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Little Walsingham

If history and religion or historical religion is your thing, you really must check out Walsingham a small village in North Norfolk, England called Walsingham. It’s most famous for all of the religious shrines in honour of the Virgin Mary located there. There are also the ruins of two medieval monastic houses.

Little Walsingham and Great Walsingham, are also a civil parish and together with the depopulated medieval village of Egmere is considered a small village. According to the 2011 census, it had a population of a mere 819 people living there.

Today, Walsingham is considered a major centre of pilgrimage. In 1061, according to the Walsingham legend, a Saxon noblewoman, Richeldis de Faverches, had a vision of the Virgin Mary. In the vision, she claimed that she had been instructed to build a replica of the house of the Holy Family in Nazareth in honour of the Annunciation. Whatever she did or didn’t see, we do know that her family name does not appear in the Domesday book. One could speculate that she had perhaps ingested some bad mushrooms or something. Regardless of the source of this ‘vision’, the house was built.


The construction of the Holy House in Walsingham included panelled wood and it also contained a wooden statue of an enthroned Virgin Mary holding the child Jesus seated on her lap. Among its other relics was a phial of the Virgin’s milk. Where they got that from, I have no idea and honestly, I am not that comfortable speculating on it. Walsingham became one of northern Europe’s great places of pilgrimage and remained so through most of the Middle Ages.

In 1153, a priory of Canons Regular was established on the site. Located as it was, a few miles from the sea, in the northern part of Norfolk, it grew in importance over the next few centuries. Founded in the time of Edward the Confessor, the Chapel of Our Lady of Walsingham was confirmed to the Augustinian Canons a century later and enclosed within the priory.

Who could have known that from the first, this shrine would become a famous place of pilgrimage and the faithful would come from all parts of England and the Continent until the destruction of the priory under King Henry VIII in 1538? Believe it or not, to this day the main road of the pilgrims through Newmarket, Brandon and Fakenham is still called the Palmers’ (Pilgrims’) Way. Which is cool, regardless of your religious or non-religious affiliations.


Throughout history, several English kings have visited the shrine, including Henry III, Edward I, Edward II, Edward III, Henry VI in 1455, Henry VII in 1487 and lastly, Henry VIII, who was later responsible for its destruction when the shrine and abbey perished in the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

Erasmus, in fulfilment of a vow, made a pilgrimage from Cambridge in 1511 and left as his offering up Greek verse expressive of his personal piety. Thirteen years later he wrote his colloquy on pilgrimages, wherein the wealth and magnificence of Walsingham are set forth and some of the reputed miracles rationalised.

Two of Henry VIII’s wives, Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn both made pilgrimages to the shrine. Not at the same time, of course.

In the year 1537 while the last Prior, Richard Vowell, was paying obsequious respect to Thomas Cromwell. The Sub-Prior, Nicholas Mileham, was charged with conspiring to rebel against the suppression of the lesser monasteries and, on flimsy evidence, was convicted of high treason and hanged outside the Priory walls.

Eleven people in all, including two lay choristers who had been instrumental in organising the revolt were hanged, drawn and quartered. What they feared would happen came the following year.


Prior Vowell assented to the destruction of Walsingham Priory in July and assisted the king’s commissioners in the removal of the figure of Our Lady and many of the gold and silver ornaments and in the general spoliation of the shrine. He was rewarded for his ready compliance and received a pension of 100 pounds a year. This was a very large sum in those days, while fifteen of the canons received pensions varying from four to six pounds.

With the shrine now dismantled and the priory destroyed, the site was sold by order of Henry VIII to Thomas Sidney for ninety pounds and a private mansion was subsequently erected on the spot. Gold and silver from the shrine was taken to London along with the statue of Mary and Jesus which was later burned.

On the 6th of February 1897, Pope Leo XIII blessed a new statue for the restored ancient sanctuary of Our Lady of Walsingham. The statue was sent from Rome and placed in the Holy House Chapel at the newly built Roman Catholic parish church of King’s Lynn. Then on the 19th of August 1897 and on the following day, the first post-Reformation pilgrimage took place to the Slipper Chapel at Walsingham.

On That Note

This had been purchased by Charlotte Boyd(e) in 1895, and restored again for Catholic use. Hundreds of Catholics attended the pilgrimage and committed themselves to an annual pilgrimage in order to commemorate this event. You can still find the actual archives in King’s Lynn and while you’re there, why not stop by the original Medusa Juice Vape Shop or the kiosk in the bus station and pick up some great new flavours of e-juices or maybe some new gear.

In the year 1900, a caretaker was placed in the Priest’s House at the Slipper Chapel in order to facilitate its use by Catholic pilgrims. This would be under the custody of the monks at Downside Abbey, of course, and both Father Wrigglesworth and Father Fletcher laid the foundations and left others to declare the Catholic National Shrine at the Slipper Chapel on 19 August 1934 with over 10,000 pilgrims present.

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