The Virgin by the Sea,
Our Lady of Walsingham
by Brother John M. Samaha, S.M.
Although the shrine or Our Lady of Walsingham is medieval in origin, 1997 marked 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 fifteenth-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 King Edward I was saved from a piece of falling masonry.
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.
But a wealthy Anglican woman, Charlotte Boyd, in the nineteenth century commenced the restoration of the shrine, just as another wealthy woman had initially endowed it in the eleventh century.
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 1890s 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 to be given the place of honor. That statue is now in King's Lynn.
A century ago, August 20, 1897, a procession of pilgrims from King's Lynn to the Slipper
Chapel marked the renewal of public devotion to Our Lady of Walsingham. But for a generation
or more the Catholic Church showed little enthusiasm for the shrine. The reason given was that
during the nineteenth century many Catholics in England and Ireland were not pleased with
attempts by Cardinal Manning and others to promote public devotions, processions, and rituals.
The faithful were accustomed to a more reserved expression of prayer. The recusant families
considered such practices as "un-English" imports from abroad. Consequently the restored shrine
of Walsingham had little impact initially on English Catholicism.
In the 1920's, however, the Anglican vicar of Walsingham, Father Alfred Hope Patten, determined to recreate the medieval shrine under the auspices of the Church of England. The vigor of the Anglican project shamed the Catholics into doubling their own efforts to encourage devotion to Our Lady at the Slipper Chapel.
At present the Catholic shrine is developing enormously, especially since the construction of the Chapel of Reconciliation. Now both shrines, with their respective pilgrim hostels, are increasingly popular and patronized. Earlier, neither Anglicans nor Catholics acknowledged publicly one another's existence at Walsingham. Even the old street signs indicated the "Shrine of OLW" in one direction, and the "RC Shrine" in the other.
Then things changed fifteen years ago when Pope John Paul II visited England, and celebrated Mass at Wembley with the image of Our Lady of Walsingham on the altar. The image was placed there by the director of the Catholic shrine and the administrator of the Anglican shrine. Thereafter Anglicans and Catholics have recognized each other in their publications and events. Ecumenical relations, because of some over-zealous efforts and statements, have been a little strained, and are now going through a quiet phase. The Anglican administrator, Martin Warner, regards this as a case of "roots deepening in the winter." He is optimistic for the future friendship of the Anglican and Catholic Churches.
Some English Catholics observe a difficulty surrounding Marian doctrine and devotion. The Catholic Church now has a generation of priests and teachers who have received almost no education in Mariology and practice only token devotions to Our Lady. Yet these priests and teachers are expected to be able to go to Walsingham and like places, and to address crowds of passionate devotees whose hearts are overflowing with love for and trust in the Mother of God.
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 was celebrated--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"?
Website for the Catholic and Anglican Shrines at Walsingham
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