Walsingham – a pilgrimage to England’s Nazareth

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Little Walsingham is a small, seemingly insignificant village in the county of Norfolk. Yet it is listed alongside Jerusalem, Rome, and Santiago de Compostella as one of the four great shrines of medieval Christendom.

On this page we share our pilgrimage story to this sacred place and explore the reasons why Little Walsingham rose to glory.

Plus you can find out what to expect when you visit Little Walsingham today.

The Crucifix at the Shrine Church Walsingham
The Crucifix at the Shrine Church, Walsingham

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Why is Little 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, the heyday of Christianity in England. Pilgrimages to The Holy Land were a common, albeit dangerous undertaking and Christian Crusades were planned to regain control of the Holy Land.

Religious institutions were being built across England to ask God to protect both pilgrims to the Holy Land and the local population. Walsingham saw many such establishments constructed at the time. (Even today there is the Priory with Walsingham Abbey within its grounds, a Friary, the Shrine Church, along with several chapels and churches dedicated to saints and sects and parish churches in nearby villages.)

Living in 11th century Walsingham was a deeply religious Christian Saxon noblewoman, Lady Richeldis de Feverches. She had been left widowed with a young son, Geoffrey, which was a precarious position for a woman then. 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 Little 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 Little Walsingham grew. Richeldis’ son Geoffrey left instructions for a Priory to be built 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 Little Walsingham continued to thrive. The Holy House of Walsingham was a pilgrimage destination as popular as the shrines at Glastonbury and Canterbury.

Many of the Kings between Henry III and Henry VIII gave royal patronage, which raised Little Walsingham’s status even more. Catherine of Aragon was a frequent pilgrim, although Anne Boleyn – who visited Norfolk a lot – may not have kept her intention to visit.

Pilgrimage routes had hostels and places of worship along their length as pilgrims travelled slowly and contemplatively, the road towards the Holy House was no different. Norfolk fed off the visitors. A Slipper Chapel was erected a mile from the shrine to enable pilgrims to remove their shoes to complete the final mile barefoot.

The Reformation

However, by the late 15th century, the culture at the priory was not one of selfless contemplation. Despite being a Holy Shrine and House of God, the conduct of the Prior and some of the Canons was less than exemplary. The church elders at Norwich despaired of their wayward daughter. 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 lands and riches subsequently distributed amongst Henry VIII’s sympathisers. Additionally, a statue of the Madonna and Child, known as Our Lady of Walsingham, was taken to be burned in Chelsea, London alongside Our Lady of Grace from Ipswich. However, notes at the time state that both were received, but no-one witnessed the burning.

And so the centuries passed, the pilgrims faded away, the power of the church waned, 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

Devout Catholic Charlotte Pearson Boyd recognised the Slipper Chapel in Houghton St Giles. She purchased the building in 1896 and had it restored to its former glory. 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 which runs along the river valley between rolling arable and pastoral hills. The Stiffkey river accompanies pilgrims as they pace in contemplation.

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).

Which of these two paths was the original pilgrim route is open to question but we believe it to be the one along the road as the river valley seems the more obvious. The river flows through the Priory grounds so would make a natural guide.

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 built by Fr Patten across the road from the Priory 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 Anglican Shrine 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, it is offered purely for refreshment. Nevertheless, the Church is unofficially a healing centre – messages of ‘thanks for healing received’ are quietly displayed .

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!

Find a Norfolk Campsite here.

Book - Great Pilgrimage Sites of Europe
Pilgrimage is enjoying a modern revival. This book suggests great sites.

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.

The statue from Ipswich, Our Lady of Grace is almost certainly one now held in Nettuno, Italy. Contemporary accounts and descriptions match, and a small inscription on the back indicates that this is the Ipswich statue. It is highly unlikely that either statue was actually burned. A replica of Our Lady of Grace is now held in St Mary in the Elms, Ipswich. (We have visited and seen this replica – beautiful!)

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!

Whilst in Walsingham you can visit the Shrine Church, the Priory with the private Walsingham Abbey within the grounds – you can also glimpse the Friary which is a private home now. There are many and varied chapels and religious houses within a mile of so of the village centre…Little Walsingham is still a major player!

Our visits to Walsingham

3 crosses - Easter 2017 at Walsingham
Walsingham Easter 2017

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

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 humble 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.

The Holy Mile walk to the Anglican Shrine – our pilgrimage!

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 a beautiful 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 as we walked the mile – one of us bare footed – to the shrine in the centre of the village.

The Priory

During August 2022, we spent time at the Priory. Roofless columns pointing at accusing finger at the heavens, ruined window arches staring sightlessly as if in shock. The space occupied by the replica house miraculously constructed in the 12th century is marked by a small plaque. There is little else to prove its existence.

The grounds are an oasis of peace, possibly more so now than when the Priory occupiers descended into raucous misbehavior!

World War 1 commemoration

Before then, in 2018, we were fortunate to be present for the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the ending of World War 1. 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 if you’re travelling around the coastal roads.

Read the full account of our pilgrimage to Walsingham (and 6 other pilgrimages) in our new ebook – Meeting God in a Motorhome – out now!

ebook: meeting god in a motorhome by the motorhome hobos

For two more sacred places, check out our visit to Glastonbury followed by our walk along the Pilgrims’ Way to Canterbury Cathedral.

Further resources

Handy village map of Walsingham

Travel information

A lovely page about the old buildings in Walsingham – with an explanation of why Walsingham had a Priory and a Friary – the Abbey is a house!

Another great page about the “Abbey” that isn’t an Abbey

Several different pilgrim routes you can take into Walsingham

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