was to work unstintingly for re-union between the Anglican communities and Rome. However, her largest success was re-introducing the Catholic shrine back to Walsingham at the Slipper Chapel. The Slipper Chapel had been the ancient Chapel of St Catherine’s, which used to be a stopping place for pilgrims on their way to Walsingham, With the help of the Bishop of Northampton, the Catholic Shrine was refounded.

The shrine is now once again safely returned to the heart of England’s Christian faith and continues to welcome pilgrims from all over the UK.


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