In the Middle Ages, Walsingham – ‘England’s Nazareth’ was a Marian shrine of a size which rivalled Compostella. It owed its origin to Richeldis de Faverches the Saxon wife of a Norman lord. Richeldis had a deep faith in God and devotion to the Blessed Virgin, and was well known for her good works.
In 1061, Richeldis was privileged to have a vision of the Blessed Virgin. She was transported, in her vision, to Nazareth and saw the holy house where the Holy Family lived. Our Lady made it clear she wanted it rebuilt in England’s green and pleasant land:
“Do all this unto my special praise and honour. And all who are distressed or in need, let them seek me here in that little house you have made me in Walsingham. To all that seek me there I will give my help. And there at Walsingham in this little house shall be held in remembrance the great joy of my salutation when Saint Gabriel told me that through humility, I should become the Mother of the Son of God.”
Legend has it that when the masons attempted to build the house, the ground would not yield to their spades, but that in the morning the angels had built it – as she intended.
Skilled craftsmen were commissioned to carve a statue of Our Lady. Our Lady was enthroned on the Throne of Wisdom and crowned as the Queen of Heaven and Earth. She herself was a throne for the Christ-Child, Who was represented holding out the Gospels to the world. Her right hand pointed to Him, and He extended His arm in a double gesture of blessing and protection of His Mother. Each part of the statue was rich in symbolism, such as the seven rings on the throne standing for the Seven Sacraments, which Henry VIII defended centuries later, and the flowering lily-sceptre which she held in her right hand. It symbolised her Perpetual Virginity, and, in the teachings of the Cistercian saint, Bernard of Clairvaux, that She is the Flower of the Rod of Jesse. Miracles of healing were performed there from the start.
Every English King from Richard I to Henry VIII visited the great Shrine which grew there. In 1340 a final pilgrim chapel was built – the Slipper Chapel – so called because it was where pilgrims would remove their shoes and walk the last miles barefoot. It is dedicated to St. Catherine of Alexandria. Today it is the only part of the original shrine intact – and is the Catholic part of the modern shrine.
The rest of it was destroyed as part of one of the greatest acts of vandalism of the sixteenth century. In 1538 Henry VIII sent soldiers to dispossess the Augustinian Canons of Walsingham. Those who resisted were murdered on what is now called ‘Mary’s field’. The Shrine ands its buildings were gutted, the great statue of Our Lady destroyed. Sir Philip Howard’s lines from ‘The wrecks of Walsingham’ say it best:Weep, weep, O Walsingham Whose days are nights, Blessings turned to blasphemies, Holy deeds to despites. Sin is where Our Lady sat, Heaven turned into hell, Satan sits where Our Lord did sway, Walsingham, oh farewell! In the late nineteenth century the Shrine was reestablished – it is thence that I am now bound – and I shall light candles for you all. May Our Lady bless my journey and give me good speed and a safe return.