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The History of Walsingham
Walsingham has been a place of pilgrimage since the Middle Ages — one of the four great shrines of medieval Christendom, ranking alongside Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago da Compostella.
In 1061 the lady of the manor, Richeldis de Faverches, had a series of visions of the Virgin Mary, who showed her the house in Nazareth where the angel Gabriel made his revelation of the forthcoming birth of Jesus. Our Lady asked Richeldis to build a replica of the holy house here in Walsingham.
Founded at the time of the Crusades when it was impossible to visit the Holy Land, English Christians were able to visit ‘Nazareth’ in their own country. Walsingham became the premier shrine to Our Lady and around it grew a large monastery.
A medieval marvel
By 1153 the Augustinian Priory of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary was established next to the holy house. And later, around 1347, the Franciscan Friars, under the patronage of Elizabeth de Burgh, Countess of Clare, established a small friary in the village.
During medieval times, Walsingham was visited by thousands of pilgrims from all over Britain and Europe, including nearly all the kings and queens of England from Henry III (c1226), who really put it on the map with twelve visits. Royal visits continued right up to Henry VIII (1511), who came twice.
Packed with pilgrims
The entire medieval village was dominated by ecclesiastical buildings and fine medieval timber-framed jetted buildings — still visible today — that provided hostelries and shops serving the pilgrims who poured into the village. Walsingham’s highly unusual grid pattern of streets is a direct result of this, an early example of a planning system, for a village catering principally for visitors. Around 1252 a charter was granted to hold a weekly market and an annual fair.
By the fourteenth century, so many pilgrims were visiting the shrine that the priory was enlarged and the little wooden holy house was encased in a larger stone chapel. Only the vast East Window of the priory remains to give us some idea of its scale and magnificence.
The effect of the Reformation
Then came the Reformation in 1538. Walsingham’s principal trade came to an abrupt end. The priory and the friary were dissolved and all property handed over to the King’s Commissioners. The famous statue of Our Lady of Walsingham was taken to London to be publicly burnt. Nothing today remains of the original shrine but the site is marked on the lawn in the Abbey grounds.
Walsingham evolves Walsingham changed course. It became a flourishing market town and legal centre, with quarter sessions held in the Shirehall until 1861 and petty sessions until 1971. Originally a hostelry and part of the Augustian Priory, the Shirehall was adapted into a fine example of Georgian architecture. It is now a museum.
During the same period many of the older timber-framed houses were re-fronted with Georgian facades.
In 1787 a John Howard ‘model’ prison was built for eight prisoners, replacing an existing Elizabethan House of Correction. The prison was enlarged in 1822 and five tread wheels were added in 1823. The prison was closed in 1861.
The railway arrives
In the late 1800s, a branch line of the GER railway was built to cater for Walsingham and Wells-next-the-Sea, at a cost of £70,000. It opened in December 1857 and remained until October 1964, falling victim to Beeching’s savage rail cuts.
The pilgrimage revival began in the late 19th century, with the first modern pilgrimage taking place on 20th August 1897 to the Slipper Chapel, a mile outside the village in Houghton St Giles. This is now the Roman Catholic National Shrine of Our Lady.
In 1921 Fr Alfred Hope Patten was appointed vicar of Walsingham. He was determined to re-establish Walsingham as a shrine to Our Lady and set up a statue of her in the parish church of St Mary. By the early 1930s, Fr Patten had built a new shrine containing a modern Holy House, just outside the Priory walls.
Pilgrimages increased in popularity throughout the 20th century. Today Walsingham is one of the most significant spiritual places in the country, visited each year by around 350,000 pilgrims of all ages and backgrounds.
The wheel has come full circle.
Walsingham and District History Society
The Walsingham and District History Society was born out of the celebrations to mark the Millennium in the year 2000. Since its beginning, it has averaged about 85 members annually, who enjoy a series of talks of a historical or local nature during the quieter months.
The Society meets in the Village Hall, Wells Road, Little Walsingham, at 7.30pm on the first Thursday of the month, during October, November and December, and then again in March, April and May. There is often a tour or visit away to something of interest during the ‘off’ season.
Membership of the Walsingham and District History Society is open to anyone for £5 a year, with a meeting attendance fee of £1 for members. Non-members are also welcome at meetings for £3.
For further details please contact:
Tim McDonald (Chairman): [email protected]