Sir William Milner

Sir William Milner contributed his reminiscences to the Memorial number of Our Lady's Mirror Autumn 1958-Winter 1959, after Fr Patten's death
My first meeting with “Pat” as his friends were told to call him, was, I think, in 1923, at a League of Our Lady meeting in London, at which a young clergyman dressed in a frock-coat (Pat’s usual London garb in those days) turned up to give a talk on the newly-reconstituted pilgrimage to Our Lady of Walsingham; and of absorbing interest it was. The result was that a small pilgrimage was made from London (very small it was too) in the autumn. It was to have consisted of three, I being one, but I went down with a bad chill, and only two made it. Next year, a larger number came, and so it gradually continued to grow. The inner story of how all this happened started a good many years earlier, when Pat, then still a boy, began to turn his thoughts to the priesthood, feeling a strong sense of vocation; and also a strong devotion to Our Lady. When his thoughts on the priesthood began to crystallise, he often asked Our Lady that, if he became a priest, he might go to some sphere of work that was particularly associated with her. Fr Lingwood has recounted how this all came about.
So Pat found himself Vicar of Walsingham. Before he had been there many weeks, he determined that the Pilgrimage must be got going again; a lovely figure of Our Lady and the Holy Child, copied from the old seal of the Priory, was carved and coloured by a Religious, the figure that today stands in the Holy House; and it was solemnly blessed and enthroned on a carved bracket on a column of the Guilds Chapel in the ancient parish church of St Mary, Little Walsingham. Here it remained until the new Shrine Church was built; and this Guilds Chapel was the centre of the early pilgrimages. At that time one of the highlights of the Pilgrimage was a visit to drink of the Wells in the Abbey grounds; and as these grounds were only open on a Wednesday, this meant that the pilgrimages could only take place between Tuesday and Thursday, a not very convenient time for many of the people who would otherwise have liked to come. The typical form that the pilgrimages took at that time was as follows. The train was taken from King’s Cross to Fakenham, where the pilgrims were met by all sorts and kinds of conveyances, and driven the five miles to Walsingham. After being shown their lodgings at various houses in the village (where they were invariably received with the greatest possible kindness and attention by the householder), came the first visit to the Guilds Chapel to fix their intentions, followed by Vespers of Our Lady, and supper, which in the very early days took place in a special room in the Black Lion, originally a mediæval pilgrim Inn, which, so we are told, once welcomed Queen Philippa of Hainault during her pilgrimage here; for in the old days it was an understood thing that all, high or low, who could possibly do so, should come to Walsingham every year to salute Our Lady in England’s Nazareth. This was followed by confessions in the parish church, always an understood thing at the commencement of any pilgrimage. And then, bed, lulled to sleep by the quiet voice of the trees. In the morning, priests on pilgrimage said their Mass, and the lay pilgrims made their Communion. After this came breakfast and Stations of the Cross, and Sung Mass, followed by a somewhat strenuous walk (some 2 miles) to the Church of St Giles at Houghton; and then over the footbridge over the Stiffkey to the Slipper Chapel, where in old days the pilgrims took of their shoes to walk barefoot the mile or so to England’s Nazareth; the last to do so being Henry VIII, in the days before the Devil entered into him to destroy the Priory and all the other Religious Houses in the country. This Chapel was, in our early days, in repair but unused. It had been bought some years previously by a lady, after being for years used as a hayshed. She unfortunately went over to Rome, and handed over the Chapel to the Benedictines. We used to visit it, and say some decades of the Rosary, before walking back to Walsingham, thinking I have no doubt of all the thousands that had passed that way before us, and feeling that so we were one of a great company that no man could number. After reaching Walsingham, and luncheon, we paid our sixpences at the old Priory gate in the High Street, and went into the ruins, seeking ahead of us the one noble arch that had formerly contained the great East Window of the Priory. After prayers at the site (as then supposed) of the Holy House on the North side of where the great church had stood, we went to the Wells, a hundred yards or so to the East of the Priory Church. Here, enclosed by a wall, and entered by a Norman arch moved from somewhere else, are two circular wells and a square piscina or bath, with steps leading down into it. We all drank of the water; and afterwards adjourned for tea on the Vicarage lawn, always a happy and festive occasion. Then came supper, Vespers to Our Lady and Benediction. And next morning, after Mass and a last visit to the Guilds Chapel to say farewell to Our Lady, we started on our various ways home. Those were very happy days. Many came again and again, and we all felt like meeting old friends. Not only was Pat immersed in the work of restoring the devotion to Our Lady of Walsingham; he had the Catholic way of life to build up in the three parishes. This he did partly by persistent visiting, getting to know his people, taking part in all their joys and sorrows, and getting them to trust and to love him. The work he did to spread Catholic faith and practice in these years is beyond all knowledge; at any rate, one measure of it was the usual attendance at the Sung Mass on Sundays, which, out of a population of some 1,000 was seldom less than 100-150; and the numbers of confessions was considerable, always the acid test of true conversion. He had a large band of local boys trained as Servers; and one of the joyous things of those times was the weekly servers’ evening at the Vicarage, when Pat and all the rest used to play games, some of them on the riotous side! One often used to see him with an impish grin on his face, and his hair all upside down, as a result of some rough-and-tumble. I mention this, as it seems to me to set the whole tone and friendliness of the place. top of page Somewhere about 1926, he took up to the Vicarage a young chap from the village whom he thought had a vocation to the priesthood. This boy, as well as being convinced of his vocation, also developed a genius for finance, a quality lacking in Pat himself; and what Pat and the work and building up of the work of the Shrine owed to Fr Derrick Lingwood (as he is now) is beyond all knowledge. Only a few intimates realised what it all meant; in latter years, Fr Derrick was often down working at the Shrine Office until well after midnight; and it is entirely owing to the devoted work of Pat and himself that the work of the Pilgrimage is what it is today. Soon after he was priested by the late Bishop of Bradford, they started on an idea that Pad had long cherished, the beginning of a College of Priests founded on the idea of the ancient mediæval Chantry Colleges. There was just themselves at first, and they made a chapel in the Vicarage in which they used daily to recite the Divine Office of Matins and Evensong in common. So things went on, gradually growing; until sometime early in 1930 the then Bishop of Norwich (Dr Bertram Pollock) arrived in the parish, and asked to see the Vicar. He told Pat that he wanted to go down to the church. So down they went; and the Bishop marched along to the Guilds Chapel, where he surveyed all that was therein. The first protest was against the altar that was (and still is) placed in front of The Sidney Cenotaph. The Bishop said “What a pity to hide the base of it.” Pat’s reply was “But don’t you think the upper part makes an admirable reredos to the altar?” This however did not satisfy my Lord, who wanted to see the base; so the frontal was lifted and he crawled underneath; and the edifying spectacle was presented of the Episcopal posterior protruding outside while the Episcopal face was studying the monument! Afterwards he turned to the image; and he said “Mr Patten, do you teach your people to worship the Virgin?” Pat replied “Yes, but only in the sense that you may say that you worship your earthly mother!” “Oh I see,” said my Lord. He then moved closer to have a nearer look, and tripped heavily over the candle-box. “Oh, what HAVE I done?” said the Bishop, as candles shot in all directions. Anyway, the upshot of it was that the Bishop asked if the image might not be removed and be replaced by a picture of Our Lady (a subtle difference that seems to have been in vogue in the C of E for some years). Pat said he would have to consult his friends about this; and so they left the church. As they were going out, Pat asked for the Episcopal blessing. Bertram seemed to be rather nonplussed by this, but finally said “yes”; and solemnly led him up to the High Altar and got behind the communion rails for the purpose. The upshot of all this was that the Bishop unknowingly started something of which he never dreamed, for Pat consulted with his friends and it was decided to accede to the Bishop’s wish but to build, on some of the land already in the hands of the Shrine, a church modelled on the original layout of the old chapel; that is, the Holy House inside a covering church to which the image would be solemnly translated when it was finished. This apparently met with the Bishop’s wishes (he had evidently been bully-ragged in the House of Lords by some of the backwoods Peers). A charming picture of O.L.W. was painted by the late Clifford Pember, to take the place of the image. So the work on the new building was started, and the image translated on a morning of mid-October Sir William Milner, holding the deeds and a candle, in the procession to the new Holy House, 19311931. A large number of priests and lay-folk attended, to the number of a thousand or more. In the procession was also the then Abbot of Nashdom and an Orthodox Archbishop. The procession stretched all the way from St Mary’s, along the High Street, to the new Pilgrimage Church. It was a colourful throng; the Archbishop in his eastern vestment with Deacons of Honour; the Abbot; various Religious, male and female, the donor of the land on which the new church was built [this was Sir William himself] carrying the title-deeds to be laid on the Altar of the Holy House; the image of Our Lady of Walsingham carried shoulder-high on a feretory carried by four priests in dalmatics, the Bishop of Accra, the consecrator of the new buildings, with his Deacons of Honour, and the celebrant Fr Patten himself. It must have been a proud day for him. And then the image was installed in the Holy House in the niche where it still is over the altar. A strange thing happened the night before, when Fr Patten was in the new building, and was conscious of the presence of several figures, in the dress of Augustinian Canons, visiting the various altars, consulting a paper which one of them held in his hands, and then nodding their heads in evident pleasure at each altar, newly consecrated that day. The vision remained for quite some time, and then faded. Several interesting discoveries were made in the course of the building. When digging for the foundations, a cobbled yard was found some four feet below the surface; and beyond, the bases of walls, which seemed to agree very closely in plan and area with the dimensions left by William of Worcester and Erasmus. Furthermore, a well was discovered which, on being freed of the clay stopping, was found to contain at the bottom some old rusty knives and old shoes, which were pronounced by the Victoria and Albert Museum authorities to be of XVIth century date; and were evidently thrown in to dishonour the well. The water at once welled up again. The structure of the well was, at the bottom few courses, oak logs; and high up circular, of rough flint-work; quite consistent with a late Saxon date; and near at hand was a large masonry foundation, square, and with a square socket in it, which was undoubtedly the base of a great cross. It was found that the well dropped into place exactly between two piers of the new arcade of the covering church; and we none of us have any doubts that what was discovered was the original Holy Well. This is still in use for drinking and sprinkling for pilgrims. The Stations of the Cross were built round the Hospice Garden, culminating in a Hill of Calvary carrying three great crosses; and also, for the XIVth station, a model of the Holy Sepulchre, containing an exact model of the Holy Tomb, and a figure of the Saviour laying in it. All this meant a great stride forward for the pilgrimage; in the first place, now that we had our own Holy Well, and the probable original site of the ancient building, it was no longer necessary to restrict pilgrimages to Tuesday/Thursday; but they could be held on any days of the week. Parish pilgrimages began to come along from all over the country, besides many from the London area. So the work grew rapidly, until by 1935 it became evident that the original buildings were quite inadequate to contain the numbers who came. One morning, when I was staying at the Vicarage, we were all at breakfast, when Fr Derrick opened a letter that had come in the post, and casually pushed it over to Pat, saying “Here is a cheque for £6,000.” Pat thought he was pulling his leg; but nevertheless it was true; and this amount made possible the much-needed extension to the Pilgrimage Church. The work was put in hand at the east end of the original building, which (the east end) was pulled down, and its site marked in the pavement by a line of grey bricks, and the arcades carried on to form a new nave and choir, with apse and various side-chapels, which brought the number of altars up to fifteen, one for each of the Mysteries of the Rosary. Care was taken in digging for the foundations of the new building, to look out for the old foundations, which were again found, all except one corner that came under the original building. They were carefully cleared, and the corner that came under the new extensions was crypted over so that it would be still possible to visit it. top of page I will not deal at length with the ensuing period, as many others besides myself have full knowledge of all that went on. I will just mention that, to ensure continuity, it seemed good to him to constitute a College of Guardians of the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, part priests, part lay. With the opening of the enlarged Pilgrimage Church, Fr Patten and Fr Derrick started to recite the Divine Office of Matins and Evensong solemnly in the choir; and the Nuns had their own chapel behind the Organ Gallery, where is now a second vestry. The work continued and grew until 1939 brought the Second Great War; Walsingham became a Prohibited Area, and pilgrimages, except for those living actually in the area, had to cease, though the Guardians, as officials with official business there, were still allowed in. Later on in the war period, a part of the Quainton Hall School at Harrow was evacuated to Long Marston, in Northamptonshire. The Government eventually desired to commandeer the site where they were living, and it became necessary for the boys to seek a new home. Walsingham was chosen; and the derelict buildings in the Army Yard, and also St Augustine’s, were altered, with Pat’s inimitable genius for this sort of thing and now the Shrine had its own Choir School. After the War, he decided to make the Vicarage over to the School, and himself to occupy the buildings by the Shrine, which became the College of St Augustine, originally intended for priests; but it so happened that several laymen wished to come, so the basis of it was changed to accommodate them. Pat and Derrick moved down there; it happened during one of my visits to Walsingham, and he and I spent the first night in the new Master’s House. The Office of Matins and Evensong were of obligation, and were solemnly and very beautifully sung, together with the Lesser Hours (the latter not at first of obligation). All who have had the privilege of coming into the College will have been amazed by the charm that Pat got into those derelict buildings, and the charming gardens that he laid out both in the College Quad, and later on in front of the buildings that were repaired for the accommodation of retired priests in what is now known as the North Wing. But these are matters that are known to many others, who can deal with them far more ably than myself; all I will say is that, when Pat became a priest, the Profession of Architecture lost a very promising neophyte. Not that he had ever considered this as a possibility so far as I know. But he could have been a very great one. Now he is passed from our sight, it remains for us to carry on and extend the work that he so wonderfully started. But one of the perennial headaches is that of finance; and the Guardians have decided that there could be no more suitable memorial of his life and work than the raising of a Fund of £50,000 to form a permanent endowment for the priests and the work of the Shrine; for without this, it is impossible for the work to progress as we should all wish to see it progress. I commend it to you all. “Rest eternal grant unto him, O Lord, and let Light Perpetual shine upon him” top of page
Sir William with his dog Bracken, at Parcevall Hall Sir William with his dog Bracken, at Parcevall Hall