Our Lady of Walsingham
"Walsingham, 'in thee is built New Nazareth'
Where shall be held in a memorial
The great joy of my salutation,
First of my joys, their foundation and origin
Root of mankind's gracious redemption,
When Gabriel gave me this news:
To be a Mother through humility
And God's Son conceive in virginity.
O England, you have great cause to be glad
For you are compared to the Promised Land, Zion
You are called in every realm and region
The Holy Land, Our Lady's Dowry.
In you is built new Nazareth,
A house to the honor of the Queen of Heaven
And her most glorious Salutation
When Gabriel said at Old Nazareth,
Ave, This same joy shall here be daily and for ever remembered."
(From the Pynson Ballad, c.1470)
The focus of the devotion to Our Lady at Walsingham, the English national shrine, is clear. Here devotion is targeted to the great mystery of the Incarnation.... that moment when God emptied Himself and became man, took flesh in the womb of Mary. At Walsingham, the New Nazareth, Mary asks that Christians remember the great act of love when the Creator embraced his creatures. At Walsingham, too, devotion to Mary is a call to unity and to world peace. Every Thursday, a candle is lit before the statue of Our Lady as a reminder to all, residents and pilgrims alike, to pray for Christian unity. This is in keeping with the message of the reconciliation of all things in Christ, which this shrine has proclaimed for over 900 years. Nearby are an Anglican shrine to Our Lady, a Methodist Chapel, and a Greek Orthodox Church. Pilgrims to the Roman Catholic shrine are encouraged to visit these in a spirit of Christian unity and love.
Before the Reformation, England was in no way less devoted to Mary that the rest of Catholic Europe. Shrines and churches dedicated to the Mother of God abounded in every part of the country. Of all of these, Walsingham was of primary importance, ranking with Rome, Jerusalem, and Compostella in importance. As with many historic European sanctuaries, large gaps in the history of Walsingham remain. Hopefully, some of these will be filled with modern archeological research. At any rate, by the time of the Reformation, this Norfolk shrine was so popular that tradition tells that many said the Milky Way itself pointed the way to Walsingham.
In the mid-fifteenth century, a tract printed by the craftsman Richard Pynson in the form of a ballad with twenty- one verses professed to give an authentic account of the miraculous foundation of Walsingham. The tract claimed to record what was then preserved in older books which, sadly, are today not extant. According to the ballad, a widow, Lady of the Manor Richeldis de Faverches, was accorded a triple vision at Walsingham in 1061. She had prayed to be allowed to honor Our Lady in some special manner. In spirit, the Blessed Virgin led her to Nazareth and showed her the little House of the Holy Family which was then preserved beneath the Basilica of the Annunciation. Mary commanded the widow to make another house like this, being careful of the measurements, to be put at Walsingham. By tradition, Our Lady gave Richeldis three reasons for this: l] for the honor of Mary, 2] as a place where all who sought Mary could find succor, and 3] as a memorial of the great joy of the Angelic Salutation.
The widow obeyed and called carpenters to construct the replica, but a difficulty arose as to the site. Overnight, a heavy fall of dew covered the land with a white rime except for two spaces which were equal in area to the new house. The workers chose one of these dry spots near two wells, but the workmen had difficulty in affixing the house to the foundations they had laid. Richeldis spent the night in prayer and the next morning the workmen found that the house had been lifted and set on the other space, two hundred feet away, where it remained for more than four hundred and fifty years. A chapel, a lady chapel, and a grand priory church were built, and until their destruction in 1538 became one of the splendours of England.
Kings and paupers alike came to pay their respects to the Mother of God at Walsingham. All of the Kings and Queens of England between Henry III and Henry VIII came on pilgrimage. Henry VIII himself came a number of times. He removed his shoes after confessing his sins at the Slipper Chapel, and walked the last mile barefoot. After his last visit, he had a change of mind and outlawed devotion to Our Lady of Walsingham. He gave orders for the destruction of the shrine, and it was laid level with the ground and those who objected were executed. The Walsingham martyrs, sub-prior Nicholas Mileham, layman George Guisborough, and some others, were executed in 1537.
In the summer of 1538, the priory was surrendered and the miraculous statue of Our Lady of Walsingham was handed over and burnt at Chelsea. There is a story that the statue which was burnt was a copy; if so, the original has not been uncovered. The statue venerated at the shrine today was carved in l954, and crowned on the Pope's behalf by the apostolic delegate. Today's statue was modeled after the seal of Walsingham priory, a medieval seal preserved in the British museum. It depicts Mary as a mother, crowned in the saxon style, and seated on the throne of wisdom. She is herself a throne for Christ, her Son, who is represented holding the Gospels as if to present them to the world. Mary is holding the three-fold lily-scepter of virginity. Her right hand points to Christ. The child extends his arm in a double gesture of blessing and protection of his mother. Each part of the statue is rich in symbolism, such as the seven rings on the throne which stand for the sacraments. The crown for today's statue is used only on special occasions. It was made from gifts from all over the world. It is made from 18 carat gold and contains 116 precious stones including 71 diamonds.
For about four centuries after the reformation, Walsingham was forgotten. Secretly devotion lived on, but Catholics only obtained their religious freedom in l829, and the Catholic Hierarchy was only set up again in England in l850.
Most of the pilgrims' chapels along the routes to Walsingham were destroyed. A small chapel of St. Catherine, a mile outside the village, was preserved. Miss Charlotte Boyd, an Anglican and a benefactor of religious houses who subsequently became a Roman Catholic, found the chapel in use as a barn. The chapel, known as the Slipper Chapel, was bought and restored by Miss Boyd, and later given to the Catholic Church. Here, in 1879, the first Catholic Marian pilgrimage was held since the Reformation. In l934, a small statue of Our Lady was placed in the statue. That year, the first national Catholic pilgrimage since the reformation was held -- 12,000 Catholics from all over the United Kingdom gathered there, and the shrine was declared national. In l983, England was consecrated to Our Lady, and annually this act is renewed in all of the Catholic churches in the U.K. Walsingham has been reborn i the Anglican soul as well, and they also have a Marian church there.
Today, Walsingham continues its ancient ministry to all who truly seek God. It struggles to establish a deep interior life of prayer, and strives to spread its spirit abroad to all people. Walsingham exists in the spirit of Nazareth -- loving service to all, deep interior peace based on obedience to the will of God in all things, joy in being the least in the household of God's Church in order that God, and not us, receive the glory.
Blessed Lady of Walsingham, win for us those gifts of the Holy Spirit which inspired the early Church with courage and power. Let us share your joy in the Annunciation, and your devotion to the great mystery of the Incarnation.
E-mail this article to a friend
Copyright © 2004 by Ann Ball
. All rights reserved.