The Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, in Norfolk, East Anglia, is the National Shrine of Our Lady in England.
It has been a place of pilgrimage since 1061 and had been considered one of the four most important pilgrimage sites in the Middle Ages, on a par with Rome, Jerusalem and Santiago de Compostela. I visited there recently with my family to see for myself this holy place that came to be known as “England's Nazareth.”
We arrived, providentially, in time for noon Mass in the large, barnlike Chapel of Reconciliation. The strong smell of disinfectant was in the air as the shrine is in the midst of sheep country and the threat of foot-and-mouth disease was still high. It was spring, and the lambs were happily romping in the fields near their mothers, oblivious to the threat. Our eight children piled out of our two cars and filed into the church after walking on the obligatory disinfectant mat.
We were welcomed into the church by a group of elderly people and noticed that the only other visitors seemed to be a group of senior citizens on a bus tour. The Mass was quiet and subdued, much like the shrine itself.
After Mass, we ate our picnic lunch on the grounds outside the 14th-century Slipper Chapel, which is the only ancient part of the shrine. It was a beautiful sunny day and we were able to enjoy our lunch under blue skies with plenty of room to explore. There was also a tea room nearby. We visited the bookshop and found, to our delight, several used books which now grace our shelves, among them a biography of Ronald Knox by Evelyn Waugh. Outside the bookshop is a holy-water fountain; we were encouraged to take a bottle of the water home.
We then visited the small chapel of the Holy Spirit, which has a small area for prayer and a beautiful modern Pentecost mosaic. The Slipper Chapel next door was surprisingly tiny. It houses a modern version of the statue of Our Lady of Walsingham, the original having been destroyed in the Reformation. This statue was venerated by Pope John Paul II when he visited England in 1982. The chapel is too small for daily Mass, but a daily rosary is prayed there.
Like many things modern and British, the shrine is understated in its simplicity. There is nothing remarkable about the architecture of the buildings, which are a conglomeration of medieval and modern. The real beauty of the shrine lies in its story; how it came to be and how Our Lady is using it to ignite the flame of faith in England once again.
During the reign of St. Edward the Confessor, in 1061, a pious widow named Richeldis de Faverches said Our Lady had appeared to her and taken her, in spirit, to Nazareth. There, the Blessed Mother asked Richeldis to build a replica of the Holy House of the Annunciation in England. Richeldis hired workmen to build the house to her specifications. When they reported having difficulty with the foundation, she spent the night in prayer. The next morning, Richeldis found the Holy House not only completed, but also situated about 200 feet from the construction site.
In 1150, Augustinian canons built a priory beside the Holy House. Pilgrims soon began flocking to see “England's Nazareth.” During its heyday in the Middle Ages, when the Muslims had control of the Holy Land, pilgrims flocked by the thousands to the shrine at Walsingham. Among the throngs were many English monarchs. Henry VIII made several trips to the shrine and became its greatest benefactor.
The priory at Walsingham has the dubious distinction of being one of the first religious houses in England to sign the Act of Supremacy in 1534, making King Henry VIII head of the Church in England and renouncing the supremacy of the pope. Four years after signing the act, the priory and its church were both ransacked, looted and demolished. A beloved statue of Our Lady of Walsingham was taken to Chelsea and burned, while the gold and valuables went to fill royal coffers.
All that remains of the original Holy House and priory are the east window of the massive stone church that once surrounded the house and the gatehouse of the priory. These are now part of a museum and there are sometimes processions to the ancient site. They are located in the village of Little Walsingham.
Also located in the village of Little Walsingham are the Anglican shrine to Our Lady of Walsingham, the Anglican replica of the original Holy House, and the pilgrim bureau for the Roman Catholic shrine which handles accommodations for pilgrims.
Off With Their Shoes
The Catholic shrine is located about a mile from Little Walsingham and is centered around the medieval Slipper Chapel. This chapel was used by pilgrims on their way to the Holy House in Walsingham and was fortunate enough to escape the destruction that took place in Walsingham in 1538. It is popularly believed that the name refers to the practice of pilgrims who would remove their shoes — or slippers — at the chapel to walk the last mile of their pilgrimage barefoot. It may be that the term comes from the old English word “slype,” meaning “something in between,” because it comes between Walsingham and the rest of the world.
During the Catholic persecution in England, the Slipper Chapel was used for various purposes, among them a stable for animals. In 1863, an Anglican, Miss Charlotte Boyd, wanted to purchase the Slipper Chapel and restore Benedictine monasticism to the Church of England. After several years of difficulty, she was finally allowed to purchase the chapel. In the intervening years, Miss Boyd became Catholic. Shortly after purchasing the chapel, she donated it to Benedictine monks as a place of prayer for unity in England.
The first post-Reformation pilgrimage to the Slipper Chapel and Walsingham took place in 1897. In 1922, the Anglican vicar of Walsingham began to promote Anglican devotion to Our Lady of Walsingham. In 1934, the Slipper Chapel was declared the National Catholic Shrine of Our Lady for England and Wales. Exactly 400 years after the canons signed the ill-considered Act of Supremacy, Walsingham was returned to Our Lady.
Our Lady of Walsingham attracts large numbers of Anglican and Roman Catholic pilgrims to their respective shrines. The Catholic and Anglican bishops have jointly composed a prayer for unity, invoking Our Lady of Walsingham.
Last Sept. 24 marked the first time Our Lady of Walsingham has been granted her own feast day on the Church calendar in England. It is a sign of hope and renewal for the Church in England. Father Michael Rear, a priest assigned to the shrine at Walsingham and a convert from Anglicanism, reminded his congregation of the words prophesied by Pope Leo XIII: “When England goes back to Walsingham, Our Lady will come back to England.”
“Through this Feast,” said Father Rear, “England is coming back to Walsingham.”
Debbie Nowak writes from Ripon, North Yorkshire, England.