Walsingham is a small village in rural Norfolk, England. A dot between Norwich and Kings Lynn.
However, pilgrimage to Walsingham is listed alongside Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago de Compostella as one of the four great shrines of medieval Christendom.
On this page we will explore the reasons behind Walsingham’s rise to glory – and the reasons for its subsequent fall.
Plus you can find out what to expect when you visit Walsingham today however you travel, by foot or by motorhome.
Why is Walsingham famous?
Actually, Walsingham of a thousand years ago was a thriving community alongside nearby Norwich which was England’s second city.
This was a time of religious fervour and devotion. Firstly, Pilgrimages to The Holy Land were a common, albeit dangerous, undertaking. Secondly, Christian Crusades were planned to regain control of the Holy Land.
And lastly, religious institutions were being built to ask God for His protection. Walsingham saw many such establishments constructed.
Living in Walsingham was a Saxon noblewoman, Lady Richeldis de Feverches. Lady Richeldis was known for her deep devotion to her Christian faith. She had however been left widowed with a young son, Geoffrey. But her life was to change completely after a series of religious visions in 1061.
The Holy House of Walsingham
Richeldis’ spirit was transported to Nazareth in a religious ecstasy. She saw the very house where the Angel Gabriel had revealed to Mary that she was pregnant with Jesus. The Virgin instructed Richeldis to build a replica of the house. Whilst Richeldis kept prayerful vigil overnight, the replica was built by miraculous means.
Whilst the Holy Wars were raging, pilgrimage to Nazareth was impossible. Instead pilgrims flocked to Walsingham to worship in the replica of the house that Jesus grew up in.
It became an important shrine and many inns and hostelries were erected as Walsingham grew. Geoffrey left instructions for a Priory to be built; it was to surround the simple wooden structure of the shrine.
This Priory passed into the care of Augustinian Canons in the mid 1100s and as the years passed Walsingham continued to thrive. Successive Royalty visited The Holy House of Walsingham as often as the shrines at Glastonbury and Canterbury.
Many of the Kings between Henry III and Henry VIII gave royal patronage, which raised Walsingham’s status even more. Catherine of Aragon was a frequent pilgrim, although Anne Boleyn – who visited Norfolk a lot – never kept her intention to visit.
Pilgrimage routes had hostels and places of worship along their length as pilgrims travelled slowly and contemplatively. A Slipper Chapel was erected a mile from the shrine. This was where pilgrims removed their shoes to complete the final mile barefoot.
Despite being a Holy Shrine and House of God, the conduct of the Prior and some of the Canons was less than exemplary. Some semblance of order had been restored by 1526 but the Reformation started and Thomas Cromwell began looking into life at the Priory.
Despite vast improvements in the piety, people had long memories. It was easy for Cromwell to find reasons to act against it. The Sub-Prior was hanged outside the Priory walls and eleven men were executed too.
The Holy House and Priory were destroyed; the riches subsequently distributed amongst Henry VIII’s sympathisers. Additionally, a statue of the Madonna and Child was burned in London. Or was it? Notes at the time state that no-one witnessed the burning.
And so the centuries passed but Walsingham Priory was never forgotten.
An Elizabethan Lament for Walsingham
A Lament for Our Lady's Shrine at Walsingham In the wracks of Walsingham Whom should I choose But the Queen of Walsingham to be my guide and muse. Then, thou Prince of Walsingham, Grant me to frame Bitter plaints to rue thy wrong, Bitter woe for thy name. 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!
The Slipper Chapel of Walsingham
Charlotte Pearson Boyd purchased the Slipper Chapel in 1896. In the intervening period, it had been a poor house, a barn, a forge and a cattle shed. Charlotte subsequently returned the restored Chapel to the Catholic Church. Today the Slipper Chapel is a National Shrine of Our Lady for Roman Catholics in England.
The Slipper Chapel is, of course, a mile from the Anglican Shrine Church. Well signposted, it is along a small road alongside the River Stiffkey. That sounds terribly ordinary – the road runs along the river valley between rolling arable and pastoral hills. Rural England is beautiful! Alternately, from the coach park, there is a pleasant walk to the Slipper Chapel through the Norfolk countryside. (The coach park is where we usually park the motorhome on our visits here although it was locked in April 2021).
The Anglican Shrine Church
In 1921, vicar Father Hope Patten displayed a replica statue of Our Lady of Walsingham in St Mary’s parish church. Based on an image of the original, it attracted a steady stream of pilgrims. Fr Patten especially wished to restore some of the richness and colour to worship. He was, however, requested to remove the statue from the church.
The statue was moved to a new Chapel in Walsingham in 1931. This also contained a replacement replica of the Holy House. Eventually the current Anglican Shrine Church took shape after subsequent enlargements to the Chapel.
The Shrine Church remained closed during the war years but Walsingham’s history fascinated locally-based service personnel.
In May 1945, American Forces held the first Mass in the Priory grounds since the Reformation.
Just inside the church is Fr Patten’s memorial tomb. Beneath the tomb is an ancient well, discovered during the foundation laying for the Church. It still delivers a steady supply of fresh drinking water for pilgrims. We can vouch for its purity!
The water has no miraculous claims attributed to it. Nevertheless, the Church is unofficially a healing centre. Indeed, messages of ‘thanks for healing received’ are aplenty.
Pilgrimages to Walsingham today
Nowadays, pilgrimages to Walsingham are a daily occurrence. Prearranged packages for groups are available. Moreover, the Shrine accommodates pilgrims along with full and half board lodging if required. A restaurant and shop compliment the Church.
Additionally there are many boarding houses and cottages for rent in Walsingham alongside tea rooms and shops. Campsites, usually the smaller types, are plentiful in the surrounding towns and villages but well hidden!
The Statue of Our Lady of Walsingham
And the burned statue? The Victoria and Albert museum purchased a medieval statue of the Madonna and Child. Known as the Langham Madonna it was bought in 1925. Soon after in 1931, a clergyman suggested that it could be the Walsingham statue.
In 2019, English art historians studied the damage and form of the statue and declared that the Langham Madonna is indeed the original statue of Our Lady of Walsingham.
Visiting Walsingham in a motorhome
Head for Little Walsingham, that is where the shrine is. Also, it is larger than Great Walsingham! That’s Norfolk for you. There’s a travel link at the end of this page.
Travel towards the B1105 and if you’re in an RV follow the route for coaches. Take note of signs which state “small vehicles only” – they mean it! Clearly, Motorhomes and Norfolk lanes do not mix in a good way. To clarify, some of the roads through Walsingham are not suitable for those wider of girth.
Motorhome parking is at the coach park – note that this was locked in April 2021 but we assumed that this was due to lockdown preventing coach travel. The machine there accepts card as well as cash payments. There is also a car park which soon fills up during tourist season – if you get there early, you’ll get in, but getting out may have to wait until the cars have left.
Also, be aware of some dates where several thousand pilgrims flock en masse to Walsingham. We are sure that it would be a wonderfully inclusive experience but, of course, no good for parking a motorhome!
Our visits to Walsingham
We went to Walsingham at Easter in 2017 as we felt it apt to spend at least a day of our holiday acknowledging the festival. The Shrine Chapel has three crosses outside on the lawn, large enough to be imposing, yet also bare enough to make a strong statement.
We then returned in late 2018, staying at a small camp site in South Creake. Walsingham’s streets seemed to echo with voices from the past, the old buildings watching us as we walked by. They have certainly witnessed many changes.
If you were to remove Georgian facades of some buildings, you would reveal the timber frames which greeted the pilgrims of centuries ago. And so the wheel of time turns.
The Shrine Church is as sumptuously beautiful as one would expect from a jewel in the Anglican crown. Then, in sharp relief, we found the replica of the Holy House. Holding our little cups of well water, we sat in quiet contemplation before it, the simplicity highlighted amongst the vibrant colours beside it.
The surrounding gardens have an air of peace and tranquillity. Consequently it is of no surprise that healing is claimed.
We have yet to visit the ruined Priory. We will, of course, return! As well as then visiting the ruins, we will return for the wonderful scones we enjoyed in a tiny tea-room overlooking the Common Place and the village pump house.
In April 2021, we walked the Holy Mile between the Slipper Chapel and the Anglican Shrine. Due to lockdown, none of the buildings were open however, we were treated to an English Spring day in the heart of Norfolk. The sun shone down from a cloudless blue sky. Red Kites wheeled overhead along with tiny songbirds and croaking corvids. The River Stiffkey (that’s Stoo-key in Norfolk parlance!) giggled its way beside us, tempting us to dip our toes in fords.
World War One commemoration
We were fortunate enough in 2018, however, to be present for the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the ending of World War One. A quiet reverence and respect fell over the assembled crowd as the hour of remembrance approached. Combined with the misty Norfolk chill, lanterns with candles added to the atmosphere. It was certainly an emotional evening.
Following a ceremony, a torch was lit on top of the 16th century village pump. Whilst the torch blazed, we stood silently with our thoughts. Above all, thoughts contemplating man’s inhumanity to his fellows. An apt meditation given the atrocities committed in Walsingham by one belief, one doctrine, and then another.
But let us focus on the goodness which outweighs the evil. This is Walsingham’s message today.
If you’re visiting Walsingham make sure you check out our North Norfolk Road Trip. Walsingham is just a few miles inland from the coast and makes for an excellent day trip inland if you’re travelling around the coastal roads.
A lovely page about the old buildings in Walsingham – with an explanation of why Walsingham had a Priory and a Friary – but not an Abbey.