A Walsingham Pilgrimage
By Matthew Champion

As you came from the holy land
Of Walsinghame,
Met you not with my true love
By the way as you came ?
Originally untitled ballad

Little Walsingham in North Norfolk is, quite literally, on the road to nowhere. It lies a few miles inland from the windswept Norfolk coast amidst low, undulating hills dotted with woodland. The area is a quiet agricultural landscape, where fields of waving barley vie for space with sheep pasture and the occasional herd of semi docile cattle. Today the whole area is a sought after holiday location for those wishing to escape the hustle and bustle of the modern world and where tailbacks are as likely to be caused by caravans as tractors. Many of the single-track side roads, that creep and twist between tall blossomed hedgerows, feel today as though they have barely changed in the last thousand years. Strange then to think that it was these very highways and byways, these tracks and pathways, that led to the second most popular shrine in medieval England. Six or seven centuries ago these roads were crammed with people, horses and wagons, with Lords, peasants and a long line of kings, all intent on the same purpose - to seek out the blessings of Our Lady Of Walsingham.

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During its heyday in the 14th and 15th centuries Little Walsingham was visited by thousands of pilgrims each year. Although many of these followed set routes to the shrine, from Lynn, Norwich or Bury St Edmunds, the village became a hub of minor routes and tracks along which the pilgrim trade flowed. Today many of these routes are major roads but, just occasionally, it is possible to stumble across one of the old green pilgrim tracks. This 'greenway' from the village of Great Snoring to Walsingham has been in constant use for at least the last one thousand years.
For many medieval pilgrims the last stop before they reached Walsingham itself was the Slipper Chapel in neighbouring Houghton St Giles. Built in 1325 the chapel marked the point at which dedicated pilgrims would remove their shoes to travel the last mile barefoot. The original chapel was dissolved in 1538 and fell into disrepair.
The ruinous chapel was restored in the late 19th century by the Roman Catholic community and in 1934 became the Catholic National Shrine to Our Lady. Today it has been expanded and extended and plays host to thousands of modern pilgrims each year.
The ruinous state of the building meant that many of the original medieval features had been lost, sold or destroyed. The windows were glazed with modern glass that, it was thought, echoed the medieval originals.
In the 1970s and 80s visitors to the Roman Catholic shrine had far exceeded the limits of the medieval chapel and a new chapel, the Chapel of Reconciliation, was finally consecrated in 1982. The design of the building echoes many of the traditionally built barns and farm buildings that dot the surrounding countryside. The interior is, for a Catholic shrine, surprisingly plain and austere, with whitewashed walls and exposed natural roof timbers.
Despite its modern feel the new Catholic shrine contains many links to Walsingham's medieval past. This symbol, a monogram of the letters MARIA, is found on many local churches and surviving medieval pilgrim badges. Today it is used as the corporate logo of the Catholic shrine.
The last mile between the Slipper Chapel and the village of Walsingham was known as the Holy Mile and runs alongside the water-meadows of the meandering river Stiffkey. The meadows have changed little in the last five or six centuries and would be instantly recognisable to any returning medieval pilgrim.
The first building encountered on entering the village would have been the Franciscan Friary. Founded by Elizabeth de Burgh, Countess of Clare, in 1347 the Friary boasted an enormous guest house and infirmary to house the visiting pilgrims. The establishment of the Friary faced considerable opposition from the Augustine Priory, who believed it would divert pilgrims and funds from their own property. It's eventual wealth would appear to suggest that their fears were not entirely without foundation. Today the Friary is a private ruin, with only the domestic ranges surviving, and it is sadly not open to visitors.
The village of Little Walsingham is unique within England in that it was built almost entirely to cater to the pilgrim trade. The town was ‘planned’ and laid out on a grid system that still survives to this day. Thanks largely to the dissolution the settlement did not have the finances to undertake the mass re-buildings now found elsewhere in nearby settlements. As a result Walsingham has one of the finest collections of pre-dissolution vernacular architecture found anywhere in England. This building, on the corner of the High Street, dates to the early decades of the 16th century and may well have been one of the many pilgrim hostels that Walsingham was famous for.
The Common Place. One of the two open spaces within the centre and the focus for much medieval building work. In the background can be seen a whole range of medieval and 16th century buildings built as shops and hostels for the visiting pilgrims. In the foreground is the ‘pump house’ which was one of the principal sources of water for the village. Today the building is largely 16th century although the pinnacle has been renewed in relatively modern times following its collapse under the weight of bunting that festooned it to celebrate the relief of the siege of Mafeking in 1900.
The Priory Gatehouse. Built in the 1440s, the gatehouse was the first view that many pilgrims would have had of the Priory as they entered the village and walked the last few hundred yards along the high street. To the left of the gatehouse stands the 15th century porter’s lodge, built in a very unusual (for Norfolk) arched brace design. Many of the buildings in the background are built against the precinct wall and, behind more modern facades, are original medieval shops built to cater to the pilgrims. During recent renovations many interesting discoveries were made including medieval wall paintings and original carved decoration.
As the pilgrims passed through the gatehouse they would have entered a bustling and busy precinct surrounded by tall buildings on all sides. Above and to their left would have been the great west tower whilst to their right, across a wide courtyard, stood the priory stables. The flow of pilgrims was carefully regulated by the Priory authorities and pilgrims were required to follow a set route through the church and multiple chapels.
To the modern pilgrim entering through the gatehouse the first view of the ruins is perhaps the most dramatic. The upstanding east end is all that now remains above ground of the great priory church.
A closer view of the eastern gable end of the priory church. The original church had a central crossing tower, as well as a western tower, and was almost 250ft long. The gable end that survives today was built in the 1380s and contains some superb flint flushwork decoration which, when first built, would have given the building a distinct black and white patterned effect. In addition, the mirror like surface of the flint would have reflected the light, making the building visible for many miles around.
Although the priory church has now all but gone the site does contain extensive ruins that belong to the domestic range of buildings. Here the ruined western end of the refectory sits surrounded by trees and almost overgrown with vegetation. The refectory is built in the early Decorated style and is dated to about 1300.
The arched windows and arcading of the refectory are distinctly different from many of the other building phases still represented at Walsingham. The high pointed arch of the east window is echoed here along the south wall. As Norfolk has no natural supplies of quarry stone all the visible dressed stone had to be imported into the county from as far a field as France.
A detail of one of the arched windows in the southern wall of the refectory. At the height of its power, in the late 14th and early 15th century, the Priory was home to more than thirty Canons, all of whom would have taken their meals in this building.
These stunted fragments are all that remain of the piers that supported the massive western tower of the Priory church. Most of the site was cleared at the dissolution, the stone being sold off locally, and only the Prior’s lodgings (later converted to a country house) remained intact. These pillars, along with the other remains of the church, now act as decorative features in the garden of the manor house.
The raised lawn area marks the position of the original Holy House chapel. Both archaeological and documentary evidence point to the original chapel having been built in the first half of the 12th century. Despite this, the Guardians of the modern shrine still insist on a foundation date of 1061, as noted in the 15th century Pynson ballad. Excavations in the early 1960s revealed a small Romanesque chapel within which stood the wooden structure of the Holy House. The miracle working statue of the Virgin that was contained in the house was documented as having been taken to London in 1538 and ceremonially burnt. However, local traditions still persist that hint at its concealment and survival.
Few other fragments of the Priory survived the dissolution unscathed. These doorways now stand alone and lead the way to the crypt – originally the warming room for the Canons.
In the foreground can be seen the two Holy Wells of Walsingham. These ancient wells have been venerated for over two thousand years and have produced evidence of ritual deposition that pre-dates the Roman occupation. It is perhaps the presence of these wells that prompted the erection of the original Holy House only a few dozen yards away. Between the two wells used to sit a stone that worshipers were required to kneel upon. They then dipped a hand in each well and silently asked for their boon.
The lovely Romanesque archway was moved from another part of the site, reputedly the infirmary, in the early 19th century and re-erected as a gateway into the well garden. The position of the original Holy House stands a little beyond the small tree visible through the arch.
Perhaps one of the real treasures of Walsingham. One of the only surviving medieval pack-horse bridges in England. The bridge over the river Stiffkey was originally outside the Priory precinct and stood next to the ford on the Norwich road. However, in the 19th century the precinct wall was moved to bring the bridge within the grounds where it now acts as a garden feature.
The trackway over the pack-horse bring now leads to a pleasant walk in the wooded grounds. Today the bridge carries the few tourists that venture this far into the woods and follow in the footsteps of countless thousands of medieval pilgrims.
The Knight’s Gate. This tiny gate in the precinct wall is traditionally the scene of one of Walsingham’s many medieval miracles. Legend states that a Knight was riding to Walsingham when he way waylaid by a band of murderous cut-throats who preyed on passing pilgrims. Putting spur to his horse the Knight was pursued by the outlaws as he approached the small wicket gate of the Priory. To his dismay the Knight saw that the gate was locked and barred against him. In despair, and with the outlaws fast approaching, the Knight closed his eyes and prayed to Our Lady to intercede. When he opened his eyes again he discovered that he had miraculously passed through the locked gate and into the safety of the Priory precinct. So popular was this tale that the Knight’s Gate had many different designs of pilgrim badge produced in its honour. The gate, as can be seen from the photograph, was rebuilt, along with much of the precinct wall, in the 19th century remodelling. However, as the sign makes clear, the new gate is still unsuitable for wide loads.
In the early 20th century the vicar of Walsingham, Father Hope Patten, re-established the tradition of pilgrimage to Walsingham. Soon thousands of Anglican pilgrims visited the site each year and its popularity continues to grow. Between 1931 and 1937, opposite the Knights Gate, was built the new Anglican Shrine that contains a modern interpretation of the original Holy House, Holy Well and statue of Our Lady. Although Father Hope Patten believed the site to be that of the original Holy House, a myth that continues to this day, the area it covers is now known to have once been an Almonry for the medieval Priory. In addition local legend states that, when excavated, the Holy Well contained within the building was discovered to be a typical medieval domestic well that contained many items of a distinctly non-religious nature.
The modern fountain at the Anglican shrine sits just outside the door to the modern building. In a fascinating echo of medieval practices of ritual deposition the well is always full of coins deposited by hopeful pilgrims ‘for luck’. The building itself was the work of renowned architects Romilie Craze and Sir William Milner.
The modern Anglican shrine is home to a host of medieval traditions that are seldom found within the modern Anglican church. The building contains fifteen side chapels, said to represent the mysteries of the rosary, many of which contain medieval ‘style’ wall paintings.
A detail of the wall paintings within one of the side chapels within the Anglican shrine. For many of the Anglican visitors the shrine, with its incense, paintings and statues, is the first glimpse they have ever had of how a medieval English church would have looked, smelt and felt. For some the experience is overpowering.
Today the inside of the Anglican shrine is like the interior of a mini cathedral. In recent decades the original relatively bare interior has become home to tomb chests and reclining effigies of the church dignitaries who wished to spend eternity in Walsingham.
Unlike the original timber Holy House the new building is of brick and stone. Unusually, particularly in light of the Anglican churches view of ‘relics’, the walls of the new Holy House have pieces of stone embedded in them from other religious houses, both extant and ruinous, from around the world. Each inscribed with their names, it is possible to locate stones from Lourdes, Thetford Priory, Chartres cathedral and Canterbury.
The inside of the Holy House as seen through the ‘squint’ in the rear wall. The priest celebrates mass before the crowned and robed statue of the Virgin. (Warning; the use of flash photography in the Holy House during the elevation of the Host can lead to accidental spillages).
The ‘new’ Holy Well within the Anglican shrine. The well was ‘rediscovered’ during the excavations undertaken in the 1930s prior to the building of the new shrine. Father Hope Patten maintained that this was the original Holy Well of Walsingham – a belief shared by the many hundreds of thousands of modern pilgrims who carry its waters away with them. However, more recent scholarship suggests that the well belonged to either the ‘white hart’ or ‘maidenhead’ hostelries, or the Priory’s Almonry, that once stood upon the site. Prior to excavation the well had been filled in with all sorts of medieval and post-medieval rubbish and refuse including, according to local legend, a dead dog and half a dozen elderly shoes.
The parish church of St Mary. Despite the presence of both the Priory and Friary the parish of Little Walsingham was served by the parish church of St Mary. The building is one of Walsingham’s overlooked gems and would have also seen its fair share of pilgrims passing through during the middle ages. The magnificent tower dates to the 14th century and the nave to the mid 15th century.
The south porch of St Mary’s. In its simplicity and cleanliness of lines the porch is one of the finest two storey porches of its time to survive intact. When built the elaborate image niche would have contained a figure and, like the traceried canopy, would probably have been brightly painted.
On the 14th July 1961 St Mary’s was almost entirely gutted by fire, wiping clean the vast majority of the medieval interior. Reconstructed in the early 1960s the church now has a very modern feel whilst retaining many medieval traditions. Despite the bare whitewashed walls that were once covered with bright images the parish has seen fit to reinsert a rood into the chancel arch and install a number of elaborate and colourful statues. It was here that Father Hope Patten first installed a Marian shrine with replica statue before being ordered to remove it by the Anglican authorities. Hope Patten was not to be defeated though and the actions of the authorities were the impetus for the building of the modern shrine.
The building today contains many features of an Anglo-Catholic nature. It was customary for churches to be anointed in twelve places by the Bishop during the consecration process. Traditionally, each place of anointment would be marked with a cross – echoes of which can be seen today in the crosses that adorn the walls of St Mary’s.
Perhaps the most wonderful medieval survival in the church is the magnificent font. Depicting the seven sacraments and covered in a wealth of elaborate tracery the font was one of the few items in the church to survive the devastating fire. Seven Sacrament fonts are relatively rare, with less than forty surviving in England, and the majority are now to be found in Norfolk. The main eight panels depict all seven medieval sacraments (Baptism, Ordination, Matrimony, Confirmation, Last Rites, Confession and Mass) and are joined by an eighth scene – that of the Crucifixion.
Detail of the Seven Sacrament font. The panel shows the ritual of Confirmation and, hidden in the background, it still retains fragments of its original medieval paintwork. The font at Little Walsingham has been described as ‘the perfect Norfolk font’.
The base of the font at Walsingham is perhaps more interesting than the scenes of the sacraments depicted above. The architectural canopies and framing of the individual figures of the saints is highlighted with the inclusion of smaller figure niches that echo those found on the exterior of the church itself.
The end of medieval Walsingham’s pilgrim trade came quickly. The Friary and Priory were both dissolved in 1538, by which time the Priory was home to only four canons. Both sites were sold to Thomas Sydney who began a systematic programme of destruction for both buildings. The roofing lead and furnishings were recycled and sold off in bulk. The dressed stones, so valuable in an area with no natural stone, were sold off locally for building materials. Even today it is not unusual to come across large quantities of carved and worked ‘Walsingham stone’ built into the farm buildings and houses of the surrounding area.
The Wrack of Walsingham.

Where weare gates noe gates are nowe,
The waies unknowen,
Where the presse of freares did passe
While her fame far was blowen.

Oules do scrike where the sweetest himnes
Lately wear songe,
Toades and serpents hold their dennes
Where the palmers did throng.

Weep, weep O Walsingam,
Whose dayes are nightes,
Blessings turned to blasphemies,
Holy deedes to dispites.

Sinne is where our Ladye sate,
Heaven turned is to helle;
Sathan sitte where our Lord did swaye,
Walsingam, oh, farewell!

The pilgrims who now flock to the multiple shrines of Little Walsingham do so today in cars and coaches. From Easter until Christmas the village plays host to many hundreds of thousands of visitors. Many of them visit the modern shrine on an annual basis and carry home with them small plastic bottles of water from the new ‘Holy Well’. Few visit the site of the original Holy Wells, or walk the turf covered route through the ruined Priory to stare at the place where the Holy House once stood. The old pilgrim tracks, the green roads that led to England’s little Nazareth, are walked now only by local ramblers, birdwatchers and courting couples - and the ghosts of a thousand medieval pilgrims

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