Walsingham Shrine, Norfolk: A Thousand Years Of Pilgrimage

Walsingham Norfolk
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The village of Walsingham, in north Norfolk, may be small, but is packed full of history. It has been a place of pilgrimage for a thousand years, visited by many kings and queens of England. With not just one national shrine, but two, it continues to be an important religious site, attracting 250,000 pilgrims every year. But what is the story of Walsingham Shrine, and what is there for tourists to see and do here?

The Walsingham Holy House

In 1061 the Virgin Mary appeared to Richeldis de Faverches, the lady of the manor, in a vision. She instructed Richeldis to build a replica of the Holy House in Nazareth where the Angel Gabriel had visited Mary and told her that she was to give birth. In this and subsequent visions the lady Richeldis “travelled” to Nazareth so that she could measure the exact dimensions and layout of the house.

The Walsingham Shrine became known as “England’s Nazareth”, and it became one of the most significant pilgrimage sites in medieval England (second only to Canterbury). This was partly because it was dedicated to the Virgin Mary, who took precedence over all the saints and martyrs. Another reason for its popularity was its association with fertility, a major concern in the Middle Ages. The site grew in importance during the Crusades, when the Muslim occupation of Jersualem made pilgrimage to the Holy Land impossible.

Sign showing location of original Walsingham Shrine
A sign shows the original location of the Walsingham Shrine

Walsingham Abbey And Medieval Pilgrims

Walsingham Priory was a foundation of Augustinian Canons, located beside the Holy House. As pilgrims arrived from across the country, and even from elsewhere in Europe, a village grew up around the priory to cater for visitors. King Henry III visited twelve times in the 13th century, creating a precedent that was followed by later kings and queens.

The last royal visitor was King Henry VIII, who made two pilgrimages to Walsingham. However, after the Reformation his Commissioners plundered the Abbey and the Shrine, and the statue of Our Lady of Walsingham was taken to London to be burnt. Today nothing remains of the original Holy House but a plaque in the Abbey grounds marks its location.

The Slipper Chapel: A Catholic Shrine

Pilgrims stopped coming to Walsingham after the destruction of the original shrine. However, in 1897 the first modern pilgrimage made its way to the Slipper Chapel, about a mile from the village. Built in the 14th century, the Slipper Chapel was historically the last of the wayside chapels on the route to Walsingham. The name refers to the fact that devout pilgrims would often remove their shoes before walking the last mile.

Walsingham village and the Slipper Chapel
Pinnable image of Walsingham village and the Slipper Chapel

Today the Slipper Chapel is the Roman Catholic National Shrine, and in 2015 Pope Francis raised the status of the chapel, renaming it the Basilica of Our Lady of Walsingham. The shrine attracts mass pilgrimages as well as individual pilgrims. One of the biggest events is the annual Tamil Pilgrimage, attended by Tamils from Britain, India and Sri Lanka. Although the attendees are primarily Roman Catholics, their number also includes Hindus, who traditionally revere the Virgin Mary.

Tourists are able to visit the Slipper Chapel (mostly a Victorian restoration). The chapel itself contains a statue and several images of the Virgin Mary. The complex around the Chapel includes a café, bookshop and exhibition area. You will also find 14 oak crosses in the grounds, representing the Stations of the Cross.

Anglican Shrine Of Our Lady Of Walsingham

The present day Anglican shrine was built in 1931, using the remnants of old cottages and farm buildings. It included a new church, which incorporated artefacts from churches around the country. The centrepiece of the church is the Holy House, a replica of the 14th century shrine in Loreto in Italy. (Unlike the first Walsingham shrine, which was a copy, the Loreto Holy House was supposedly the actual building that Mary had lived in, transported to Italy by angels…)

Holy House, Walsingham
The Holy House, a replica of the shrine in Loreto, Italy

In recent years an annual pilgrimage has taken place to the Anglican Shrine. The complex includes facilities for pilgrims and tourists, including gardens and a visitor centre. The garden was peaceful when I visited, but may be less so at the end of May when the National Pilgrimage brings thousands of visitors to the church!

What To See And Do In Walsingham

It would take more than a day to see everything in Walsingham. The village itself is architecturally interesting, with many buildings dating from the 15th and 16th centuries. And, aside from the two shrines, there are several churches. Some of these are historic, others more modern, like St Seraphim’s Chapel, an Orthodox church built into the old railway station.

Old houses in Walsingham
Walsingham is full of old buildings

Walsingham Abbey

Although the shrine itself has gone, you can still see the remains of the 12th century Priory in the Abbey Grounds. But the main attraction is the grounds themselves: 18 acres of parkland including woodland, riverside walks and a medieval packhorse bridge.

Ruins of the Abbey
The ruins of the priory within the Abbey grounds

Museums

The Shirehall Museum (at the entrance to the Abbey Grounds) is housed in a 16th century building, perhaps originally a hostel for pilgrims. It includes displays on the history of Walsingham and its pilgrimages, and a Georgian courtroom complete with lockup cell.

The Bridewell, or House of Correction, was an 18th century prison (you can explore by borrowing a key from the Shirehall Museum). And St Seraphim’s Chapel incorporates a museum of icons, pilgrimage, and railway history.

Pilgrim’s Way

The final stage of the traditional pilgrim route to the Walsingham Shrine is called the Holy Mile. You might prefer to walk to the Slipper Chapel along the footpath known as the Pilgrim’s Way. Don’t be fooled by the name though: this is not a historic route, but a section of disused railway line. However, it is a very pleasant walk, avoiding the main road.

Country footpath, Walsingham
Along the Pilgrim’s Way

How To Visit Walsingham

  • Little Walsingham (where the main sights are located) is in north Norfolk, around 45 km from Norwich.
  • If you are staying on the north Norfolk coast as part of a trip around East Anglia, you could leave the car behind and travel via the Wells and Walsingham Light Railway. This is a 4-mile narrow gauge steam railway from Wells-Next-the-Sea (see website for information and times).
  • If you are travelling by car, you could also make a diversion to the medieval Binham Priory, just 7 km away.
  • For those who want to spend a bit more time exploring have a look at the recommendations on booking.com (accommodation options include a pilgrim hotel and other historic buildings).

This article is now available as a mobile app. Go to GPSmyCity to download the app for GPS-assisted travel directions to the attractions featured in this article.

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5 thoughts on “Walsingham Shrine, Norfolk: A Thousand Years Of Pilgrimage”

  1. A very interesting part of England I had not been to. So much to see for pilgrims, dating back a thousand years . Sad about the destruction of the original shrine though.

  2. Love the historic narrative from this part of the world. The buildings in the village and the medieval ruins look fascinating. Would love to tour what’s left of the prison for starters.

    1. Hi Ann, the original shrine was built by Richeldis de Faverches in 1061. The Abbey was built by monks of the Augustinian order in the 12th century. And the modern shrine was built by Father Alfred Hope Patten in 1931.

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