The traditional story of Walsingham tells how in 1061, during the reign of St Edward the Confessor, Richeldis de Faverches, the lady of the manor of Walsingham Parva, saw a vision of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Richeldis was taken in spirit to Nazareth where Our Lady told her to build a shrine in honour of the Holy House of the Annunciation, and to build it near a spring of water which miraculously appeared. Our Lady promised: “All who are in any way distressed or in need, let them seek me in that little house you have made at Walsingham. To all that seek me there shall be given succour. And there at Walsingham in this little house shall be held in remembrance the great joy of my Salutation when Saint Gabriel told me that I should, through humility, become the Mother of God’s Son.”
Many other stories were attached to the beginnings of the shrine by later generations, but the fact is that Richeldis built a small wooden shrine and pilgrims started coming to Walsingham. People found that God and the things of God seemed very real to them in that place. They found that they prayed better and prayer was answered. They believed, too, that wonderful healings and blessings came to them when, with faith, they used the waters of the holy well. It was a simple age, but we are told that God gives great blessings to the simple and the humble.
Sadly, in 1538, as part of Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries the great Augustinian priory which, for four centuries since 1153, had housed the Holy House and the Image of Our Lady of Walsingham, was desecrated and destroyed. The famous statue of Our Lady was removed and taken to Chelsea and burned. Walsingham was left in desolation and fell into dereliction and anonymity.
It wasn’t until the late 19th century that interest in restoring the honour of Mary at Walsingham was reignited. An Anglican convert, Charlotte Pearson Boyd (1837-1906) purchased the old Slipper Chapel, a mile away from the old shrine and restored it for Catholic use. The Guild of Our Lady of Ransom, brought the first public pilgrimage since the Reformation to Walsingham on 20th August 1897. Visits to the Slipper Chapel became more frequent, and as the years passed devotion and the number of pilgrimages increased.
On 19th August 1934, Cardinal Bourne and Bishop Lawrence Youens led the Bishops of England and Wales, together with 10,000 pilgrims to the Slipper Chapel. At this pilgrimage, this sacred place was declared to be the National Shrine of Our Lady for Roman Catholics in England.
On the Feast of the Holy Family, 2015, during Pontifical Mass in the Chapel of Our Lady of Reconciliation at the Shrine, Bishop Alan Hopes read out a document from the Vatican, stating that Pope Francis was pleased to confer the title of Minor Basilica on the Shrine.
In 1921 Fr Alfred Hope Patten (1885-1958) was appointed Vicar of St Mary’s, the Anglican parish church of Little Walsingham. He had possessed a deep devotion to Our Lady since childhood and he firmly believed that God would use him to help rebuild a holy place destroyed during the Reformation. In July 1922 he placed a replica statue of Our Lady of Walsingham, modelled on the medieval seal of the shrine, in the Guilds Chapel of St Mary’s.
Despite the hostility to Fr Hope Patten’s restoration of the devotion to Our Lady of Walsingham from his ecclesiastical superiors, his strength of faith, prayer and vision never wavered. As numbers of Anglican pilgrims increased over the years it became necessary, in 1931, to translate the image of Our Lady of Walsingham to a newly-constructed Holy House within a shrine church, opposite the ruins of the medieval priory, and on the site of a spring of water, which became the new holy well. Fr Hope Patten intended this shrine to serve as a ‘living act of reparation’ for the sin of disunity of the Church. Embedded in the walls of the Holy House, as an act of reparation, are stones from the major monastic houses, suppressed during the Reformation. The altar was built from stones which formed the original Walsingham priory.