Walsingham: The Original Shrine and Priory


Firstly a big welcome to the Sisters  now reading this blog, that I was informed of yesterday by another mystical sister of mine…you know who you all are! Knowing you are there sustains and strengthens me, please keep me in your prayers. x

I have enjoyed the Shrine, the beautiful church and all that it has to offer. But I also want to get as close to the original Shrine as possible. I need to walk where the Canons walked, and where Catherine of Aragon offered her prayers and wept her tears. I make my way to the heavy wooden doors that lead me into the Abbey Gardens and firstly just wander through their little museum, full of curiosities and an unassuming little gift shop staffed by women who know this place inside out and are bursting with love and pride for the original Abbey they are custodians of. The entrance is the building on the right of this photo.

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And what history seeps from this place, how many prayers and petitions have been offered up, all resonating to this day for those who can sense them. The priory of Walsingham was founded in around 1153, and was a small priory of Augustine canons. ‘Canons Regular’ are ordained priests living as a community and following the Augustine rule, or regula, as opposed to monks who are lay people, although both take vows. Augustine canons follow the teaching of St Augustine, the theologian, scholar and philosopher who was bishop of Hippo in North Africa in the 4th century. According to St Augustine, a canon regular lives in community, he lives the life of a religious cleric, but he also follows the example of the Apostles by preaching, teaching and the administration of the sacraments or by giving hospitality to pilgrims and travellers and feeding the sick. In England they were known as Black Canons, as their usual dress was a white habit with a black cloak.  In 1494 there was a Prior and sixteen canons. Erasmus who visited Walsingham in 1512 and 1524 was ordained as a Canon Regular as a young man.

In its glory, this is what the Priory looked like.

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I walk through the entry gate and walking a short distance through snowdrop gardens I catch sight of the ruin to my left through the trees and stand shocked. I am overwhelmed. It is vast. I am alone, just how I like it…no crowds of visitors and the peace descends in this beautiful garden. This was not a peaceful place in its time though.

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     The ruin above is known as The Arch, and it is formerly the East Window of the Priory. It is to the left of this window that the little house of Nazareth stood. The very early wooden chapel was highly venerated and it was kept in its original state right up until the Reformation, with a second stone chapel built round it to protect it. When the original site in the Abbey Gardens was finally excavated in 1961 the sooty traces of its burning were visible, along with the foundations of its surrounding chapel. In all the buzz that is Walsingham, here is a haven of true peace, and some obviously remember its origins. For me this photo below is the most poignant of all that I have from Walsingham. This lady on her knees, lost in prayer at the site of the original Shrine, and there she stayed for a long long time oblivious of time, space or surroundings. This is where I will offer prayers too for Catherine of Aragon. This is where all those pilgrims came. Of all the images I have of Walsingham, this one of this woman is the one that always comes to mind. I was quite a long way away from her, I took this on zoom.

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King Henry 111 visited several times and gifted candles, oak for building, and a gift of money to make a golden crown for the statue. His son King Edward 1st visited Walsingham twelve times and came repeatedly for the Feast of the Purification on 2nd February. As I walk round the grounds I am truly shocked to my core of the destruction. I feel here, more than anywhere other ruins I have visited elsewhere, [and I have visited many] the horror and the scale of the destruction of the Reformation. Its sheer violence and desecration of all that people and priests alike loved so much, it was more than destruction, it was in a very real sense a vicious attack, personal, spiritual, a complete disdain for all that was beautiful, sacred and valued. For the first time ever I saw Henry in the plain light of day, away from the romance that has been attached to his history, away from the legend…just bare, starkly brutal and a vicious dictator. I feel great anguish, real pain, hot salty tears at what was done. I am not sure which dimension of time I am standing in anymore, whether I am in the now or the way back then.

I do not wish to disturb this sole woman at prayer so I walk round the perimeter passing the ruins of the West Tower on my right as I do so.

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I approach what was the Refectory, which dates from 1300. The Prior and Canons and any important visitors would have dined at ‘high table’ at the eastern end, seated like we can still see in the arrangement today at the Oxbridge colleges and the Inns of Court. The modern gravel path follows one side of the cloister which linked the church to the refectory. The household would have eaten one hot meal a day, immediately after mass, before which everyone fasted. The canons, more likely their lay brothers would have made cheese, kept vegetable and herb gardens, and freshwater fish in ponds fed from the river. I will actually detail food in a separate post as it is very interesting how varied the medieval diet actually was, and how the religious houses ingeniously  ‘got around’ the technicalities of fasting days!

The Refectory

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Originally called the Undercroft [now often called the Crypt] the next part beside the Refectory that I enter dates from the 1300’s and gives us the only real idea of the enclosed space of the Priory. I love it. The historians are no longer sure what this was used for, maybe they suggest, an ante chamber or waiting room for private apartments.

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I then have a long walk down to the Well Gardens, Monks’ Bath and Wishing Wells, with the ruins of the East Window on my left. The stone bath and adjacent twin wells here are mentioned throughout history from the Pynson Ballad onwards. Somewhere near here was the chapel of St Lawrence where pilgrims made offerings as they did at the Holy House and the high altar of the Priory. Erasmus describes being shown a relic of St Peter’s finger joint there. The chapel is described as being near the wells, at the first place Lady Richeldis had first tried to construct the holy House before it was miraculously transported.

The water here, originating from a spring has always been a main attraction, and then just as now, pilgrims would take away water in tiny flasks called ampulla, which could be attached to their clothing. The water here survived the destruction of the Shrine and people continued to revere the water from the wells as sacred and to use them as wishing wells. [The Shrine water well in the Anglican church is part of the original Saxon well in the village.]

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East Window taken from the Wells looking back towards it.

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Close up side views of The East Window showing plinths which one held statues.

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Photos (C) Stephanie

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2 thoughts on “Walsingham: The Original Shrine and Priory

  1. There is just something about the whole of Walsingham that can only be described as “wow”, and yes, the Priory ruins definitely have that in spades.

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