The Shrine of Our Lady at Walsingham was established around 1061 when, according to the text of the Pynson Ballad [c 1485], Richeldis de Faverches prayed that she might undertake some special work in honour of Our Lady:
“ Our Lady led Richeldis in spirit to Nazareth and showed her the house where the angel had greeted her. ‘Look, daughter’ said Our Lady. ‘Take the measurements of this house and erect another one like it in Walsingham, dedicated to praising and honouring me. All who come there shall find help in their need.
‘It shall be a perpetual memorial to the great joy of the Annunciation, ground and origin of all my joys and the root of humanity’s gracious Redemption. This came about through Gabriel’s message that I would be a mother through my humility, and conceive God’s Son in virginity.” [Pynson Ballad 1485]
The Lady Richeldis was a holy woman with a great love of the Mother of God. She asked Our Lady for a way to honour her, and it was from this desire in her heart that the events of Walsingham unfolded. Richeldis was not a visionary like the children in Lourdes and Fatima. She was a woman of faith, she pondered, meditated and prayed. In answer to her prayer, the Virgin Mary led her in spirit to Nazareth, showed her the House of the Annunciation where the Angel greeted Mary, and asked her to build a replica in Walsingham as a perpetual memorial of the Annunciation.
This Holy House was built and a religious community took charge of the foundation. Although we have very little historical material from this period, we know that with papal approval the Augustinian Canons built a Priory [c 1150]. Walsingham became one of the greatest Shrines in Medieval Christendom.
Walsingham is therefore a great Marian Shrine of the Incarnation, a place of pilgrimage for all who would rejoice with Mary at the great joy of the Annunciation. Pilgrims come to Walsingham, like Mary, to conceive Our Lord in their hearts, that they may bring Him forth into the world, rejoicing with His Mother. Many find help in their need at our ancient Shrine, where we rejoice with the Mother of God in the truth that:
“The Word became flesh and lived among us.”
In 1538, the Reformation caused the Priory property to be handed over to the King’s Commissioners and the famous statue of Our Lady of Walsingham was taken away to London to be burnt. Nothing remains today of the original glorious shrine, but its site is marked on the lawn of “The Abbey Grounds” in the village.
After the destruction of the Shrine, Walsingham ceased to be a public place of pilgrimage. Devotion was necessarily kept in secret until after Catholic Emancipation [1829)] when public expressions of the Catholic Faith were allowed once more.
In 1896, Charlotte Pearson Boyd was able to purchase the 14th century Slipper Chapel, the last of the wayside chapels en-route to Walsingham and restored it for Catholic use.
In 1897, by rescript of Pope Leo XIII, the sanctuary of Our Lady of Walsingham was restored with the building of a Holy House as the Lady Chapel of the Catholic Church of the Annunciation, at King’s Lynn.
The Guild of Our Lady of Ransom, brought the first public pilgrimage to Walsingham on 20th August 1897. Pilgrims and pilgrimages to the Slipper Chapel became more frequent, and as the years passed by the numbers increased significantly.
On 19th August 1934, Cardinal Bourne of Westminster and Bishop Lawrence Youens of Northampton led the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales, together with 10,000 pilgrims to the Slipper Chapel. At this pilgrimage, the Slipper Chapel was officially declared to be the National Shrine of Our Lady for Roman Catholics in England.
Walsingham was a restricted zone and closed to visitors during World War II, but many service men and women still showed a discreet interest in the Shrine. On 17th May 1945, the American Forces organised the first Mass in the Priory grounds since the Reformation.
Between 1968 and 2015 the Marist Fathers took care of the Shrine and, with the help of the Marist Sisters, were responsible for ministry to pilgrims. With the appointment of the last Marist Shrine Director, Rt. Rev Alan Williams SM on 14th April 2014 as the Bishop of Brentwood, the Marist Fathers were unable to provide a successor and Cardinal Vincent Nichols and the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales became directly responsible, with the Bishop of East Anglia and the Walsingham Trustees, to ensure this national appointment of a Rector. After Mgr John Armitage [18th Feb 2015 – 30th August 2020] and Mgr Philip Moger [1st September 2020 – 5th February 2023], served as Rector, the current Rector, as of 1st September 2023, is Rev Dr Robert Billing, of the Diocese of Lancaster.
The current giftshop, tearoom, and offices at the Shrine were developed in 1988. Later developments further enhanced the grounds and facilities.
In 1997 there were celebrations to mark the centenary of the first post-reformation pilgrimage which took place on 20th August 1897. One of the lasting legacies of the centenary celebrations was the Annunciation Window in the Slipper Chapel which was a gift of the Guild of Our Lady of Ransom, whose forebears had organised the 1897 pilgrimage.
In April 2005 the local Catholic Parish Church of Our Lady of the Annunciation (a 1950’s temporary structure) in Walsingham village was demolished, and a new Church with twice the capacity was built on the site. Because of its regular use by pilgrims resident at Elmham House, the Catholic Shrine’s accommodation, the Shrine was instrumental in raising a great deal of the £1,345,000 needed for this project. The new Church was consecrated by Bishop Michael Evans of East Anglia on 24th March 2006, and the tower sculpture was blessed by his successor, Bishop Alan Hopes on 4th May 2017 marking the completion of the project.
The Shrine now attracts some 150,000+ pilgrims during the pilgrimage season with about 35 Major Pilgrimages from Catholic, Diocesan or Ethnic groups and Catholic Societies or Associations as well as many Parish and Overseas groups. At present, our largest Pilgrimages are those of the Tamil community who come each May (c.6,000) and again in July with about 15,000 pilgrims, some being Christian and some Hindu in faith. The Syro-Malabar Eparchy of Great Britain bring about 5,000 pilgrims on their National Pilgrimage in July.
On the Feast of the Holy Family, on 27th December 2015, during a Pontifical Mass in the Chapel of Our Lady of Reconciliation at the Shrine, Bishop Alan Hopes read out a decree from the Vatican, stating that Pope Francis was pleased to confer the title of Minor Basilica upon the Shrine precinct. There are only three sites with that title in England, the other two being St Chad’s Cathedral, Birmingham and Downside Abbey Church.