Mary wanted a wealthy noblewoman to see the home where she raised Jesus.
The story begins in 1061, more than a thousand years after the birth of Our Lord. It was during the reign of Edward the Confessor that a woman of noble heritage, Richeldis de Faverches, had been praying for guidance to fulfill her desire to honor the Blessed Mother. Her prayers were answered, and Our Lady appeared to Richeldis and promptly took her spirit on a trip to Nazareth.
When they arrived there, Our Lady showed Richeldis the house where not only the Annunciation took place, but also where the Holy Family lived. Our Blessed Mother told Richeldis that she wanted a replica of this house built in the village of Walsingham, England. Richeldis was promised, “Whoever seeks my help there will not go away empty-handed.”
Richeldis, who had been given the dimensions of the house, did not know where to put it. The ground was wet and unsuitable for building upon. She prayed for help, and the next morning discovered two areas of dry ground that were the exact dimensions needed for the house.
She picked a site near a well, but the workers could not get the walls to fit properly. Once again she prayed and the next morning awoke to find the house miraculously moved to the other site, more than 200 feet away.
Richeldis’ house quickly became a focal point for people from far and wide. They came to offer special devotion to our Blessed Mother. It became known as the “Holy House.” Not long after, the house was encased in stone to protect it from the elements. Devotion at the site continued to increase, and soon it was known as the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham.
Walsingham became the premier shrine in all of medieval Christendom. Many royal visitors came to this place including Henry III, in 1226, Edward the I, who came eleven different times, Edward II, in 1361, all the way to King Henry VIII in 1511 when he came to give thanks for the birth of his son, Prince Henry (Prince Henry died in infancy when he was only 52 days old).
Numerous miracles were reported at Walsingham, and it became so revered that a place called the “Slipper Chapel” was built in 1340. The chapel was exactly one mile from the Shrine and pilgrims would stop here to remove their shoes. Once they had removed their shoes, they would journey barefoot the last mile, called the “Holy Mile,” to the Shrine.
The Slipper Chapel was dedicated to St. Catherine of Alexandria, patroness of pilgrims. The chapel was put in place so that on St. Catherine’s feast day of November 25th, the sun would rise directly behind the altar. (There is also a chapel of St. Catherine located in Nazareth, and it is maintained by the Knight’s of St. Catherine.)
During the height of the medieval pilgrimages, the Franciscans were given permission by the pope and the king to build a friary at Walsingham. The year was now 1347, and the religious atmosphere of the city dominated the area.
Then King Henry VIII, at odds with the Church over not receiving the divorce he wanted, ordered the dissolution of monasteries in 1538. The priory at Walsingham was closed and the “Holy House” burned to the ground. The statue of Our Lady was taken to London to be destroyed. As King Henry rid the country of Catholic devotion, Walsingham ceased to be a place of pilgrimage. Devotion was necessarily in secret until after Catholic Emancipation (1829) when public expressions of faith were once again allowed.
Interestingly, Richeldis de Faverches, who Our Lady escorted to Nazareth, was a very wealthy widow. Almost 900 years later, on February 6, 1897, a wealthy single woman by the name of Charlotte Boyd purchased the Slipper Chapel and began restoration. She had a new statue of the Mother and Child carved, based on the design of the original which was found on the medieval seal of the Walsingham Priory. This seal is in the British Museum.
The first Mass since the Reformation was offered in the Slipper Chapel on August 15, 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.
The importance of Our Lady of Walsingham is shown through pontifical approbation (recognition), which has been given to it by four popes: Pope Leo XIII, in 1897; Pope Pius XII, in 1954; Pope St. John Paul II, in 1982; and Pope Francis, in 2015.
Today, Walsingham is once again the official Shrine of Our Lady in England.
For readers in the Americas who are interested in a pilgrimage to Walsingham but can’t make it to England, the Cathedral and Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham in Houston, Texas, has its own replica of the Holy House. See more here.