8. Walsingham

Sacred Spaces 8: WALSINGHAM

Walsingham near the coast of north Norfolk has been a place of pilgrimage since the eleventh century.  The lady of the Manor, a widow called Richeldis, had a vision in 1061 (three times according to legend) of the Virgin Mary, who instructed her to build a replica of the Holy House of Nazareth, where Mary was told by the angel Gabriel that she would bear the Saviour, Jesus.  A priory was built around the house on the instructions of Geoffrey, Richeldis’ son, and it was this priory which became the focus of pilgrimage and prayer.  It was one of the main places of pilgrimage in the Middle Ages, visited by several kings, including Henry VIII, who was at the last responsible for its destruction in 1538 as part of the dissolution of the monasteries.


In the early 1920’s, Rev’d Alfred Hope Patten became Vicar of Walsingham parish church.  He had a statue of Our Lady of Walsingham erected in the church, modelled on the image on the Mediaeval seal of the Priory.  From the first night that the statue was placed in the parish church, people gathered round it to pray.  Throughout the 1920's, the trickle of pilgrims became a flood of large numbers, for whom eventually a Pilgrim Hospice was opened (a hospice is technically the name of a place of hospitality for pilgrims) and in 1931, a new Holy House encased in a small pilgrimage church was dedicated, and the statue translated there with great solemnity.


In 1938 that church was enlarged to form the Anglican Shrine, more or less as we know it today.  Fr Patten combined the posts of Vicar and Priest Administrator of the Shrine until his death in 1958.


The ruins of the original priory were by this time in private hands, so the new buildings were constructed nearby.  However, on Spring Bank Holiday Monday every year, a National pilgrimage takes place in the ruins of the priory and pilgrims gather for Mass and a procession around the village, ending the day with Benediction.


“The much-loved statue of Our Lady of Walsingham is enthroned within the Holy House.  It is important to understand that the statue is a focus for devotion - a visual aid - and not something to be worshipped in itself.”  From the website of the Anglican Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham.


I have been fortunate enough to go on pilgrimage to Walsingham several times, beginning in the 1970’s when most of the pilgrims were accommodated in village residents’ homes, unlike today, when accommodation houses surround the Shrine Church.  The church and gardens which surround the buildings are full of peace and serenity which are felt by virtually all visitors, whether they consider themselves religious or not.  An annual pilgrimage to Walsingham has become an important part of my Christian life. 


My first visit is one I will never forget.  I entered the shrine church to hear people singing ‘Lord Jesus Christ (Living Lord)’.  They were sitting on the floor, and the singing was accompanied by someone playing a guitar.  I sat on the floor and joined in and became aware that Jesus was very close to me, his physical presence unseen but very near.  It was a wonderful feeling; mere words cannot convey the joy and blessedness that I felt in that moment.  Unfortunately I have never again felt the physical presence of Jesus but the memory of it has been enough to sustain me in the years since.


Joan Strong

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