It was in the year 1061, in the little village of Walsingham, that Our Lady appeared to a widow, Richeldis de Faverches. It is said that she appeared three times in a vision and each time showed to Richeldis the house in which the Holy Family had dwelt in Nazareth. Mary requested that Richeldis build a replica of this house in Walsingham. To Richeldis, Our Lady said, "Do all this unto my special praise and honor. And all who are in any way distressed or in need, let them seek me here in that little house you have made at Walsingham. To all that seek me there shall be given succor. And there at Walsingham in this little house shall be held in remembrance the great joy of my salutation when Saint Gabriel told me I should through humility become the Mother of God's Son." [See Claude Fisher, Walsingham Lives (London: Catholic Truth Society); Peter Rollings, S.M. Walsingham in Times Past (Chorley: Countryside Publications)]
According to tradition, when the construction first began, nothing seemed to go aright. At the end of the day Richeldis was unable to sleep; the night itself seemed almost alive. Then she heard singing that seemed not of this world. She went out into her garden where she noticed that the singing was coming from the direction of the unfinished construction. As she approached the site she was amazed to see that the little house had been completed and that it now stood about two hundred yards from the site of the original construction. Richeldis saw what she took to be angels leaving the now completed house. When the carpenters returned to the site they, too, reported hearing strange sounds and of course were amazed to see the house completed. They pronounced the craftsmanship of the completed construction to be far superior to their own.
Thus began the Shrine of the Holy House of Walsingham. Some time later, an image of the Blessed Mother and the Holy Child came to be in the house; its appearance there was believed to have been miraculous. After Richeldis' death, her son, Geoffrey, drew up a deed allowing a religious order to establish a house and take custody of the shrine. The Holy House of Walsingham went on to become one of the foremost shrines of Europe. Its prominence resulted primarily from the Holy House itself rather than from the image within it. The Holy House, associated as it was with the Annunciation and with the Holy Family, was the center of devotion. This is what distinguished the shrine from all others for more than two centuries following its inception. (The Shrine of the Holy House of Loreto dates from 1295.) The Holy House was preserved with great care, and eventually a masonry structure was erected around and over it. Walsingham became known far and wide as "England's Nazareth."
In the 1100's an Augustinian priory was established at Walsingham, and its priests became the keepers of the shrine for centuries to come. For almost five hundred years Walsingham continued to draw thousands. It is said that the roads to Walsingham were even more crowded that those leading to Canterbury which Chaucer immortalized in literature, particularly the road from London which came to be known as the "Walsingham Way. " In the sixteenth century, this road was given first place among the roads of England in Holinshed's Chronicles.
From Britain, Ireland, and the continent of Europe, people came to the shrine, from all walks of life: peasant, king, rich and poor. At the Holy House, all were equal. From the time of Henry III in 1226, almost every king and queen of England as well as Queen Isabella of France, and King Robert Bruce of Scotland, visited the shrine. In the early 1500s, Henry VIII visited the Holy House of Walsingham more than once as a pilgrim. On one such occasion he walked barefoot twice the usual distance traversed by penitents. But Henry's ways changed as the years passed. In his effort to be rid of his wife, Queen Catherine, and marry another, the king broke with the Holy See and had himself declared by his parliament to be the head of the English Church. Then, in 1538, Henry, about to move against all religious orders in his domains, confiscated and burned the Holy House of Our Lady of Walsingham. The magnificent priory church adjacent to it fell into ruin so that only a portion of the massive east wall is visible today. Of the Holy House itself, archeologists have found remnants of its foundation beneath a thin layer of ash on a rectangular knoll near the ruins of the priory church.
In the years following Henry's destruction, the Holy House of Mary of Walsingham was never entirely forgotten, and pilgrims did not completely cease going to the village. However, it has been since the latter half of the nineteenth century that most of the work of restoration has been accomplished. An early key figure in this effort was Charlotte Pearson Boyd. She was an Anglican interested in assisting newly formed Anglican religious orders of the time, and she herself operated her own orphanage. She developed a great devotion to Our Lady of Walsingham. Around 1863, Miss Boyd noticed a building used as a barn, but which in form appeared much like a late medieval chapel, located about a mile from the site of the original shrine at Walsingham. She discovered that this had once been the Chapel of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, more commonly called the "Slipper Chapel," and, prior to 1538, a part of the area's shrine complex. Then, it had been the last place pilgrims visited before walking one further mile to the Holy House itself. Since many walked this mile barefoot as a penance, leaving their shoes at the chapel, it was frequently referred to as the "Slipper Chapel." In the 1890s, desiring to restore this building to religious use, Miss Boyd purchased it from the farm's owner and began extensive restoration work. During the time the chapel was being restored, Miss Boyd was received into the Roman Catholic Church. After the restoration was completed, she transferred ownership of the chapel to the Catholic Benedictine monks of Downside Abbey. Thus the chapel became one of the few pre-schism buildings once more under Catholic ownership. Eventually, the Slipper Chapel was given to the local Catholic bishop, and in 1934, the Roman Catholic National Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham was erected within its walls. In the Marian Year of 1954, the image there of Our Lady of Walsingham was solemnly crowned at the direction of Pope Pius XII. Marist Fathers and Marist Sisters administer and care for the shrine today.
Meanwhile, Anglicans in the village of Walsingham also had begun to restore devotion to Our Lady of Walsingham. In the 1920s, the Anglican priest in the village of Walsingham, Father Alfred Hope Patten, erected a shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham in his parish church which he later moved to a special shrine-church. Pilgrims who go to Walsingham today often visit both the Catholic and the Anglican shrines.
The destruction wrought by Henry VIII might have proved the end of Walsingham. That it did not, rests on the fact that Walsingham is not a vestige of a frozen past but a manifestation of the living miracle of the Incarnation. It lives today with its own unique message to contemporary men and women, a message of faith, family, hope, trust. Thousands of pilgrims visit the hallowed sites of this English shrine-village each year. Walsingham, now as in past centuries, is daily a place of pilgrimage and prayer. Today, the name of the Virgin of Walsingham is honored also at her shrine in Houston, and her name is known in many parts of the world.
Prayers to Our Lady of Walsingham
(Used with permission. Our Lady of Walsingham Catholic Church, Houston, TX)