Walsingham - England's Nazareth

Walsingham is a tiny village on the north coast of East Anglia. Since the days of Saxon England, it has been a place of Christian devotion to Mary, and it continues to have significance for the lives of people today.

Walsingham became a place of Christian pilgrimage in 1061, when Edward the Confessor was King of England. At that time a lady of the village, Richeldis de Faverches, had a vision of Mary in which she was shown Mary' s house in Nazareth. She was requested to build a similar house in Walsingham, with the promise that" Whoever seeks my help there will not go away empty-handed" . Walsingham soon became a popular centre of pilgrimage, especially for lovers, and many miracles were said to have occurred there. Walsingham was then called England' s Nazareth, and the whole of England became known as Mary' s Dowry. For over three hundred years almost every king and queen of England visited Walsingham, and it was said that every English person visited Walsingham at some time in their life. Walsingham soon became an international as well as a national shrine.

A priory Church was built by Augustinian canons in 1153 to cater to the spiritual needs of pilgrims who came to pray in England' s house of Nazareth at a time when travelling to the Holy Land was difficult. In the fourteenth century the Slipper Chapel was built a mile from the shrine, so that pilgrims who walked from London could leave their shoes to complete their pilgrimage barefoot.

Henry VIII visited Walsingham in 1511 to give thanks for the birth of his son, Prince Henry, but when he broke away from Rome the priory was closed, the Holy House burned, and the statue of Mary desecrated. Over the next 350 years Walsingham fell into religious desolation. Catholics were forbidden to visit the shrine during the years of persecution, yet the Lady of Walsingham was never forgotten. As religious freedom developed in the middle of the nineteenth century, Catholics rekindled an interest in Walsingham, and 1897 saw the first pilgrimage to Walsingham after the Reformation.

A Pilgrimage in Walsingham

The Slipper Chapel fell into disrepair and was used as a barn until bought in the 1890s by Charlotte Boyd, who donated it to the Catholic Church. The first mass since the Reformation was celebrated there by Bishop Youens in 1934 as part of a national pilgrimage, and it became the site of England' s National Shrine to Our Lady. During this time devotion to Mary also became popular in the Church of England and a Shrine Church was built for Anglican pilgrims in the village of Walsingham itself.

The Catholic and the Anglican shrines are close together, and the relationship between the two religious denominations is one of partnership and co-operation as both strive to enable people to worship God by honouring his Mother. Mary has become a figure of Christian unity in Walsingham, the pilgrimages often including both Anglicans and Catholics visiting and praying at both the Anglican and the Catholic shrines.

Nothing remains of the Holy house of Nazareth, although a wooden plaque marks its original site on the picturesque lawns next to the ruins of the priory. This land is in private hands, and at present it does not seem likely that this area will be redeveloped as a shrine, although pilgrims can still visit this revered spot.

The present statue of Our Lady of Walsingham is modern, but is based on the original medieval statue. The image is of a mother presenting her son to the world, and she sits on a simple chair of state, with the Child Jesus on her knee holding the Book of Gospels. Mary wears a saxon crown, symbol of her ancient queenship, and she holds a lily representing purity. When Pope John Paul II visited Britain in 1982 the statue was placed on the altar at which the Pope celebrated Mass in Wembley Stadium.

Today Walsingham is a place of prayer, with a unique religious atmosphere. There are opportunities for silent meditative prayer in the setting of the beautiful English countryside, as well as for liturgies on a bigger scale for larger crowds. University students walk to Walsingham carrying heavy wooden crosses, young people arrive on foot and by bicycle, and parish groups and older people arrive by car and coach. People of every age group come to seek the spiritual strength to meet the challenges of everyday life. Many pilgrims walk in procession behind the statue of Mary from Walsingham to the Slipper Chapel, singing and praying in a style chosen by each individual group. Walsingham is also a centre for the theological study of Mary, and conferences and retreats are held frequently. The Shrine has a permanent community of Marian Fathers and Sisters, with a deacon and lay staff who help look after the material and spiritual needs of pilgrims and visitors.

Walsingham is a place filled with the spirit of the evangelisation of England. It is here that Mary is contemplated as a warm-hearted, human mother engaged in ordinary everyday tasks, yet filled with the presence of God. With over nine hundred years of devotion, Walsingham, England' s Nazareth, invites people to come and be touched by God' s love.

Materials provided by the Congregation of Marian Fathers