Although it is certainly a lovely place, Walsingham is by no means as well-known as other Marianist shrines at, say, Lourdes or Fatima, or even Knock and Loretto. Its visitor numbers are ant-like in comparison to those who visit the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico, the most visited Catholic shrine in the world. But, prior to the English Reformation, Walsingham was perhaps one of the most visited Christian centres in Europe, certainly in England, and it boasted an enormous, lavish complex and church.
The legend of Walsingham is that a wealthy woman of the parish, Richeldis de Faverches, beheld a miraculous vision of the Blessed Virgin during the reign of the saint-king, Edward the Confessor (1042 - 1066.) According to the legend, the Virgin asked Lady Richeldis, whose husband Geoffrey had gone on Crusade, to use her wealth to create "England's Nazareth" and after recovering from her Ecstasy, Richeldis fulfilled her mission by building a beautiful wooden chapel, with a statue of the Mother and Child enthroned within.
By the time of Henry I, who reigned from 1100 to 1135, England was going through one of its high-points of devotion to Mary, with the publication of two books entitled Miracles of Blessed Virgin Mary, written by Dominic of Evesham and another by William of Malmesbury. The devout Queen of England, Matilda of Scotland, was also a great devotee of the Virgin, promoting the celebration of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, through the sermons of her priests and spiritual advisers. In this environment, the shrine at Walsingham understandably began to flourish, attracting pilgrims from all over England and Scotland - and eventually, much farther afield. Like the Camiño de Santiago in Compostela, Walsingham became one of the great symbols of medieval internationalism.
In the following century, the shrine received the coveted laurel of official backing, when King Henry III and his glamorous and extravagant wife, Eleanor of Provence, went there on pilgrimage. After that, other royal visitors included King Edward II, Edward III, his pious wife Queen Philippa and the conscience-stricken Henry IV, not long after his usurpation of the throne. In the summer of 1469, King Edward IV came to give thanks to the Virgin for his wife's safe delivery through childbirth (Queen Elizabeth Woodville was still in seclusion at Fotheringhay Castle, after the birth of the couple's third child, Princess Cecily) and the couple's son-in-law and daughter, Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, also visited the shrine in the next generation. Henry VIII, who was eventually to destroy the shrine came here too, early in his reign, but the last royal visitor before the Reformation was his first wife, Katherine of Aragon. Given the distance from London, Katherine was not a regular visitor, making her last recorded visit in 1513, four years after her marriage and three years before the birth of her daughter, Mary. In February 1533, Katherine's successor, Queen Anne Boleyn, told a friend that she planned to entreat the Virgin's intercession by a pilgrimage to Walsingham if she was not pregnant by the end of the season. In fact, Queen Anne was already with child, although she evidently did not realise it, yet - as her allusion to Walsingham makes perfectly clear. It is possible that Anne had, in fact, been to Our Lady's shrine before - both sides of her family had extensive lands and manor houses in Norfolk (indeed, her parents had actually lived there, prior to Anne's birth), so it would have been theoretically easy for Anne to make the pilgrimage, although no record exists of her having done so after 1527. If she did go on pilgrimage, it would have been either as a very young girl, in the company of her mother or, more probably, between the ages of sixteen and nineteen, the so-called "quiet years" in her life, between 1523 and 1526.
In any case, neither Katherine or Anne lived long enough to see the dissolution of Walsingham in 1538, on their husband's orders. The statue of the Mother and Child, venerated by the pilgrims for four centuries, was brought to London and publicly burned, along with other saints' statues now deemed idolatorous. In one particularly horrific case, a prior was martyred for his Catholic beliefs by being burned to death, with the statues of Mary and the saints used as firewood.
Catholic interest in resurrecting Walsingham began during the reign of Queen Victoria in 1897, beginning with the restoration of the "Slipper Chapel," (above) a wayside chapel built by pilgrims in the 14th century, and one of the few remaining parts of the shrine still standing, in any way, shape or form. In 1922, Father Hope Pattern, the Protestant Vicar of Walsingham, installed a statue of the Virgin and Child, based on the medieval relic destroyed by Henry VIII, in the Anglican parish church in Walsingham where, from the beginning, it was attended by local pilgrims. Since 1922, the shrine has continued to grow, although - as I said - it is fundamentally unlikely that it will ever regain what it possessed prior to 1538. In 2000, the Royal Family's associations with Walsingham were restored by the official visit of Her Royal Highness the Princess Alexandra, the Honourable Lady Oglivy.
The destruction of the shrine in 1538 inspired one of the most moving but overlooked poems of the 16th century. The manuscript is currently housed in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, but the authorship is unknown - some have argued that it was Lord Philip Howard, the 20th Earl of Arundel, who was later canonised by Pope Paul VI, but that remains one theory among many. The chronology admittedly fits Lord Philip's identification as the poet in question, since the earl was not born until nineteen years after Walsingham's destruction and the poem is a description of the splendours of the shrine having turned into a haunting ruin.
In the wracks of Walsingham
Whom should I choose,
But the Queen of Walsingham
To be guide to my muse?
Then thou, Prince of Walsingham,
Grant me to frame
Bitter plaints to rue thy wrong,
Bitter woe for Thy name.
Bitter was it to see
The seely sheep
Murdered by the ravening wolves
While the shepherds did sleep.
Bitter was it, O, to view
The sacred vine
(While 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 works of Walsingham,
While she did stand;
Such were 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 no gates are now,
The ways unknown
Where the press of peers did pass
While her fame far was blown.
Owls do shriek 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 into hell.
Satan sits where Our Lord held sway;
Walsingham, O, farewell.
The Anglican website for the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham can be visited here.
The Roman Catholic website for the National Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham can be visited here.