The destruction of the Priory and Shrine at Walsingham was repeated throughout the land. 800 monasteries, priories and abbeys were present before the destruction, very few survived. Monasteries and shrines were torn down, burnt, the relics and works of art and any valuables carefully looted by the cartloads and transported to Henry V111’s treasure stores-well most of them anyway. Some were removed in advance and hidden, a very dangerous act, punishable by instant death if discovered…and I have no doubt people being what people are, a few got ‘relocated’ along the way by opportunists.
It is difficult for the modern mind to comprehend what this national attack did to the average English psyche. There was little joy in most people’s lives, life was routine, often dreary and filled with constant work and rules. The promise of a better life to come was a deep source of comfort, even the notion of freedom was unattainable in this life for most; but in heaven…they would be treated with justice, equality and freedom. Just as many hang on today to the hope that the future will be better, so they did then. In those dark years in England, all hope was extinguished. Every church was raided, every statue destroyed or taken away, vast monastic buildings were torn down to rubble, glass smashed and scattered, the monks either killed, burnt or sent fleeing out into the countryside and life as the ordinary people knew it changed forever. In some cases, the local people were forced into taking part in the destruction themselves…to show they were ‘in agreement with the King’…on pain of death if they did not.
The monasteries had become rich and some of them had become corrupted. Certainly not all was perfect, anymore than any system is nowadays. But, they also played a pivotal role within communities, providing work for local people, buying provisions and goods from local traders. They also provided the only type of medicinal care that was available and education. They would feed the poor who would otherwise have starved, and they fed them spiritually, lighting their hope. Their buildings provided the only beauty that many common folk would see, and confirmation of salvation in the world hereafter. The priests and monks cared for the parishioners bodies and souls.
Although the visible signs of religious life were being torn apart, faith and memory resided safe within for some, and this ballad shows that for all the fear induced, not all faith could be extinguished. Entitled ‘A Lament for Our Lady’s Shrine at Walsingham’ it was written in about 1600 and is by an anonymous writer.
Unusually, for a ballad, it begins with the classical gesture of evoking the Muse, in this case, of course, the Virgin Mary herself. The next quatrain calls on an unexpected addressee. The “Prince of Walsingham” is presumably the King. The mock humility (“grant me to frame …”) quickly gives way to the anger and grief of “bitter plaints
A Lament for Our Lady’s Shrine at Walsingham
In the wracks of Walsingham
Whom should I choose
But the Queen of Walsingham
to be my guide and muse.
Then, thou Prince of Walsingham,
Grant me to frame
Bitter plaints to rue thy wrong,
Bitter woe for thy name.
Bitter was it so to see
The seely sheep
Murdered by the ravenous wolves
While the shepherds did sleep.
Bitter was it,
O to view The sacred vine,
Whilst the gardeners played all close,
Rooted up by the swine.
Bitter, bitter, O to behold
The grass to grow
Where the walls of Walsingham
So stately did show.
Such were the worth of Walsingham
While she did stand,
Such are the wracks as now
do show Of that Holy Land.
Level, level, with the ground
The towers do lie,
Which, with their golden glittering tops,
Pierced once to the sky.
Where were gates are no gates now,
The ways unknown
Where the press of peers did pass
While her fame was blown.
Owls do scrike where the sweetest hymns
Lately were sung,
Toads and serpents hold their dens
Where the palmers did throng.
Weep, weep, O Walsingham,
Whose days are nights,
Blessings turned to blasphemies,
Holy deeds to despites.
Sin is where Our Lady sat,
Heaven is turned to hell,
Satan sits where Our Lord did sway
— Walsingham, O farewell!
This last verse expresses the torment that people felt as religious wars increasingly alienated people and communities from each other, “Heaven is turned to hell, Satan sits where Our Lord did sway”, and also their fear of death now that their King was himself excommunicated, thus possibly his people with him, as he was their ‘ earthly father’ and the sins of the fathers was known to pass down the generations… The poet describes “blessings turned to blasphemies, holy deeds to despites.”
In 1534 Walsingham Priory was one of the first monastic establishments to agree to accept Henry V111’s supremacy over the Church of England in place of the Pope. The Prior and the Canons hoped that might secure the Priory’s survival. In 1538 the statue of our Lady of Walsingham was taken to London and burned, and in August the Priory and all its possessions were finally signed over to the King. The Holy House was burned, the Priory site sold and the buildings demolished, the lead, wood and stone sold to builders. It is thought to have been sold for £90. The face of English Christian faith was to change beyond recognition.