England’s greatest shrine of Our Lady, one among almost 100 in medieval times when devotion to Our Lady was at its height, began in 1061 as a wooden chapel in the Norfolk countryside. The lady of the manor, Richeldis, felt called to honour Mary, and the result was the building in Walsingham of an exact replica of the house in Nazareth where Mary had lived as a child and where she was asked by the angel to be the Mother of the Lord. It was to be a place where people would remember Mary’s joy at this annunciation, and where those who called on her in distress would find help. The 15th-century ballad describing its beginnings laid emphasis on the Gospel miracles of the Messiah: here “the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised”. It adds that mariners came safe to port. (Walsingham is close to the sea.)
From a simple chapel looked after by a small minster community, it became in 1153 a great shrine attached to an Augustinian Priory. The site was thronged with the sick and needy, as well as penitents doing penance or seeking an indulgence. Henry III became devoted to the place after his first visit in 1226, and 20 years later, perhaps at his instigation, a lovely statue of Our Lady was placed in the chapel; he personally donated her golden crown. Now it was not merely a chapel, a Santa Casa; there was a person there, someone to talk to and pray to. It became the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham.
Medieval records are more concerned with the nobility than the general public, except for those who got into trouble, like those villains who had been sent on pilgrimages by justices as part of their punishment, in hope of rehabilitation. But the sheer geographical spread of the pilgrims we know about tells us that by the 15th century Walsingham was probably the foremost shrine of Marian pilgrimage across the whole of Europe. Every English monarch went there, some many times in their reign, up to and including Henry VIII.
Pilgrims on the way into Walsingham village should try to call in at the little (Anglican) church of Houghton, dedicated to St Giles, the patron saint of leprosy sufferers, beggars and those who are lame, and pray before the medieval screen with its women saints and children. Here women with problems conceiving, with difficult pregnancies, or struggling to produce milk, have poured out their hearts for centuries, and still do today.
The eighteen-year old Henry VIII went on pilgrimage to Walsingham, desperate for Queen Katherine to give him a son after she miscarried. Soon she was pregnant again and gave birth to Prince Henry on New Year’s Day 1511. So full of gratitude was he that he set off at once to thank Our Lady; and so cold was it that he paid for expensive windows to be put in the unfinished building that covered the Holy House. But when he got back to Windsor the child was very ill, died, and no more sons were born.
Years passed; Katherine grew older. He petitioned the pope to annul his marriage but was rejected. Henry’s personal tragedy and anger led to his break with Rome; that in turn led to the intrusion of Lutheranism, the dissolution of the monasteries and the destruction of Walsingham’s shrine in 1538. Still, in his will he wrote: “We doe instantlie desire and require the blessed Virgine Marie his mother, with all the holy companie of Heaven, continually to pray for us while we live in this world, and in the passing out of the same.”
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