The modern reconstruction of Walsingham began in the middle years of the nineteenth century,
a product of Victorian romanticism and antiquarianism and, more important,
nostalgia for the medieval Catholic past within certain Anglican circles.
Five hundred years ago, before the turmoil of the Reformation that changed the face of religion in Britain, the land was webbed with sacred places visited by larger or smaller numbers of pilgrims. The greatest of these sites were Canterbury and Walsingham. The name of Canterbury remains alive to us today, thanks to Geoffrey Chaucer and the pilgrims with whom he populated the road to the tomb of Saint Thomas Becket and to the fact that the cathedral still towers above the fields of Kent, witness to the pre-Reformation past. Pilgrims continue to visit Canterbury, and in 2008 the British Broadcasting Corporation covered the London-Canterbury route in a program dealing with the lasting appeal of pilgrimages. Modern pilgrims are both secular and spiritual: there are "pilgrimage" holidays that focus on the journey - the natural surroundings and the culture and history to be found en route - and a cycling club in London even calls its annual cycle ride the Canterbury Pilgrimage, but there is also a keen religious interest. In 2011, for example, students from Kings College London went there on foot at the beginning of Lent; a Roman Catholic society organized a three-day pilgrimage from Rochester, ending with a blessing in Canterbury Cathedral; and sixteen members of a Tunbridge Wells Russian Orthodox church sang services at the sites of the tombs of two early saints within the cathedral. The cathedral provides, in its own words, "a wide range of facilities from private services to specially tailored guide tours" to "make your pilgrimage a special occasion" but has made no attempt to re-create its past by restoring the tomb of Thomas Becket as the focal point of pilgrimage; its identity as Mother Church of Anglican Christianity precludes any necessity to situate itself in the pre-Reformation world as a means of establishing its authority. Today only a single candle marks the place where the great gold-plated and jewel-encrusted shrine once stood.
The situation at Walsingham is very different. It had no poet to make its name familiar throughout the land, and when its great church was dissolved and its holy image taken to London and burned by royal command in 1538, there was nothing left to draw people to the tiny isolated North Norfolk village. Yet for three hundred years kings and nobles, as well as ordinary people, had flocked to its shrine of the Virgin Mary, seeking, in the words of Erasmus, who visited it in 1511, the health of their family, the increase of their estate, a long and happy life in this world, and eternal happiness in the next. Even Henry VIII, whose religious policies were to result in the dissolution of the monasteries and the destruction of pilgrimage sites, visited at least twice, and he continued to support it monetarily right to the end.
What was the power of Walsingham to attract pilgrims? Though today it is located in an isolated rural corner of North Norfolk, it was in medieval times in the middle of one of the richest areas in the land, whose main town of Norwich was second only to London in size and wealth. Evidence of the riches that the wool and cloth trade brought to East Anglia, of which Norfolk is a part, is apparent in the number of large churches and monastic ruins that still dot the landscape. In medieval times there were many pilgrimage centers in the region, like Bromholm Priory, with its remnant of the True Cross, and the shrine of the Virgin Mary in Ipswich, but none was greater than that of Our Lady of Walsingham. By the middle of the fifteenth century, it was one of the most important centers for the cult of the Virgin Mary in all of Europe.
At the center of the Walsingham cult was its statue of the Virgin, whose allure was later heightened by its location within a shrine called the "Holy House." According to legend, the shrine had been founded sometime in the twelfth century by the widow of a local landowner called Richeldis; a great church and monastery were later built around it, housing a community of Augustinian canons, who provided all the necessities that pilgrims required - access to sacred images and relics, miraculous healing, souvenirs such as pilgrim badges and holy water, accommodation, and spiritual consolation. Richeldis's shrine was first identified as Mary's Holy House in Nazareth around the mid-1400s, probably influenced by the tradition associated with the Loreto Shrine in Italy that angels had transported the actual Holy House there. The Walsingham founding legend, set out in what is now known as the Pynson ballad (ca. 1460), has become a central aspect of the revived cult today. It describes how Our Lady appeared to the widow Richeldis in a dream and told her to build a replica of her Holy House in Nazareth so that "all who seek me there shall find succor." The ballad called Walsingham the "new Nazareth" and described England as "the holy land, Our Lady's dowry." These ideas have become important elements in today's pilgrimage story as a metaphor for atonement for the despoliation of the shrine through the restoration of a lost Marian-centered spirituality.
The shrine was located in the grounds of the priory, on the north side of the church and surrounded, like that in Loreto, by a protective building. According to Erasmus, it was "built of wooden planks admitting the devotees at each side by a narrow little door. The light is obscure, indeed scarcely but from the wax candles, and a most delightful fragrance meets the nostrils. On entrance, it seems like the seat of the blessed, so glittering is it on all sides with silver, gold and jewels." The modern replica in the Anglican Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, built in 1931, follows this description closely. The priory also possessed two holy wells, reputed to cure headaches and stomach disorders; a number of relics such as Saint Peter's knucklebone; and a crystal vial of the Virgin's milk.
Pilgrims' offerings made the priory very rich. A 1345 document says that the gates of the priory had to be closed at night to keep secure the valuable jewels donated to the Virgin, and consequently late-arriving pilgrims had to spend the night outside the grounds. Erasmus compared the canons of the priory to toll collectors on bridges, always on hand to receive donations from visitors, but also described how some visitors "were so devoted to the Virgin" that on the pretense of making an offering, they "filch away what someone else has placed there." In 1534 alone the chapel earned more than 250 pounds, and even when dissolution was looming in 1536, 113 shillings were offered between one particular Saturday and Sunday. While during the early Reformation years committed Protestants attacked the "feigned miracles" of the "witch of Walsingham," royal commissioners were just as concerned to garner its wealth for the king: in July 1538 they took away the image and all the gold, silver, and jewels from the chapel, and two months later they took hold of the church and all of its possessions as well, which they sold to a local man for ninety pounds. The shrine slowly passed from memory, to be mourned in the next generation as a place where "heaven turned is to hell" and where "Levell levell with the ground / The towres doe lye / Which with their golden, glittering tops / Pearsed once to the sky."
The modern reconstruction of Walsingham began in the middle years of the nineteenth century, a product of Victorian romanticism and antiquarianism and, more important, nostalgia for the medieval Catholic past within certain Anglican circles. In 1847, when a group of "archaeological pilgrims" visited Walsingham, they commented that "there were no busy hostelries, no throng of strangers, the town is now a quiet village, the glittering shrine was leveled to the dust, and its site restored to the hands of nature." Fifty years later, though, it was a different story. In the course of the nineteenth century, the legalization of public Roman Catholic worship in Britain and the rise of Anglo-Catholicism within the Anglican Church refocused attention on the Virgin Mary, paralleling an outpouring of Marian devotion and a spate of visions of the Virgin all over Europe. Appropriately, shrines to Our Lady of Walsingham appeared in both a Roman Catholic and an Anglo-Catholic context - the first (Anglican) in 1887 in the parish church in Buxted, built to the dimensions of Walsingham's Holy House, and the second (Roman Catholic) in 1897 in the Church of the Annunciation in King's Lynn, as a small replica of the Holy House of Loreto. Around the same time, a convert to Catholicism called Charlotte Boyd bought a derelict former chapel a mile from Walsingham called the Slipper Chapel, with the intention of restoring Marian worship there. The first pilgrimage to Walsingham in modern times took place between King's Lynn and the Slipper Chapel in 1897 (though apparently only the last portion, from Walsingham station to the Slipper Chapel, was on foot).
In 1921 an Anglo-Catholic called Alfred Hope Patten, assistant priest at Buxted, became vicar of Walsingham. Despite opposition from his bishop, he immediately installed in the parish church a statue of Our Lady of Walsingham, modeled on a 1534 priory seal. Ordered to remove the statue, he raised funds to build a separate shrine building in the village opposite the priory ruins, and this was dedicated in 1931, the nucleus of the present Anglican Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. Whereas the Catholic-occupied Slipper Chapel is a genuine medieval building, Hope Patten's shrine building, with a reproduction of the Holy House situated at the north end, is an imaginative re-creation of medieval Catholicism, consciously symbolic of repairing the wounds of the Reformation. Medieval romanticism, typical of Anglo-Catholic aspirations of the time for revived pre-Reformation ritual and devotional practices, is apparent, too, in the "medieval whimsicality" with which, according to a modern commentator, Hope Patten "decked out" members of the College of Guardians he set up to administer the shrine.
Once the Anglicans established their own presence in Walsingham in the 1920s, the Catholic Church transferred the shrine at King's Lynn to the Slipper Chapel, which in 1934 was inaugurated as the National Shrine of Our Lady with the first National Pilgrimage of Reparation between the Slipper Chapel and the priory grounds. A new statue, also based on the priory seal, was commissioned and placed in the chapel. Ironically, the interior of the chapel today seems more Protestant in its post-Vatican II simplicity than Hope Patten's brightly decorated church. This applies even more to the large Roman Catholic Chapel of Reconciliation built adjacent to the Slipper Chapel in 1981.
Today most pilgrims to Walsingham come by coach or car, either in parish groups or individually. Both shrines provide accommodation to visitors and a round of activities: Masses, stations of the cross, torch-lit processions with the statue of the Virgin, confession, healing ministries, and intercessionary prayer. At the Anglican shrine, there is also a daily sprinkling at the holy well located beside the Holy House, where the priest gives pilgrims water from the well to sip, makes the sign of the cross on their foreheads, and pours the water over their hands. Pilgrims to the Catholic shrine customarily walk in procession from their lodgings in the village to a Pilgrim Mass in the Chapel of Reconciliation, singing "Ave Maria" and reciting the rosary. Anecdotes by modern Anglican pilgrims suggest a nostalgia for a time when Anglicans, too, walked barefoot from the Anglican to the Catholic shrine singing hymns all the way.
Longer walking pilgrimages are not unknown - among others, the Latin Mass Society holds one annually over three days in August from Ely to Walsingham, a distance of fifty-five miles, and Student Cross walks have been held at Easter since 1957 from a variety of starting points. In fact, the first Mass in the priory grounds after the dissolution was held in 1948 to mark the completion of a cross-bearing pilgrimage with a Mass for five thousand people. Today the grounds, though in private hands, are used by Catholics and Anglicans alike for large open-air gatherings, the ruins giving weight to the constant theme stressed at Walsingham, that the Reformation was a tragic rent in English Christianity and that only reconciliation between the churches can restore England to her rightful state as "Our Lady's Dowry."
A microcosm of modern Walsingham pilgrimage is the National Pilgrimage held by the Anglican shrine annually on the last Monday of May in the priory grounds. People come from all over the country, individually as well as in parish groups. It is a time of affirmation for Anglo-Catholics, now a somewhat beleaguered minority in the Anglican church. Last year there were apparently fewer participants, both clergy and lay, than in the past. This was due, I was told, to the establishment in January of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham by the Catholic Church as a way for priests and congregations disaffected by the ordination of women to leave the Anglican Church while retaining a married priesthood and their own liturgical practices. About one thousand Anglicans have so far joined. In fact, one such parish - the Sevenoaks Ordinariate - has already made a pilgrimage to the Catholic National Shrine of Our Lady. By contrast, a habitual presence, rather than an absence, at the National Pilgrimage is a group of ultra-Protestants from Northern Ireland who harangue the "idolators" in their "annual witness to the mariolators of the Anglo-Catholic Church" for placing a "dead human being" (Mary) over Jesus. Walsingham is also abhorred by Low Church evangelicals within the Anglican Communion, and the present archbishop of Canterbury was accused by them of being an idolater when he announced plans to visit the Anglican shrine a few years ago. Pilgrimage to Walsingham is a contested issue.
Nevertheless, for the Anglo-Catholic individuals and parish groups who attend the National Pilgrimage, the day is one of pageant, conviviality, reconciliation, joy, and probably as many other emotions as there are participants. The core of the celebration is a Pilgrim Mass in the priory grounds. Shrine guardians, visiting clergy, and bishops make procession from the Shrine Church singing a number of hymns, equally divided between the Christocentric and Mariocentric, perhaps as an answer to the protestors who attempt to drown out the singing as the procession passes by. But the core of the procession for many who have waited in anticipation is the appearance of the statue of Our Lady of Walsingham carried along on a bier. After lunch a sermon is given, followed by a procession of all participants through the village, singing the "Walsingham Pilgrim Hymn" (composed by Father Hope Patten to the tune of the "Lourdes Hymn"). The final benediction is given at what is considered the site of the original Holy House. Now three hymns are sung, all centered on Christ and Mary is not mentioned at all, perhaps an indicator of the determination of the Guardians of the Shrine to take up the challenge long leveled at Anglican Walsingham that, as in medieval times, Mary has been elevated over her Son.
It is estimated that about three hundred thousand people visit Walsingham each year. Like the pilgrims of old, they visit the shrines, buy souvenirs, sample the local brews, seek healing or relief from anxiety, delight in the surroundings, enjoy the company of their fellows, and find peace in the surroundings. Compared with those who visit modern Canterbury, they are probably more focused on the religious actions available to them, specific to the place, since the object of the pilgrimage - Our Lady of Walsingham - is so clearly defined. Moreover, modern Walsingham exists almost entirely through its religious identity. Perhaps it is not the respite from worldliness the American poet Robert Lowell meant when he wrote "The world shall come to Walsingham," but in every sense, the pilgrim has surely returned.
Gaynor Sekimori is a research associate in the Centre for the Study of Japanese Religions at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and concurrently visiting professor at Kokugakuin University, Tokyo. She received her doctorate from the University of Cambridge in 2000. She was managing editor of the International Journal of Asian Studies (Cambridge University Press) and a member of the Institute of Oriental Culture at the University of Tokyo from 2001 to 2007.
This article was originally published in the April-March 2012 issue of Dharma World.