Our Lady of Walsingham, the Nazareth of England

Although the shrine or Our Lady of Walsingham is medieval in origin, 1997 marks the centenary of the restoration of devotional life at England's famed Marian shrine of Walsingham, Norfolk. "England's Nazareth" is a holy place held in high regard by the Christians of the country.

As popular legend has it, the shrine originated with a noble widow, Lady Richeldis, in 1061. A fifteen century manuscript records the Walsingham ballad, which explains how the noble woman wished to honor Our Lady. Mary responded by asking her to build a chapel. Mary led Richeldis "in spirit" to Nazareth to show her the place where the Archangel Gabriel had greeted her, and directed the widow to take measurements of the house so that she could build one like it at Walsingham. In this spot, the Virgin Mary explained, the people would celebrate the Annunciation, the "root of mankind's gracious redemption," and would find help in their needs.

Three times Richeldis experienced this vision and request. This confirmed her desire to have the chapel constructed, but the directions about the location were unclear to her and to the carpenters. When the carpenters could make no progress in building, Richeldis spent the night in prayer. Her supplications were answered immediately, for Our Lady herself had angels complete the construction on the site she wanted, just two hundred feet from where the workmen had labored.

Over the years, many miracles were attributed to Our Lady of Walsingham, including one in which Kind Edward I was saved from a piece of falling masonry.

Angels themselves transported the house from Palestine to Fiume

Around the fourteenth century the miraculous Holy House of Norfolk began to be upstaged by the Holy House of Loreto, Italy, near Ancona. According to another legend, the birth house of the virgin Mary in Nazareth was transported by angels from Palestine to Fiume (former Yugoslavia). Failing to attract attention and veneration, angels transported it to two more unsuccessful locations near Recanati, Italy. Finally in 1295 the Holy House was carried to Loreto, near the Adriatic Sea,. Eventually the historic basilica was erected in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

As the Protestant Revolt mounted, the fervor of Marian devotion waned in England, "Our Lady's Dowry." Walsingham had been an immensely popular place of pilgrimage until this time. In 1534 the prior and canons of Walsingham signed Henry VIII's Act of Supremacy, placing them among the first to capitulate to the king's authority. In the following centuries the shrine fell into ruins and its former glory largely forgotten.

In the nineteenth century commenced the restoration of the shrine

For pilgrims traveling from London to Walsingham, the last stopping place had been a chapel about a mile away known as the "Slipper Chapel," because they left their shoes there before walking barefoot the last mile to the shrine. the small fourteenth century building was used as a barn to house animals prior to Charlotte Boyd's desire to restore it. Before her plan materialized, she became a Catholic, and in the 1890's bought the chapel and donated it to Downside Abbey. The Guild of Our Lady of Ransom took care of the restorations, and carved the statue of a standing Virgin and Child was given the place of honor. That statue is now in King's Lynn.

The Walsingham shrine has much to celebrate, and is busy doing it. A new window depicting the Annunciation, designed by Alfred Fisher, has been added to the Slipper Chapel. The window was donated by the Guild of Our lady of Ransom. To mark this important addition, a year of special liturgies, concerts, and drama has been inaugurated--some of it Marian, some not.

Our Lady of Walsingham is known as "The Virgin by the Sea"

The medieval ballad told that she helps mariners in distress. The Anglican pilgrim hostel displays the name Stella Maris, Star of the Sea. This is one of Mary's more ancient titles. Walsingham, just a few miles from the Norfolk coast, is a sanctuary of prayer and healing, a metaphor of salvation from storm and shipwreck, offering calm waters and safe harbor to all in trouble.

Might we again refer to England as "Our Lady's Dowry?"


Brother John M. Samaha