Founded a millennium ago, once among the most famous destinations in Christendom and then forced into obscurity for centuries, the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham is now in the midst of a yearlong celebration of its new centenary.
It was just a hundred years ago in August 1897 that modern-day pilgrimages to this national shrine of England resumed. Yet during the Middle Ages it was renowned as one of Europe's greatest shrines. Kings and commoners came in ceaseless streams to Walsingham, about 25 miles from the port town of King's Lynn, and less than 150 miles northeast of London.
For nearly four centuries, beginning shortly after 1061, pilgrims journeyed to “England's Nazareth” to honor Mary. That was the year Richeldis de Faverches, the Saxon lady of the manor, was transported in spirit by Our Lady and shown the Holy House of Nazareth (a.k.a. the Holy House of Loreto) where the Annunciation took place, and where the Holy Family lived. Mary asked Richeldis to build a replica, which the lady did at once.
By 1130, Augustinian Canons with papal approval constructed a huge priory church and augmented the shrine. The medieval village of Walsingham sprung up to meet the needs of pilgrims from far and wide. Ballads and poetry from that time recall the religious fervor surrounding the location. And several wayside chapels marked the route to Walsingham.
The last chapel in line, built about 1380, was the Slipper Chapel, just a mile from the shrine and the abbey grounds. There, pilgrims prayed and removed their shoes before walking the final Holy Mile. The whole area was thought of as the Holy Land of Walsingham. At least seven English monarchs walked barefoot from the Slipper Chapel: four Edwards and three Henrys, beginning with Henry III, who granted the shrine royal patronage about 1226.
Following the feast of Corpus Christi about 150 years later, Richard II, who made at least two pilgrimages to Walsingham, knelt with his subjects in Westminster Abbey and re-dedicated England as Mary's Dowry. Tradition held that this title was first given by Edward the Confessor. By the 16th century, 161 churches in the county of Norfolk were dedicated in Mary's honor.
But in 1538, literally overnight, pilgrimages ceased. The last Henry—Henry VIII—ushered in the Protestant Reformation, and desecrated and destroyed the shrine and statue of Our Lady of Walsingham. The only vestige left standing was the Priory's great east window arch, which remains to this day.
The nearby Slipper Chapel was spared for use as a poor house, then a cowshed. It finally ended as a barn.
The devotion that remained went underground until it was permitted again in the 19th century. Then, in the 1890s the shrine was born anew—restored by Pope Leo XIII's rescript—and the first pilgrimage in over 350 years re-awakened the deep-rooted tradition.
Present-day pilgrims traveling on their own, or as part of the many organized groups, can actually visit two shrines. One is built in the village of Walsingham. The other at the Slipper Chapel was restored in 1896-97, then donated as the Catholic shrine for that first public pilgrimage a century ago.
From its 14th century origin, the Slipper Chapel was dedicated to St. Catherine of Alexandria, patron saint of pilgrims to the Holy Land. Pilgrims to this land of England's Nazareth gathered en masse in August, 1934. More than 10,000 of them joined the bishops of England and Wales to mark this site as the national shrine. Days earlier, in the Slipper Chapel, the first Mass since the Reformation was celebrated .
This Gothic stone chapel, a scaled-down version of a full-size church, enshrines the statue of Our Lady of Walsingham to the left of the altar. Though the original was destroyed in 1538, the image existed on official seals and other medieval artifacts, facilitating its reproduction.
When Pope John Paul II visited England in 1982, this statue of Our Lady, holding the Child Jesus in her left arm and a tall lily in her right in scepter fashion, was brought to his Mass at Wembley where he venerated and kissed the image.
A new addition to the chapel, installed this past year, is a west window of the Annunciation constructed in the manner of 15th century stained glass.
The shrine still sits among meadows, farmland, and fields of grain, looking like a picture-postcard scene. But it has expanded with several additions. One is the adjacent Chapel of the Holy Ghost which was needed by 1938. In it is a mosaic entitled: Descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost—Our Lady in the Midst of the Apostles.
Across an expansive lawn lies another more recent addition: The way of the cross forms a semi-circle in front of the Chapel of Reconciliation. In 1948, oak crosses for these stations were carried by pilgrims walking from as far as Westminster Cathedral in London.
In an effort to blend with the local farms, the chapel is built of flint, brick, and pantile, much like Norfolk barns. The altar in its more modern interior contains relics of St. Lawrence, St. Thomas Becket, and St. Thomas More. Up to 10,000 worshippers can be accommodated when the sanctuary is opened to the lawn for the pilgrims outdoors.
The shrine also has a reliquary handed down from Pius IX with fragments of the True Cross and of Our Lady's veil. Also, the main holy water font recalls the original Holy House's spring of water.
For the quarter million pilgrims arriving each year, daily services are abundant. Atea room and a gift shop are among the amenities.
The countryside is so lovely that pilgrims can walk prayerfully along the Holy Mile to High Street in Walsingham village, there to see the town's Anglican shrine. It was built in 1931, a glance away from the original site.
In a spirit of ecumenism, apparent in the way both shrines have worked together for years, the guardians of the Anglican shrine walked in procession with Cardinal Cahal Daly, archbishop emeritus of Armagh, Ireland, and the English bishops and pilgrims during this centenary's opening ceremony held last August 20.
In 1931, a replica of the Holy House was built within the Anglican shrine according to dimensions recorded in the 15th century. A few years later, it had to be enlarged to accommodate the numbers of pilgrims. Above the altar in the Holy House, is the statue of Our Lady of Walsingham.
Circling the church and the high altar, there are 15 chapels commemorating each mystery of the rosary. The Holy Well within the shrine is near the spot where the original had been.
Both shrines also provide accommodation. Along the Holy Mile is Elham House, the Catholic shrine's Bed & Breakfast. Once a centuries-old school, the house offers rooms at quite reasonable rates.
In picturesque Walsingham, pilgrims can feel a kinship with their counterparts of long ago because the tiny village, a center for pilgrimages for many centuries, is considered to be the finest collection of medieval buildings of any comparably-sized village in the country. The hotels and guest houses even include a 15th century inn in the village center. Also there, the Sue Ryder Foundation coffee shop is highly recommended. When available, cream teas are not to be missed.
In addition, Walsingham features museums, a long narrow-gauge steam railway, and the most complete remains of any Franciscan Friary in Britain, built in 1347 and used as a lodging place for pilgrims. Since it is now privately owned, it's not usually open but can be glimpsed from the road.
The shrine can be reached by train, bus, or car from London, King's Lynn, and Norwich. (For directions and other particulars, the office number is 011-44-01328-820217.) Drivers might want to swing along the coast just north and stop at the Norfolk Lavender farm in Heacham, close to King's Lynn.
Highlights of this year's bountiful centenary celebrations include historical seminars on the shrine Mar. 23-27, a flower festival jointly sponsored with other churches May 22-25, Forty Hours devotion June 9-11, and the closing festival week Sept. 6-13.
Before the Reformation, devotion to Mary in England was so intense that all Christendom gained from it. Now with the restoration and growth of the National Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, that former glory as Mary's Dowry can return.
Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Conn.