History of Walsingham


Walsingham has been a place of pilgrimage since medieval times. According to the Pynson ballad of 1465: in 1061 the Lady of the Manor, Richeldis de Faverches had a series of visions, or dreams, when the Virgin Mary came to her and showed her the house in Nazareth where the Annunciation took place. Our Lady instructed her to build a replica of the Holy House here in Walsingham, which she proceeded to do. The site of the Holy House can now be seen in the Abbey Grounds.

In c.1153 The Augustinian Canons established “The Augustinian Priory to the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary” adjacent to the Holy House. By the fourteenth century so many pilgrims were visiting the “Holy House” that the Priory was enlarged, and the little wooden Holy House was ‘encased’ in a larger stone chapel -described by William of Worcester in 1479 as the ‘Novum Opus’.

The only remaining part of the Priory, which gives us some idea of how magnificent it must have been, is the impressive East Window. Walsingham became known as ‘England’s Nazareth’.

In 1347 the Franciscan Friars, under the patronage of Elizabeth de Burgh, Countess of Clare, established a small Friary on the edge of the village.

The medieval village of Walsingham developed to cater for the increasing number of pilgrims and to meet local needs. By 1252 a charter had been granted to hold a weekly market and an annual fair. At about this time the village was laid out in a ‘grid’ pattern. The fine medieval timber-framed jetted buildings, still visible today, provided hostelries and shops for visiting pilgrims, as they continue to do today. Pilgrims came from all over Britain and Europe, including the Kings and Queens of England from Henry III (c.1226) to King Henry VIII (1511).

Walsingham as a flourishing medieval pilgrimage centre came to an end in 1538 when Henry VIII’s commissioners dissolved the Priory and the Friary.

After the Dissolution, Walsingham continued as a market town and legal centre, with both Quarter and Petty Seasons being held in the village. From 1773 the Quarter Sessions were held in The Shirehall -formerly a hostelry and part of the Augustinian Priory – now an excellent example of Georgian architecture. During this period many of the older timber-framed houses were re-fronted with fine Georgian facades. The Quarter Sessions were held in the village until 1861, and the Petty Sessions were held here until 1971.

In 1787 a John Howard “model” prison, for eight prisoners, was built in the village to replace an existing Elizabethan “House of Correction”. The prison was enlarged in 1822 and 5 tread wheels were added in 1823. The prison was closed in 1861.

The pilgrimage revival began in the late 19th century, with the first modern pilgrimage taking place on 20th August 1897 to the Slipper Chapel at Houghton St. Giles, now the English Roman Catholic National National Shrine of Our Lady. (The pilgrims from King’s Lynn arriving and departing from Walsingham Railway Station – now St Seraphim’s). The Anglican Shrine was built by Fr. Alfred Hope Patten in 1933-37. Since the 1930’s Walsingham has once again become a flourishing Pilgrimage and Visitor Centre.

Other Places of Interest in Little Walsingham include: a Georgian Methodist Chapel built in 1794; St. Mary’s Parish Church, and the Russian Orthodox Chapel of St. Seraphim in the old railway station. In Great Walsingham: St. Peter’s Church is a fine example of an unspoilt “Decorated” Church built in the 1330’s. and the Russian Orthodox Church of the Transfiguration (the building originally a Methodist Chapel).


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