Walsingham today seems remote, reached along slow country roads, tucked into an obscure fold in the Norfolk landscape, but once it was one of the foremost pilgrimage places in Europe before the Reformation. The founding of the priory in about 1135 stimulated the development of Walsingham which grew along with the increasing number of pilgrims. Every monarch of England from Henry 111 in 1226 to Henry V111 came. Then came the dissolution and destruction of the Priory and its shrine in 1538, followed by a period of abrupt decline, until the revival of modern pilgrimage emerged from what became known as the Oxford Movement in the Church of England, beginning in the 19th Century with the aim of restoring early church and pre-Reformation practise including pilgrimage. It’s story and its endurance is a remarkable phenomenon in our times, symbolising the enduring pull and spirit of shrines and pilgrimages. To cover Walsingham and do it justice will require several posts, so here is the first, written in part from my diaries of impressions at the time, illustrated with photographs I took when there.
The date usually given for the medieval shrine at Walsingham is 1061. The tale is told in a single copy of a ballad preserved in the Pepys Library at Magdalene College, Cambridge. The writer is unknown, it is called the Pynson Ballad after its printer Richard Pynson published it in 1496. In 21 verses, the balladeer describes the building of the original shrine chapel in 1061, by a ‘noble wydowe’, Richaeldis de Faverche, as a replica of the Holy House of Nazareth, following instructions given to her in visions by the Virgin herself. The Ballad does describe vividly the intensity of devotion towards the chapel and shrine, with its statue of Our Lady, relic of her milk, and healing waters. The statue of the Virgin seated with the Christ Child on her lap, and holding a stem of lily as a sceptre which is seen on the Priory Seal and pilgrim badges, is thought to have been from the mid 12th century.
Tradition has it that in 1061 Mary appeared in a vision to a noble Saxon noblewoman and took her in spirit to the house of Nazareth where the Angel Gabriel had asked her to become the Mother of Jesus. Mary asked Richeldis to build an exact replica of that house in Walsingham, saying, “all who seek me there will find succour“. This became known as the Holy House and pilgrims flocked to it. Walsingham is known as “England’s Nazareth”
The priory of Walsingham was founded by Geoffrey de Faverche in around 1153, as an Augustine priory, specifically to care for the chapel founded by his mother shortly beforehand. I drive into the little town, that I have visited many times, and pull up in the centre. It feels good. My husband suggests on the phone that The Bull Inn looks rather good for a B&B and I can see its appeal right in front of me as I stand talking to him.
Two women stand outside smoking and I approach them asking if they have room at the Inn. I am met with a warmth and welcome that confirms I am going to enjoy this. I book for 3 nights. The room at the Inn costs me slightly more than the medieval rate but at least nowadays I do have my own bed. In the fourteenth century a bed cost a penny a head, less than the price of a simple meal, but for that, one would share that bed with two or three others at least. Then as now, guests grumbled about ‘extortionate rates.’ Well, I am not grumbling. I consider my rates for this beautiful Inn very reasonable indeed. The building fascinates me, an open fire in the main drinking room, a beautiful guests room upstairs with views over the square and its old timbered buildings. It is old, so many hundreds of pilgrims must have stayed here over centuries. They are within the very fabric of the building and residue warmth and laughter remain. Suddenly I relax, and know I am in the right place.
The Priory owned at least twenty of the pilgrim hostels in the town, today the village has just two remaining pubs with long histories. The Black Lion dates from around 1310 and is said to have been built to accommodate King Edward 111 who made many pilgrimages to Walsingham, and took its name from the coat of arms of his wife Phillipa of Hainault. The Bull, which is my chosen hostel is the other old one, in the central position in the village facing the Common Place and adjoins the Abbey Grounds. It dates from the 1400’s and possibly earlier.
As the evening drew on and after a good meal, I wandered out to the back of the pub where a marquee was set up. A snooker table took up one half of the space towards the back, and at the entrance were old leather sofas, begging to be snuggled in; wicker chairs, a huge old wood table in the centre and a gas burner which made the whole place cosy and welcoming. There the pilgrims like myself sat, laughing, talking, mixing, and my mind somersaulted as I sat quietly drinking it all in, feeling that I really had entered a time warp. This could have been the scene of any year for the past 1000 years…ordinary people, all with their own private reasons for pilgrimage, all with our own hopes and fears and expectations, just being people together in a strange place, getting along. The camaraderie was palpable, the glasses chinked and as more alcohol was consumed, and we warmed in subject and in body temperature, the mood relaxed as did the tongues, and the groups of conversations differed between religious, bawdy, confessional and counselling. All backgrounds, all life was there in this small group of 20 or so people. Priests and lay mixed with no difference. Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox, the curious, the unsure, converts, and ones who defied categorisation.
There were those that believed in life after death and those who did not, some who saw aliens as being “the answer”, others who gently mocked such ideas. Some believed wholeheartedly in the physical Resurrection, others saw it as symbolic… some thought women should be priests full stop, others saw it as heresy… but all talked, debated, and shared. It was a joy to behold. One of the main gifts of Pilgrimage because within that diversity you realise that you too have your own little space, your own slot that creates the whole ongoing debate and question of the mystery of Christianity. It continues to be revealing through time, it is not fixed and stagnant. It still evolves just as we do and there is a space for all of us within it. And that is the living stories of Canterbury Tales. I was seeing it in living action. At one point I just sat back absorbing it all, and felt the wonder of the experience. We had created bonds. We had a common link that we would explore over the next couple of days. Living Faith.
We had all come to metaphorically place something at the Shrine, a prayer for healing for oneself or another maybe, a prayer for deepening faith, the hope for a miracle within ones life, perhaps an act of memorial of someone dear to us, or a thanksgiving for our life or something that has been granted us, or maybe we are asking forgiveness, or intercession or simply for peace. This we share with all pilgrims of all ages, the one thing that none of us are likely to be doing it for nowadays is to avoid our taxes. In medieval times, pilgrimage offered two unusual benefits that are not relevant today.
‘He that be a pilgrim’, declared the London preacher Richard Alkerton in 1406, ‘oweth first to pay his debts, afterwards to set the house in governance, and afterwards to array himself and take leave of his neighbours, and so go forth.’ Pilgrims enjoyed the special privilege of disposing of their property by will, a privilege which until the late Middle Ages was accorded to very few. Heirs would be named, and the will would state things such as how long he should be missing before presumed dead that his wife may remarry. A second benefit of pilgrimage was as follows. In his absence, a pilgrims property was immune from all civil claims in a court of law. The service he owed his feudal lord was suspended during his time of pilgrimage. In the Papal bull Quantum Praedeccssores of December 1145, Eugenius 111 proclaimed that the wife and children, goods and chattels of every pilgrim or crusader were ‘placed under the protection of the Holy See and all of the prelates of the Church of God. By our apostolic authority we absolutely forbid anyone to disturb them until their return or death.’
On his way home, a pilgrim usually wore a badge or token showing where he had been. It was the formal sign that the pilgrims vow had been fulfilled. Much travelled pilgrims would cover the brims of their hats with badges until their heads were bowed beneath the weight of the lead. Langland’s pilgrim had:
‘An hundredth of ampulles on his hatt seten,
Signes of Synay and shelles of Galice
And many a cruche on his cloke and keyes of Rome
And the vernicle bifore; for men shulde knowe
And se bi his signes whom he sought had. ‘
Perhaps now we do not go to quite such great lengths, but who can resist a token of their visit? For them, the Pilgrims shop in Walsingham is a treasure trove. Then as now we desire to take something tangible home with us as well as the spiritual gifts we receive.
Are we really so different to our ancestors? Tomorrow I would go the shrine.