Walsingham Priory and Shirehall Museum, Norfolk
Some places are important and some aren't, or so it seems. Sometimes it is simply an accident of history that turns an ordinary place into a special destination. This is true of Walsingham, a small village in northern Norfolk. Sometime in the eleventh century a Walsingham resident is supposed to have seen a vision of the Virgin Mary. This rumour was eventually enough to make Walsingham into one of the most sacred sites in England, second only to Canterbury. The rise of Walsingham as a place to be was given a great boost by royal interest. Thirteenth century king Henry III was the first recorded monarch to visit. Royal visits continued, the interest of monarchs, as ever, working powerfully to set a fashion.Henry VIII was particularly enthusiastic in his visiting and financial support. Henry always wanted to be seen to dominate, and his visits to Walsingham were conducted in the same spirit as his wrestling matches. He had to be the top dog. Traditionally pilgrims approaching Walsingham took off their shoes at Houghton St Giles and walked the last section barefoot, a distance of just over a mile. Henry had to go one better, walking barefoot from East Barsham, even further from the shrine.
Gardens at Walsingham Priory
Eventually the time would come for Henry VIII to make his break with Catholicism. This was to allow divorce from Catherine of Aragon, and marriage to Anne Boleyn. If the pope would not agree to a divorce, then the pope would have to go. Henry moved ruthlessly against Catholicism, and along with many other monasteries, Walsingham Priory was scheduled for demolition. Past enthusiasm for Walsingham was not enough to save it. Neither was the fact that in 1534 Walsingham was one of the first monastic establishments to agree to the Act of Supremacy which made Henry head of the Church of England. Payments, bribes, call them what you will, were even made to Henry's chancellor Thomas Cromwell. None of this could save the priory. When it was clear that all hope was lost there was a minor insurrection in Walsingham, which was savagely put down. Demolition work then began. Prints at the site today show destruction in progress. All that remained is now preserved in beautifully maintained grounds.
Walsingham then fell out of favour as a site of pilgrimage, until a re-emergence of interest in the twentieth century. Today monks wander around in full monk regalia. Shops sell religious memorabilia of all kinds. Walsingham is a strange place. Perhaps we should turn to that great writer on pilgrimages Geoffrey Chaucer for guidance. Chaucer's pilgrims were on a journey that suggested there was no special place to get to. During Chaucer's lifetime many powerful people wanted to divide life up, into important and unimportant, sacred and profane, special and ordinary. The Church, for example, wanted a monopoly on what we think of as religion. Anything truly sacred existed only with the Church, and was shut away in a Latin Bible which the vast majority of people could not read. Chaucer did not see things like this. His most famous book, the account of a pilgrimage in The Canterbury Tales, showed the ordinariness of apparently special people, and the special quality of those considered ordinary. Some of Chaucer's pilgrims were on a spiritual quest, some were just taking a relaxing jaunt. In an age which strictly divided the meaningful from the ordinary, the sacred from the profane, Chaucer was to suggest that perhaps these categories meant nothing at all. It is fitting then that an obscure little village in Norfolk should become such a religious centre for pilgrimage.
A display in the Shirehall museum, a former hostel for pilgrims, describes Walsingham's history. From here you can walk through to the site of the priory itself.
Address: Walsingham Priory, Walsingham, Norfolk NR22 6BP.
Opening Times: from February 5th to end of October opening is daily, 10am - 4pm.
Directions: Walsingham village is off the B1105. It is divided into two parts, with the priory in Holt Road, the part of the village known as Little Walsingham. Click here for an interactive map centred on Walsingham Priory.