We American Catholics tend to regard the “Mother Country” of England as totally Protestant. Given our own colonial history, this is an understandable misconception. Before the dreadful occurrences of the 15th century, collectively known as the Protestant “Reformation”, all of the former Roman Empire in the west was Catholic Christian, under the authority of the Holy Father in Rome. True, Henry VIII, in his fury at Pope Clement VII for not granting him a divorce from Catherine of Aragon, was responsible for the death of thousands of priests, bishops and ordinary faithful Catholics who refused to capitulate to his new religion. (The Protestant historian, Raphael Holisend, puts the number at 72,000!) But, as we shall see, the old religion never entirely disappeared from the English scene.
From the early days of our Religion, Catholics have yearned to visit the holy places where Christianity began. Then, as Rome became the center of the Faith, they desired to travel on pilgrimage to the heart of Catholicism. Travel in those times was difficult for the ordinary pilgrim. As churches and monasteries became burial sites of holy priests, even martyrs, the faithful in far-flung countries such as England began to make pilgrimages to these sites closer to home. We are all familiar with Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (1387-1400), which told the stories of pilgrims on their way to the tomb of St. Thomas a Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, martyred in 1170 by agents of the king while he was saying Mass.
A lesser-known, but equally important, English shrine is that of Our Lady of Walsingham. The first account of this shrine appears in a ballad published by Richard Pynson in the late 1400’s. The story goes that in the year 1061, during the reign of St. Edward the Confessor, Our Lady appeared in a dream to Richeldis de Faverches, a wealthy young widow in the area of Norfolk , northeast of London and near the North Sea . Richeldis had prayed for guidance in her desire to honor Our Lady in some special way, and she saw the dream as the answer to her prayer. Our Blessed Lady took her in spirit to Nazareth and told her to build a replica of the Holy House in Walsingham as a memorial to the Annunciation and, thus, the Incarnation, so that “all who beseech her help shall find succor there”.
Richeldis was obviously given the dimensions of the Holy House by Our Lady. Her dilemma was where to put it on her property. She prayed for guidance, and the next morning found two areas of dry ground, the exact dimensions of the Holy House. She chose the one closest to two wells and work commenced. Try as they might, the workmen could not get the wooden walls of the little Holy House to fit. Again, Richeldis prayed for guidance. The next morning she awoke to find the house miraculously moved to the second site — some two hundred feet away — and much more soundly built than any of the local workmen could have managed! Pynson’s ballad claims many miracles “too numerous to mention” to all the faithful who visited the Holy House.
In 1145, Richeldis’ son, Geoffrey de Faverches, was preparing to go on the second Crusade. Before doing so, he willed the Holy House and grounds, along with the parish Church of All Saints, to his chaplain, Edwin. The Augustinian Cannons were brought in by Edwin to help conduct the affairs of the shrine. It is believed that by the time the Augustinains took over, Walsingham had become a popular place of pilgrimage with the English faithful. About 1150 the Cannons build a priory and ministered to the local population as well as to visiting pilgrims. The shrine obviously increased in popularity because we know that two hundred years later, they erected a much larger priory. It must have been a very impressive complex, being 250 feet in length, eighty feet in width and made of stone brought in by sea from another part of England . The central tower had four gilded spires. In addition to the Priory church, there was a small chapel to St. Laurence, in which was kept a relic of St. Peter’s finger. This latter fascinating fact we know from — of all people — Erasmus, who came to Walsingham on pilgrimage in 1514. Erasmus was so impressed with the shrine that he composed a pilgrim’s prayer which is still in use today.
Because of the increasing numbers of pilgrims to the shrine, in the mid-fourteenth century the Chapel of Our Lady was erected to encase and protect the original Holy House. At the time, it was referred to as the “Novum Opus” or “New Work”. About the same time a statue of Our Lady was introduced into the Holy House next to the altar. What the appearance of this image of Our Lady of Walsingham was we can only guess. Erasmus referred to it as a “little image, remarkable neither for size, material or execution” … “in the dark at the right side of the altar.” Prior John Snoring was responsible for this expenditure of funds, which got him in trouble with the other canons for spending too much money. He was dismissed for this reason. It sad today that the only part of the Priory remaining is the magnificent East Window; so whether the good Prior overspent or not, we must thank him for giving us this hint of the magnificence of the destroyed shrine. The fate of the Holy House, the relics and the statue we shall discover shortly.
As pilgrim shrines gained in importance, it was common for smaller chapels, shrines and stone crosses to mark the pilgrims’ way to their goal. Of course, the faithful came on foot, their journey lasting many months, sometimes years; so these markers encouraged them to continue on their way. So was built the Slipper Chapel in the mid to late 1300’s. This lovely little Gothic-style (also called “perpendicular”) chapel is just a little larger than dimensions of the Holy House — 28’6” x 12’5”. It marks the last stop on the way to Walsingham being exactly one mile from the priory. Most historians believe that it is called the Slipper Chapel from the habit of the pilgrims removing their shoes at this stop and walking the last mile barefoot. It could also come from the Old English word “slype” meaning “something in between” as it was between Walsingham and the outside world. The Slipper Chapel is dedicated to St. Catherine of Alexandria , patroness of pilgrims. Interestingly, the chapel was oriented so that on her feast day, November 25th, the sun rises directly behind the altar. Another interesting fact is that there is a chapel of St. Catherine one mile outside Nazareth which was maintained by the Knights of St. Catherine. No wonder Walsingham is called “England ’s Nazareth ”!
In the year 1226 news of the miraculous happenings at Walsingham reached royal ears in London, Henry III visited the shrine and granted the Canons the right to hold a weekly market and an annual fair. This Henry visited Walsingham thirteen times, and became a patron, giving many valuable gifts over the years including a gold crown for the image of Our Lady in the Chapel. The village of Walsingham grew around the success of the shrine as hostelries, eating houses and other business establishments catering to visitors sprang up. Indeed, the population of the village was at its height during the heyday of the medieval pilgrimages. A second religious order, the Franciscans, was given permission by Pope and King to erect a friary nearby in 1347, adding to the religious atmosphere of the little town.
Several English kings were devotees of the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. Henry III’s son, Edward I, credited Our Lady with saving his life as a youth. He was playing chess in a vaulted room, when for no apparent reason, he felt the urge to get up from his seat. Seconds later a large stone fell from the roof and landed on the very spot where he had been sitting. Henry VII was a patron and credited Our Lady with his victory in the Battle of Stoke in 1487. We may be astounded to learn that Henry VIII made a pilgrimage to the shrine in 1511 to give thanks for the birth of a son, Prince Henry. He gave several valuable gifts and when he noticed that the windows of Our Lady’s Chapel were unglazed, he gave the money needed to complete that work. There was no hint at this happy time of the impending disaster.
Storm Clouds Gather
Henry VIII was the second son of his father, Henry VII. His older brother, Arthur, as Prince of Wales, would succeed to the throne. Arthur, however, was a sickly young boy. Arthur had been betrothed to the fourth daughter of King Ferdinand of Spain, Catherine, at the age of twelve. They were married when Arthur was fourteen, and he died soon after. As with most marriages of the European royal houses, this was an arranged one, and because of Arthur’s ill health, it had never been consummated. Henry ascended the throne in 1509 and expressed his wish to marry his brother’s widow, Catherine. Canon law required a papal dispensation for this marriage to take place, and since there was no obvious impediment, it was granted. They were married in June of 1509.
Henry and Catherine had five children, only one of whom, Mary, survived infancy. Catherine was seven years older than Henry, and he was beginning to chafe for a male heir to the throne. Additionally, he was not exactly what we would call today a faithful husband. He had fathered at least one child by one of the ladies of the court, and now he had his eye on one Anne Boelyn, a handmaid to the queen. Suddenly getting”pangs of conscience”about marrying his brother’s widow, he petitioned the Pope to have his marriage declared null so that he could marry Anne. The Pope refused, naturally, several times. What is ironic here is that Henry was a great favorite of the Holy Father. He had written a book, Assertio Septem Sacramentorum , against the errors of Luther defending the seven Sacraments, the Mass and the Papacy itself! For this he was given the title “Defender of the Faith”, which the English monarchs claim to this day.
Henry was a man of great appetites. Besides his lust, his avarice got the better of him. If he broke away from Rome and declared himself the head of the Catholic Church in England , he would have access to the property and treasuries of all the churches and monasteries in the country. His co-conspirator in all these proceedings was one Thomas Cranmer, who was appointed to the recently-vacated position of Archbishop of Canterbury. The chronology reads like a modern TV soap opera. Suffice it to say that Henry married the pregnant Anne before Cranmer defied the Pope and granted him a divorce from Catherine, thus being married to two women at once!
Unfortunately for Anne, she did not produce a male heir, only a daughter (who would become Elizabeth I, as ruthless a Catholic-killer as her father). When Catherine died in 1536, she was mourned by all of England . She had been banished from the court and was not allowed to see her only child the last years of her life. Anne rejoiced, for now she said she was truly a queen. Little did she know, that less than three months after Catherine’s death, she would die upon the scaffold, accused of treason, adultery, and incest! 1 The break from Rome was final by this time, and the busy Henry now had a Church to form and a new wife to find! How appropriate Cobbett’s observation that “the thing called the Reformation was engendered in lust and brought forth in hypocrisy and perfidy”.
As the supreme head of the new Church of England, Henry, with the co-operation of the evil Cranmer, required all Roman Catholic religious to sign an Act of Supremacy acknowledging his new role and renouncing the supremacy of the Pope. This new position — a boon to the coffers of the throne — made the king the actual owner of all the properties and treasuries of the formerly Roman Catholic churches, convents, priories and monasteries. Much to their discredit, the Priors and Canons of Walsingham were among the first in England to sign the oath of loyalty to the king on September 18, 1534. Not all succumbed, though, for Nicholas Mileham, sub-prior of the monastery and George Guiseborough, a layman, were hanged, drawn and quartered on May 30, 1537 for protesting the changes taking place at the Priory. The field where they died, overlooking the village of Walsingham, is still known today as the Martyrs’ Field.
The next step in Henry’s evil plan was the supression of religious houses. Walsingham, being of secondary importance escaped the first round, but the time for its dissolution came in July of 1538. The shrine was closed and the beloved statue was taken away to
London to suffer the fate of thousands of other statues and images in Reformation England: She was burned at Chelsea in the presence of Cromwell in September of 1538. In August of that same year, the priory was handed over to the King’s Commissioners, and after looting it of all its wealth, the Holy House of Richeldis was burned to the ground. At its dissolution, the Priory was sold to Sir Thomas Sidney. Some years later, in 1578, Queen Elizabeth visited Walsingham accompanied by Sir Philip Howard. Ironically, Sir Philip ended his life in 1595 in the Tower of London , a martyr for his Faith. It is he who is believed to be the author of the Walsingham Lament , based on the experience of his visit to the ruined priory years before. Here are the final two verses of this eleven verse lament:
Weep, weep, O Walsingham
whose days are nights,
blessings turned to blasphemies,
Holy deeds to despites.
Sin is where Our Lady sat,
Heaven turned is to hell,
Satan sits where Our Lord did sway,
Walsingham, oh farewell!
Together, Henry and Cranmerwere responsible for the death of thousands of Catholics and Protestants alike, most of their victims done in in very gruesome ways. In addition to the bloodshed, Henry usurped the powers granted to Parliament and emasculated the great tradition of English law begun with the enacting of the Magna Carta. It can truthfully be said that the English Reformation was enforced upon the common people by a campaign of terror. His confiscation of private property and enactment of Poor Laws made England a nation of paupers. It has been claimed that on his deathbed in 1547, Henry had a vision of monks and priests coming to accompany his soul to hell!
Cranmer, as we know, got his just desserts in the reign of Mary, Henry’s oldest (and only legitimate) child, daughter of the good Queen Catherine. Mary had remained staunchly Catholic through all the upheaval and bloodshed of her father’s new religion. When he was convicted of treason and sentenced to the stake, Cranmer recanted his religion, but refused to repeat it on the day of his execution. As the flames grew higher, he thrust the paper on which he had signed his confession into the fire. Mary has undeservedly been given the title “Bloody Mary” by history. However, her dispatching of this evil creature is to her everlasting credit. Alas, Mary’s time as queen — and England ’s return to the Catholic faith as its official religion — was but a brief six years. Her many sorrows and her weak physical constitution contributed to her early death at the age of forty-two. Although her half-sister, Elizabeth, was nominally a Catholic during Mary’s reign, the Pope refused to acknowledge her legitimacy. Besides, she was truly a Protestant at heart having been raised in an atmosphere of hate for the Catholic religion.
When Queen Elizabeth visited the village of Walsingham , it held only three Catholic families. It was dangerous to claim the old Faith during these years. Since the village had virtually lost its reason for being with the shrine gone and all the commerce attached to it lost, Walsingham once again became a sleepy little backwater. The Priory remained in private hands being sold every few years to new owners. In 1756, the Lee Warner family purchased the property, and it remains in that family’s hands today. The fate of the Slipper Chapel is a happier one. By God’s grace, it escaped the destruction that so many of the Catholic churches and chapels suffered. Our Lord and Our Lady must have had something special in mind for this beautiful little building, for its story is sad and happy at the same time.
The Catholic Faith hadto go underground during the next succeeding centuries. It continued to be held here and there by this family and that, but always discreetly. Although the little Slipper Chapel over the next three centuries deteriorated, being used as a barn, a residence and a cow shed, it remained standing, and reports of Catholics stopping by to pray in front of it can be traced back to at least 1800, and possibly earlier. We skip to the year 1829 when the Act of Emancipation was enacted, lifting all restrictions against Roman Catholics in England . The Act allowed Catholics to worship openly and even to participate in the political life of the country.
The Oxford Movement
In the 1830’s several Anglican priests of Oxford University urged a return to the theological and liturgical roots of the English Catholic Church. They held that the “three branches” of Catholicism — Roman, English and Orthodox — could all claim apostolic succession. Over the next decade, these priests — John Henry Newman is the most famous of them — wrote a series of tracts and preached sermons which became more and more sympathetic to the Roman Catholic Church. When the Bishop of Oxford put an end to their activities, several hundred Anglican priests, Newman among them, converted to Roman Catholicism. Within the Anglican Church, the Oxford movement brought back the wearing of vestments, the use of incense, confessions, the Rosary, candles and a more elaborate ritual in the worship services. These Anglicans called themselves “Anglo-Catholics” and thought of themselves as a middle way between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism.
Just as Walsingham Shrine began with a wealthy young widow, so does the restoration of Catholic worship there begin with a wealthy young single woman, Miss Charlotte Pearson Boyd, born about the time the Oxford movement was just getting started — in 1837. At the tender age of thirteen, Charlotte was so moved by the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey, that she made mention of it to an Anglican clergyman who wanted to restore religious life in the Church of England. His advice to her was to make the restoration of the desolated shrines her life work. She took him seriously, and in addition to her other philanthropical projects, such as founding orphanages for homeless children, purchased the little Slipper Chapel from the Lee Warner family. Her intention was to purchase all of the property of the former Shrine, but the family would not sell it to her. She most desperately wanted to restore Benedictine religious life to the Anglican Catholic Church. Charlotte was successful in most of her ventures, but this dream of hers was never realized.
Charlotte had a very close relationship with several Anglican priests, who were her chaplains, both personally and at her numerous orphanages. Two of them, Reginald Camm and Henry Worth became interested in Roman Catholic worship during their travels in Europe , particularly at the monastery of Maredsous in Belgium. Camm remained there, converted to Catholicism, and became Dom Bede Camm, O. S. B. and encouraged Charlotte to visit. As she traveled Europe witnessing Real Catholic worship, her heart and mind told her that her true home was the Roman Catholic Church, not the false English hybrid that had been her lifelong association. In 1894, at the age of fifty-seven, Charlotte became a Catholic. It seems that it was the continuity of worship all over Europe that convinced Charlotte that the Roman Church was the one of true apostolic succession.
Her happy decision caused some problems for her at home, however. Several of her orphanages were staffed by Anglican sisters, and a number of the buildings she purchased had been given over to the English Church. Charlotte’s own brother was an Anglican priest; so naturally, she faced hostility from her family and her Anglican friends. Much to her credit and in her diplomatic and convincing way, she brought the Sisters into the Catholic Faith. Fortunately for the Catholic side, she completed negotiations for the Slipper Chapel after she had embraced the Faith; so there was never a question of ownership or what kind of worship would take place there. For some reason, though, Charlotte was never able to convince the local bishop to allow Catholic Mass in the Chapel, even after she had had it restored at her own expense.
In 1897, Fr. George Wrigglesworth, rector at the nearby town of King’s Lynn , and Fr. Philip Fletcher, Master of the Guild of Our Lady of Ransom, built a Shrine Chapel of the Holy House of Nazareth in their new church of the Annunciation with the clear intention to revive pilgrimage in honor of Our Lady of Walsingham. A new statue was commissioned and installed in the Shrine. The modern-day pligrimage began that year when a group of about fifty Catholics processed from the Church to the recently restored Slipper Chapel, singing and praying as they went. One of the pilgrims was the indomitable Charlotte Boyd. Sadly, she did not live to see the second renovation of the little chapel and the first Mass celebrated there in almost 400 years when the Slipper Chapel was given the designation of the official shrine of Our Lady in England in 1934. Charlotte died in 1906 at her orphanage in Kilburn, cared for by the Catholic sisters there.
Coincidentally, probably because of the renewed interest of Catholics and the movement to traditional devotionals as an outgrowth of the Oxford movement, the local Anglican vicar, Alfred Hope Patten, placed a statue of Our Lady of Walsingham in his church and began encouraging pilgrimages and devotion to her in 1921. Ten years later, the Anglicans built a new shrine and Holy House replica, and in 1938, an elaborate shrine church was built around the Holy House. Both Shrines began to attract more and more pilgrims as the years passed.
In the mid-1930’s, Charlotte Boyd’s dream was finally realized when Fr. Bruno Scott James, a convert from Anglicanism, was appointed Priest-Custodian of the Catholic shrine.Fr. James was a dynamic, independent priest, and under his custodianship, pilgrimages to the Shrine increased by vast numbers. Fifty-thousand Catholic pilgrims paid homage to Our Lady in 1938. Unfortunately, the war years brought a temporary end to pilgrimages to Walsingham. Because of its proximity to the North Sea , Walsingham became part of a restricted zone. In fact, the first Mass since the “Reformation” was offered at the site of the original Priory high altar for American servicemen stationed in East Anglia in 1944.
After the War, pilgrimages resumed and became more popular than before. The numbers of pilgrims increased to the point that a new chapel had to be built. Individual groups can number as many as 10,000 at a time today. Of course, all new structures are built according to Novus Ordo requirements. For example the chapel built in 1973 is an open-sided structure resembling a shed with a free-standing granite altar. Some traditions remain, however, The Slipper Chapel still harks back to medieval times and was given a beautiful new statue of Our Lady of Walsingham in 1954.
It was hoped that Pope John Paul II would visit Walsingham during his trip to England in 1982. Although this did not happen, the statue of Our Lady was brought to Wembly stadium in London for the Holy Father to venerate at his Mass there. She had an uncermonius trip in the “boot” (trunk) of the local priest’s car, this time, not to be burned as in 1538, but to be venerated.
Sadly — in the eyes of Traditionalists — in recent years the ecumenism craze has hit Walsingham as it has the rest of the Novus Ordo Church . It is not uncommon for the priest of the Catholic Shrine to preach at the Anglican Shrine, and vice-versa. For example, in 1980, 10,000 Catholics accompanied Cardinal Hume and his bishops to Walsingham. After venerating Our Lady at the Slipper Chapel, they processed to the Anglican Shrine to pray for Christian unity. That same year, 15,000 Anglican pilgrims, led by the Archbishop of Canterbury,visited the Slipper Chapel to light a candle and make the same prayer. It seems that the only unity they are interested in today is “Let’s all get along and love one another. After all, we’re not that far apart!”.
Today, even the open-air chapel cannot hold the crowds. A new one was built in 1980 in the simple Anglo-Saxon style, accommodating seven hundred worshipers. Once again, Walsingham is the official Shrine of Our lady in England , marking that country as the “Dowry of Our Lady”, a title given her in early medieval times recalling Richard Pynson’s fifteenth century Ballad of Walsingham . The final verse of this ballad goes as follows:
O gracious Lady glory of Jerusalem
Cypress of Sion and joy of Israel
Rose of Jericho and star of Bethlehem
O glorious Lady our asking not repel
In mercy all women ever thou dost excel
Therefore blessed Lady grant thou thy great grace
To all that thee devoutly visit this place. Amen.
Author’s note: In researching the topic of this article, several books and pamphlets were obtained from the Roman Catholic Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham in England . Without exception, all glossed over the terrible happenings during the reign of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, referring only to the “Dissolution” as a somewhat unfortunate historical event. No doubt this attitude reflects the current “ecumenical” attitude of getting along because it’s nicer ! Other, older works, had to be consulted for the more vivid descriptions of the occurrances of the “Reformation” in England. Let us pray that the prayers for Christian unity bring English “Anglo-Catholics” back into the fold of the One, True Church .
1 Although Anne was accused and convicted of adultery with four men of the court and incest with her brother, these charges were trumped up by Henry and Cranmer so that she could be accused of treason and executed, for already Henry had his eye on one Jane Seymour as his next wife. Indeed Henry and Jane were married the day after Anne died.
There is some evidence that Anne was actually Henry’s daughter, being the offspring of one Lady Elizabeth Boelyn, with whom it was known that Henry had an illicit liason. This is mentioned in Dr. Bayley’s Life of Bishop Fisher and Sanders’ Anglican Schism . Or, see Cobbett’s A History of the Protestant Reformation in England and Ireland . Henry was confronted with this by Lady Elizabeth before his marriage to Anne, and he is quoted as saying that he would marry her regardless.