Since Mother Prioress asked me to prepare this talk I have leant a great deal and I am delighted that Mother made this choice.
The story of Walsingham fits into three quite separate sections. Firstly how it came into being. Secondly how the Reformation destroyed it and thirdly its restoration as the National Shrine of Our Lady for England.
Starting then with ‘how Walsingham commenced’ immediately we are faced with ‘Tradition’ and ‘Fact.’ As a comparison let us briefly look at The Holy House of Loreto. The ‘Tradition’ is that Mary’s house at Nazareth was miraculously transferred to Loreto by being carried through the sky by Angels. The ‘Fact’ which is available to us is that an Italian named Niceforo Angelo was fighting with the Crusaders. They were being beaten back by the Turks and when they retreated to Nazareth Niceforo realised that this would probably be the last chance to save the stones of Mary’s House. So he had the house dismantled and the stones shipped to Italy. I understand that it is recorded that Niceforo made a gift of the stones to his daughter as part of her dowry when she married in 1294. Could it be that his surname ‘Angelo’ led to the story of the Angels? Nevertheless the ‘Tradition’ is very strong, so much so that and Our Lady of Loreto is the Patron of Aviators.
Mother & Sisters I don’t want you to think that I am belittling the story of the Angels transporting the Holy House. In fact the ‘Tradition’ is emphasised by the story of shepherds having seen the Holy House passing overhead. Everything we see around us; this table, these walls; everything was made by God, man has only transformed them. So if God wants to have angels transport the Holy House then it is no problem. I am just stating the facts as I have researched them.
Tradition and Fact are included in the story of Walsingham. We start with Tradition. It is stated that in the year 1061, five years before the Norman Conquest, a young widow, Lady Richeldis, wanted to honour the Mother of God in a special way and she prayed for guidance. Some stories tell us that Our Lady took Richeldis to Nazareth and showed her the Holy House. Other stories suggest that Richeldis was shown the Holy House in a vision. Whichever story is correct Our Lady was asking for a copy of the Holy House to be built in Walsingham and Richeldis had the exact size to which the house should be built. It was to be 23’6” X 12’10”. The tradition continues that Richeldis prayed for guidance as to where to build the Holy House.
The following morning, whilst the dew was still on the ground, she came across the River Stiffkey to a field where there were already two Holy Wells. (The mention of ‘Holy Wells’ set me searching for the reason for their existence but I can find no information about them. Best for us to say that the ground had been prepared for what was to come.) Lady Richeldis found two areas exactly size of the Holy House which were not covered with dew. The site nearest to the wells was chosen and workmen made a start. They made no attempt to copy the stone construction of the Holy House but attempted to build to the correct size using wood. But no matter how they tried nothing would fit and by the end of the day Richeldis felt very despondent. She spent the night in prayer and the next day it was discovered that the house had been miraculously built on the other site two hundred feet from the holy wells. It was better constructed than any craftsman of the period could build. Angel carpenters had visited Walsingham (or could it have been St Joseph?). It is recorded that apart from its exact size the house made no resemblance to the structure of the Holy House at Nazareth. It was of a typical single storey Anglo-Saxon construction with a pitched roof and was made a wood, wattle and clay.
Regarding this ‘Tradition’ there are some doubts about the date of 1061. The only mention of that date was in a Ballad published by a printer to Edward VII in about 1496. That Ballad wasn’t written until over three hundred years after the vision of Lady Richeldis. The Ballad said:
“Of this chapel see here the foundation
Builded the year of Christ’s Incarnation
A thousand complete sixty and one
The time of Saint Edward king of the region.”
Moving from Tradition to Fact the chapel had certainly been built long before it became prominent in the mid 13th century as the resort of royal and aristocratic pilgrims, but there is no evidence of a pre-Conquest foundation. The author of the Ballad was perhaps simply attempting to emphasise the antiquity of the shrine by placing its origins before the Norman Conquest of 1066 the great watershed in English history. Many religious institutions sought in this way to enhance their status – most notably, the monks of Glastonbury who claimed that their house had been founded by Joseph of Arimathea! After the Holy House had been built Lady Richeldis seems to fade out of the picture.
The Ballad tells us that miracles ‘too numerous to mention’ were shown by Our Lady to those who came to see the Holy House.
In the chapel was placed the statue of Our Lady of Walsingham. Our Lady is depicted as a woman and mother. She is seated on a throne of Wisdom, in the midst of the Church which is represented by two pillars symbolic of the Gate of Heaven, with seven rings to signify the seven sacraments and the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. The arched back of the throne reminds us of the rainbow which was set was a sign of God’s fidelity to his creation. Our Lady is clothed in blue of divinity, the white of motherhood and the red of virginity. In her hand she holds a lily-sceptre with three blooms because she was virginal before, during and after the Saviour’s birth. As the Woman of New Creation, the New Eve, she crushes beneath her feet a toadstone, symbolic of the power of evil. As the Queen of Heaven and of England, her Dowry, she is crowned with a Saxon crown. On his mother’s knee is the child Jesus who, as the Word of God made Flesh, holds the book of the Gospels. He extends his right arm in a double gesture of blessing and protection of his mother.
Walsingham’s popularity as a place of devotion grew and grew and in 1153 in order to care for the Pilgrims the Augustinian Canons came to Walsingham. The Benedictines should have been favourites to commence a new Monastery especially as the Augustinians had only fairly recently arrived in England. But Augustinians were more adept at working outside the cloister, caring for the sick and helping with almshouses. They were a healing Order so maybe with the pilgrims already coming to the Chapel of Our Lady to seek succour, it was felt that the followers of the Rule of St Augustine were better qualified.
In 1226 news of happenings at Walsingham reached the ears of Henry III and he became the first of many Royal visitors. In total he made thirteen visits to Walsingham. He gave large gifts of wax and tapers for the Chapel and 40 great oaks for the work on the Augustinian Priory.
As the popularity of the Shrine increased it became necessary to enlarge the Priory Church to cater for the pilgrims and the Holy House was encased in a large chapel which was attached to the Church so that pilgrims could enter it from the nave of the Church and leave through a door on the far side so keeping a free flow of pilgrims. (So it was similar to the Holy House of Loreto where there is a separate entrance and exit). But all was not trouble free; there were problems. The Prior, John Snoring, was ambitious to make the Priory into an Abbey so that he could become an Abbot. Eventually he was dismissed because if was felt that, due to his ambitious expansion of the buildings, he was wasting the revenues of the Priory. Despite his appeal to Rome he was not reinstated.
In 1281 King Edward I came on pilgrimage. He had come in thanksgiving. He had been playing chess with a knight in a vaulted chamber when suddenly, without reason, he rose and walked away. At that very moment a huge stone which would have crushed him, fell on the very spot where he had been sitting. He attributed his escape to Our Lady of Walsingham. He returned again in 1289 and in November 1295 he sent valuable gifts of jewels and wax. In 1298 he was on pilgrimage again and he made a point of visiting Our Lady of Walsingham before any important event or campaign.
In 1315 King Edward II came as a pilgrim and the continuity of the Kings of England as pilgrims was furthered by his successor Edward III coming in 1328. Nor were the English kings the only royal pilgrims. In 1332 Queen Isabella of France visited Walsingham. In the municipal records of Kings Lynn it is recorded that it cost the town 20 shillings to provide bread for her as she passed through. In those days 20 shillings must have been equal to many hundreds of pounds in today’s values. To have eaten so much she must have had a large entourage accompanying her.
The increase in pilgrims also brought a new religious order to Walsingham. In 1347 King Edward III gave permission for a Franciscan Friary to be founded and this was licensed by Pope Clement VI. This led to great opposition from the Canons of the Augustinian Priory who feared that their revenue would suffer. The Friars won the day and in 1351 they came to Walsingham and their Friary was built on the South West of the village. The ruins are still there.
Other kings, too many to list, visited the shrine and of course, like Queen Isabella the whole court followed so there must have been hundreds in these retinues. It is said that on one occasion even Parliament came.
Abbeys and Priories need income and to obtain it they were given licence to acquire lands from which to extract rent. Therefore whereas in 1448 the Priory was in debt these extra lands meant that by 1500 they were wealthy and owned 18 of the inns in the village.
Contained in the history of the Holy House, Priory and Friary is the story of the Slipper Chapel. We must bear in mind that some wealthy pilgrims would come in coaches, others on horseback but most would be walking. Even those who had the luxury of coaches and horses would need a stop for respite much as motorists today need to stop for a break at motorway service stations. There were three main routes into Walsingham. One from London in the South West. One from Norfolk in the South and one from Kings Lynn in the West. On each of these routes many chapels were built to cater to the needs of the pilgrims. Where there were no chapels the inns would cater. On the final approaches to the Priory special chapels were built where built where pilgrims could rest and prepare to walk the last mile to the Holy House.
To destroy a possible myth the word ‘Slipper’ may be a misnomer. The word is used due to the pilgrims removing their shoes as a sign of penance and walking barefoot on the last mile to the shrine. But the word may have come from an old English word ‘Slype’ which means ‘something in-between’, the chapels were standing in-between the Shrine and the rest of the world.
Of all the old chapels the Slipper Chapel is the only one still in existence. It is said to have been built in the mid 14th century somewhere between 1338 and 1380. The architect may have been the same as the one who designed Ely Cathedral as there are similarities in design. It is slightly larger than the Holy House.
One of those who walked the last mile barefoot was Henry VIII who, in 1511 visited the shrine and made an offering of £1. 3s. 4d plus a valuable necklace. That same year he made a part payment for glazing Our Lady’s chapel and the following year made a large payment of £23 for completion of the work. Back in 1512 £23 would have been a vast amount of money.
Several years ago I recall being at Walsingham and I saw this young girl walking the Holy Mile barefooted. I thought ‘well if she can do it so can I’ and I did. It was very painful and I found out afterwards that the young girl I had seen was a gypsy. She was probably more used to walking barefooted than with shoes on!
Now we move on to the Reformation or as we better know it the Dissolution and Destruction of the Monasteries. Firstly we must distinguish between two quite separate Reformations. On the continent Martin Luther entered an Augustinian Monastery to search for peace with God but he was not at peace. Tradition has it that in 1517 he nailed his 95 Theses to a church door. These were 95 points on which he disagreed with the Church of Rome. It has since been decided that the actual ‘nailing to the door’ was a ‘tradition’ which never happened but he certainly made his superiors aware of his discontent. It may be that at the time what Luther was intending to do was no more than bring those matters to the attention of his superiors. But his action led to the Reformation on the Continent which was quite separate from the Reformation in England. In fact Henry VIII had initially opposed Luther’s ideas and wrote a pamphlet criticising the German monk. For that pamphlet he was praised by the Pope. All that happened in 1517.
The Reformation in England commenced seventeen years later when Henry VIII requested the Pope to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. There were no grounds for an annulment and the Pope refused. Henry needed the annulment so that he could marry Anne Boylen to whom he had become infatuated. Henry tried to argue that a dispensation should be granted because Catherine was his sister in law and the bible teaching states that such a marriage is unlawful. But the Pope had previously granted a dispensation for that marriage to take place and he could not justify going against his own dispensation. Henry wanted a male heir. Catherine had borne him six children, three boys and three girls, but all had died except one daughter, Mary.
In 1533 Henry secretly married Anne Boylen and then passed the Act of Supremacy, declaring that he was the head of the English church. At this point he did a turnabout and defended the actions of Martin Luther. More than that I don’t think it is unfair to say that the devil seized his chance and put into Henry’s head all the damage that he could do to the Catholic Church in England. Henry systematically set about destroying all the Monastic Buildings and today we see the ruins that are left from the destruction which he ordered.
In 1534 the Prior and 21 Canons were amongst the first Augustinian Canons to sign the Act of Supremacy, acknowledging Henry VIII as Supreme Head of the Church in England. We have to question why they so easily agreed to sign such a document? Perhaps they thought that the whole affair was to be short lived and things would soon be back to normal. Or perhaps they thought that agreeing to the King’s demands would mean that their beloved Shrine and Priory would be saved from destruction. That was not to be and the outcome of Henry’s actions on Walsingham was as tragic as at the other Shrines, Abbeys and Priories throughout the country which were devastated.
In May 1537 eleven local men including the sub-prior were implicated in a plot opposed to the closure of the monasteries. As a result of their conspiracy Thomas Cromwell had them put to death. We are well aware of the names of St. John Fisher the Bishop of Rochester, and St. Thomas More Henry VIII’s Chancellor who died for their faith but there must have been, throughout the kingdom, many other martyrs like the eleven at Walsingham who gave their lives for their faith. One would have to carefully research every small district in the country to ascertain the full extent of that martyrdom. It would be a vast undertaking and would probably reveal thousands of similar martyrs.
The popularity of the Shrine continued right up to its dissolution which took place on the 4th August 1538. The statue of Our Lady of Walsingham was taken to London and burned. The Priory was torn down and the windows, doors, stone, glass, iron, slates and tiles were sold off in lots for a total of £55.15s 1d. In the same year, 1538, the Franciscan Friary was also closed. It was valued at only £3.00! Such was Henry VIII’s fury that even the holy wells on which site of the Holy House had been built were blocked up. Everything possible was done to completely obliterate the site.
Until the time of its destruction in 1538, it was the little wooden house of Lady Richeldis which was the focus for all the devotion. But there is evidence that it was never completely forgotten by faithful Catholics and it was the Slipper Chapel which kept it in their minds. In 1938 an old man told of his father and grandfather who used the Sliipper Chapel as a barn being angered and surprised by Catholics asking permission to visit the barn where they would kneel and pray.
So we move on to the Restoration of Walsingham. For this we have to pay tribute to an Anglican Lady Miss Charlotte Boyd. She was born in Macao in China in 1837. Her father was based there as a merchant. But when she was only six weeks old the threat of Opium Wars made it unsafe to stay and they set sail back to England. There is little doubt that she was brought up as a good Christian and this is emphasised by an account written of her when she was only 13 and on a visit to the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey. This is a biographical account of that visit:
‘……a young girl at that time, she sat alone on that summer
afternoon sadly contemplating the ruins in their desolation
and desecration. Impelled by a sudden impulse, she knelt and
offered herself to the work of restoration if God would accept
her. Quickly and silently the years passed by, while the desire
then kindled in her heart was meantime mentioned in prayer,
till in 1865, when Dr Neal, a Christian counsellor, help to guide
her. His words “I would have you take this as your work in life”,
encouraged and confirmed the purpose formed so long before.
It was not, however, until 1875 that a practical beginning was
made. The fathers of Cowley (a Society of St John the Evangelist),
kindly gave the scheme their countenance and support, and
undertook the responsibility of administering the Trust which
Charlotte had arranged……’
Her wealth came mainly from a bequest from her Uncle Judge John Buckle who left her nearly £20.000. A vast amount of money in the late 19th century. But the old saying ‘money is the root of all evil’ is denied by Charlotte who all her life put that money to good use for the total benefit of others.
With an investment of £500 Charlotte set up the English Abbey Restoration Trust with members of the St John the Evangelist as the first Trustees. The venture was well supported and within three years is had almost 1000 members including 13 Religious Communities and 440 Priests. The object of the Trust was to provide funds for the purchase of ancient ecclesiastical buildings and their restoration for worship according to the rites of the Church of England.
Whilst waiting for the opportunity for her English Abbey Restoration Trust to purchase its first building, Charlotte began her philanthropic work in a practical way. In 1865 she founded an orphanage. It started in a small way with 27 orphans but twenty years later it had 107 orphans. Charlotte lived very simply as the resident head of the orphanage.
In 1883 she was allowed, by its owner, to make use of Malling Abbey in Kent. At that time London, with all its smoke, was not a healthy place for children so she used the Abbey as a country retreat for her orphans.
In 1883 she was introduced to an Anglican Benedictine convent of nuns at Feltham called the Congregation of St Mary and St Scholastica. She had been introduced to the Reverend Mother as someone who might be able to help then financially. But the Reverend Mother Hilda Stewart did not take to her even though Charlotte became an Associate Sister taking the name Sr. Scholastica. In fact the Reverend Mother was reported to have said “I don’t think she will come to visit us much, or be of much use to us. She has not grasped any ideas of the Benedictine life.”
The Reverend Mother was wrong. Her small community lived in great poverty and had few benefactors, but amongst the most generous was Charlotte Boyd. She supported the nuns when they had to move to Twickenham where Charlotte acquired a nearby house which she ran as an orphanage for boys. In 1893 she supported them yet again when they had to move from Twickenham by offering them Malling Abbey which she had bought the previous year for £10,000.
Purchasing Abbeys was not always easy and in the case of Malling Abbey she had to contend with lawyers and with others interested in making the purchase. When she went to sign the purchase of the Abbey there was an American in the Lawyer’s office trying to negotiate the purchase to turn the site into tea gardens. Charlotte won the day. When necessary she must have been a formidable lady.
Her compassionate work continued. In 1902 it is recorded that six gentlewomen received hospitality in one of her orphanages in time of distress and remained until suitable employment was found. Servants out of work or in bad health were taken into the home for rest and care. Children were temporarily sheltered while their mothers were in hospital.
We get the impression of a strong willed but very caring person and with great compassion.
It is recorded that as soon as the Twickenham Community had moved into Malling Abbey Charlotte stayed there and on two successive nights she was visited by the spirits of pre-Reformation nuns, and they urged her to take some ‘important step.’ They were not specific as to what that step should be but later she realised the reason for their visit.
Now Walsingham comes into the story. In 1893 Charlotte had made an unsuccessful attempt to buy the Augustinian Priory but she had seen the Slipper Chapel. Over the 356 years since the dissolution it is reported that the chapel had been used as a poorhouse, a forge, a barn, a cowshed and even as a threshing floor for corn. In 1894 Charlotte signed an agreement to buy the chapel for £400. It wasn’t a straightforward purchase and it wasn’t until more than two years later that the deal was completed. I cannot doubt that the devil could see his evil ways coming to an end and would have fought for the deal to fall through.
Now an important event. It seems that for some time Charlotte had been considering becoming a Catholic and it was a retreat to Bruge in Belgium in 1894, which was led by a Catholic Priest, which confirmed her in that decision. So she left England an Anglican and came back a Catholic. She realised that this was the ‘important step’ which had been suggested to her during her visions at Malling Abbey. Shortly after her conversion she became an Oblate of Downside Benedictine Monastery.
Her change of allegiance did not go down well with her Anglican friends and the new Catholic friends did not help either. Now her orphanage with Anglican staff and trustees was owned by a Catholic. The Catholics thought that she would turn out the Anglican orphans and immediately replace them with Catholics. Charlotte would have none of it and the change from Anglican to Catholic came over a period of four years. Where others showed religious bias she showed love and compassion.
Now Charlotte set herself the task of restoring the Slipper Chapel. When that was completed she offered the chapel to the Bishop of Northampton. But he only saw it as a mission Chapel whereas Charlotte hoped that it would be something more than that. Her hopes were probably that it would become what it is now – a shrine to Our Lady. So she gave the Chapel to the Benedictine Community at Downside.
In 1897 a shrine to Our Lady of Walsingham had been built at Kings Lynn. It was built on the design of the Holy House at Loreto. The Parish Priest, Fr George Wrigglesworth shared the hope that the Shrine to Our Lady would eventually be restored to Walsingham. On the day after the dedication of the Kings Lynn Shrine he led a pilgrimage to the Slipper Chapel. This is counted as the first pilgrimage of modern times. Among those who signed the list of pilgrims was Mary B. Boyd (Mary being the name she had taken at her reception into the Catholic Church and B standing for Benedict, marking her oblation).
There now follows a sad ten years of Diocesan intransigence. The local Bishop had his reasons for not wanting the Slipper Chapel to become a shrine whereas Charlotte had in mind nothing else than it should become, not only a shrine, but a Shrine to Our Lady of Walsingham. Charlotte showed great patience. She wrote:
‘…the shrine will be restored and we have only need of a little
more prayer and patience and Walsingham will have a Catholic
centre and Holy Mass will; be restored.’
For some years Charlotte has suffered from diabetes. Complications set in and she died in April 1906.
Three years before her death she had suggested that Downside Abbey should give the Slipper Chapel to the Bishop of Northampton. But it was 25 years later in 1931 before that happened. A very good reason for giving it to the Northampton Diocese is that only a Bishop can authorise a Mass to take place. By then Bishop Riddell who had opposed the Slipper Chapel as a Shrine had died and Bishop Youenns had taken over. His attitude to the Slipper Chapel was the exact opposite of his predecessor.
In 1933 a new statue designed from the details shown on the Priory Seal was enthroned and on the feast of the Assumption Bishop Youens celebrated the first public Mass in the Slipper Chapel for 400 years.
The spotlight now falls on Bruno Scott James. He was a young somewhat eccentric man. He had been a monk of the Anglican Benedictine Abbey of Pershore but he was been driven to desperation by the choice of becoming a Catholic. He visited the Slipper Chapel and prayed for guidance. He prayed that if Our Lady would obtain from her son the grace for him to make the decision then he would devote his life to her service at Walsingham. Three months later he was received into the Catholic Church. His words became prophetic when in 1935 the Bishop appointed him as the first resident priest of Walsingham and custodian of the Shrine.
The only knowledge of his eccentricity is that he would squat on the steps of the Chapel preaching to anyone who passed by with a Siamese cat sitting on his shoulder. Fr Bruno was responsible for some major developments including a much-needed sacristy, an additional Chapel of the Holy Ghost which contained an additional altar for the many Masses which were being celebrated at the Shrine. As both chapels look similar and to save any confusion the Slipper Chapel is where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved and where there is the beautiful statue of Our Lady of Walsingham. The other chapel and the cloister were built under Fr Bruno’s guidance in 1938 almost six hundred years after the Slipper Chapel had been built. Fr Bruno also organised the building of an open sided wooden structure for celebrating open air Masses. The Holy Ghost Chapel is now used exclusively for the faithful to light candles and the intense heat there indicates that it is well used.
In September 1938 the two chapels were consecrated by Bishop Youens. Earlier that year saw the fist National Pilgrimage of Catholic Youth when Cardinal Hinsley led 10,000 Catholic young people in a pilgrimage of reparation and prayer for peace.
Fr Bruno left in 1944 to continue his good work elsewhere and was succeeded by Fr Connelly who carried on the building work providing much needed facilities for pilgrims.
In 1948 a great cross-carrying pilgrimage took place as an act of reparation for the war and as a prayer for peace. Fourteen groups of about 30 men each walked from places as far North as Middlesbrough and as far South as Canterbury. Each group carried a heavy wooden cross for over 200 miles and arrived outside Walsingham on the 15t July. The campfires of the men burned in a circle around the village through the night as the men kept vigil in prayer before their crosses and at daybreak on the 16th they processed into Walsingham. The crosses now form a permanent Way of the Cross in the Grounds of the Slipper Chapel. It was on that occasion that Cardinal Griffin dedicated England to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
1981 saw the completion of the new pilgrim church. It can hold up to 700 pilgrims and if the weather is fine the altar can be opened up to several thousand in the Slipper Chapel Grounds.
Returning to Charlotte Boyd, her grave was unmarked until in 1960 an admirer of her untiring work persuaded the Abbot of Downside to mark the grave with an iron cross which she would have had if she had been buried at Downside as a Benedictine Oblate. In 1962 on the anniversary of her death a moving ceremony took place at her graveside. Here is a report of that ceremony:
‘At last Miss Boyd has her memorial and that given by the
Abbot President, and put up by a Cardinal Archbishop, and
blessed by the Cardinal’s delegate in the presence of the
representative of the Lord Bishop of Northampton.’
The headstone reads: Charlotte Boyd
Died 3rd April 1906
The Slipper Chapel, Walsingham
To Catholic Ownership
In 1980 because of proposed alterations at the cemetery Miss Boyd’s cross along with the inscribed headstone, was moved to Walsingham and placed on the outside wall of the Slipper Chapel. A simple stone plaque was put in its place at the cemetery.
Finally to bring us right up to date the prefabricated building which had been the Catholic Church in The Friday Market in Walsingham Village has been replaced with a brand new modern church. That new Church opened in October last year.
And to end on a note of Ecumenism: while that new church was being built the Baptists allowed the Catholics to use their chapel for Mass. Alleluia that we have come a long way since the days of religious enmity.