Monday, October 10, 2011
Our Lady of Walsingham
Our Lady of Walsingham is a title used for Mary, the mother of Jesus. The title derives from the belief that Mary appeared in a vision to Richeldis de Faverches, a devout Saxon noblewoman, in 1061 in the village of Walsingham in Norfolk, England. Lady Richeldis had a Holy House built in Walsingham which became a shrine and place of pilgrimage.
The Holy House, containing the simple wooden structure which Richeldis had been asked to build in imitation of the home in which the Annunciation occurred, became both a shrine and the focus of pilgrimage to Walsingham. The chapel was founded in the time of Edward the Confessor, about 1053, the earliest deeds naming Richeldis, the mother of Geoffrey of Favraches as the founder. In 1169, Geoffrey granted 'to God and St. Mary and to Edwy his clerk the chapel of our Lady' which his mother had founded at Walsingham with the intention that Edwy should found a priory. These gifts were, shortly afterwards, confirmed to the Austin Canons of Walsingham by Robert de Brucurt and Roger, earl of Clare. By the time of its destruction in 1538 during the reign of Henry VIII, the shrine had become one of the greatest religious centres in England, and Europe, together with Glastonbury and Canterbury. It had been a place of pilgrimage during medieval times, when due to wars and political upheaval, travel to Rome and Compostella was difficult.
Royal patronage helped the shrine to grow in wealth and popularity, receiving visits from Henry III, Edward II, Edward III, Henry IV, Edward IV, Henry VII, Henry VIII and Erasmus. It was also a place of pilgrimage for English queens - Catherine of Aragon was a regular pilgrim and her successor, Anne Boleyn, also announced an intention of making a pilgrimage. Its wealth and prestige did not, however, prevent its being a disorderly house. The visitation of Bishop Nicke in 1514 revealed that the prior was leading a scandalous life, that, among many other things, he treated the Canons with insolence and brutality; the Canons themselves frequented taverns and were quarrelsome. The prior William Lowth was removed and by 1526 some decent order had been restored.
The suppression of the monasteries was part of the English Reformation. On the pretext of discovering any irregularities in their life, Thomas Cromwell organized a series of visitations, the results of which led to the suppression of smaller foundations (which did not include Walsingham) in 1536. Two years earlier the Prior, Richard Vowell, had signed their acceptance of the king's supremacy, but it did not save them. Cromwell's actions were politically motivated but the Canons, who had a number of houses in Norfolk were not noted for their piety or good order. The prior was evidently compliant but not all of the community felt likewise. In 1537, two lay choristers organized 'the most serious plot hatched anywhere south of the Trent', intended to resist what they feared, rightly as it turned out, would happen to their foundation. 11 men were executed as a result. The suppression of Walsingham priory came late in 1538, under the supervision of Sir Roger Townshend, a local landowner. Walsingham was famous and its fall symbolic: Bishop Latimer wrote of the image of Our Lady: "She hath been the Devil's instrument, I fear, to bring many to eternal fire; now she herself with her older sister of Walsingham, her younger sister of Ipswich, and their two sisters of Doncaster and Penrhys will make a jolly muster in Smithfield. They would not be all day in burning".
According to Wriothesley, Windsor Herald, who wrote the informative Chronicle of England during the reigns of the Tudors: - "It was the month of July, the images of Our Lady of Walsingham and Ipswich were brought up to London with all the jewels that hung around them, at the King's commandment, and divers other images, both in England and Wales, that were used for common pilgrimage . . . and they were burnt at Chelsea by my Lord Privy Seal". Two other chroniclers, Hall and Speed, suggest that the actual burning did not take place until September.
The buildings were looted and largely destroyed, the sub-prior executed, but the memory of it was less easy to eradicate. Sir Roger wrote to Cromwell in 1564 that a woman of nearby Wells, had declared that a miracle had been done by the image of Our Lady after it had been carried away to London. He had her put in the stocks on market day to be abused by the village folk but concluded 'I cannot perceyve but the seyd image is not yett out of the sum of ther heddes'.
The site of the priory with the churchyard and gardens was granted by the Crown to Thomas Sydney. All that remained of it was the gatehouse, the chancel arch and a few outbuildings.
After nearly four hundred years the 20th century saw the restoration of pilgrimage to Walsingham as a regular feature of Christian life in the British Isles and beyond. There are both Roman Catholic and Anglican shrines in Walsingham.
In 1897 Pope Leo XIII re-established the restored 14th century Slipper Chapel as a Roman Catholic shrine, now the centre of the National Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. The Holy House had been rebuilt at the Church of the Annunciation at King's Lynn (Walsingham was part of this Roman Catholic parish in 1897).
Father Alfred Hope Patten OSA, appointed as the Church of England Vicar of Walsingham in 1921, ignited Anglican interest in the pre-Reformation pilgrimage. It was his idea to create a new statue of Our Lady of Walsingham based on the image depicted on the seal of the medieval priory. In 1922 the statue was set up in the Parish Church of St. Mary and regular pilgrimage devotion followed. From the first night that the statue was placed there, people gathered around it to pray, asking Mary to join her prayers with theirs.
Throughout the 1920s the trickle of pilgrims became a flood of large numbers for whom, eventually, the Pilgrim Hospice was opened (a hospice is the name of a place of hospitality for pilgrims) and, in 1931, a new Holy House encased in a small pilgrimage church was dedicated and the statue translated there with great solemnity. In 1938 that church was enlarged to form the Anglican Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. Father Patten combined the posts of Vicar of Walsingham and Priest Administrator of the Anglican shrine until his death in 1958.
There is frequently an ecumenical dimension to pilgrimages to Walsingham, with pilgrims arriving at the Slipper Chapel and then walking to the Holy House at the Anglican shrine.