Historical note: The story of how Lady Richeldis came to build the Holy House was not written down until the fifteenth century, but we know for certain that Walsingham was considered a very holy shrine of Our Lady for centuries before that. The charter (agreement) by which Geoffrey of Faverches established Walsingham Priory in the twelfth century mentions the Holy House built by his mother. Erasmus, writing in the early sixteenth century, left us a detailed description of the Holy House as it was then.Picture: Roman MiscellanyIn 1061, when St.Edward the Confessor was still King of England, a special link was forged between England and Nazareth. Lady Richeldis de Faverches, the widow of a Norman knight and lady of the manor of Walsingham in Norfolk, saw a vision of Our Lady, who took her in spirit to the Holy House at Nazareth where Jesus had lived as a child. She was given clear instructions: measure the House, and built a replica in Walsingham. But Richeldis had a problem. Where should she build? She noticed that overnight there had been a heavy dew, but two patches of ground were quite dry. Surely one of these must be the site for the house. She chose one, but the building work was beset with problems. Richeldis spent a night in prayer, and the next morning found that the building had been miraculously moved to the other dry spot.
The Holy House of Walsingham became a place of pilgrimage and Richeldis' son, Geoffrey de Faverches, founded a Priory there. Although the Shrine itself was destroyed in the sixteenth century we know a great deal about how it looked in the middle ages. The House was small - measuring 23ft.6in by 12ft.10in - made of wood and with a narrow door on each side. It was surrounded by a larger outer building, leaving the House itself dark inside, lit only by candles, with gold, silver and jewels glittering in the candlelight. To one side of the altar stood a famous statue of Our Lady.
For nearly five hundred years Walsingham was one of the greatest pilgrimage sites in the whole of Europe. Its pilgrims included many kings and queens, including King Henry VIII who visited Walsingham at least three times. In the end, however, it was Henry VIII who brought about the shrine's downfall. He separated the Church of England from Rome, destroyed all the monasteries throughout the country, and in 1538 took Walsingham's treasures, burned the beloved statue and closed the shrine. Soon all that remained were a few ruins from the Priory and the small Slipper Chapel where pilgrims had left their shoes before walking the final mile to the shrine barefoot. Now the Chapel was used not for the worship of God, but as a barn.
The "mansion of the saints", as the Holy House was called in the early sixteenth century, had been thoroughly destroyed, but not for good. Centuries later, Walsingham grew again. In 1896 a Roman Catholic laywoman, Charlotte Boyd, bought the derelict Slipper Chapel and gave it to the Catholic Church. Soon the Roman Catholic Shrine of Walsingham was reinstated, with a replica of the original statue of Our Lady. By the end of the twentieth century a pilgrimage Church had been built in the grounds of the Slipper Chapel, and in 2001 the feast of Our Lady of Walsingham was added to the Church's calendar. The Church of England also worked to restore the Shrine. In 1921, Alfred Hope Patten became the Anglican vicar of Walsingham and dedicated himself to fostering devotion to Mary. Following in the footsteps of Lady Richeldis, he built another replica of the Holy House in the village. Today Walsingham is the national Marian shrine for both Churches, and is again England's Nazareth. (from Our Lady's Dowry, a history of Catholic England for children I am writing)
These verses come from an anonymous Elizabethan ballad lamenting the fall of Walsingham:
- Weep Weep O Walsingam,
- Whose dayes are nights,
- Blessings turned to blasphemies,
- Holy deeds to despites
- Sinne is where our Ladye sate,
- Heaven turned is to helle;
- Satan sitthe where our Lord did swaye,
- Walsingham O farewell!
You can read more about Our Lady of Walsingham in this article by Ann Ball at Holy Spirit Interactive.
Today Walsingham has both Catholic and Anglican shrines. The Catholic shrine is based round the Slipper Chapel, a mile outside the village; the Anglican shrine contains a replica of the Holy House. You can visit both through the Walsingham website.
Prayer from the Litany of Our Lady of Walsingham
All holy and ever-living God, in giving us Jesus Christ to be our Saviour and brother, You gave us Mary, His Mother, to be our Mother also; grant, we pray you, that we may be worthy of so great a Brother and so dear a Mother. May we come at last to you the Father of us all through Jesus Christ Your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit for ever and ever. Amen.
Our Lady of Walsingham: Pray for us.
(You can find the rest of the litany here.)
Prayer to Our Lady of Walsingham
O blessed Virgin Mary, Our Lady of Walsingham, Mother of God and our most gentle Queen and Mother, look down in mercy upon us, our parish, our country, our homes, and our families, and upon all who greatly hope and trust in your prayers, (especially...) By you it was that Jesus, our Savior and hope, was given to the world; and he has given you to us that we may hope still more. Plead for us your children, whom you did receive and accept at the foot of the Cross, O sorrowful Mother. Intercede for our separated brethren, that with us in the one true fold they may be united to the Chief Shepherd, the Vicar of your Son. Pray for us all, dear Mother, that by faith fruitful in good works we all may be made worthy to see and praise God, together with you in our heavenly home. Amen.