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History of Pilgrimage
The Walsingham Story
In 1061, in the reign of Edward the Confessor, the widow of the lord of the manor of Walsingham Parva, called Richeldis, had a vision of the Virgin Mary. Mary took Richeldis in spirit to Nazareth to show the place where the Angel Gabriel had appeared to her. Richeldis was told to take note of the measurements of the Holy House and build a copy of it in Walsingham. Richeldis saw the vision three times.
Carpenters were instructed to build the house but where? During the night there was a heavy fall of dew but in one meadow two spaces of equal size remained dry. Richeldis took this as a sign and chose the plot close behind a pair of twin wells.
The workmen tried to build there but found themselves unable to do so. They gave up in despair and consulted Richeldis. She spent all night in prayer. The next morning a miracle was discovered. The chapel was found fully completed and standing on the other dry spot. It was concluded that Our Lady had removed the Holy House to the place she herself had chosen. This is the Walsingham legend.
The Early Years
Since then Walsingham has been venerated as one of the holiest places in England, and countless people have visited the village to ask Mary to pray to Jesus on their behalf. By the late Middle Ages, it was held to be the duty of every Englishman that at some time during his life he should visit Our Lady at Walsingham.
Little is known about the earliest pilgrims, although they carried back the word that their prayers had been answered following their visits to the Holy House, and their illnesses healed by drinking the water from the wells. News gradually spread out of Norfolk and reached the ears of the royal court at Greenwich.
A royal champion
King Henry III made his first of many pilgrimages to Walsingham around 1226. He was a great supporter of The Virgin Mary and the Holy House at Walsingham became one of the centres of his devotion. He generously gave the Canons his royal patronage.
Following his example nearly all the Kings and Queens of England, up to and including King Henry VIII and Queen Katherine of Aragon, came on pilgrimage to the Holy House, until the Dissolution of the Priory in 1538.
By the 14th and 15th centuries Walsingham and Canterbury were the two premier places of pilgrimage in England, with Walsingham slightly the more important of the two, as this was a shrine to Our Lady whereas Canterbury was a shrine to St. Thomas Becket.
In the later Middle Ages, there were so many people wanting to make pilgrimages to various places that the Church had to regulate the practice so families and work were not neglected. A pilgrim had to have permission from his Bishop before setting out and had to put his affairs in order, often making a will, repaying outstanding debts and providing for his family in his absence.
Pilgrims would assemble in their parish church to dress in the distinctive pilgrim habit and be blessed by the priest. Pilgrims typically wore a long grey gown with a cowl and a broad hat, and carried a staff, a scrip and a bottle.
Pilgrims travelled to religious sites all over England and routes were well established to help them on their journey. The main route to Walsingham was from London via Waltham Abbey, Newmarket, Brandon, Swaffham, Castle Acre priory, and East Barsham. From the north, pilgrims crossed the Wash near Long Sutton and came through King’s Lynn (then called Bishop’s Lynn), Flitcham, Rudham and Coxford. From the east the route ran through Norwich and Attlebridge.
Routes were marked by religious houses or wayside chapels to aid the pilgrims with their spiritual and temporal needs. Monasteries and hospices also offered hospitality.
Travelling was very hazardous with miles of open or forested countryside, poor tracks, outlaws and wild animals like wolves and boar, so pilgrims were encouraged to travel in groups.
Pilgrims often visited a number of shrines en route to a principal shrine. Pilgrimages to Walsingham might include Bromholm Priory to see a relic of the Holy Cross, a visit to the anchorite Mother Julian in Norwich or St William’s shrine in Norwich Cathedral, St Edmund’s Shrine at Bury St. Edmunds in Suffolk, or St Etheldreda’s shrine in Ely Cathedral.
Many pilgrims came from Europe by boat, either into King’s Lynn (a member of the Germanic Hanseatic League and the fourth largest medieval port in England), or into smaller ports along the North Norfolk coast, like Wells, Blakeney or Cley. Travellers from the north of England would find it easier and safer to travel by boat down the north east coast, so they did not have to cross the notoriously dangerous Fens.
An essential purchase for all pilgrims was a lead or pewter pilgrim badge. Worn on their hat or cloak, the badge was a keepsake to show which pilgrimage they had made. Walsingham emblems varied in shape and design but usually bore a symbol of the Annunciation.
Since the pilgrimage revival of the mid 1930s, pilgrim travel has become much easier.
Initially pilgrims could come to Walsingham by train, via a branch line opened in 1857 with a special halt at the Slipper Chapel in Houghton St. Giles and a busy station at Walsingham. When the line was closed in 1964, pilgrims had to rely mainly on cars and coaches.
During the war years, Walsingham was a restricted zone closed to visitors, but many service men and women showed interest in the shrine. On May 17th 1945, the American Forces organised the first Mass in the Priory grounds since the Reformation.
The first Student Cross pilgrimage and the great Cross Carrying Pilgrimage for Penance and Prayer in 1948 began traditions that continue today. Each year Student Cross still walk to the shrine during Holy Week carrying wooden crosses.
Today around 250,000 pilgrims visit Walsingham each year, as individuals or as parish groups accompanied by their priest.
The National Pilgrimage Day, held every year on the last Bank Holiday Monday in May, is the biggest event, with up to 8,000 people taking part. A long procession follows Mary’s statue as it is carried through the village into the Abbey grounds, where a huge open air mass is celebrated.
Other annual themed pilgrimages include the Children’s, Youth, Tamils, Sick and Disabled, Union of Catholic Mothers, and Travellers.