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

Walsingham Priory, Little Walsingham

priory church east end

priory ruins the arch

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Walsingham Priory, Little Walsingham

Little Walsingham is one of the most attractive of the larger Norfolk villages. However, the experience of visiting it is quite unlike a visit to any other. The village revolves around its churches and shrines, each of them focused on devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and many of the shops sell religious books, icons and other art objects. You are as likely to pass a priest or a nun in the main street as you are a farmer or a second-home owner from north London. Indeed, it is probably the deeply-rooted devotional feel to the place that has prevented it from becoming a second Burnham Market. The story behind these many places of worship in Little Walsingham is too long and complex to go into here, and in any case each of them has a separate page on this website. Suffice to say that each story begins with something that happened in this village almost a thousand years ago.

A late 15th Century legend known as the Pynson Ballad gives an origin myth for Little Walsingham's Marian beginnings. In 1061, the story goes, a noblewoman called Richeldis de Faverches had a dream, a vision of the Blessed Virgin. In this vision, Mary showed Richeldis around the Holy House in Nazareth where she had received the Annunciation from the Angel Gabriel that she was to be the mother of the Christ. Richeldis was asked to create a replica of the Holy House in Little Walsingham to which pilgrims could travel to venerate Mary. It's quite likely that this account is a backstory from perhaps half a century later, but in any case by the end of the 12th Century a great Augustinian Priory had begun to grow up in Little Walsingham, enclosing the Holy House. Almost from the start, the statue of the Blessed Virgin and Child in the shrine became a goal of pilgrimages, and by the later Middle Ages the Walsingham shrine was second only to Canterbury in its importance. 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 both religious houses and pilgrimage sites, and so throughout 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. The newly reformed Church of England turned its back on Catholic tradition and practice, the law making them in any case illegal. Catholic worship was punishable by heavy fines, and priests that remained faithful to the old ways were accused of treason and even sentenced to death.

A heavy silence descended on Walsingham. Probably it was still a goal of secret pilgrimages by Catholic recusants, and it attracted the interest of antiquarians later in the 16th Century. At the start of the 17th Century, a lay probably written by the recusant Philip Howard, Earl of Arundel, bemoaned the fate of the shrine:

Bitter was it so to see
The seely sheep
Murdered by the ravenous wolves
While the shepherds did sleep.

Bitter was it, O to view
The sacred vine,
Whilst the gardeners played all close,
Rooted up by the swine.

Bitter, bitter, O to behold
The grass to grow
Where the walls of Walsingham
So stately did show.

Such were the worth of Walsingham
While she did stand,
Such are the wracks as now do show
Of that Holy Land.

Level, level, with the ground
The towers do lie,
Which, with their golden glittering tops,
Pierced once to the sky.

Where were gates are no gates now,
The ways unknown
Where the press of peers did pass
While her fame was blown.

Owls do scrike where the sweetest hymns
Lately were sung,
Toads and serpents hold their dens
Where the palmers did throng.

Weep, weep, O Walsingham,
Whose days are nights,
Blessings turned to blasphemies,
Holy deeds to despites.

Sin is where Our Lady sat,
Heaven is turned to hell,
Satan sits where Our Lord did sway --
Walsingham, O farewell!

It was not until the very end of the 19th Century that popular interest in Walsingham began to be reawakened, leading to the establishment of the shrines that we see today. Of the great priory itself, not much remains. At the dissolution the site was sold off for 90, and the structure mined for building purposes elsewhere. In the 18th Century a large house was built into the east end of the dormitory range and called the Abbey, although in fact the priory never had abbey status. The grounds remain in private ownership but are regularly open to the public, especially for the famed Snowdrop Walks in early spring.

You enter through the former priory gatehouse which sits squarely on the village high street. Straight ahead of you, about a hundred yards off, is a splendid 15th Century archway, the surviving east end of the chancel of the priory church. It sits in isolation, a dramatic sight. Gazing at it, you might easily overlook the low wall and circular structure close to you by the entrance path, but they are all that survive of the base of a great west tower. There would have been another tower above the crossing. The other surviving buildings are off to the south, part of the cloister, the refectory and the dormitory range including a dormitory undercroft, a vaulted crypt. Pevsner says that the Holy House was set to the north of the north aisle of the priory church, although as he warily notes this is the most likely suggestion, for of course nothing has survived. However, it was enough for Alfred Hope Patten to establish the 1931 Anglican shrine on that spot, now beyond the walls of the grounds, where it stands to this day.

Simon Knott, February 2023

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priory ruins

priory ruins ruined downpipe
crypt vaulting lion in the vaulting

packhorse bridge way out

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


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