Escape to The Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham


Finally the hour has come. I have made some cowardly feeble excuses as to why I need to leave before my 4 days is up and I am only doing 2 nights…after a chilly and miserable night spent during which I get little sleep and am awake by 4am. I spend the time in prayer and think of all the monks and nuns around the world who are also rising to pray the Hours, and feel in good company at least. The landlady insists I eat breakfast before I go, and I swallow each mouthful down under her watchful glaring eyes that are making me feel like this is my last meal, and that I am some kind of condemned prisoner.

An hour later as I am heading through landscapes as yet unexplored, I feel my spirits lift from that encounter and dare to even put on the car radio, now convinced I have made my escape from that oppressive house, but also know I go from the frying pan into the fire in some senses. I start to sing and the hours pass quickly. Norfolk approaches and I drive slowly through the flint villages and flat landscapes, so opposite to the landscapes I now live in with soaring mountains and blue seas all around me. Norfolk and I have a very complex relationship which is still uneasy and disruptive. It is the place of my ultimate rejection, the place of my crucifixion by all I called familiar and loved. Scotland on the other hand was the place I was led to by the Beloved for my resurrection, a few years later. I still have to travel to Norfolk regularly, but go with heavy heart, always feeling I am re-entering the trial, the boxing ring, the annihilation.  I am ill at ease with the place.

There is however one thing I want to achieve there. The Tudor era is a big area of my research and interest and my beloved Queen Catherine of Aragon asked that someone paid a visit to Our Lady of Walsingham to remember her to the Virgin. I wonder if anyone ever did. And I intend to do it just in case no-one ever got round to bothering. I know it is 476 years since her death…but these things matter to me, I feel strangely emotional at the moment.

Walsingham today seems remote, reached along slow country roads, tucked into an obscure fold in the Norfolk landscape, but once it was one of the foremost pilgrimage places in Europe before the Reformation. The founding of the priory in about 1135 stimulated the development of Walsingham which grew along with the increasing number of pilgrims. Every monarch of England from Henry 111 in 1226 to Henry V111 came. Then came the dissolution and destruction of the Priory and its shrine in 1538, followed by a period of abrupt decline, until the revival of modern pilgrimage emerged from what became known as the Oxford Movement in the Church of England, beginning in the 19th Century with the aim of restoring early church and pre-Reformation practise including pilgrimage.

The date usually given for the medieval shrine at Walsingham is 1061. The tale is told in a single copy of a ballad preserved in the Pepys Library at Magdalene College, Cambridge.  The writer is unknown, it is called the Pynson Ballad after its printer Richard Pynson published it in 1496. In 21 verses, the balladeer describes the building of the original shrine chapel in 1061, by a ‘noble wydowe’, Richaeldis de Faverche, as a replica of the Holy House of Nazareth, following instructions given to her in visions by the Virgin herself.

The Ballad does describe vividly the intensity of devotion towards the chapel and shrine, with its statue of Our Lady, relic of her milk, and healing waters. The statue of the Virgin seated with the Christ Child on her lap, and holding a stem of lily as a sceptre which is seen on the Priory Seal and pilgrim badges, is thought to have been from the mid 12th century.

Tradition has it that in 1061 Mary appeared in a vision to a noble Saxon noblewoman and took her in spirit to the house of Nazareth where the Angel Gabriel had asked her to become the Mother of Jesus. Mary asked Richeldis to build an exact replica of that house in Walsingham, saying, “all who seek me there will find succour“. This became known as the Holy House and pilgrims flocked to it.

Seal of Walsingham front and back views:

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The priory of Walsingham was founded by Geoffrey de Faverche in around 1153, as an Augustine priory, specifically to care for the chapel founded by his mother shortly beforehand.

I drive into the little town, that I have visited many times, and pull up in the centre. It feels good. My husband suggests on the phone that The Bull Inn looks rather good for a B&B and I can see its appeal right in front of me as I stand talking to him.

The Bull Inn, Walsingham

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Two women stand outside smoking and I approach them asking if they have room at the Inn. I am met with a warmth and welcome that confirms I am going to enjoy this. I book for 3 nights. The room at the Inn costs me slightly more than the medieval rate but at least nowadays I do have my own bed. In the fourteenth century a bed cost a penny a head, less than the price of a simple meal, but for that, one would share that bed with two or three others at least. Then as now, guests grumbled about ‘extortionate rates.’ Well, I am not grumbling. I consider my rates for this beautiful Inn very reasonable indeed.  The building fascinates me, an open fire in the main drinking room, a beautiful guests room upstairs with beautiful views over the square and its timbered buildings. It is old, so many hundreds of pilgrims must have stayed here over centuries. They are within the very fabric of the building and residue warmth and laughter remain.  Suddenly I relax, and know I am in the right place.

The Priory owned at least twenty of the pilgrim hostels in the town, today the village has just two remaining pubs with long histories. The Black Lion dates from around 1310 and is said to have been built to accommodate King Edward 111 who made many pilgrimages to Walsingham, and took its name from the coat of arms of his wife Phillipa of Hainault. The Bull, which is my chosen hostel is the other old one, in the central position in the village facing the Common Place and adjoins the Abbey Grounds. It dates from the 1400’s and possibly earlier.

Guests Dining Room Upstairs

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View from Dining Room Window

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Artwork On Walls Of Dining Room

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The Old Walls of Room

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I need this break, I need all Walsingham will bring me. Its going to be a good trip. The sign outside the Inn offers a welcome to all the pilgrims arriving this weekend, and after a bath and sleep, I go down to wander around and feel excited at the prospect of meeting others who like me are pilgrims through time and space, coming together at this beautiful sacred little place. Little do I know at this point that in a few hours time as evening gets going I am about to really experience the joy of pilgrimage, my own experience of The Canterbury Tales.

Welcome Pilgrims

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Photos (C) Stephanie

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3 thoughts on “Escape to The Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham

  1. Not right now…you can relax! I am actually now describing my pilgrimage a year ago. The Bull was absolutely fabulous by the way.

    • I’m still envious you stayed in The Bull. It’s one of my favourite pubs ever. What was best one year was that we were there at the same time as the Guardians of the Shrine were meeting, and the sign outside The Bull had listed “City of Chester Pilgrimage” above “The Guardians”. We were slightly amused – probably because Nelly knows who’ll actually go and drink in his pub!

  2. You’re actually staying in The Bull? I may just now be turning an interesting shade of green! I hope the trip is everything a Pilgrimage to Walsingham ought to be. Xxx

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