Walsingham, Monastery of

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Little Walsingham, a small town in northern Norfolk, became famous as the center of the major shrine of Our Lady in medieval England. The origin of the cult there is not quite clear, but certainly belongs to the days after the Norman Conquest. About 1120 Richelde de Fervaques, widow of a local magnate, built at Walsingham a copy of the Holy House at Nazareth. In 1153 her son Geoffrey established at the same site a small priory of canons regular of st. augustine, to whose care the house was committed. But the establishment had little more than local importance until the time of King Henry III (121672) and his son Edward I (12721307), both of whom visited the place frequently. The latter had a great veneration for a statue of Our Lady there (probably of 12th century date), and this in the 14th and 15th centuries attracted considerable numbers of pilgrims from the British Isles (including a very high proportion of the contemporary kings and queens of England) and some from neighboring parts of the Continent. By the early 16th century, Walsingham's shrine seems to have been the most popular place of pilgrimage (see pilgrimages, 3) in England, and had attracted considerable benefactions, though its attendant priory was never large. Among the last royal pilgrims were henry viii and his wife Catherine of Aragon. In 1535 the monastery's annual net income was estimated at £652 4s. 11d. (about $32,600) of which £250 1s, (about $12,500) came from offerings at the shrine; it was by now the second richest monastery in Norfolk. Evidently in July 1538 the shrine was despoiled of its wealth, the statute of Our Lady being sent up to London where it was burnt. In August the priory, which had about 22 brethren, was dissolved after an uneventful history.

Of the medieval buildings the principal remains are the eastern gable and base of the west tower of the church, much of the refectory and also part of the prior's lodging, which is now incorporated in a later house. The site of the shrine, which adjoined the north side of the priory church, was excavated in 1855 and in 1955. In recent times pilgrimages to Walsingham have been revived.

Bibliography: j. l. warner, "Walsingham Priory ," Archaeological Journal 13 (1856) 115133. j. c. dickinson, Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham (New York 1956). h. a. bond, "Walsingham Topography," Norfolk Archaeology 31 (195557) 359366.

[j. c. dickinson]