Betty Jarrett on an innovative study of the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham


Ashgate, 268pp, hbk – 978 0754669241, £55

This collection of essays by a group of academics who met at Walsingham for a conference in 2008 is perhaps the first comprehensive study of Walsingham in literature and culture. The book is divided into three sections: landscape and the sacred; the body and sexuality; and architecture, literature and music. Some sections inevitably overlap. Thus references to Shakespeare can be found across all sections as can the history of the demolition of the original shrine.

Many of the essays open up new thoughts about what was really happening at Walsingham, especially during the dissolution of the monasteries. The chapter on the history of medieval pilgrimage puts into context the reasons for Henry VIII wishing to get rid of the wealthy shrine. The essay by Gary Waller describes the subsequent residents of the Abbey House. This will answer the many questions which are raised by pilgrims and visitors today as they visit the ruined abbey. The interesting insight by Simon Coleman, a professor of anthropology, into contemporary pilgrimage, reflects the variety of reasons for visiting and returning to the shrine.

The second part of the book looks at the body and sexuality. Again this overlaps slightly with other essays in other sections. The obvious way to denigrate the shrine was to impute sexual immorality and strange behaviour. In fact one can still see this wish to denigrate now in some of the banners held by the protesters at the National Pilgrimage. The somewhat legendary stories of the Blessed Virgin Mary and her family life and the reasons for her veneration are explored. Though many of these are speculative, in an age when so much about the workings of the female body were unknown, it seems logical to presume that a shrine dedicated to the Mother of God would be a natural place in which to pray for healing from the various ailments and needs of women. ‘Queer Walsingham’ is an essay which surprisingly includes material from the writings of Ignatius of Llanthony. Although this may reflect some of the atmosphere of the early Anglo-Catholic movement it does not seem to truly represent Walsingham. Ignatius never actually visited the shrine, whilst his writings hardly seem to represent the mainstream of Anglo-Catholic thought.

The final five essays are much concerned with wider cultural issues. The interweaving of the reflections of Shakespeare, Raleigh and Byrd on the sadness of the passing of Walsingham at the dissolution provide much food for thought. There are hints that, although wrecked by the King, the shrine and all it meant for the people of England could not be forgotten. The restored shrine is reflected in the last chapter which draws on the poetry of T.S. Eliot and Robert Lowell.

This is, at times, a very specialized and academic book. There is, however, a breadth and depth which could mean it has a wide appeal to different people. Maybe it has something for everyone, even the voyeur!

One of the fascinating things I reflected on whilst reading this book was how secular it feels. For the first time I was reading a volume which was about the social history of this particular place rather than focusing on its intrinsic spirituality. The book paints a wide picture of pilgrimage over the last six centuries very much in terms of the broad social history of this land. Throughout, there is an awareness that Walsingham had a significance which was massive for all those with a devotion to the Mother of God. This devotion was pushed underground by the ‘Secular Powers’. It did not rot away. It was not destroyed. There were hints and veiled references in many ways throughout the ages. Walsingham was not forgotten.

Eventually, as we know, both Roman Catholics and Anglo-Catholics recognized the importance of this little Norfolk village and the shrine once again began to blossom. However hard people try to denigrate and scorn what happens at Walsingham the shrine continues to grow. This is not just a quirk of social history or the need for a holiday at a beautiful place in North Norfolk. This is about the importance, to quote Eliot, of a place where prayer has been valid. Many have described the experience of pilgrimage to Walsingham as being like coming home. Walsingham can be filled with carnival as at the National Pilgrimage. It can feel noisy and un-prayerful. It can also be tranquil and prayerful at moments early or late in the season. It carries the whole range of human emotions. Barry Spurr writes in the last pages of the book, ‘Like Eliot, [Lowell] does not shrink from the difficulty of worldliness engaging with and submitting to the eternal, and to a peace that passes understanding, but also conveys the peculiar serenity and stillness of God in contrast with the all-too-accessible disasters of this world.’

That, for me, sums up Walsingham, and makes me glad that I read this book. ND