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Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, Little Walsingham

(Anglican Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham)

'he is taken down from the cross'

Anglican shrine windows shrine gardens
Shrine gardens at midnight outdoor altar shrine hostel

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Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, Little Walsingham
(Anglican Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham)

In the Middle Ages, the shrine of Our Lady at Walsingham was second only to the Shrine of St Thomas of Canterbury in its significance to English pilgrims. The statue of the Blessed Virgin and child was contained within a holy house, supposed to be a replica of the building in Nazareth where Mary had received the news of her pregnancy from the Angel Gabriel. It was said that the angel had appeared to Richeldis, a noblewoman, in a dream, and asked her to construct the building. By the 12th Century, a large Augustinian Priory had grown up here at Little Walsingham, and pilgrims, unable to visit the real Nazareth in the Holy Land because of the Crusades, came to England's Nazareth instead.

It was not to last. Pilgrimage, and the means of Grace which it sought to effect, were heavily frowned upon by the Anglican reformers of the 16th Century. The Crown had its beady eye on the wealth of pilgrimage sites, and so in the 1530s they were abolished by royal decree, their communities dispersed, their furnishings burnt or sold, their money accruing to the Crown. The statue of Our Lady of Walsingham was burnt at Chelsea, although it has been suggested that the statue in the Victoria and Albert Museum known as the Langham Madonna may actually be the Walsingham statue, either rescued or sold. A heavy silence then descended on Walsingham. It was not difficult for such a remote place to become a backwater, and 16th Century recusants, along with antiquarians of the 17th and 18th Centuries, bemoaned its desolation.

The story of Walsingham begins again with the decriminalisation of Catholicism in the 1820s. This had a two-pronged effect. Firstly, a group of Anglican intellectuals at Oxford were appalled by the possibility that the Church of England might become nothing more than a protestant sect, and sought to proclaim what they saw as the true Catholicity of a National Church. Secondly, the rapid emergence of Catholic communities in England led to the re-establishment, in 1851, of the Catholic hierarchy. For the first time since the Reformation, England had Catholic parishes again.

It has to be said that neither of these two events made much of an impression on Walsingham. There were few ripples to be noticed in this backwater of 19th Century England. It was not until the 1890s that a Priest at the Kings Lynn church of the Annunciation, the Catholic parish into which Walsingham fell, built a Marian shrine within the Kings Lynn church, dedicating it as the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. That same decade, Charlotte Pearson Boyd, a convert to Catholicism, bought the Slipper Chapel at Houghton St Giles and gave it to the Diocese of Northampton for Catholic use. This is now the heart of the Catholic National Shrine of Our Lady, but in the 1890s the Bishop of Northampton seems to have been a little embarrassed by it, and the statue remained at Kings Lynn.

All this was happening in the background, then, when the main Anglican player entered on to the stage, a man whose name will be forever associated with the story of Walsingham. Alfred Hope Patten was a convinced Anglo-Catholic, and in 1921 he arrived in this Church of England parish which already had firm Anglo-Catholic sympathies. A young man, he brought the energy of the movement to this rural outback, and one of his first actions was to install a replica image of the medieval statue of Our Lady of Walsingham in the Little Walsingham parish church.

This was a fairly provocative act for the time. The Church of England was at the apex of its cultural influence, thanks largely to the way in which it had ministered the experience and the grief of the First World War. It had a central place in the English imagination. The Anglo-Catholic Movement was in its ascendancy, at the peak of its enthusiasm. Anglo-Catholics seemed to challenge the Anglican consensus at every turn. They would shortly attempt to have the Church of England replace its totemic Book of Common Prayer, in use for some 350 years, with a new prayer book. This would fail, and in retrospect the Anglo-Catholic tide began to recede at that moment. But that was all in the future.

The Anglican Bishop of Norwich was outraged by Hope Patten's statue, and demanded that it be removed. Hope Patten carried out this request in considerable style, translating the image to a new location on the other side of the Priory ruins, and building another replica of the holy house of Nazareth around it, just as had happened some 750 years previously. Hope Patten believed that the pendulum of the Church of England was swinging his way, and that the views of the Bishop would one day come to be seen as of a past age. There were enough militant Anglo-Catholics in positions of influence to ensure that Walsingham had powerful friends. The new shrine soon began to generate interest, and it was not long before it became necessary to build a larger church around the shrine, which was completed shortly before the outbreak of World War II. This was substantially extended in the 1960s, giving the building the shape and appearance it has today. It has to be said that the 1930s was not a good time to be building a new church or extending it. The exterior is very much in the spirit of that decade. The main entrance is ostensibly from the west, but in practice the extended church has arcading which opens onto the shrine gardens, which have been developed extensively as a place to sit or wander, and are enclosed by early 21st Century buildings which include offices, hostels and a refectory.

Inside at the west end of the church there are steps down into the holy well, supposedly discovered after Hope Patten paused in prayer above it. There is a large ceramic relief of the Annunciation here. Behind this is the Holy House itself, lit up inside by hundreds of candles which burn here daily for Anglo-catholic parishes and intentions from around the world. The grand altar is surmounted by the splendidly dressed replica of the original Walsingham statue, glittering in its finery. Altar, reredos and baldachino are the work of Ninian Comper, who also designed much of the glass, although there is also a delightful Annunciation window by Trena Cox, one of only two of her works in East Anglia. In the arcades around the Holy House are memorials of militant Anglo-Catholic priests of the late 19th Century, from the time before their extraordinary movement reached out and touched this place. It is all a world away from the simplicity of the Catholic shrine a mile off at Houghton St Giles.

Beyond the Holy House, the shrine church opens up and extends into a labyrinth of chapels on two levels. There are fifteen of these, allowing the rosary to be said, one mystery in each chapel. One of the chapels is dedicated and consecrated for Orthodox worship. Others are altars for particular Saints or causes. Whichever way you go, you eventually end up in the Blessed Sacrament chapel with its ceiling mosaic of the Coronation of the Blessed Virgin, above the high altar. It is a moving experience. Perhaps it is fair to say that the shrine never made it to the heart of Anglicanism in the way that Hope Patten had envisaged. But in another way, it has reinvented itself, along with the mainstream of the Church of England, to stand as a witness to the Faith for the hordes of tourists and visitors who make their way to Walsingham. They come here with their hunger for the spiritual, their God-shaped holes, and enter a sense of the numinous which has a like nowhere else in England. God moves in mysterious ways.

Simon Knott, February 2023

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Wanderings in Walsinghamland
a video exploration of Walsingham's history and places

Holy House by day

cloisters cloister view from the Holy House
Annunciation altar
St John of the Cross Coronation of the Blessed Virgin Curé d'Ars
Annunciation (Trena Cox) The vision of Richeldis (Ninian Comper) Christ in Majesty by Ninian Comper Blessed Virgin and child by Ninian Comper
candles arcades candles
down to the well windows candles
doorway Blessed Sacrament chapel looking down
looking east altar St Paul by Ninian Comper


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The Norfolk Churches Site: an occasional sideways glance at the churches of Norfolk