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Walsingham Abbey Grounds and Friary
The Monastery at Walsingham was always a Priory. But between the late 17th and early 18th century the house on the site, originally the Prior’s lodging, was enlarged into a mansion, and became known as ‘The Abbey’.
The house is still called the Abbey and is privately occupied, but the surrounding grounds are open to the public. They contain the ruins of the Augustinian Priory of The Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, one of the premier shrines to Our Lady in England, up to its dissolution in 1538. The Priory was founded c.1153, adjacent to the site where Richeldis de Faverches built the replica of the Holy House following her visions in 1061.
Little remains of the original buildings which were altered in the 13th and 14th centuries, but the most striking feature is the magnificent East Window which gives some indication of the size and importance of the Priory Church (244ft long with both central and western towers).
The Refectory has a fine Early Decorated west window (c1300) and stairs in the wall leading up to the pulpit from which canons were read to during meals. ‘The Crypt’ was in fact a warming room, and has a vaulted ceiling and filled in fireplace clearly visible.
Through a fine Norman arch you can also see the famous twin wells and bath. These holy wells may have been there since before Richeldis’ visions in 1061. The Norman arch was moved to its present position from the Infirmary ruins around 1805.
Excavations in the 1960s revealed the location of the original Holy House, which had a larger chapel built over it in the 15th century. A small wooden plaque set in the grass just north of the nave marks the spot.
During the summer, pilgrims gather for services in the nave of the ruined Priory Church with a small altar set up under the East Window, or on the site of the Holy House, in remembrance of the original Holy House and in veneration of Our Lady of Walsingham.
The Pack Horse bridge across the River Stiffkey is a beautiful example of an early-nineteenth century interpretation of a medieval bridge! Originally this was constructed at an ancient crossing place or ford, to provide a conclusion and dam to a serpentine lake dug out in front of the house in 1805. Together with other designed ruins in the garden, such as the Dell Gate, the bridge was a designed feature of the landscaped garden incorporating stone remnants of the Priory.
Over the bridge, tranquil river and woodland walks lead into unspoilt natural woods and parkland, famous for spectacular sheets of snowdrops in late January and February.
The Knight’s Gate
A small wooden door in the boundary wall comes out opposite the Anglican Shrine. This is the Knight’s Gate, named after another Walsingham legend. In 1314 Sir Raaf Boutetout was fleeing from his enemies and prayed to Our Lady for rescue. Miraculously he and his horse passed through the wicket gate originally in this position to reach sanctuary in the Priory grounds beyond. A pilgrim badge showing knight, horse and gate was subsequently made to mark the event.
The Gatehouse and Porter’s Lodge on the High Street were built in the reign of Henry VI (c1440). This was the original entrance to the Priory and is used for pilgrimage processions and on special occasions.
In spring the Abbey Grounds, which cover 20 acres, are carpeted with snowdrops which attract visitors from all over the UK and beyond.
The Abbey grounds provide a peaceful haven from the hustle and bustle of the village with their sweeping lawns, herbaceous borders, spectacular ruins, and walks near the swift flowing River Stiffkey, through unspoilt woodland into the surrounding parkland.
Open all year
The entrance to the Abbey grounds is at the Shirehall Museum and Tourist Information Centre in Common Place.
The Abbey Grounds and the Shirehall Museum are open daily throughout February, at weekends in March, and daily from April to the end of October.
The Abbey Grounds only are open on weekdays out of season when the Museum is closed.
Admission on weekdays from November to the end of January, and on weekdays in March, is through the Estate Office, in the corner of Common Place adjacent to the Shirehall.
Note that the The Abbey house is not open to the public.
For further information, visit the Walsingham Abbey website. Or visit our local Tourist Information Centre at the Abbey Grounds entrance at the Shirehall Museum (open daily from April to the end of October 11am-4pm) tel. 01328 820510 or the Walsingham Estate Office on 01328 820259.
The Franciscan Friary was founded by Elizabeth de Burgh, Countess of Clare, in 1347. There was serious opposition from the Augustinian Canons who feared the friars would ‘divert’ the pilgrims and so lessen Priory’s income from Mass stipends, burial fee, pilgrim gifts and the like. They petitioned both the countess and Edward III but were over-ruled.
Only a small part of the chancel wall survives from the Friary Church but the finest domestic ruins in Norfolk remain, including the Chapter House, the Friars’ Cloister, the Preaching Cloister, the Kitchen, and a huge Guest House that provided accommodation for poor and sick pilgrims.
The Friary is today owned by the Walsingham Estate and is a private residence.