England’s Nazareth – Walsingham

Nazareth near Sandringham

Sacred mysteries: Christopher Howse finds that the king who rebuilt Westminster Abbey had another favourite shrine, in Walsingham

Detail of a 14th-century pewter pilgrim badge depicting the Annunciation

Detail of a 14th-century pewter pilgrim badge depicting the Annunciation Photo: MUSEUM OF LONDON / BRIDGEMAN ART LIBRARY
5:40PM BST 29 Apr 2011Comment

The man who rebuilt Westminster Abbey as we saw it on television yesterday, Henry III, had devotion to three places of pilgrimage: the shrine of St Edward the Confessor, whose coffin he helped carry in 1269 to its new resting place behind the high altar at Westminster; the tomb of St Thomas Becket at Canterbury; and the Holy House at Walsingham.

King Henry made a pilgrimage to Walsingham, in north Norfolk, not so far from Sandringham, at least 11 times during his long reign of 56 years. Walsingham, which is celebrating its 950th anniversary, is today the most ruinous of his three favoured destinations, yet it attracts large numbers of visitors. Each year, about 300,000 pilgrims visit the Anglican shrine, re-established in 1931, while 100,000 go to the Catholic shrine. This includes some 6,000 Tamils in July alone, half of whom are Hindu.

There is an uncomfortable feeling among the Christians at there being two separate shrines, yet the fact remains that the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church are not the same thing. It is notable that the personal ordinariate (the official association for Anglicans who wish to retain corporately some of their religious patrimony after becoming Roman Catholics) is dedicated to Our Lady of Walsingham.

It is fair to say that the flavour of Walsingham’s Anglican Shrine is very High Church. At the national pilgrimage at the end of May, Mass will be conducted outdoors, followed by a procession with an image of the Virgin Mary, and benediction.

What is the notion behind the shrine at Walsingham? It is not focused on the Virgin Mary so much as on the Incarnation of Christ. This is seen through an unusual optic: the Holy House built as a replica of the house at Nazareth, where the angel announced to Mary that she was to be the mother of Jesus.

The house at Nazareth that was reputed to have been this very spot survived into the late 13th century. A pious legend has it that the house was then transported by angels to Loreto, on Italy’s Adriatic coast. But Father Michael Rear in his new book Walsingham, Pilgrims and Pilgrimage (St Pauls Publishing, £19.99) favours the explanation that it was not angels but the Angeli family, related to Byzantine emperors, who transported the stones of the old house to be reassembled at Loreto.

The Holy House at Walsingham, by contrast, never claimed to be built from the stones of Nazareth. Indeed the reputed founder, Lady Richeldis, a noble widow, was instructed in a dream in 1061 to build a house of wood according to specified dimensions. The year 1061 puts the foundation in the reign of Henry III’s hero Edward the Confessor. Some would date it to the 1130s. In any case, it was intended to be a setting for devotion to God Incarnate.

Walsingham became one of England’s most popular pilgrim destinations. Pilgrims would wear badges – depicting the Annunciation, for example – to show that they had accomplished their end. Then, in 1538, the priory at Walsingham was suppressed, the shrine broken up and the precious offerings (such as the gold crown given by Henry III) carted away. By an irony, the appearance of the statue of the Virgin Mary and Child at the shrine is known only from the seal of the priory attached to the deed of surrender to Henry VIII.

The image is of the “Seat of Wisdom” type. The Virgin Mary is depicted on a throne with the Child on her knee. Jesus embodies Wisdom as described in the biblical book of Proverbs: “I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning before ever the world was.”

The curtains depicted on the priory seal are taken to refer to the veil of the Temple, hiding the Ark of the Covenant, originally holding the tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments. These words of God have as their counterpart the Word of God in St John’s Gospel: the Word made flesh.


It’s good to be reminded that the English King, HenryIII, who was partly instrumental in bringing the Remains of Edward the Confessor to Westminster Abbey, was also – apart from his devotion to the Shrine of St.Thomas Beckett at Canterbury – a many-times pilgrim to the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham.

This year is the 950th Anniversary of the establishment of the Holy House at Walsingham – England’s own ‘Nazareth’ – which, apart from the time of the Dissolution, has been the focus of devotion to the Mother of Christ by generations of Christians from many countries.

As the author of this article tells us, the Anglican Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham – restored in 1931 – has since become a busy centre of pilgrimage for Anglicans from around the world. Up to 300,000 of them visit the Shrine every year, whereas the R.C. Shrine – based around the old Slipper chapel, where early pilgrims used to take off their shoes to walk the final mile – receives about one-third of that number.

When I last visited the Shrine some years ago, there was a separate R.C. chapel located within the Anglican Shrine buildings; which may by now have been taken over by members of the new Roman Catholic Ordinariate, which has been dedicated to the patronage of O.L.W.

One hopes that the particular Anglican ethos – which drew attention to the Incarnation of Christ as being the central theme of Mary’s special place in the Church – will not be in any way undermined by the ultra-montanism of the Ordinariate’s influence at the Shrine. Bearing in mind that the principal reason for the existence of the R.C.Ordinariate was to dissociate its members from any connection with the Anglican openness to the Ordination of Women. 

Considering the high calling of Mary to become Theotokos – or God-Bearer – bearing the Body of Christ in her womb – this could be thought of as a ‘priestly action’ akin to presenting the Body and Blood of Christ at the Eucharist.

These reminders of the role of Our Blessed Lady in God’s redemption of the world through Our Lord Jesus Christ – as they have been brought to bear upon the life and worship of our Mother Church in England – can only serve to help in our understanding of the BVM’s part in the conceptualisation of the humanity of the Christ who is also The Son of God.

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch

About kiwianglo

Retired Anglican priest, living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Ardent supporter of LGBT Community, and blogger on 'Thinking Anglicans UK' site. Theology: liberal, Anglo-Catholic & traditional. regarding each person as a unique expression of Christ, and therefore lovable.
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