Books open up avenues to places previously unknown and sometime suggest journeys never before planned. I was conscious of this after reading ‘Walsingham – A Place of Pilgrimage for All People’ written by Claude Fisher which I bought in a second hand book shop in Norwich while on a recent visit to the Norfolk Broads. The book aroused my interest because of a lengthy handwritten dedication by its author to a named policeman in which Mr. Fisher expressed appreciation ‘of the way you tackled the case in which I was “welshed”’. The signature and dedication was clearly in the handwriting of an elderly man and was dated 9th April, 1985. I was later to find out that Claude Fisher, who at one time was the only Catholic living in the village of Walsingham, was the father figure for the Catholic pilgrim shrine of his village where he died on 14th May, 1985.
Walsingham, I learned, was the place where Our Lady was claimed to have appeared in 1061 and which thereafter was venerated as one of the holiest places in England. The Walsingham Pilgrimage was established at the time of the Crusades when it was impossible for pilgrims to visit the Holy Land and so for English Catholics Walsingham became for centuries prior to the Reformation one of the four major shrines of Christendom ranking beside Jerusalem, Rome and Compostello.
As a result of reading Fisher’s book I undertook the journey from Norwich to Walsingham, not as a pilgrim, for I am a disbeliever when it comes to apparitions, but as an interested student of history. The routes that pilgrims took to Walsingham, which is a village located at the northern end of Norfolk, were once marked by stone crosses and occasionally by chapels. Just one mile outside of Walsingham is the last of those pilgrim chapels called ‘the Slipper Chapel’ which survived the destruction which came with the Reformation of the 1540s.
Walsingham owed its prominence as a pilgrimage centre to King Henry III who in April 1226 made the first of his many visits to the Lady Shrine which was then under the protection of an Augustinian Priory. It’s importance in the Catholic world was further emphasised with the establishment of a Franciscan Friary in the village in 1347. In the meantime successive English monarchs made the pilgrimage to Walsingham, ending with King Henry VIII whom tradition relates walked barefoot to the Marian Shrine in thanksgiving for the birth of his son Prince Henry.
Following the Reformation the priory and the friary were destroyed and Walsingham as a place of pilgrimage was no more. In October 1781 John Wesley made his only visit to Walsingham and preached there, noting in his diary ‘had there been a grain of spirit in Henry VIII the friary, the cloister and chapel need not have run to ruin’.
It was the Oxford Movement lead by Newman, Keble, Pusey and others at Balliol College, Oxford in 1833 which lead to the development of Anglo Catholicism in the Church of England. Almost 90 years later a devotee of the High Church, Fr. Alfred Patten, was appointed vicar of the Anglican Parish Church in Walsingham and he set about re-establishing Walsingham as a place of pilgrimage. Fr. Patten had a Marian Shrine built to duplicate the medieval ‘Holy House’ of pre-reformation days and he soon established Walsingham as a place of pilgrimage for Anglicans.
Around the same time the Slipper Chapel which some decades previously had been purchased and restored for Catholic devotion was re-dedicated as ‘the National Shrine of our Lady for Roman Catholics in England’. So it is today that the village of Walsingham is a place of Marian pilgrimage for both Anglican and Roman Catholics. It is also a centre of reconciliation for both faiths which was a major theme of Claude Fisher’s book which he subtitled ‘A Place of Pilgrimage for All People’.
The Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster usually leads the annual national pilgrimage for Roman Catholics, while the Archbishop of Canterbury leads the Anglican pilgrimage. Both the Catholic and Anglican hierarchy have come together at times to share ecumenical services in the Church of Reconciliation which was constructed some years ago next to the medieval Slipper Chapel. The Russian Orthodox Church has also had a presence in Walsingham since 1967 and now occupies as their church the former Victorian Methodist Chapel.
The Anglican Marian Shrine at Walsingham is a measure of the strength of Anglo Catholicism within the Anglican Church where devotion to Mary and recourse to the confessional continue to present challenges. Today Walsingham is a fine example of a planned medieval village with some excellent timber framed and jettied buildings where modern pilgrims, Anglican, Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox can find comfort and perhaps look to the possible future unification of the various churches. For myself, even as a non believer in the Marian Shrine phenomenon, I took the opportunity to reflect on the recent miracle that resulted in the saving of the life of a young colleague of mine.