J C Dickinson, The Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham (1956),
chapters 1 to 3 - Historical
(Dickinson divided his book into two parts, historical and archaeological)

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CHAPTER I : THE ORIGINS OF THE SHRINE

IT is not easy for the modern reader to appreciate how dark was the glass through which medieval man viewed his history. The information at his disposal was frequently scanty and unreliable, with the inevitable result that the picture he saw as he peered into an obscure past differed notably from that lit up by the light of modern research. One might have expected that historical accuracy could at least have been found at such seats of learning as the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, yet by the end of the Middle Ages both of them had antedated their own foundation by centuries, maintaining a connexion with the mythical Prince Cantaber, the semi-mythical Prince Arthur, and with King Alfred and the Emperor Charlemagne, both of whom had been dead three hundred years before there was the slightest sign of university life in England. Similarly, we find the kings of England had long claimed descent from the mythical King Brutus. From this historical disability ecclesiastical institutions were by no means immune. The abbey of Glastonbury, with a more venerable history than that of any other English monastery, developed a quite baseless tradition linking its early years with St Joseph of Arimathaea himself. In such an atmosphere it was not surprising that the famous house of Our Lady of Walsingham had, by the time of the Reformation, somewhat distorted the story of its own beginnings.

In a Book of Hours now in the University Library, Cambridge, a note claims that the original chapel at Walsingham was founded in 1061, and this is elaborated in a ballad on the house, published by Richard Pynson in or soon after 1496. But this very late evidence is squarely contradicted by earlier and much more reliable material, which shows that the origins of the shrine belong to the early half of the twelfth century. The very fine cartulary of Walsingham Priory now in the British Museum furnishes a list of priors, giving both their names and the length of their periods of office which establishes that the priory at Walsingham began in or about 1153, and this is attested by other evidence. The Pynson ballad tells us that the priory at Walsingham was preceded by a chapel built in honour of Our Lady by one Richelde of Fervaques whose son, Geoffrey, converted the place into a priory. This is confirmed by Geoffrey’s foundation charter and may be taken as certain. His deed cannot be closely dated but is the earliest in the cartulary. A confirmation of it is addressed to William, bishop of Norwich (1146-75) by Roger, earl of Clare (1152-73). As Roger was recognized as earl of Hereford by 1156 and is not styled by this title in this charter, it seems likely that the latter was drawn up between 1152 and 1156.

Of Richelde little is known, but we have in the Pipe Roll of 1130-1* an invaluable note which suggests that she was a widow in this year. This tells us that one William de Hocton (probably Houghton) rendered account for ten golden marks for the right to have the wife of Geoffrey Fervaques as his wife, with her land, and to have the wardship of her son until the latter could become a knight, and afterwards the son was to hold the land from William. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Geoffrey here mentioned was the father of the founder of Walsingham Priory and the widow mentioned was Richelde, who built the chapel there. This Geoffrey is mentioned in 1108 along with William de Houghton and he also witnesses the foundation charter of Binham Priory (1101-12). A little later, Binham recovered a moiety of Walsingham against Geoffrey and his priest Warin, and Geoffrey witnessed a gift to Castle Acre before 1130. But the Pipe Roll shows conclusively that he was dead by 1131, so it is quite clear that it was a namesake of his who founded the priory at Walsingham in or about 1153.

This namesake is almost certainly the son of Geoffrey mentioned in the Pipe Roll of 1130-1 as being then under age. This entry implies that Geoffrey II could not have been born before about 1100 at the very earliest, a fact which tells very strongly against 1061 as the date of the foundation of the chapel at Walsingham by Richelde. For if we were to accept this latter date as accurate, we are bound to believe that Richelde was born some twenty years before 1061 (as a child could not found a chapel) and she would therefore be some seventy or eighty years of age when her son Geoffrey was born. It is worth noting that there is no authority for this date of 1061 earlier than the late fifteenth century, and that by this time it was by no means uncommon for some considerable misunderstanding to exist as to the circumstances under which, several centuries earlier, a monastery came into being. The unreliability of Leland on the foundation of Walsingham is shown by his remark that canons were introduced there under William the Conqueror, a statement that is, almost certainly, quite false. Finally, it is to be noted that there is no evidence of Richelde or any of the Fervaques owning land in Walsingham in the period covered by Domesday Book (1066-86).3
If we are to accept the evidence of the Pynson ballad that the chapel at Walsingham was founded by Richelde when she was a widow, we must date the event late in her life, unless we presume an earlier marriage than the one to Geoffrey. As we have not the slightest evidence for this, and since it is all but certain that she was a widow in 1130-1, it seems natural to conclude that the first chapel at Walsingham was founded somewhere about this latter date. It should be noted that, if the chapel had existed for any long period as a place of pilgrimage, before it was given over to regular canons, it would almost inevitably have acquired considerable property which one would expect to find mentioned in the cartulary; of this there is little trace.

It is not impossible that the foundation of the priory at Walsingham took place only a very short time after that of the chapel. For Richelde’s erection of the Holy House may have been inspired by her son’s visit to the Holy Land (which is mentioned in his foundation charter). When this journey took place is not known, but as Geoffrey was under age in 1131 it may well have been as late as the forties of the century, possibly at the time of the Second Crusade (1147-8). In the present state of the evidence all that can safely be said is that the priory of Walsingham was certainly founded by Geoffrey de Fervaques II in or very near 1153 and that the date of the foundation of the chapel by his mother probably lay in the preceding quarter of a century.

A connexion with Geoffrey’s visit to the Holy Land is perhaps borne out by the almost certain fact that Richelde’s chapel was no ordinary one, but was planned as a reproduction of the House of Nazareth where Our Lady had been greeted with the news of her part in the Incarnation by the Archangel Gabriel. This origin of the chapel is very clearly stated in the Pynson ballad which may well be accurate enough here, if not on other details. Such a view receives very strong support from the remarkable fact that this early chapel at Walsingham was regarded with such tremendous veneration that it was preserved intact till the Reformation. In general, medieval folk had very little respect for the buildings of their forefathers, rebuilding them on a larger and, as it seemed to them, a better scale whenever financial resources permitted. As we shall see, so wealthy a priory as Walsingham could very easily have afforded to rebuild Our Lady’s chapel in a most sumptuous way and the fact that it was retained and surrounded by a larger building of considerable splendour is a sure sign that it was regarded as a place of exceptional significance. A deliberate imitation of the original Holy House, as we shall see, would provide a very comprehensible explanation of this, and, indeed, is almost the only one which can safely be invoked to explain the facts as we have them. Some little support is given to the theory advanced above by signs of the early importance attached to a statue of St Gabriel. The earliest detailed reference to the places of pilgrimage at Walsingham encountered by the writer—in the Household Accounts for 18 Edward I—makes mention of the statue of St Gabriel which was then apparently in the little chapel. Such an image would have been an almost inevitable accompaniment of a replica of the House of Nazareth. If it was later moved elsewhere, this would be natural enough once the statue of Our Lady of Walsingham had reached such eminence as completely to eclipse in interest the chapel itself, which certainly seems to have quickly come to be regarded as largely a setting for the statue.

The statue which made Walsingham famous was one of Our Lady and the Holy Child. It was burnt at the time of the Reformation but what is almost certainly a representation of it is preserved on a seal of the priory and on certain pilgrim badges. There can be no doubt that the statue was of mid- or late twelfth-century date and it is a curious fact, hitherto unnoted, that it bears a close resemblance to that of Our Lady of Rocamadour. It is not certain that this statue was in the original chapel before the foundation of the priory. Not only may it be rather later in date than the chapel, but it does not seem probable that a chapel commemorating the Annunciation would be provided with a statue of Our Lady showing her seated on a throne with the infant Christ on her arm.

However this may be, there can be no doubt that the shrine of Walsingham began as nothing more than a place of private devotion erected by the great lady of the parish probably in the second quarter of the twelfth century. It was not intended as a centre of public worship, the parishioners’ spiritual needs being very adequately met at this time by the three churches, All Saints’, Little Walsingham, and St Peter’s and All Saints’, of Great Walsingham. Equally certain is it that, in or about 1153, a small priory of Austin canons was established at Walsingham and given charge of the chapel. It is curious that, whereas Geoffrey de Fervaques’s foundation charter envisages the regular life being initiated by ‘my clerk Edwy’, the confirmation by Earl Roger (which is presumably only a little later in date) speaks of ‘my clerks of Walsingham, Ralph and Geoffrey’ instituting the new order there. It is possible that Edwy had died in the meantime. The Ralph here mentioned is evidently the one of that name who occurs as the first prior of Walsingham.

There are two possible explanations of this alteration in status of the chapel at Walsingham. It may have been principally due to the very profound veneration for the monastic life prevalent at this time. The reign which saw the foundation of the priory of Walsingham saw, in less than twenty years, the establishment of more religious houses than had been founded in the previous century, and the number of monasteries in England increased fourfold between 1100 and 1216. To sensitive minds the cloister offered a power and joy hardly to be found in the world outside, whilst the intercession of religious was highly prized by the great section of society which continued to live in the world. It was evidently this veneration for monasticism that had led to the foundation of the neighbouring priories of West Acre and Coxford, and it probably inspired the introduction of the monastic life at Walsingham.

On the other hand, another explanation is just possible. Once a local church had become a place of pilgrimage, there were obvious advantages in transferring to the hands of religious who could satisfy the complex demands of such a centre and provide the edifying example so specially appropriate there. Thus early in the century the priest in charge of the historic church of Hexham gave it to Austin canons, and other brethren of the order guarded the relics of St Wulfad at Stone and St Eadburgh at Bicester, just as their continental brethren are found at this time in charge of the churches of Sainte-Geneviève of Paris, San Frediano of Lucca and Santiago of Compostella. If the chapel of Walsingham rapidly became at least a local place of pilgrimage, it would have been very natural to entrust it to the care of a community of Austin canons. Whether we take this view or not depends principally on the difficult question of the date at which Walsingham became a centre of public devotion. As we shall see, however, it is to be admitted that there is no clear sign of pilgrimages to the shrine for some decades after the foundation of the priory.

To those acquainted with the nature of medieval historical evidence it will come as no surprise that the story of Walsingham as a pilgrimage centre cannot be written in anything more than outline, partly because the necessary evidence on the question has been destroyed, but more especially because much of it never existed in permanent form. If the library and archives of the priory had survived the Reformation, if we were still able to consult such works as the ‘Annals of the chapel of Walsingham’, seen by the fifteenth-century chronicler John Capgrave we should be in a much happier condition. As it is, we are driven to rely on the extensive but not very helpful material contained in the cartulary, eked out by isolated references in a variety of other sources of varying degrees of reliability.

There are three factors which may lie behind the rise to fame of Our Lady’s Chapel at Walsingham. First, of course, is the attraction which the shrine may have exerted as a copy of the Holy House about the time the mellifluous voice of Saint Bernard was stirring up popular devotion to the Holy Land by his preaching for the Second Crusade. It is not difficult to sense the effect on medieval Norfolk of the establishment, within its bounds, of so clear-cut a connexion with the Holy Land in general, and in particular with the Blessed Virgin whose praises were so often on St Bernard’s lips and whose name was borne by all the great Cistercian abbeys now springing up in such numbers all over the Latin world.

To this it is just possible that we ought to add the attraction of the wells which adjoined the original chapel of Our Lady of Walsingham. As is almost inevitable, medieval historical evidence being what it is, their history is very ill documented, and it is not certain whether the absence of early evidence of their popularity means that this never existed or merely that proof of it has not survived. The first reference to them found by the writer occurs in a list of canons of the house given in the cartulary where we are told that Thomas Gatele, a fifteenth-century subprior of Walsingham, as a boy fell into ‘the well of Blessed Mary’ and, after being taken out as dead, was restored to life by a miracle of Our Lady. It is a matter of opinion whether this is to be interpreted as implying general public access to the well or as merely one more example of the perennial tendency of small boys to turn up in unexpected places. The well is, presumably, one of the ‘tweyne wells’ mentioned in the Pynson ballad, still to be seen some hundred and sixty feet east of the church. The ballad makes it quite clear that healing was one of the phenomena associated with the shrine, but does not, like Erasmus, specifically connect this with the wells. Evidence being so thin, it would clearly be unwise to base any important conclusion on it, and it is likely enough that it was the statue of Our Lady that was the original attraction. It is at least curious that the site at Nazareth by which the house at Walsingham is believed to have been inspired was also connected with a well. The medieval pilgrims’ reports mostly mention it. The account of the Russian abbot, Daniel, tells us that ‘the holy Virgin received the first announcement from the Archangel at the well of the first Annunciation . . . a good bowshot from the town’ ; the well is described as ‘very deep . . . with very cold water’ and had, at that time, built over it a round church dedicated to the Archangel Gabriel. Mention of this well probably derives ultimately from the apocryphal Book of James.

Almost certainly much the most important factor in the rise of Walsingham to popularity was the growing devotion to the statue of Our Lady there. Almost every church at this time had such a statue, and this work is not concerned with the difficult problem of why some of them became so much more venerated than others. Of this as a fact there can be no doubt. Sometimes such popularity was of unexpectedly rapid growth, as when, in 1310, at Bridlington Priory’s chapel at Fraisthorpe by reason of devotion to ‘a certain new image of the Virgin’ there ‘suddenly and unexpectedly’ arose new offerings on what was evidently a fairly considerable scale.’ But in general, achievement of popularity seems to have been a gradual process. It is certain that the statue of Our Lady at Walsingham was incomparably the most important shrine of its kind in medieval England, but it is difficult to get any very clear idea as to how it attained this ascendancy.

So ordinary an event as a pilgrimage to a shrine attracted no considerable attention in chronicles or records, in just the same way as the audience at a cricket match or concert today leaves little written trace of itself to delight the future social historian. When such unpublished sources as the Household and Wardrobe Accounts have been fully ransacked, it will be possible to add some few details of the later pilgrimages to Walsingham so far as the royal household was concerned, but folk of lesser degree have left only the scantiest traces of the thousands of visits they undoubtedly made to the shrine of Our Lady there. For knowledge of the important first hundred years of the priory’s history we are largely dependent on evidence from the cartulary. Valuable as are its early deeds, they throw very little light on many aspects of the house’s life, and the fact that they have not yet found an editor further diminishes their present value.

One point, however, is perfectly clear—the very small financial importance of Walsingham up to the middle of the thirteenth century. Had it been a major pilgrimage centre from its early days, the house would certainly have acquired considerable property by this time, but the evidence shows quite clearly that it had not succeeded in doing this. According to a late note in the cartulary, Geoffrey of Fervaques ‘fowndyth the chyrche off the seyd priory and he gaffe it to the chapel off owr Lady with al the grownd with inne the seyte off the seyd place, wyth the chyrch off the seyde ton qwych than was taxid cs. be yer. And with viii acr. dim. off land with xxs. of yerly rent to be payd owte of hys maner in the seyd Walsyngham. The yeri [sic] valwe of alle this seyd fundacion, except the offeryng of the seyd chapel of our lady, passyd not x marcs.’ This tradition of the lack of estates in the priory’s early years is fully supported by the detailed specification of the house’s possessions drawn up by Prior William in 1250. Apart from the priory and its precinct the main possessions there enumerated were the church of All Saints, Little Walsingham, 20s. yearly from a mill in the village, 82 acres in Snoring with its pasture, the church of All Saints, Great Walsingham, and 40d. of land in Walsingham given by William, brother of King Henry (d. 1164), to which are added a dozen gifts of land (the largest of which was only six acres) and one or two small rents.

The only effective clue, located by the writer, to the relative income of the house at this time is provided by the assessment for the feudal aid of 1235-6, which gives the same impression of mediocrity. Of the local houses of Austin canons, Butley easily headed the list with £13. 6s. 8d., followed by Coxford and West Acre assessed at £5, whilst Walsingham, with St Peter’s (Ipswich), Pentney and Blythburgh, was rated at £3. 6s. 8d., Bricett at £2 and Wormgay at £11. 6s. 8d. This is in striking contrast to the situation shown in the Valor Ecclesiasticus of 1535 where Walsingham figures as easily the richest house of the order in Norfolk. It is, of course, true that we cannot dismiss the possibility that there were quite considerable gifts in these early years which were spent in ways that have left no trace in our records. Thus casual offerings at this period may well have been devoted to increasing the number of brethren in the house or to building operations on a considerable scale. Unhappily we have no clear evidence on this sort of expenditure, though building operations were certainly in progress in the late twelfth century, and the cartulary shows the convent enlarging its precinct in the time of Gilbert de Clare, earl of Gloucester and Hereford (1230-62) and his son William. But this is not necessarily of any great significance and, as we shall see, at the end of the century, though Walsingham has certainly improved its position, it is far from being a place of great wealth.

Equally fragile is the evidence of the hospital of Beck which was founded in 1224, it is said for the reception of pilgrims visiting Walsingham, though no evidence has been produced to show that this was its original purpose. The only people whose movements at this time can be regularly ascertained are the kings of England, who, in the matter of pilgrimage, may or may not have resembled their subjects. The rather sketchy itinerary of Henry II (d. 1189) shows no trace of his having visited Walsingham, and it is certain that Richard I (d. 1199) and John (d. 1216) were never there. It can, of course, be argued that such negative evidence amounts to little, that Henry and Richard were busy kings who spent much of their time abroad and John was little given to visiting shrines. To which it may be replied that, as Henry III and Edward I were to show, in this as in other matters, where there was the will there was the way.

There seems little doubt that Walsingham’s rise to national fame was due more to Henry III than to anyone else. Whatever the king’s faults, distaste for devotional exercises was not among them, and it was not surprising that he took an early opportunity to venerate the relic of the Holy Cross owned by Bromholm Priory which lay some twenty-six miles east of Walsingham. The relic had been acquired about 1220 and within the next few years the fame it attracted was sufficient to be a subject of comment in one or two of the leading chronicles of the age. Henry is first found at Bromholm on 5 and 6 April 1226 and on the latter day he granted the priory a fair, to be held on the vigil, day and morrow of the feast of the Holy Cross. The two previous days the King had spent at Walsingham and on 4 April he had granted the priory the right to hold a weekly market at Walsingham and also a fair on the vigil and day of the Holy Cross. These grants suggest that Walsingham was of only secondary importance to Bromholm. Walsingham’s fair was only for two days and was to be held on the same day as that of Bromholm, not on a feast of Our Lady as was later the case and as might have been expected had the shrine already been important. Yet this visit was but the first of many paid by a king, and was made by one who seems to have fallen in love with the place.

We find Henry next at Walsingham on 5 August 1229 and again on 3 July 1232 when he gave the prior forty oak trees for the work of the Church, and letters of protection. Two years later Henry gave the priory twenty oak trees ‘to make a certain building’ (camera)5 and in 1235 he was at Walsingham again. On 6 June 1238 he came yet once more, ‘having spent the previous night at Bromholm, and in 1242 was at Walsingham from 24 to 26 March after a visit to Bromholm two days earlier. Henry gave the canons a yearly grant of 40s. mentioned in 1229, and various gifts of wax and tapers in 1239, 1240,1241, 1242 and 1244. Several of the latter were considerable; that of 1241 gave no less than 3000 tapers to be offered in the chapel of St Mary at Walsingham on the feast of the Assumption. In 1242 the Pipe Rolls show that he had given substantial gifts of wax to Bury St Edmunds, Norwich and Bromholm, but the largest share went to Walsingham -— 100 pounds of wax and 500 tapers valued at 118s. 8d. In March 1245 the king was at Bromholm and Walsingham yet again as he was in 1248. In 1246 had come the interesting and generous gift of 20 marks to make a golden crown and place it on the image of St Mary of Walsingham. On 13 March 1251 the king ordered a certain embroidered chasuble to be sent quickly to him at Walsingham and he is found there on the 25th (Lady Day) when he granted the priory a great fair to be held on the vigil and day of the feast of the Nativity of St Mary and six days after, a substantial favour in return for which the convent was to have a wax candle weighing two pounds, continually burning before the great altar of their church. March 17, 1256, saw Henry at Walsingham and three days later he was at Bromholm. On 16 March 1255, when at Thetford, he had issued a charter confirming a number of smallish benefactions to the priory. After this remarkable series of visits it is a little surprising that the king is only found once more at Walsingham—in September 1272 when he may have stayed several days, as letters from there dated the 22nd and 29th of the month have survived. In some ways Henry’s most valuable benefaction to Walsingham was the deep devotion to the shrine implanted in his son Edward I (1272-1307).

Edward’s attachment to Walsingham was of long standing. We are told by a reliable chronicler that, on one occasion during his youth, Edward was playing chess in a vaulted room when he suddenly moved away and immediately a large stone from the roof fell on the spot where he had been sitting ‘because of which miracle he ever afterwards most ardently honoured our Lady of Walsingham’, a decision which clearly implies previous knowledge of her cult.’ Gough’s magnificent Itinerary shows evident signs of the reality of the devotion to Walsingham, in later days, of a king who only twice visited Bromholm. Edward is found at Walsingham on no less than twelve occasions. He was there first as a king on Palm Sunday 1277 and again between 5 and 8 January 1281, thus including the feast of the Epiphany. On this occasion Edward confirmed the priory’s possessions, its ecclesiastical property being specified in detail. In 1289 the king and his queen, having returned to England from Gascony, went to pay a vow first at Bury St Edmunds and then, at Walsingham, where they are found on 24 September. It is tempting to speculate whether the king may not now have made a special vow to visit the shrine of Our Lady here, for from now on his visits are so frequent as to be almost annual.

His chancery is found at Walsingham on 10-11 May 1292, from 26 February to 4 March 1294 (when he granted a licence to alienate in mortmain), and from 28 to 30 January 1296 when the king is known to have been on pilgrimage. A few days later, on the Feast of the Purification (2 February) representatives of the king and of the count of Flanders swore acceptance of a treaty in the chapel of Our Lady at Walsingham. This feast seems to have been the principal feast of Our Lady at Walsingham, and Edward assisted at its observance the next year (1297). Further visits followed on 13 May 1298, 20 January 1299, 14-15 May 1300 (when we have records of the king’s offerings, of one made on behalf of the queen, and ten days later those by the young prince, Edward). The king came again on 30 March 1302, and for the last time on 1 February 1305, staying on this occasion till the 3rd, thus again being present for the feast of the Purification.

The very restricted nature of thirteenth-century evidence sheds next to no light on visits of the less illustrious to Walsingham, and, though unexplored records may add a little to our knowledge, it is unlikely that we shall ever obtain more than occasional very fleeting glimpses of such pilgrims to the shrine at this time. Medieval records are largely concerned with privileges, property, disorders and royal finance. The first two are irrelevant to our purpose, and the last two concern it little. It is significant of the perversity of our sources, that mention of the first member of the general public known to have visited the shrine has survived purely because he became involved in legal proceedings. In 1261 John le Chaumpeneys and his mother were going on pilgrimage to Walsingham when John was attacked by his landlord at Bintree and in defence accidentally killed him. Had he not done so, he would have disappeared as completely from history’s page as the hundreds of his social contemporaries who made peaceful journeys to the shrine. So far as details of offerings are concerned, we have only the bare entries in a handful of medieval private accounts mostly of the aristocracy and mostly compiled in the last two centuries of Walsingham’s history. Thus for most of its history and particularly in its early stages the rise of the flood of pilgrims to Walsingham and the nature and extent of their benefactions can only be traced in the very barest of outlines.

An invaluable indication of the financial state of things is found in the particulars furnished by the Taxatio of Pope Nicholas (1291). It is clear from this that, although Walsingham was, even then, far from being a wealthy house, its position since the assessment of 1235-6 had improved. Its temporalities—almost all in Norfolk—were assessed at £78. 17s. 0¾d. being slightly more than those of Bromholm (£74. 17s. 7d.) ; whilst the ‘offerings in the chapel of Our Lady’ were rated at £20. Walsingham was now among the middle-sized houses of Austin canons, even if very far away from the enormously wealthy position it occupied at the time of its suppression, when it was the second richest monastery in Norfolk, surpassed only by the cathedral priory of Norwich.

A possible further indication of the improved position of the house is provided by the architectural evidence, which suggests that in the latter half of the thirteenth century the refectory and cloister were probably rebuilt and a western tower added to the church about the end of the period. It was perhaps this architectural activity which led to the house being heavily in debt when Archbishop Pecham visited it in 1280.
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CHAPTER II : THE PROGRESS OF PILGRIMAGE

ALTHOUGH the readily available evidence for this period continues to be scrappy in the extreme, it suffices to show that, from the late fourteenth century on, the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham was of national importance. At first, signs of royal patronage are disappointingly small. Edward II seems to have first visited Walsingham as king 6-8 October 1315, though six and a half years earlier, at the instance of Queen Isabella, he had granted the house the valuable licence to acquire in mortmain lands and rents to the yearly value of £40, probably a symptom both of royal favour and of the rising resources of the priory. In 1326 letters of 2-6 February show that the king was at Walsingham for the feast of the Purification. Edward III was a frequent visitor in the early years of his reign, the royal chancery being at Walsingham 19-20 September and 9 November 1328, 26-28 June and 21 August 1331, 20-30 August 1333, 6-8 October 1334, 13 March 1339, 12-20 February 1336. Late in 1343 the king returned to England from France and went on pilgrimage, first to Canterbury on foot, and then riding to Gloucester and Walsingham. Rather surprisingly the Chancery Enrolments show no sign of Edward’s having visited Walsingham in the remaining thirty-four years of his reign. After this time easily accessible evidence on royal movements is for a century and a half exceptionally meagre. Richard II and his queen were on pilgrimage in the May and June of 1383, visiting Walsingham and Bury St Edmunds.

Meanwhile some eminent foreign visitors came. In 1332 we have mention of ‘the old Queen’ coming from Walsingham. In March 1361, John, duke of Brittany, received £9 from the king for expenses incurred by a pilgrimage to Walsingham, and in the following May licence was granted to the duke of Anjou to visit the shrines of St Thomas of Canterbury and Our Lady of Walsingham . In April 1363 Gerard le Boucher, described as ‘Burgess of Compiègne, hostage’, was licenced to visit Our Lady of Walsingham and St John of Beverley, as was Amanda de Landa, burgess of Douai; in May, Guy, count of St Pol, had similar permission to go to Walsingham. The following year David Bruce was given safe conduct by the king to make the same pilgrimage. In 1383 John of Gaunt gave safe conduct to Sir James Lindsay, a Scottish knight, and to a hundred people riding in his company, for various pilgrimages including Canterbury and Walsingham. In 1380 and 1382 he had given permission to Sir Bernard Brocas to ‘hunt reasonably’ on his way to and from Walsingham. A glimpse of the wealth of the shrine a little earlier is afforded by the curious and elaborate petition of the canons of Walsingham against the proposal to establish a house of Franciscans in the town (c. 1346). Amongst other things this tells us that to safeguard the jewels offered in honour of Our Lady and their other possessions from thieves, the canons found it necessary to close the priory gate at night. About the same time the Slipper Chapel at Houghton was built and may be a further sign of the established popularity of the shrine by this date.

This evidence is reinforced from other sources. Written signs of the hundreds of pilgrims of low degree who flocked to Walsingham at this time are still of the scantiest, though of the fact itself there can be no reasonable doubt, even if we are still straitly limited to occasional glimpses of the part Our Lady of Walsingham played in the life of ordinary people. In or about 1343 some fishermen from Winterton, having lost their nets at sea, implored divine aid that ‘by reverence of the image of Blessed Mary at Walsingham and by the merits of St Edmund’ they might be recovered. In 1364 the pilgrims to Walsingham included not only David Bruce but one Philip Crikyere who, by rights, should have been in Hertford jail whither he had been consigned after being indicted of extortion. But he was evidently a persuasive character, for he secured his keeper’s licence to go on pilgrimage to Walsingham. Unfortunately, on his way back Philip got involved in a brawl, in the course of which he killed a man and thus further interested the powers of the law. Of similarly unimportant status were the two jurors who in 1367 are said to have remembered the birth of one Adam de Wolveton, because on the Monday after it they started on their journey to Walsingham on pilgrimage.

By this time the growth of English literature gives a few typically erratic references to the history of the shrine. Archbishop FitzRalph of Armagh in a sermon in 1346 spoke temperately of the dangers attendant on the cult of, inter alia, ‘our dere lauedy of Walsyngham’. Langland’s Vision of Piers the Plowman (c. 1362) mentions that ‘Heremites on an heep with hoked staues, Wenten to Walsyngham’, whilst his Avarice swears repentance and vows to wenden to Walsyngham and my wyf also, And bidde the Rode of Bromeholme brynge me oute of dette’. Indirect tribute to the importance of Walsingham at this time is furnished by the violent attacks on it made by the Lollards, noted by the chroniclers. Knighton’s Chronicon under 1382 notes that the Lollards inveighed against what they crudely called ‘the wyche of Walsingham’. Thomas of Walsingham tells us that the pilgrimages they singled out for attack were those to Walsingham and to the Cross at the north door of St Paul’s Cathedral as does Capgrave (c. 1453), whilst Pecock’s Repressor (c. 1449) records their contention, '‘it is vein waast and idil forto trotte to Wasingam rather than to ech other place in which an ymage of Marie is'‘.

At the priory itself, the main signs of its wide repute at this time must have been the extensive rebuilding certainly now begun, involving the erection of a new church of great magnificence, the scheme being in full swing under Prior John Snoring (1374-1401). The aspect of Snoring’s priorate, however, which attracted most contemporary notice was his protracted and rather mysterious feud with the bishop of Norwich.

The first sign of trouble in the offing is found in a letter of 6 October 1382, wherein the king ordered the canons of Walsingham not to attempt anything that might prejudice his rights or those of Roger, son and heir of Edmund Mortimer, earl of March, or the laws and customs of the realm or the foundation of the house; it had been reported to the king that the prior ‘fearing not the pain of perjury, has without craving or obtaining licence of the king or earl procured letters of the Pope to be made abbot and to rule the same (house) . . . in the name of abbot . . . contrary to the founder’s will, which would tend not only to the contempt of the king and to the prejudice of the said earl but to overset the rules and constitutions of the priory and to impoverish the same’. The papal bull mentioned has not survived, but we shall see reason to believe that the rather remarkably vigorous opposition which the prior’s action so clearly aroused was due to a cause unmentioned in the royal letters. We may here note in passing that the conversion of a priory into an abbey would not necessarily involve the diminution of royal or patronal rights nor involve Walsingham in expenses it could not afford. Nor is it certain that the step would grossly infringe the ordinances of the house or the founder’s intention. One or two cases are known of a founder of a house of Austin canons stipulating that it should not become an abbey, as for example at Cartmel, but it is far from established that any such stipulation was made here.

On 6 March of the next year (1383) the Close Rolls refer again to the matter, one John Yarmouth ‘monk of Walsingham abbey’ (sic) being ordered to give security not to go abroad or attempt there anything that would tend to the prejudice of the king and his people or law or to a breach of the laws of the realm. For nearly a year there was a pause, and one would give much to know the content of the confabulations in the chapter-house at Walsingham in these months. That trouble was smouldering and was not extinguished is shown by letters patent wherein the king, as guardian of the young Roger de Mortimer, patron of the priory, appointed the subprior of Walsingham as custodian of the priory, ‘divers contentions having arisen between the subprior and prior who is desirous to obtain the position of abbot therein and to that end expends its revenues and possessions wastefully’. This was on 1 March 1384 and on the same day the king appointed his chancellor with the keeper of the rolls and three others to inquire concerning ‘trespasses and other offences in the priory of St Mary, Walsingham’, where divers quarrels had arisen between the brethren to the dissipation of its revenues, the diminution of its worship and the prejudice of Roger de Mortimer.

Prior Snoring seems to have acted quickly and temporarily made his peace with the king; for, eight days later, those appointed to inquire concerning ‘trespasses, extortions, maintenance of quarrels, dilapidations, charges to the decrease of divine worship in the priory of St Mary of Walsingham and withdrawal of alms and works of piety appointed of old times’ had their commission annulled, since Prior John Snoring had found three sureties of 1000 marks each, that, until the next Parliament, he would keep the priory and possessions without waste or alienation and not go to or send to the Roman court; on the same day letters patent record the revocation of the grant of custody to the subprior. On 1 April 1384 the bishop of Norwich succeeded in extracting from Prior Snoring a sworn affirmation that he did not intend to use abbatial rights, including the ring and staff, nor to appeal to Rome.

What happened next is not clear. Prior Snoring was clearly a man of determination who may well have felt that he was being persecuted by an unholy combination of bishop and king and have sought redress from the Holy See, but the course of events in the next five years has not been discovered by the writer. However, the removal of Prior Snoring by the bishop of Norwich is mentioned in letters patent of 21 May 1389. These gave the custody of the priory of Walsingham to a body composed of the priors of Coxford and Wymondham, a knight and two clerks. They were to inspect, audit and direct its financial affairs and notify the king if they had any difficulty in reforming abuses; it was noted that the prior had appealed to Rome against sentence of removal. On 25 June fresh custodians were added, it being enjoined that no canon of the house be appointed to administer it or to rule or dispose of its rents.

On 22 October of the same year, the bishop of Norwich took the disturbing step of appointing John of Hereford, canon of Walsingham, to be prior of the house, on the grounds that collation had devolved to the diocesan by reason of the long absence of the prior. Soon after—on 18 November 1389—Prior Snoring secured royal permission to go to the Roman court to defend his right to the priory. This was no easy matter, and eighteen months later—on 5 June 1391—we find him licensed to prosecute to a conclusion in the Roman court his suit which had long been pending, a knight and two citizens of London having stood surety for a thousand marks each that during his stay he would not attempt anything against the king or the law and customs of the realm.

It seems that Prior Snoring was now defending his right to be prior of Walsingham (as the letters patent of 18 November suggest) and not his original petition for the priory to be converted into an abbey (as is implied in the rather obscure note attached to the list of priors in the cartulary). But, as this note in the cartulary shows, Snoring was ultimately restored to office. However, the end of the contest was not yet. In 1398 we find that John had again appealed to Rome, this time against a decision of the official of the court of Canterbury that he should pay 5 marks to the bishop of Norwich, a sentence he only accepted when threatened with papal excommunication.

The contest ended abruptly in 1400. Archbishop Arundel came to Walsingham on metropolitical visitation, found the prior there ‘deeply ensnared in a great variety of defects’ and ordered his removal from office. The prior submitted and the archbishop sweetened the pill by granting him a good pension and exemption for life from his old foe, the bishop of Norwich, and from the prior of the house.

The history of the above struggle, when examined closely, shows certain curious features. The hints of the heavy financial expenditure by Prior Snoring are worth noting: his proceedings at Rome may well have been costly, as the cartulary note recorded, but it is very likely that expenses at this time were, in part, due to the heavy building expenditure incurred by Prior Snoring which is known to have taken place at this time, though unmentioned in any of the documents just quoted. From the complaints made against the prior it would seem likely that the not inconsiderable resources of Walsingham were so strained that he employed funds bequeathed for other purposes to close the financial gap; ‘the diminution of worship’ alleged may well refer to either appropriation of chantry bequests by the prior or possibly a reduction in the size of the convent. There can be no doubt that the prior incurred considerable expenditure, against the will of at least part of the convent. But it is extremely unlikely that more than a part of this was spent in the legal expenses involve in the attempt to convert the priory into an abbey, expensive though the cost of this seems to have been.

For the medieval monastery to get into financial trouble was not uncommon, but this alone seldom disturbed the king and the diocesan in the way that Prior Snoring’s activities, whatever they may have been, clearly upset Richard II and Bishop Henry of Norwich. Placing the struggle against the background of the times, it is difficult to avoid the conjecture that the violent opposition of king and bishop to the prior of Walsingham was not caused by any of the actions mentioned in their official deeds, but by an attempt on Snoring’s part to obtain for his abbey from the pope the great privilege of exemption from episcopal visitation. Such an action would be violently resented by any normal medieval bishop of Norwich, involving, as it did, the removal from diocesan control of one of the greatest monasteries of his diocese. Whilst the king, as is well known, was so sensitive to anti-papal feeling as to re-enact at this time the Statute of Provisors and the Statute of Praemunire which in theory banned papal provisions and certain important appeals to the papal courts.

From what we have already seen, it is quite clear that by the fifteenth century Walsingham had become a shrine of national importance. It is all the more to be regretted therefore that the available evidence for this period still remains far from adequate. Despite the magnificent windfall of the Paston Letters, comparatively little reference is found to the shrine at this time, the Chancery Enrolments and chronicles of the day proving notoriously inadequate, whilst more hopeful sources remain unedited. For the early part of the century only a few brief glimpses of pilgrims to the shrine have been found.

Henry V was at Walsingham in 1421 during his last visit to England and in 1427 Queen Joan came to St Albans after visits to Walsingham, Norwich and Peterborough; the chronicler who notes her visit affords an interesting sidelight on the popularity of the shrine when he notes that, after Easter 1431, there was a fire at Little Walsingham which destroyed four inns there and was rumoured to have been started by pilgrims who had been charged extortionate prices. About 1433 the pious Margery Kemp went to Walsingham to ‘offer in worship of Our Lady’. Evidently in 1456 and 1457 the abbot of Peterborough came here on pilgrimage, paying 20s. for his expenses on each occasion.

The year 1455 had seen ‘the duc of Yorke ... beyng comme out of Irlande ridynge to oure Lady of Walsingham in pylgrymage’. Henry VI visited Walsingham in 1447, 1448 and 1459, and on 18 November 1456 Sir John Fastolf wrote to John Paston, ‘my Lord of Norfolk is remevid from Framlyngham on foote to goo to Walsyngham’. In 1460, Warwick the kingmaker was on pilgrimage here with his wife. In October of the next year it was rumoured the king was going to Walsingham. In 1465 Edward IV certainly licensed the priory to acquire in mortmain lands and rents to the considerable value of £40 yearly ‘that they may pray for the good estate of the king and Elizabeth his queen and for the king’s soul after death’ and in 1469 the royal pair were evidently at Walsingham, whilst the king was expected there again in October 1475, after absence in France, as was the duke of Buckingham three years later.

As usual the lower orders left little or no trace of their visits but there must have been not a few who turned their eyes to Our Lady of Walsingham in their hour of need. When John Paston developed a ‘grete dysese’, his wife ‘be hestyd to gon on pylgreymmays to Walsingham’, whilst his mother-in-law ‘be hestyd a nodyr ymmage of wax of the weytte of yow to oyer Lady of Walsyngham’ (September 1443). The cost of a pilgrimage from Ghent to Our Lady of Walsingham was estimated at four livres.

By this time medieval wills provide further signs of the popularity of the shrine. But the accessions from this source were not numerous, to judge by surviving evidence; and it is clear that most of the offerings at the shrine were made by pilgrims at the time of their visit, though a few made arrangements for another to carry out a posthumous pilgrimage for them. One of the earliest gifts bequeathed to the shrine, of which knowledge has survived, is that made in 1326 by Archbishop Walter Reynolds of Canterbury, who left altar ornaments and fittings to the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. In 1367 one Sir Thomas Uvedale left to the chapel at Walsingham a silver tablet gilt with the salutation of the Blessed Virgin, together with a painted image, and 10 marks to the building of the choir. Twenty years before, John earl of Surrey had bequeathed ‘mon egle dez saune les anels qe sount mys par constellation’. In 1369 Sir Bartholomew Burghersh, a founder of the order of the Garter, left ‘my body to be buried in the chapel of Walsyngham before the image of the Blessed Virgin’ which implies some sort of offering, and in 1381 William earl of Suffolk willed a statuette of a horse and man armed with his arms to be made in silver and ‘offered to the altar of Our Lady of Walsingham’. The previous year Edmund earl of March had devised to the house forty marks and an elaborate set of white vestments and altar furnishings.

By her will, proved in 1360, Elizabeth de Burgh, Lady Clare, patron of the priory, bequeathed to it £4 in pence, two cloths of gold and a silver and enamel cup (godet) with a trepar. In 1414. Semari de Tonge a baron of the Cinque Ports left 20 marks for masses in Our Lady’s chapel before the image. In 1433 Benedict, bishop of St David’s, left 10 for various pilgrimages including one to Walsingham, to be made ‘with all possible haste’ (‘cum festinacione possibili’) after his death, whilst the same year Thomas, bishop of Worcester, bequeathed a share of ‘all my relics which I brought from Rome in two small bags’. The will of Isabel, countess of Warwick (1440) provided that ‘my tablet with the image of Our Lady, having a glass for it, be offered to Our Lady of like in the timber to that over Our Lady of Caversham’. In 1471 William Ponte bequeathed 6s. 8d. to the shrine and 1s. to ‘any of those who will pilgrimage for me to Blessed Marye of Walsingham , and in 1474 Lady Elizabeth Andrew bequeathed a ring with diamonds. In 1483 Anthony Wydevill, Earl Rivers, bequeathed his ‘trapper of blakk cloth of gold’.

The large number of published North country wills suggests that Walsingham had comparatively little attraction there, partly, perhaps, because of the great repute of Saint Cuthbert, partly also because of that isolationist spirit of the land north of the Humber which was so marked throughout the Middle Ages. But in 1453 Lord John Scrope of Masham left 10 marks for ‘forgeten avowes and beheestes’ made by him to Our Lady of Walsingham. In 1472 the will of William Ecopp, of Heslerton, ordained that after his death a pilgrim or pilgrims should go on his behalf, inter alia, to Walsingham and six other sanctuaries of Our Lady offering 4d. at each. In 1498 William Mauleverer left the house ‘a litell ring with a diamount, that king Richard gave me’, and Lady Ann Scrope left ‘x of my grete beedes lassed with sylke crymmesyn and goold with a grete botton of goold and tasselyd with the same’. In 1505 Lady Catherine widow of Sir John Hastings bequeathed to Walsingham her velvet gown.

Although a great number of medieval wills have not been examined, the above bequests to Walsingham are all to be found among several thousand consulted by the writer. It is, indeed, clear from the most cursory study of these that the habit of making bequests to far distant good causes is a very modern one. The mass of charitable bequests were to very local institutions, notably, of course, the testator’s parish church, and the few of wider importance seem to have been due to some private devotion or to special reasons, such as that which led the nobility to make gifts to religious houses of which they were patrons. Certainly there is little doubt that only a very small part of Walsingham’s wealth came from bequests.

Infinitely more important was the wealth derived from offerings made at the shrine by those on pilgrimage there. Unhappily we have but the scantiest evidences of these. The only account roll from the priory traced by the writer is one of the cellarer for the year 1495-6, which, however, does not deal with this side of the revenue. The chronicler John Capgrave quotes from some annals of the chapel of Walsingham which contained, inter alia, details of some important gifts to the shrine. Henry, duke of Lancaster (d. 1361, he tells us, gave a cup and other things to the total value of about 400 marks, whilst his father Henry, earl of Lancaster, gave what was evidently a picture of the Annunciation with precious stones also of an estimated value of 400 marks—the disappearance of this manuscript is, perhaps, more to be regretted than that of any other belonging to the priory. Under such circumstances we are forced to rely principally on the very few donors’ accounts which have survived to get glimpses of the offerings made at the shrine.

Inevitably most of these are accounts of the royal household, and the gifts they record are inevitably much more lavish than was usual with donors of less degree. The gifts of Henry III have already been noted. Various benefactions of Edward have been found. The king had £14. 15s. 2d. of silver given to William de Fardon ‘from which to make an image in the likeness of the lord king’ and also 2½ ounces of gold ‘for gilding the same image which was offered in the chapel of blessed Mary at Walsingham’. The Account Roll of 18 Edward I shows that on 8 February the king made offerings, of 7s. each ‘at the statue of Blessed Mary in the small chapel of Walsingham’ and ‘at the statue of the blessed Gabriel in the same chapel’. The roll of 28 Edward I records some most valuable and extensive particulars of royal offerings. On 15 May 1300, the king offered 7s. and a gold brooch (firmaculum) valued at 8 marks ‘at the statue of Blessed Mary in the chapel of Walsingham’ and 7s. each ‘at relics placed above the same altar’ and ‘at the statue of Saint Gabriel and the lac beate Marie at the high altar in the priory church there’. On behalf of the queen, 7s. and a gold brooch valued at 6 marks were offered in Our Lady’s chapel and 7s. at ‘the milk of blessed Mary in the church of the aforesaid priory’. Whilst ten days later (25 May) the Lord Edward’ (the future King Edward II) offered a shilling at the high altar and 7s. at the altar in the chapel of Our Lady. Two years later, on 30 March, the same stock payment of 7s. was made by the king at the altar of the chapel and at the high altar of the priory church. On 6 October 1315, seven shillings was given on behalf of King Edward II (then at the priory) ‘at various relics in the chapel of blessed Mary of Walsingham’. The queen gave the same amount ‘at the altar in the small chapel’ of the priory and a gold brooch set with stones costing 40s.

Edward III, on the first visit of his reign to Walsingham (20 September 1328) made gifts at the altar in Our Lady’s chapel and to the statue of Our Lady there, to a total value of 83s. 4d., which included valuable cloth and a gold brooch with jewels.

Such offerings as this give us some idea of the way in which the wealth of Walsingham steadily increased in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. By the end of the period it was clearly getting a big part of its revenue from these offerings and was in a position to invest considerable sums in land. In 1425 the priory got a licence to acquire considerable Norfolk property for which privilege the king was paid 100 marks, another for £100 in 1448, followed by a grant in mortmain for £10 in 1453, another licence for £40 annual value in 1465 and one for £24 in 1481. A final considerable indication of the financial resources of Walsingham at this time is provided by the great list of properties acquired by Prior John Farewell (1474-1503), for which he paid the gigantic sum of £717. 5s. 6d.

Published materials for Tudor history are substantially more ample than those for preceding generations, and leave no shadow of doubt as to the enormous repute of the shrine in its last days. Nowhere is there any effective evidence of any decline in the popularity of Walsingham and there is much to show that it continued highly attractive.

The shrine at this time seems to have had no greater devotee than Henry VII. Polydore Vergil tells us how, in the crisis of 1487 when his throne was in grave peril, Henry ‘came to the place called Walsingham where he prayed devoutly before the image of the Blessed Virgin Mary (who is worshipped with special devotion there), that he might be preserved from the wiles of his enemies’. And after the defeat of his rival, Lambert Simnel, the king sent Christopher Urswick with the military standard which he had used against the enemy whom he had defeated, to Walsingham, ‘to offer thanks for the victory in the shrine of the Blessed Virgin and to place the standard there as a memorial of the favour he had received from God’. On 7 March 1489, William Paston wrote that the king was expected to be at Norwich on Palm Sunday ‘and so tary there all Ester, and than to Walsyngham’, and on 23 August 1498 Henry was there again. On 16 April 1506 ‘the king toke his pilgrimage toward our Lady of Walsingham and the xxii day of the said moneth his hygnesse came to Cambrig’. It was perhaps on this occasion that he offered at the shrine that ‘ymage of silver and gilt . . . that we have caused to bee made to be offred and sette before our Lady at Walsingham’ referred to in his will. In 1502-3, the expenses of Elizabeth of York, aunt of the king, included numerous small donations to shrines, the largest being half a mark each to Our Lady of Walsingham and Our Lady of Sudbury.

More surprising to many will be the evident devotion of Henry VIII to Our Lady of Walsingham in the early years of his reign, a devotion which, one may suspect, was intimately bound up with his passionate desire for a son and heir. In Spelman’s day men still told of Henry’s pilgrimage to the shrine, when he walked barefoot to the shrine and offered to Our Lady a necklace of great value; on what occasion this was we cannot be certain, but it must have been early in the reign. The king is known to have endowed a candle there. An annual payment of 46s. 8d. for this appears in 1509, 1510 and 1515, which gift may have been made during a royal visit. In the accounts for 1525-6, 43s. 4d. was paid for the king’s candle before Our Lady of Walsingham and in 1529 the same sum appears. There is also evidence of a sum of £10 yearly paid for a priest ‘singing before Our Lady of Walsingham’, which continues down to the suppression of the shrine in 1538, which seems to be a quite recent obligation, though the Valor Ecclesiasticus of 1535 records that one had been established for the souls of Edward I and Edward II. The payment of £1. 13s. 4d. made in January 1511 is described as ‘offerings at Our Lady of Walsingham’ and presumably followed the birth of the young Prince Henry on New Year’s Day, 1511; certainly before the queen had been churched the king hurried off to Walsingham, evidently to give thanks. Much more significant are the two payments totalling £43. 11s. 4d. made to Barnard Flower in 1511-12 for glazing the Lady chapel at Walsingham. Barnard was the royal glazier, to become famous for his work at King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, and it is highly likely that this commission to him was in the nature of a thank-offering or (in view of the early death of the prince) of a continued plea for divine aid. That Queen Katherine was party to this invocation of the aid of Our Lady of Walsingham in the momentous matter of a male heir to the throne is perhaps hinted at in the pathetic postscript to her letter to Henry of 16 September 1513, announcing the great victory over the Scots at Flodden Field—‘And with this I make an ende, praying God to sende you home shortly, for without this noo joye here can bee accomplisshed; and for the same I pray and now goo to Our Lady at Walsyngham that I promised soo long agoo to see’. In March 1517 she was there again. Amongst the lands granted to the queen were the manors of Great and Little Walsingham and Katherine’s will (1536) provided ‘that some personage go to Our Lady of Walsingham on pilgrimage and distribute 20 nobles on the way’. In 1524 Wolsey had secured a brief of plenary indulgence for the king and queen if they would make an annual pilgrimage to Walsingham, Bury St Edmunds or Canterbury with power to name twenty other persons.

Some years earlier—in 1514—a most interesting letter from Sir Edward Howard to the king shows a similar devotion to Walsingham in ‘Master Arthur’ (Lord Lisle, illegitimate son of Edward IV). He was given liberty to go home on landing after a naval action off Brest ‘for Sir when he was in extreme danger and hope gone from hym he called upon Our Lady of Walsingham for help and comfort and made a vow that, and it pleased God and her to deliver him owt off that peril, he would never eet fleshe nor fyche tyl he had seen heer. Sir I assure you he was in mervelous danger, for it was merveil that the shipp beyng under al her sayls strikyng full but a rok with her stam that she brake not on peces at the first strok.’

Considering the sparsity of the evidence on this sort of point, even at this period, it is remarkable how many dignitaries are known to have visited or supported Walsingham in these days. Wolsey came early in September 1517 to fulfil a vow ‘and also to take air and exercise which may correct the weakness of his stomach’ and again in 1520. Bishop West of Ely revived ‘the old complaint in his leg’ when riding to Walsingham in 1523 and in 1519 the duke of Buckingham vicariously offered half a mark at the shrine. The marquis of Exeter’s accounts for 1525 show that while spending 3d. on cherries for himself and his lady and expending 20s. 6d. at cards, he contrived to contribute 4d. to the shrine. In June 1528 Bishop Tunstall of London wrote to Wolsey that he had ‘promised a pilgrimage to Walsingham’ as had Bishop Longland of Lincoln ‘as sone as my strengthe will serve me,’ though a baker and a friend from Colchester said it was idolatrous to do this at Walsingham, Ipswich or elsewhere. Amongst lesser folk one John Haly wrote early in 1531 of his intention to visit Walsingham and Cambridge and so return to Warwickshire; and in the following year John Beyston, a servant of the prior of Spalding, made a pilgrimage to Walsingham ‘by order of his mother’. Late in 1536 we hear of ‘some Cornish soldiers who were coming from the North on a pilgrimage to Walsingham’, and amongst the last to see the shrine in its full glory was Thomas O’Reef, an Irish priest dismissed by the archbishop of Dublin for ‘popishness’, whose presence at Walsingham is mentioned in 1538. The Lincoln wills for the years 1516-32 contain fourteen bequests to Our Lady of Walsingham from people of no great social importance. All but two of these are small sums of money, 4d. being the usual sum though one was 6d., one 8d., and two 1s.; of the other two cases, Richard Smyth left money for ‘iij messys before Our Lady of Walsyngham, continuyng the space of iii yeres’, whilst Catherine Barton bequeathed ‘a corse gyrdell with a pendyll and a bukkyl of sylver’. Amongst the other humbler gifts at this time were the ‘corall bedys of thrys fyfty and my maryeng ryng with all thyngys hangyng theron’ bequeathed in 1504 by Anne Barett of Bury. The will of Sir Roger Strange of February 1505-6 left £126. 13s. 4d. ‘to be paid to a prest for to synge for me and my frendys beforne our lady att Walsyngham during the tyme of iiij years’.

Amongst the distinguished foreigners who visited Walsingham at this time the most famous was Desiderius Erasmus. On 9 May 1512, he writes of his having taken a vow to go to Walsingham and hang a Greek ode there. It is thought that he went there soon afterwards and it is possible, though not certain, that he paid a second visit in 1514. In the 1526 edition of his Colloquies first appeared his rather misleading essay Peregrinatio religionis ergo which has a longish account of his visit there. The light this throws on the shrine will be considered below. In 1534 the imperial ambassador, Chapuys, had intended to go on pilgrimage to Walsingham, but had given up the project as ‘it would be thought I had gone chiefly to visit the Queen’, who was evidently residing nearby.
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CHAPTER III : THE LAST DAYS

IN the last stages of its history, Walsingham swallowed up a few of the petty houses of the Austin canons whose strength was insufficient to maintain an effective existence. Fourteenth-century plagues and floods had evidently severely sapped the strength of the little house at Peterstone. In 1440 the only religious left was the prior, then seventy-five years old, so a commission which included the prior of Walsingham was appointed to investigate the desirability of annexing it to Creake Abbey. But Creake itself was probably not too strong and in 1449 Peterstone was made a cell of Walsingham. Sixty years later, on 4 August 1509, with episcopal approval, Thomas, prior of Mountjoy, demised to the prior of Walsingham his house and lands for ten years subject to certain conditions for his own maintenance, including the provision of ‘mete and drink and a servant to wait uppon hym as a gentleman haught to have’. On Wolsey’s fall Mountjoy was seized by its patron as an escheat. Just before this happened—in 1528—Wolsey used his legatine powers to grant the priory of St Mary ad Fontes, Flitcham, which had fallen into decay, to Walsingham whose possessions it adjoined. But as four resident canons were to be maintained for the celebration of divine service, a yearly pension of 10s. was to be paid to the bishop and a daily mass to be said for Wolsey, it can have brought Walsingham little advantage.

It is much to be regretted that reports of the bishop’s visitations for the medieval monasteries of Norwich diocese are almost all lost, apart from those for the half century before the Dissolution. If there were any major disorders in the earlier centuries of the house’s history, one might have expected some echo of it in the royal and papal records, but, so far, the only serious trouble found is that concerning John Snoring, already noted.

Certain general factors should be noted which made the situation of Walsingham, as of other religious houses, difficult. It is now almost certain that the Black Death and its after-effects had the catastrophic result of reducing the monastic population of medieval England by some two-fifths. At Walsingham this caused an immediate minor crisis which in 1364 led to the prior being allowed to dispense with four of his canons to be ordained priest provided they had completed their twenty-second year, in view of the shortage caused by the pestilence. But the big drop in numbers here, as elsewhere, does not seem to have been permanent, and the last visitations show a reasonable number of brethren. There were twenty canons in 1377 (which was perhaps almost as many as before the Black Death), seventeen in 1494, twenty-five in 1514, twenty-three in 1532 (including four canons from the late priory of Flitcham) and twenty-two in 1534.

Owing to the absence of the Norwich episcopal visitations before the late fifteenth century, little can safely be said about the internal life of the priory before this date. The over-luxuriance of the monastic revival in East Anglia after the Conquest had made life difficult for small houses in this area in later times, six of the Norfolk houses of the order being extinct before 1536. But Walsingham’s superior resources may well have helped to maintain a higher standard there and the cartulary list of canons certainly shows that, in the hundred and fifty years before the suppression, Walsingham supplied priors to several small neighbouring houses of the order.

It is further worthy of note that the educational level of East Anglian monastic life was evidently well below what was desired. The Norwich episcopal visitations edited by Jessop show a very remarkable number of monasteries lamenting the lack of a schoolmaster. Walsingham, as an exceptionally wealthy house, was normally able to afford to send some of its brighter members to the university, but this did not solve the educational problems of the mediocre many, and at the visitation of 1494 Brother Alan Aylesham reported that ‘the brethren have no schoolmaster in the house to teach them grammar’. This suggests that most of the brethren had little learning before entering the house, and the cartulary list of names shows that, in fact, an overwhelming proportion of them came from petty Norfolk villages where schools are unlikely to have been found.

This visitation of 1494 is the first of its kind concerning Walsingham that is known to have survived. There appeared before the bishop the prior and sixteen canons. No very serious delinquency is revealed, unless we accept the unsupported allegation of Brother William Norwich that the prior refused to have him ordained priest and imprisoned him for several weeks, which may or may not be so. The other defects are few and of minor significance, tale-bearing, insolent servants, a prior prone to favouritism and brethren going outside the monastery without a companion.

Nine years later, evidently in September 1503, died John Farewell who was prior at the time of the visitation. His death led to a catastrophe in the history of the house which deserves considerable stress. One William Lowthe with the aid of those notorious government officials, Empson and Dudley, made himself prior by what looks like doubtful means. In July 1504 he received royal pardon for entering on temporalities without due acceptance, and in 1514, on the petition of the canons, the king cancelled the congé d’élire of 19 Henry VII which, according to the canons, ‘William Lowthe, Sir Richard Empson and Edmund Dudley on the death of Sir John Farewell unlawfully obtained, and upon which the said William Lowthe was elected prior’.

The future showed only too clearly the disastrous effects of this elevation to the priorate of a man who was entirely unsuited for such responsibility. The visitation of 14 July 1514 was a very full one doubtless because of disturbing signs of unrest. The prior had clearly made most monstrous threats to the brethren against their making due revelations to the bishop, had appropriated revenues and property of the house including jewels from the chapel, and was accused of consorting with the wife of John Smith to whom he accorded various improper privileges. That Prior Lowthe was mentally deranged is suggested by the accusation that he kept an old fool (‘senem fatuum ‘) whom he compelled to wear a surplice and to go in public procession, and ordered to be given Holy Communion, that he made a canon who called Smith’s wife a whore beg her pardon in the chapter house, that he struck a servant so violently that he died of the aftereffects, and that he threatened to build prisons for ten of the brethren.

Inevitably under such a superior the common life had sadly decayed. It was reported that there were dissensions among the brethren, that some were slack in performing divine service and three or four were leading a dissolute life drinking outside the monastery. The bishop evidently temporized. Lowthe was allowed to continue as prior, though he was not to punish brethren without certain safeguards, notably the approval of the prior of West Acre, who was also to see that Lowthe tendered proper accounts of the priory’s finances; moreover two servants, one of them being John Smith (the other presumably his wife), were to be deported from Walsingham forthwith. However, a month later (30 August 1514) the bishop issued further regulations’ and the next day secured the resignation of William Lowthe.

The canons of Walsingham were now enjoined to put away their previous divisions and bitterness; unnecessary conversation with seculars within the monastic precinct and archery outside it were forbidden, as was undue dallying in houses in the town. Precautions were to be taken to lock the door of the treasury with two locks, one to be kept by the prior, the other by a senior brother chosen by the convent; whilst the gold, silver, rings, jewels and other oblations at the chapel of Our Lady were to be enumerated and recorded weekly.

Thus ended perhaps the unhappiest era in the history of the priory and it is singularly unfortunate that it was during this period that Erasmus gathered at Walsingham materials for his remarks on the shrine which are so often quoted and so ill understood. His famous account has so often been accepted at its face value by those nurtured in the naive traditions of Victorian liberalism, that it is necessary to point out that it can only be accepted with considerable reservations. As a critic Erasmus was neither well informed nor friendly. His own sensitive nature had clearly suffered from the foolish attempt to make him take the religious habit as a boy, and, like many distinguished foreigners in Cambridge since, he found the English climate and diet inconducive to real peace of mind; whilst it should further be remembered that the Colloquy on Pilgrimage is one of four published in 1526 which constitute the high-water mark of his attacks on the popular religion of his day. His visit to Walsingham seems to have been of the briefest, his information about it acquired through an interpreter, and he was not immune from the contemporary readiness to confuse crudity and humour.

Certainly the more closely we examine his remarks on Walsingham the more obvious do their exaggeration and inaccuracy become. Thus he places Walsingham ‘at the extreme coast of England to the Northwest [sic] at about three miles distance from the sea’, though it is a good five miles inland; he says that the priory ‘has scarcely any other resources than from the bounty of the Virgin’, though by this time half its annual income came from endowments as the Valor Ecclesiasticus plainly showed; whilst his claim that Walsingham ‘is the most frequented place throughout all England, nor could you easily find in that island a man who ventures to reckon on prosperity unless he yearly salutes her [Our Lady] with some small offering according to his ability’ - shows a most unclassical exaggeration.

There is plenty of evidence of somewhat superstitious practices in the Church of Erasmus’s day, but his account of Walsingham herein cannot command complete confidence, since in at least one major instance he seems guilty of deliberate misrepresentation. He tells us that over ‘the two wells’ (which must be taken to be those mentioned in the Pynson ballad and still surviving) there was in his day a shed which was said to have been ‘suddenly and miraculously brought thither from a great distance’, and goes on to stress the stupidity of the guide and his failure to recognize the essentially modern nature of the building.

This is one of the few of Erasmus’s allegations which we can check by other evidence, and the result is not encouraging. The rather earlier Pynson ballad shows that it is perfectly true that there then existed at Walsingham a tradition of a miraculous transportation. But the edifice to which the ballad applies the tradition was not a modern shed moved as a whole ‘a great distance’, but the venerable chapel of Our Lady, then some four centuries old, which was said to have been moved, when in process of construction, a bare 200 feet.3 The two accounts cannot possibly be harmonized and it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Erasmus, out of a donnish desire to tell a good story, had grossly twisted the facts.

He also gives a circumstantial account of how the priory had acquired a relic of the so-called Holy Milk of Blessed Mary (lac sacrum beate Marie). That this had originally come from the East, as he alleges, is likely enough; we find Barnwell Priory owning relics which its founder had acquired on the First Crusade, and Bridlington priory being given a reliquary from Jerusalem. But other details of its history as given by Erasmus have been shown to be inaccurate or unlikely, and it is at least possible that the inscription in the church from which Erasmus claims to have got them is misrepresented by him. Good reason has been given to show that the relic itself, described by Erasmus as ‘dried up—you would say it was ground chalk mixed with white of egg’, was not what a literal interpretation would make it out to be but was merely a scraping from the chalky ‘Grotto of Our Lady’s Milk’ in Bethlehem, a favourite medieval souvenir. How soon knowledge of the original nature of the relic tended to be generally forgotten and to what extent it was alive in Erasmus’s England are questions on which the writer does not feel qualified to draw any conclusions, though one may well feel that herein Erasmus has at least put the worst interpretation on the facts.

It is because one cannot feel sure that Erasmus has not embellished his account of Walsingham in a rather unfair way, that one regrets so much the absence of evidence regarding the other spectacular stories he tells. Whether we believe his report that he was given a piece cut from a beam on which the Virgin Mother had been seen to rest’ or not, must depend entirely on our estimate of his character and that of popular religion at this time. Similarly, one cannot be certain whether or no Erasmus has touched up the story of the ‘Knight’s Door’. This name was, and is, given to a small postern on the north side of the precinct wall. According to the Colloquy it took this name from a knight on horseback who was closely pursued by his enemy and miraculously saved by commending his safety to the Virgin, so that ‘on a sudden the man and horse were together within the precincts of the church, and the pursuer fruitlessly storming without’. This much of the story is paralleled in Blomefield, whose account is partly taken from ‘an old MS.’ which may be an independent source. Under this door was ‘an iron grating allowing only a footman to pass’ and Erasmus asserts that this was put up after the escape ‘as it would not be proper that any horse should again tread the spot which the former horseman had consecrated to the Virgin’. This may be so, but it is at least feasible that the grating was originally there to prevent its use by any but pedestrians (likely enough, since it was a conveniently placed exit for pilgrims after visiting the shrine) and that the alleged miraculous escape merely arose through someone on horseback having contrived to enter through it. Again, it is difficult to feel any confidence in Erasmus’s jibe that the alleged relics of the True Cross would together make a shipload of timber, a remark perhaps not intended to be taken literally.

Of the brethren of the priory, as distinct from the cult there, Erasmus has little critical to say and that not of great importance. It is not easy to feel much amusement or concern at his somewhat snobbish references to the Walsingham canons’ ignorance of Greek (which they shared with all but the minutest fraction of contemporary western society), and their consequent failure to distinguish between Greek and Arabic in the case of his ode. Nor can it be regarded as surprising or grossly reprehensible if several of the brethren, as Erasmus asserts, contrived to catch a glimpse of the distinguished visitor. In any case Erasmus found fit to describe the convent as ‘highly spoken of; richer in piety than in revenue’.

Between the time of Erasmus’s visit to Walsingham and the publication of his Colloquy on Pilgrimages, episcopal visitations were continuing, and give us valuable details on the conventual life at Walsingham. In July 1520 it is clear that the situation had improved though it was still far from perfect. There were no grave scandals but the new prior was having difficulty in ruling a house divided against itself. There was dissension among the brethren; some refused to consent to the sealing of proxies to excuse the prior from attending ‘the assembly of superiors summoned by the lord Cardinal’ (that is, the general chapter for Austin canons called by Wolsey in 1519) and the consistory court of Norwich, whilst a number of the brethren refused to accept the new statutes. The refractory brethren were ordered to submit and ask pardon for their offence.

The next visitations came at what was apparently the normal six-year interval (August 1526) and showed that the situation had again improved. Several brethren said that all was well and though others mentioned defects, none of these were of a serious nature. There was the old complaint that the young brethren had no one to teach them. It was said that the house had ceased to maintain a scholar at the university, whilst two brethren complained that the subprior was inclined to favouritism and severity. In 1529 the prior of Coxford made various complaints against the bishop of Norwich and the prior of Walsingham, though it is not known to what extent they were justified. At the visitation of 1532 Walsingham was pleasingly peaceful. Most brethren said that all was well, the only dissenting voice being that of Brother William Race who maintained that the convent’s attendance at mattins was irregular. There were at this time twenty-two brethren besides the prior, four of whom were novices and four ex-canons of Flitcham.

By now the first rumbles of the Reformation were beginning. On 18 September 1534, Prior Richard Vowell and twenty-one canons signed a deed accepting King Henry VIII as ‘head of the English Church’ and rejecting the authority of the pope. In the following year was compiled the Valor Ecdesiasticus, the great valuation of the wealth of the English Church, which gives us most valuable details of Walsingham’s financial resources. The gross general income of the priory was estimated at £707. 7s. 10?d. with a net value of £652. 4s. 11?d. The lands owned by the priory were very extensive and almost all in Norfolk, the gross temporal income being £385. 0s. 0?d. The spiritual revenues were derived from two sources. The rectories of All Saints’ in Great Walsingham and of St Peter’s, and of All Saints’ in Little Walsingham totalled £59. 10s. 5d. Much more valuable, more unusual and more interesting are the offerings at the shrine (oblaciones) which the Valor shows under three heads. Those at the relic of the so-called ‘Holy Milk of the Blessed Mary the Virgin’ amounted annually to only 42s. 3d., those ‘in the chapel of St Laurence’ to £8. 9s. ½d. for the same period; but those ‘in the chapel of the Blessed Virgin Mary’ totalled no less than £250. 1s.—more than the total income of many a medium-sized monastery. There were annual payments for the maintenance of lights and 12s. 6d. for twenty-five poor at Bedingham, whilst 106s. 8d. was paid yearly to a chaplain celebrating divine service in the chapel of Our Lady for the souls of Edward I, Edward II, and John Uvedale, knight. A chaplain was also paid 106s. 8d. to celebrate for the souls of John Marshall and his wife Ellen (‘Alina ‘).

In Harl. MS. 791 are preserved some curious Articles of Enquiry. They are headed ‘Walsingham’ and consist of a series of very detailed questions regarding the value of the offerings at the shrine: whether these were inventoried or alienated or pledged; what relics were there and where these were exposed; whether miracles at the shrine were claimed and ‘wonte to be declared in pulpite heretofore’ and what proof there was for such claims; what stories were told about the origin of the house and of the statue; ‘whether our Ladye’s milk be liquid or no’ and ‘what of the house where the bere skynne is and of the knyght’. These articles are unfortunately undated but it has long been recognized that they have been influenced by Erasmus’s account of Walsingham. The inquiry here envisaged evidently preceded the attack on images launched by the royal injunctions of August 1536, for before this date we have evidence of some intention to rob the shrine. As early as 25 July 1536, a letter from one of his agents to Thomas Cromwell reported that all the money, plate and jewels at Walsingham had been sequestered, a step probably contemplated before October 1535. It is difficult to see what justification there could be for this act at this stage. The Act suppressing the smaller monasteries passed in February 1536 could not apply to Walsingham whose wealth put it high up among what the Act called ‘great solemn monasteries wherein thanks be to God, religion is well kept and observed’. The letter adds the interesting note that ‘frome the Satreday night tyll the Sondaye next folowinge was ofred at their now beinge 133s. 4d.’ besides wax, and note that the visitors had found ‘a secrete prevye place within the howse, where no channon nor annye other of the howse dyd ever enter, as they saye’ and that among the implements there was ‘nothing there wantinge that shoulde belonge to the arte of multyplyeng’. This suggestion of false coining is in line with the behaviour of Cromwell’s servants but it is at least as likely that the workshop in question was used for the manufacture of the pilgrim tokens which are known to have been on sale at this time. It is worth noting in this connexion that a building for this purpose was found at Christchurch, Canterbury, England’s other major pilgrimage centre.

At this time Walsingham like other religious houses of the diocese of Norwich suffered from a visitation by royal officials ‘of doubtful character’ concerned to provide propaganda material for the total dissolution of monastic life in England. Their report, quite worthless as evidence, accused some canons of fleshly sins and the house of ‘much superstition in feigned relics and miracles’. In September 1536, Richard Vowell, the then prior of Walsingham, wrote to Cromwell an obscure letter about some mysterious domestic matter, saying that all his brethren ‘deny that they were privy either to the articles or to the letter sent to Cromwell in their name’ and adding that the bearer will deliver Cromwell’s ‘fee for the ensuing year’.
That pilgrimages were still going on, however, is clear from the mention of a visit by Cornish soldiers at this time and from a curious report of trouble at the shrine. On 3 June 1537, it was deposed that a priest at Our Lady’s chapel ‘on Our Lady’s Even before Christmas’ had said to four men of Lincolnshire who came on pilgrimage to Walsingham that ‘if Norfolk and Suffolk would have risen when Lincolnshire and Yorkshire did, they had been able to have gone through the realm’. This was a reference to the Pilgrimage of Grace, a rising recently inspired by the suppression of the smaller monasteries, but the accusation of disloyalty was clearly suspect as it came from a ‘soore and diseased beggar’ whose importunity at the chapel door had so irritated pilgrims that they invoked the aid of the priest. The beggar attacked him with ‘froward and naughty words’ for which a constable finally put him in the stocks, after which he made his accusation against the priest. But there was bound to be much discontent at the dismantling of the monasteries now going on apace on every hand, not least in an area whose past was as inextricably involved with monasticism as Norfolk, and it is not surprising that a rising here was planned in which Walsingham was implicated.

In mid April 1537, one Ralph Rogerson meeting one George Gysburghe of Walsingham in the town had said to him, ‘You see how these abbeys go down and our living goeth away with them; for within a while Bynham shall be put down and also Walsingham and all other abbeys in that country’, and had suggested opposition. The sequel was a plot to rebel, hatched under cover of a shooting match at Binham. Those involved seem to have been few and were largely local laity of no great influence, but their efforts were enough to jolt a somewhat nervy government. Unhappily for the conspirators their plans were betrayed at an early stage by one John Galant of Letheringsett, a servant of Sir John Heydon who alleged that the conspirators ‘aimed at ‘raising the country’ and going to the aid of ‘the Northern men’.

Sir John, a member of a well-established local family, stood firm by the government, and on 26 April 1537 wrote hastily of ‘a great insurrection like to be among the King’s subjects about Walsyngham. . . . . Tonight or early in the morning I intend to be at Walsingham to apprehend some of these rebellious, and trust to hear from my lord how I shall act.’ But three days later Richard Southwell wrote to Cromwell that Heydon had informed him ‘the conspirators do not pass 12 in numbers, all very beggars and there is no likelihood of any commotion’. The rebels were sought out and on 3 May Cromwell was informed that the subprior of Walsingham (Nicholas Mileham) was ‘infectyd’ and had been taken and examined. A week later, on 10 May 1537, Sir Roger Townsend and Richard Southwell acknowledged receipt of letters from the king and Cromwell, ordering the execution ‘without sparing’ of all offenders in the Walsingham conspiracy. In pursuance of this, the subprior and George Gisborough, evidently a layman of the town, were drawn, hanged, beheaded and quartered at Walsingham on 30 May 1537, nine of their confederates suffering similarly at other places in Norfolk.

Prior Richard Vowell evidently hoped against hope that his house would survive, but if it had not been implicated in the abortive rising its wealth must have proved an irresistible temptation to the extravagant king, who by now had decided on the total suppression of monasteries in England. A short lull, however, followed. For some months after the executions little is known about the house till on 14 July 1538 we find the prior reporting to Cromwell that the royal commissioners had taken the image of Our Lady from the chapel ‘allso all suche golde and syllver with such other thynges as weare theare,’ leaving in his keeping some silver. He went on to urge the expenses that the priory would be liable to incur by being unable to observe certain compulsory ecclesiastical obligations under the new conditions, and continued to urge, as he had evidently done before, ‘the translacion of our house into a college’. On 18 July the image that for centuries had evoked so much piety reached London along with the statue of Our Lady of Ipswich and ‘’all the jewelles that hunge about them. Their fate was uncertain at this date. A month earlier Latimer had written to Cromwell urging the burning of certain famous statues of Our Lady, including that of Walsingham, and this course was decided on ‘because the people should use noe more idolatrye unto them.’ They were destroyed at Chelsea probably before July was out.

By this time Prior Vowell’s pathetic hopes that his house would avoid destruction had been blasted. On 25 July, Sir Richard Gresham wrote to Cromwell acknowledging instructions ‘’that the king’s pleasure is that the priory of Walsingham shall be dissolved’ and informed him that he had notified the prior of this. On 4 August 1538 the end came. In the priory chapter-house before the royal commissioner, Sir William Petre, the prior and his canons signed the deed surrendering their house with all its possessions to the king.

On 12 August Richard Vowell, writing as ‘Prest’, asked Cromwell for various favours including the parsonage of Walsingham and also begged expeditious action to solve the financial needs of his brethren and himself. Four days later Gresham wrote to Cromwell that the prior of Walsingham was ‘both impotent and lame’ and urged that he be given the parsonage, declaring him to be ‘very discreet, learned, of good name and can set forth the Word of God very well, whereof the town has great need’ . In the event he became vicar of South Creake and a good number of his brethren are known to have received pensions or benefices or both. On 7 November 1539, Thomas Sydney of Little Walsingham and his wife bought the building and site of the late priory of Walsingham with two closes of land formerly belonging to it for £90. Spelman tells us that when he was at school at Walsingham it was said that Sydney ‘was by the townsmen employed to have bought the site of the abbey to the use of the town, but obtained and kept it to himself’.

Thus fell one of the most magnificent monasteries of medieval England. But its memory was long a-dying; and about the end of the century an anonymous poem, perhaps by Philip earl of Arundel, poured out the bitterness which the deed had brought to those to whom the cult of Our Lady stood as an ennobling force in a crude society.

In the wrackes of Walsingam, whom should I chuse
But the Queene of Walsingam to be guide to my muse.
Then thou Prince of Walsingam grant me to frame
Bitter plaintes to rewe thy wronge, bitter wo for thy name.
Bitter was it oh to see the seely sheepe
Murdered by the raveninge wolves, while the sheephards did sleep.
Bitter was it oh to vewe the sacred vyne,
While the gardiners plaied all close, rooted up by the swine.
Bitter, bitter oh to behould the grasse to growe,
Where the walls of Walsingam so stately did shew.
Such were the works of Walsingam while shee did stand,
Such are the wrackes as now do shewe of that holy land.
Levell levell with the ground the towres doe lye,
Which with their golden, glitteringe tops pearsed once to the skye.
Where weare gates, no gates are nowe; the waies unknowen,
Where the press of peares did passe while her fame far was blowen.
Oules do scrike where the sweetest himnes lately weer songe,
Toades and serpents hold their dennes wher the palmers did thronge.
Weepe, weepe O Walsingam, whose dayes are nightes,
Blessinge turned to blasphemies, holy deeds to dispites.
Sinne is wher our Ladie sate, heaven turned is to hell,
Sathan sittes wher our Lord did swaye, Walsingam oh farewell.

On 6 July 1922 a replica of the ancient image of Our Lady was ceremonially installed in the Anglican parish church, and soon after organized pilgrimages began there. In 1931 the statue was moved to a permanent shrine built in the village. The chapel was later extended and various auxiliary buildings added; it is now visited by some thousands of pilgrims annually. The Roman Catholic focus of devotion is the medieval Slipper Chapel at Houghton (on which see Appendix IV) which was reopened in 1934 and is now the centre of very large pilgrimages.

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