MEDIEVAL PILGRIMAGES

At their March meeting members of the Local History Group welcomed Matthew Champion from the University of East Anglia who gave an illustrated talk on the history of pilgrimages during the medieval period.  We had a brief introduction to explain the purpose of pilgrimage and the famous pilgrim sites such as The Holy Lands, Rome and Compostela de Santiago but Matthew explained how Walsingham, a sleepy Norfolk village was equally important as one of the holiest places in England.

In 1061, in the reign of Edward the Confessor, Richelda the widow of the Lord of the Manor, had a series of visions of the Virgin Mary, and was encouraged to build a Holy House, a copy of the Holy House in Nazareth. Thus began the Walsingham legend.

Since then, Walsingham has been venerated and attracted countless thousands of pilgrims who have travelled to the village to ask Mary to pray to Jesus on their behalf. By the late Middle Ages, it was held to be the duty of every Englishman that at some time during his life he should visit our Lady of Walsingham.

Little is known about the first pilgrims except they carried back the word that their prayers had been answered and after visiting the Holy House and drinking the waters they were cured of their illnesses and injuries.

News of these miracles spread to the Royal Court and in 1226 King Henry III made the first of many visits to Walsingham and following his example nearly all the kings and queens of England, including Henry VIII and Katharine of Aragon visited the Holy House until the dissolution of the priory in 1538.

Matthew explained how the thousands of pilgrims brought great wealth to the individual shrines and how a network of pilgrim routes was established so that minor shrines could be visited en route. For example, pilgrims to Walsingham might travel via Bury St. Edmunds to see the shrine of St Edmund or visit Bromholm Priory which claimed to have part of the Holy Cross. People from the continent also came to Norfolk landing at Kings Lynn or smaller ports along the North Norfolk Coast  such as Wells, Blakeney and Wiveton before making their way to Walsingham.

Pilgrims travelling to shrines were supported by religious buildings along the well-trodden routes which offered spiritual and temporal assistance.  Appropriately just a short distance from our meeting in the Lighthouse Church, Sheringham are the substantial remains of Beeston Priory dedicated to the Virgin Mary and one of the priories that offered food and accommodation to pilgrims.