Pilgrims from throughout the world have been travelling to a North Norfolk village for almost 1,000 years to visit England’s ‘Nazareth’.
The small village of Walsingham - said to be the holiest place in England - has been welcoming visitors since the 11th century.
By the late Middle Ages, it was held to be the duty of every Englishman to visit this holy place and its shrine at some time during his life.
The story of religious pilgrimage at Walsingham dates back to 1061, in the reign of King Edward the Confessor. It is said that a Saxon noblewoman, the devout widow of the Lord of the Manor of Walsingham, Lady Richeldis de Faverches, had a vision of the Virgin Mary.
During the vision, Lady Richeldis was asked to build in Walsingham an exact copy of the Holy House at Nazareth where, in Christian belief, the Angel Gabriel promised the Virgin Mary that she would give birth to a son, Jesus. Lady Richeldis saw the vision three times and set about planning the building.
The legend goes that workmen had difficulty constructing the chapel so Lady Richeldis spent all night praying. The next day the building, close to twin wells, had been completed. It was better than any builder could have achieved. It is said that the Virgin Mary, with the help of angels, had built the new Holy House.
That is the Walsingham legend which now sees both Roman Catholic and Anglican shrines in the village.
Since Lady Richeldis’ vision, Walsingham has been venerated as one of the holiest places in England. Countless people have visited the village to pray to the Virgin Mary and drink the water from the wells which were said to have healing powers.
Walsingham today rivals Canterbury, another pilgrimage site of the Middle Ages and headquarters of the Church of England and Anglican Communion, as the holiest place in England.
Walsingham, eight miles from Blakeney, has a population of just 819 but welcomes 300,000 Christian pilgrims and other tourists each year. It has been visited by many kings and queens of England and pilgrims worldwide. The village has enough residential accommodation to house 10,000 pilgrims a night.
Walsingham’s original chapel was wood panelled with a wooden statue of an enthroned Virgin Mary with the baby Jesus sitting on her lap. The story soon made Walsingham the most popular pilgrimage site in Britain and Augustinian monks built a priory in the 12th century to cater for pilgrims and to protect the wooden Holy shrine inside a stone building.
Walsingham became one of northern Europe's great places of pilgrimage throughout the Middle Ages. Many pilgrims travelled by sea to King’s Lynn, the fourth largest medieval port in England, or into the North Norfolk coast ports of Wells, Blakeney, Wiveton and Cley.
Travellers from the north of England found it easier and safer to travel by boat to avoid the notoriously dangerous Fens. Travelling was hazardous with miles of open or forested countryside, poor tracks, outlaws and wild animals such as wolves and boar, so pilgrims were encouraged to travel in groups.
Some pilgrims took off their shoes at the nearby Slipper Chapel which is now the Roman Catholic national shrine at Houghton St Giles just outside the village of Walsingham.
As a penance, they walked barefoot the last mile to the Holy shrine. This tradition is still followed by some pilgrims.
The Slipper Chapel, built in 1325, was the last and most important of the wayside chapels that pilgrims would stop at on the numerous pilgrim routes to the pre-reformation shrine in Walsingham.
It may have been named the Slipper Chapel because pilgrims removed their shoes for the final mile. The other thought is that its name came from the word ‘slype’ meaning something in between, the slype or slip chapel standing between the Holy Land of Walsingham and the rest of England.
Pilgrims stopped at the Slipper chapel to celebrate mass and confess their sins before walking on to Walsingham.
By the 14th and 15th centuries Walsingham and Canterbury were the two premier places of pilgrimage in England, with Walsingham considered the more important of the two. This was because Walsingham had a shrine to Our Lady the Virgin Mary whereas Canterbury was a shrine to St. Thomas Becket, the Archbishop who was murdered while praying in Canterbury cathedral in 1170.
King Henry III made the first of several pilgrimages to Walsingham in about 1226.
Nearly all the kings and queens of England, up to and including King Henry VIII and Queen Catherine of Aragon, came on pilgrimage to Walsingham’s Holy House.
However, in 1536 Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in England in a row with the Roman Catholic church.
Two years later his commissioners arrived in Walsingham to seize anything valuable and demolish the religious buildings including the Priory. They destroyed the shrine and burned the venerated statues.
At Henry’s command, a total of some 900 religious houses in England were destroyed including 183 friaries, and 142 convents, churches, and cathedrals affecting some 4,000 monks, 3,000 canons, 3,000 friars and 2,000 nuns. Walsingham still has the ruins of two medieval monastic houses and many 14th and 15th century buildings.
After the destruction of the shrine, Walsingham was no longer a site of pilgrimage and the Slipper Chapel fell into disuse as a religious building and was used, over the years, as a poor house, a forge, a barn and for housing cattle. Some pilgrims are thought to have continued to visit the chapel.
However, in 1896 Charlotte Pearson Boyd, a benefactor who devoted her life to restoring abandoned ecclesiastical buildings, bought the Slipper Chapel and restored it for Roman Catholic devotion. This she saw as her ultimate achievement.
The first public pilgrimage to the Slipper Chapel since the reformation 400 years earlier took place in 1897. In 1934, 10,000 pilgrims gathered to recognise the Slipper Chapel as the National Catholic Shrine of Our Lady.
Since then the Roman Catholic shrine has become firmly recognised as a place of pilgrimage attracting 250,000 pilgrims and tourists each year.
In 1922, a new Anglican vicar of Walsingham, Father Alfred Hope Patten, also wanted to revive pre-reformation pilgrimage to the village. He had a wooden statue carved of Mary with Jesus copying the one destroyed during the reformation and based on the original Walsingham Priory seal which is in the British Museum. He placed the statue in the village’s parish church of St Mary and pilgrimages began again.
The trickle of pilgrims soon became a flood and Father Hope Patten raised money to build a new church opposite the Priory encasing a new Holy House with the replica statue of Mary and Jesus inside. This created the Anglican Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham.
A Saxon well was discovered when the church foundations were laid. Water from this well is believed to have healing powers and pilgrims travel to Walsingham to drink the water or take it home for family and friends.
The Shrine church was substantially extended during the 1960s. The grounds include the shrine, gardens, several chapels, a refectory, a cafe, a shrine shop, a visitors' centre, the Pilgrim Hall, an orangery, the ecclesiastical college, and residential blocks for housing pilgrims.
This 20th century revival has seen a huge rebirth of both Roman Catholic and Anglican pilgrimage to Walsingham.
Daily services and healing services held along with prayer requests from all over the world.