The
Walsingham
Shrine
and the
'Dowry of Mary'

 


Hail Mary,
full of grace,
the Lord is with thee



Walsingham - England's Nazareth

The story of the Walsingham Shrine begins in Saxon times. In 1061, the Lady of the Manor, Richeldis de Faverches, was taken in spirit to Nazareth, shown the house where the Annunciation took place and asked by Our Lady to build a replica in Norfolk. She was promised that 'Whoever seeks my help there will not go away empty-handed.'  The simple wooden house that she built soon became the focus of special devotion to Our Lady. The 'Holy House' was later encased in stone to protect it from the elements.

In 1153, the Augustinian Canons founded a Priory to care for the spiritual needs of the pilgrims. Their magnificent Priory Church was added in the fifteenth century. Only the ruin of the Priory arch remains and archaeology has placed the site of the 'Holy House' in its shadow.

Walsingham became one of the foremost shrines of medieval Christendom. Among the pilgrims to the 'Holy House' were many royal visitors. Henry III in 1226, Edward I (eleven times), Edward II in 1315,  Edward III in 1361, Richard II in 1383, Edward IV in 1469, Henry VI in 1487 (and many other times) and Henry VIII in 1511, in thanksgiving for the birth of his son, Prince Henry.

In 1340, the Slipper Chapel was built at Houghton St Giles, a mile outside Walsingham. This was the final 'station' chapel on the way to Walsingham. It was here that pilgrims would remove their shoes to walk the final 'Holy Mile' to the Shrine barefoot.

Erasmus, the Dutch scholar, visited Walsingham in 1513 and was impressed by the splendour of the Shrine. He wrote:

'When you look in you would say it is the abode of saints, so brilliantly does it shine with gems, gold and silver ... Our Lady stands in the dark at the right side of the altar ... a little image, remarkable neither for its size, material or workmanship.'

This was soon to come to an end. Henry VIII ordered the dissolution of the monasteries and in 1538 the Priory was closed, the 'Holy House' burned to the ground and the statue of Our Lady taken to London to be destroyed.

In 1896 Miss Charlotte Boyd bought the Slipper Chapel, which had seen centuries of secular use. She devoted herself to its restoration. The statue of the Mother and Child was carved at Oberammergau and based on the design of the original statue - a design found on the medieval seal of Walsingham Priory, an imprint of which is in the British Museum.

The Walsingham seal: around the edges
Ave Maria gratia plena dominus tecum

The first Mass since the Reformation was offered in the Slipper Chapel on 15th August 1934 and a few days later Cardinal Francis Bourne led a pilgrimage of 10,000 people to the Chapel and declared it to be the Catholic National Shrine of Our Lady.

England - The Dowry of Mary

There is a tradition that the title 'Dowry of Mary' goes back to Edward the Confessor (1042 - 1066). This may well be true, but there is no historical documentation to support it. There is no doubt, however, about the deep devotion to Our Lady that existed in medieval England and the dedication rests on this foundation.

The first documentary evidence for the title was found in a painting which used to hang in the English College in Rome, which showed Richard II (1377 - 1399) and his consort kneeling before Our Lady and offering England to her. He holds a parchment with a latin inscription:'This is your dowry, O pious Virgin'. Perhaps the painting portrayed the King presenting England to Our Lady as her Dowry in Westminster Abbey in 1381.

At the same time (1399) Thomas Arundel, Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote to his suffragan bishops:

"The contemplation of the great mystery of the Incarnation has drawn all Christian nations to venerate her from whom came the first beginnings of our redemption. But we English, being the servants of her special inheritance and her own dowry, as we are commonly called, ought to surpass others in the fervour of our praises and devotions."

So the title of England as 'The Dowry of Mary' was definitely in use by the end of the fourteenth century, but Archbishop Arundel's letter seems to indicate that at the time of his writing it was already in common use, indicating an earlier origin.
 

The Visitation (detail) c 1306
from a painted octagonal pillar
in the Church of Saint Mary of Charity,
Faversham, Kent