Pilgrimage: The Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham and The Dowry of England

Now, following my two solitary hours at St Seraphim’s,  I am ready, I am, as some would say “in the zone”. Preparation is important.  I wander down to the rebuilt present day Shrine and enter another world. The original shrine, house and Priory was destroyed in 1538 on the orders of Henry V111 and for four hundred years organised pilgrimage to Walsingham ceased. The position of that original shrine and house is now bare grass in the ruins of the Abbey Gardens and I have photos of that to come in later posts. It is there, that the original medieval pilgrims visited. Religious intolerance destroys more than it can ever create, a lesson we should remember. But I have no doubt that for the ordinary folk, especially women, the shrine even though it could not be seen as publicly acknowledged any longer, was still held in love and prayer and this was handed down and thus remembered through the long barrenness.  The Love was held in the hearts and minds of the people.

In the 12th century  Walsingham was the greatest shrine in the world in honour of Our Lady. It ranked among the four greatest shrines at Jerusalem, Rome and Compostela. 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.

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.

Pilgrims often visited a number of shrines en route to a principal shrine. Pilgrimages to Walsingham might include Bromholm Priory to see a relic of the Holy Cross, a visit to the anchorite Mother Julian in Norwich or St William’s shrine in Norwich Cathedral, St Edmund’s Shrine at Bury St. Edmunds in Suffolk, or St Etheldreda’s shrine in Ely Cathedral. Some of these, I shall be covering in future posts.

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 Catholic devotion. 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.

In 1931 the present day Anglican Shrine was established by Father Alfred Hope Patten. Although it is a modern copy, many of its features would have been familiar to medieval pilgrims. Father Patten, although a member of the Church of England, was part of the Anglo-Catholic tradition. As such he believed that there was a continuity between the Pre-Reformation Church and the Church of England of his own day. He felt that there should be a return to the richness of worship, its ornamentation using colourful paintings and statues, the use of incense and most importantly in the honour given to the Virgin Mary and the Saints.

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.

Interestingly a major rebellion to Henry V111’s power came because of the ordinary people’s devotions and love for their humble shrines. Although many people did feel that the monasteries especially had become excessively wealthy and that many priests and religious were in fact leading lives that were far from the rules they had undertaken…it was the people’s small shrines that they really mourned the loss of. Their small intimate shrines, the places in their local landscapes that had been sacred to them from times even Pre-Christian, the streams, caves, woods, and Saints resting places, the little household carved statues, the dust they had gathered from around a Saints tomb. When all was destroyed, they felt that part of them had been destroyed too. “We want our shrines” they said, and Henry V111 dismissed them as superstitious, simple and idolatrous. Perhaps he would have done well to remember what the Canterbury monks had to say back in 1470. “Of all nations,” the monks alleged, “the English are the most attached to old habits and traditional devotions, and they will not be easily deprived of them without great uproar.” The memory of the shrine was not easy to eradicate. Sir Roger wrote to Cromwell in 1564 that a woman of nearby Wells, declared that a miracle had been done by the image of Our Lady after it had been carried away to London to be burned.

But Henry’s  coffers were now filling up nicely and the last thing he would tolerate was dissent. His Reformation had allowed him to seize church land and property (a great help in financing costly European wars and funding an extravagant lifestyle.) Under Henry VIII, England witnessed the wholesale destruction of beautiful monastic buildings and libraries.  Hundreds if not thousands of people were slaughtered at his command, to induce fear and quell rebellious thought that could lead to riots, and whole communities were wiped out, hung from trees, men, women, children alike. This country has seen religious warfare and slaughter as much as any other in its bitter history of the Catholic/Protestant arguments.

Henry V111 had visited Walsingham many times, he was devoted to it in the first part of his reign. He made several pilgrimages, including one on January 19th 1511 with his wife Catherine of Aragon to give thanks for the birth of a short-lived son Prince Henry on New Years Day at which time he walked barefoot to the Shrine.  Later he presented a ‘magnificent collar of fine rubies’ to be hung about the image of the Virgin Mary. From 1509 to 1538, he paid for a ‘king’s candle’ to be kept burning there, and twice annually gave 100 shillings to William Haly, the ‘king’s priest’, to recite a Mass on his behalf. He also paid for a priest to sing at the Shrine, and for the windows of the Lady Chapel to be richly glazed by Barnard Flower, the royal glazier. He walked barefoot to the Shrine on another occasion from East Barsham Manor, further than any other pilgrims. His wife Catherine was a great devotee to the Shrine as well, herself paying many solitary visits, and latterly whilst her husband was involved with Anne Boleyn, especially to plead with the Virgin Mary to grant her a living son [and thus also save her marriage and her husbands movement against Catholicism]. Is it possible that Catherine also brought her beloved daughter Princess Mary here as a child?

When you first enter the Anglican Shrine by its West door the first thing one sees is the blue and white altarpiece of the Annunciation. This is the first of 15 events in the lives of Jesus and Mary which are commemorated in the Mysteries of the Rosary. Each of the altars in the 15 shrines celebrates one of these Mysteries. Pilgrims start here to focus their minds on the moment that the Christian journey began. All 15 chapels are dedicated to a Saint and a mystery of the rosary. Saints are important because they were ordinary people who went through certain experiences on earth and understand our feelings. When we see the statue of St Therese of Lisieux, in the courtyard garden, who lost her mother as a child, we may get comfort when we ourselves are grieving.

The Shrine Entrance


The Altarpiece of the Annunciation


The Holy Well was discovered during the construction of the Shrine in 1931. Pilgrims receive holy water in a service called Sprinkling. The priest offers a sip to drink, marks the sign of the cross on the pilgrims forehead and pours some into their hands.

The Holy Well


The Outside of House of Nazareth with rows of votive candles


Inside the House of Nazareth [Stock Photo]

 Inside the House of Nazareth

 Here below is the main Church and Altar


The Chapel of St Anne

The 4th Mystery: Presentation in the Temple

Chapel of St Anne Presentation in the Temple

During pilgrimage season (Easter-October), services are held multiple times each day in the Anglican Shrine Church. In addition, every Saturday and Wednesday evening, the image of Our Lady of Walsingham is carried in procession around the gardens. Finally, on Sunday afternoons, the Procession of the Blessed Sacrament carries a monstrance with the consecrated host, accompanied by pilgrims singing the Lauda Sion hymn.

The Anglican National Pilgrimage to Walsingham is held on the last Monday of May each year. At 11 am, the High Street is closed to traffic and the Shrine Church is locked. At noon, a Mass is held  in the Abbey Grounds. Since 2004 this has been followed by a  lunch interval from 1-2:30 pm, during which it is traditional to have a picnic in the abbey gardens. At 2:30 pm there is a sermon in the Abbey Grounds, followed by a procession.

Catholic Shrines and Chapels at Walsingham

The Catholic National Pilgrimage begins at the Slipper Chapel in the village of Houghton St Giles, then proceeds along the scenic “Holy Mile” to the Catholic church in Little Walsingham. The Slipper Chapel, located about a mile south of Walsingham in Houghton St Giles, is the primary Catholic shrine at Walsingham. Built in the 14th century, it is the only surviving pilgrim station of many that once marked the pilgrimage route. Its unusual name derives from the pilgrims who would remove their shoes here to walk the rest of the way to Walsingham barefoot. The  church was restored and reconsecrated by the Roman Catholic Church in 1938.

Also in 1938, the Chapel of the Holy Ghost was added to the church to provide more room for pilgrims. The small chapel contains votive candles and a fine modern mosaic by Anna Wyner called Descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost – Our Lady in the Midst of the Apostles (1988).

Next to the Slipper Chapel is the modern Chapel of Reconciliation.

The main Catholic site in the village of Walsingham  is the Church of the Annunciation (a.k.a. New Parish Church), dedicated in 2007. Made of brick and stone, it has a round sanctuary and the latest technology in renewable energy.

Photos of Anglican Shrine Walsingham, Orthodox Chapel and village (C) Stephanie 2012


3 thoughts on “Pilgrimage: The Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham and The Dowry of England

  1. The whole experience of the realisation of the wholesale destruction really sank in this time for me, it was like entering a time slip and being there and feeling what it meant for the everyday ordinary folk. Those huge implications of the importance of the relationship between this shrine and its people. It is so easy to destroy, so hard to create something of lasting value. We would do well to remember that in todays world I think.

  2. Although I know the history of the Walsingham Shrine so well, your descriptions nearly brought me to tears.

Comments are closed.