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 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 Richeldis “travelled” to Nazareth so that she could measure the exact dimensions and layout of the house.
The Walsingham Shrine was known as “England’s Nazareth”, and it became the most significant pilgrimage site in England. 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 pilgrimage to Jerusalem became impossible.
Walsingham Abbey And Medieval Pilgrims
A large priory was established next to the Holy House, and a village grew up around it to cater for visitors. Pilgrims arrived from across the country, and even from elsewhere in Europe. King Henry III visited twelve times in the 13th century, creating a precedent that was followed by later kings and queens.
The last king to visit was 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 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 stop on the route to Walsingham. The name refers to the fact that devout pilgrims would often remove their shoes before walking the last mile.
Today the Slipper Chapel is the Roman Catholic National Shrine, attracting 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 complex around the Chapel includes a café, bookshop and exhibition area.
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 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…)
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.
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 packhouse bridge.
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.
The final stage of the traditional pilgrim route is called the Holy Mile. However, you may 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.
Wells-Walsingham Light Railway
Finally, if you are coming from the north Norfolk coast, 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).