Walsingham England's Nazareth .pdf
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Walsingham – England’s Nazareth
The story behind Walsingham is that, back in 1061 (five years before the Norman Conquest), Our Lady is
supposed to have appeared in a dream to a wealthy widow named Richeldis, taken her on a mediaeval
version of a virtual pilgrimage to Nazareth, showed her
the house where she was living when the Angel Gabriel
appeared to her, and told Richeldis to measure everything
carefully, and build a replica near her own home at
Walsingham. Richeldis did what she was told. The Holy
House which was constructed to her specifications was
made of wood. It became a place of pilgrimage, and a
large abbey church was later built round it – the ruins of
which we can see today.
It’s a pretty story, but does it make any sense? Is it just a
Something that’s quite important to be aware of is that
Richeldis wasn’t dreaming about some fanciful building
that didn’t exist except in her vivid imagination. Nor was
she dreaming about an entirely made-up journey that
couldn’t have happened in real life. Archaeological and
eyewitness evidence indicates that the original house
where Mary lived, in Nazareth, had actually been
preserved as an object of veneration for over a thousand years, ever since the time of Christ. It was a very
simple structure, comprising three stone walls abutting on a rocky hillside. A grotto, or shallow cave, in the
rock formed the fourth wall of the house.
At the time Richeldis had her dream, the Holy Land had been under Muslim rule for several centuries.
Virtually the whole population was Christian when the Muslims arrived, and they weren’t forced to convert
to Islam, though gradually, over time, most of them presumably did. In any case, the Muslims encouraged
Christians from Europe to continue travelling to the Holy Land on pilgrimage, because it was good for the
economy. Serious trouble only began in the eleventh century. It started with a Muslim ruler, the Caliph AlHakim, who was a complete raving lunatic: he destroyed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and thousands of
other churches, and he also persecuted the Jews, and any Muslims he happened not to like. (Really, he
could have given tips to Da’esh.) Even when he was overthrown, things didn’t go back to normal: the Holy
Land remained very unsettled, and even if pilgrims travelled in large groups for safety, they ran a serious risk
of being attacked, robbed and killed (or sold as slaves).
Mary is held in honour by the Muslims, and we know that her house in Nazareth was still there in 1061. But
it was very difficult to go and visit it. Setting up a replica shrine at the opposite end of Europe, therefore,
certainly made sense. People would have seen it as a marvellous sign of God’s mercy and love towards
them, enabling them to gain the graces of the pilgrimage, with a reasonable chance of returning home safely
Something else that can help us get this story into context is how early mediaeval pilgrims used to behave
when they reached the Holy Land. If it was us, we’d be rushing round with our cameras and phones taking
pictures. Obviously, mediaeval pilgrims didn’t have cameras, but they also did not make drawings, or
paintings, depicting objects or places in a recognisable way. (Either they didn’t know how to, or it didn’t
seem important to them.) What they did do was take measurements. They’d bring with them lengths of
rope or cloth, use them to measure everything, and then take them home as holy souvenirs. A strip of cloth
cut to the exact length of, say, the Holy Sepulchre would become a treasured possession, and be seen as a
vehicle of grace and healing power: if a loved one fell ill, you’d tie the cloth round him in hopes of a miracle.
Accordingly, to Richeldis’ mind, what would be important in building a replica house would be to measure
the original, and make the replica the same size. The fact that the house in Nazareth was made of stone and
solid rock, and hers was made of wood, was
beside the point so long as she was careful to
make it exactly the right size as she was shown
in her dream. As it happens, we know that the
Holy House in Walsingham was 23 ft 6 in long
and 12 ft 10 in wide, because someone made a
note of the measurements in 1479.
So OK – but… so what? What was so special
about Mary’s house anyway?
The answer is that something happened in that
house which was surely the most important
event in all human history – something which
was absolutely basic to everything else, because without it, none of our history would have any ultimate
meaning. This was the house where the Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary, hailing her as the favoured one of
God, and where she expressed her agreement – for God does not coerce people: it was only with the free
consent of his creation that he, the Creator, would go ahead with his great plan for our salvation. And so
that house was the place where God became Man, where he chose to become incarnate as a human being.
For as soon as Mary responded to the Angel: “Behold, the handmaid of the Lord,” Jesus was conceived in her
womb. From that moment, nine months before his birth in Bethlehem, God was among us in human flesh.
Western Europe eventually responded to the attacks on Christian pilgrims by launching the Crusades. During
the period they controlled the Holy Land, the Crusaders repaired the church and monastery which adjoined
the house of Mary in Nazareth, but after the Crusades failed, the church was destroyed. Nevertheless the
Muslims did not destroy the house itself: it was still there in 1288. After that, however, the three stone walls
disappeared, leaving only the grotto in the rock.
What had happened to the rest of the house remained a mystery for centuries, unless you chose to believe
the crazy legend that the house had been flown to Italy by angels, who gently set it down in Loreto. Then, in
1900, a manuscript was found in the archives showing that the legend was essentially true, though distorted
through a misunderstanding: the stones of the house had been transported to Italy by the Angeli family, and
carefully rebuilt in Loreto. Interestingly, the Holy House in Loreto is 13 ft wide, which is very close to
Richeldis’ measurements, but 31 ft long which is significantly longer than the Holy House in Walsingham.
What we don’t have is the measurements of the house when it was in situ in Nazareth: nobody ever seems
to have recorded that. It’s just possible that Richeldis’ measurements were correct, and the Angeli family
did not rebuild the house exactly as it had been before.
During the English Reformation, which was masterminded by Thomas Cromwell to serve his master King
Henry VIII, pilgrimages were among the devotional traditions attacked and ridiculed by the so-called
“Reformers”. The Holy House was destroyed, and the statue of Our Lady of Walsingham was taken to
London in 1538 along with all our country’s other famous Marian images, to be burned on a bonfire. The
burning is thought to have taken place in Cromwell’s own garden – a garden that had previously belonged to
St Thomas More, and is now inside the diocesan seminary of Allen Hall. Specifically mentioned in some
records as brought in for destruction, along with Our Lady of Walsingham, were Our Lady of Willesden, Our
Lady of Worcester, and Our Lady of Ipswich. It’s generally assumed that any other significant Marian images,
such as Our Lady of Doncaster, Our Lady of Penrhys, and Our Lady of Caversham, would have been
destroyed at the same time. The only
important pre-Reformation Marian image
which is believed to have been rescued from
the destruction plans was Our Lady of Ipswich,
which resurfaced in Nettuno in Italy and is
venerated there today.
In 1620, the Franciscans were allowed to return
to Nazareth and build a church at the grotto.
The present Church of the Annunciation, which
is quite modern, is built on the same site, and
pilgrims can go down and pray at the grotto.
In 1893 Miss Charlotte Boyd, a devout
Anglican, arranged to buy the Slipper Chapel in Walsingham (the place where the mediaeval pilgrims left
their shoes before walking barefoot to the shrine) for £400. It was in a terrible state. The following year
Miss Boyd became a Catholic, but for the rest of her life, the Slipper Chapel remained a white elephant. The
Catholic Bishop of Northampton refused to take any interest in it. Only in 1933 did a new Bishop of
Northampton agree to revive the shrine. The first Mass since the Reformation was celebrated in the Slipper
Chapel at the Feast of Assumption in 1934, and the following Sunday the Cardinal Archbishop of
Westminster, Francis Bourne, led a pilgrimage of 12,000 people to Walsingham, travelling by train.
The Marian images in pilgrimage shrines in England today are modern replicas, based as far as possible on
illustrations and other records of what the original
statues looked like. Two successive statues of Our
Lady of Walsingham were commissioned, but neither
seemed quite right until 1954, when the present
statue was made. When it was solemnly crowned by
the Apostolic Delegate at the Feast of the
Assumption that year, in the presence of 15,000
pilgrims, two white doves appeared and settled on
During the Archdiocesan Pilgrimage to Walsingham in
the Year of Mercy, 2016, Cardinal Nichols arranged
for the Willesden parishioners to bring the image of
Our Lady of Willesden with them to Walsingham.
The Cardinal said it was the first time since 1538 that the two images has been brought together.