Fr Peter Cobb on Walsingham
(1) sermon preached at Walsingham on 75th anniversary of the dedication of the statue
,
6 July 1997

(2) an address given at Fatima 2003
and see also his address on Stained Glass in the Shrine Church


sermon preached at Walsingham on 6 July 1997

It was 75 years ago to the day that Father Alfred Hope Patten, with his characteristic sense of occasion, masterminded the setting up of the statue of Our Lady of Walsingham in the Guilds Chapel, the very statue which is now venerated in the Holy House, to which it was transferred in 1931. On that day in 1922 the statue had been placed in the South porch; Father Archdale King, who later became a Roman Catholic and a liturgical scholar, delivered a homily from the steps of the font and then Father Alban Baverstock, who was to become one of the first Guardians of the Shrine, blessed it. The statue was then carried in procession to the Chapel by young girls dressed in white, accompanied by others carrying branches of mock orange blossom, and led by those parishioners who were present and a group of visiting priests. The organ played and the bells pealed out from the tower and the statue was enthroned on the pillar on the south side of the Guilds Chapel.

The statue was no ordinary statue of our Lady and the Holy Child. It was the very first attempt at a replica of the original twelfth century statue which had been venerated for centuries in the Holy House and which was burnt at Chelsea in 1538 during the Reformation. It was based on the seal of the Priory of our Lady, preserved on a document in the British Library. James Lee Warner, a former vicar of Walsingham, was apparently the first to publish an engraving of the seal in his report on his excavations in the abbey grounds in 1856. Another antiquarian published it again in 1864 and said that he had not 'the slightest doubt that in outline, in general character (and perhaps even in minute details) it must have resembled the celebrated image...' Father Hope Patten probably knew all this but he was the first to think of making a three dimensional copy of it.

He had only arrived in the parish the previous year and he seems to have collected money for it himself. Father Colin Stephenson tells a story of meeting a retired missionary bishop in Walsingham in 1960 who said that the last time he was in Walsingham was in 1922 when he had given Hope Patten five shillings towards it and he wondered what had happened about it. The task of carving the statue was entrusted to a Carmelite nun, Sister Catherine, whose convent was in Kensington. Father Hope Patten liked to think it was carved near where the original statue was burnt.

When the Roman Catholics revived devotion to our Lady of Walsingham at King’s Lynn in 1897, the statue erected there was carved in Oberammergau and based not on the seal but on a representation of our Lady in the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin in Rome. This was apparently the choice of the Pope, Leo XIII. You can see a copy of it in the Roman Catholic church in Friday Market. However, when St Anthony's, the Roman Catholic parish church in Fakenham, was built in 1909, a stained glass window of our Lady of Walsingham was put in, based on the figure on the seal. It is still there.

When the Slipper Chapel was made the National Shrine in 1934, the statue of Our Lady of Walsingham there was also based on the Priory Seal. That statue, carved by Lilian Dagless, was replaced by another in 1954 but that too is derived from the seal, though perhaps more remotely.

One has to admit that our statue of Our Lady of Walsingham is not superficially attractive. It is not one of those lovely Gothic statues of the fourteenth or fifteenth century full of tender emotion, with our Lady smiling at her child whilst he strokes her chin; it is not one of those Renaissance statues of rather sensuous beauty nor is it, thankfully, a twentieth century statue of kitsch sentimentality. Its form is basically that of the twelfth century, the time of the probable founding of the priory. A number of original twelfth century statues similar to it survive in France, like that of our Lady of Rocamadour. Our Lady sits enthroned in a high backed chair, wearing a simple crown, with our Lord on her left knee and a lily as a sort of sceptre in her right hand. Our Lord is a rather oversize baby with an even more outsize halo; he holds a book in his left hand and seems to point to the lily, towards which he also looks.

It is an image of the type known as the Seat, or Throne, of Wisdom. Our Lady sits on the throne of wood but she is herself a living throne. As every mother knows, her lap is warmer and more comfortable than the most luxurious armchair. Her infant son is divine wisdom, ‘the power and wisdom of God’ in St Paul’s words (1 Cor 1:24). He holds the scriptures to remind us of the fact. It is an idea which goes back a long way. St John of Damascus said :

‘Her hands bear the everlasting and her knees are a more sublime
throne than the cherubim. She is the royal throne, seated on which
the angels behold their master and Creator.’

It is the most wonderful image of the incarnation. Our Lady’s role is to make visible the invisible son of the invisible Father. The Son becomes bone of her bone and flesh of her flesh, earthly like her. He who is from eternity ‘the image of the invisible God’ (Cols 1:15) becomes the image of his visible mother. He is the image of his mother. The human face of God bears her features, her eyes, her nose, her mouth. She gives to God what he has not - flesh, weak and mortal flesh, and, with it, the ability to prove his love for us, by suffering with us and dying for us.

She sits behind him, frames him like a monstrance. She points to him whilst she looks straight at us. She personifies Israel, the womb-community, the matrix of revelation and, like the whole of the Old Testament she points to him, but with a wordless gesture. She points to him but she looks at us, as if she were presenting him to us and saying, ‘Do whatever he tells you to do’. (John 2:5).

The image of Our Lady of Walsingham is a much more appropriate symbol for the new millennium than the dome at Greenwich will ever be. It is Christ's birthday we shall be celebrating. He is ‘the beginning and the end, the Alpha and the Omega, all time belongs to him and all ages’ (as we affirm at the Easter Vigil). He is the Power and Wisdom of God, the Word, the meaning of time and eternity. Through the Incarnation, we, like our Lady, share in his wisdom, partake of his divine nature (2 Peter 1:4) and reign with him in glory. This image, set up here seventy five years ago, says it all.

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an address given at Fatima 2003

Walsingham is one of several holy places in England which were virtually destroyed at the Reformation but which have again become places of pilgrimage in the twentieth century. It was by far the oldest and most popular shrine in the country, of national importance, visited by every monarch from Henry III (1216-72) to Henry VIII (1509-47) and even by foreign nobles, dignitaries and scholars like Erasmus. The traditional date of its foundation is 1061, which is the date given in a ballad printed by Richard Pynson about 1496, although the earliest surviving documentary evidence points to a date in the quarter of a century before 1153 when Geoffrey de Fervaques (who was possibly one of the knights who captured Lisbon from the Moors in 1147) founded an Augustinian priory to care for the chapel erected by his mother. The ballad tells how the widowed lady of the manor, Richeldis, had a vision of Our Lady who showed her the house at Nazareth where Gabriel had appeared to her, and told her to build a replica of it ‘where shall be had in remembrance the great joy of my salutation, the ground and root of mankind’s redemption’.

The wooden house which Richeldis built was held in such veneration that it survived intact, protected by a later stone chapel, until the destruction of the shrine in 1538. There were other objects in the chapel which were venerated, particularly a statue of Our Lady and the Holy Child, a representation of which is almost certainly preserved on the seal of the priory and certain pilgrim badges. The statue is of the twelfth century type of Our Lady Seat of Wisdom, rather similar to that of Our Lady of Rocamadour. There was a statue of Gabriel and the Annunciation scene was depicted on some of the pilgrim badges. The shrine was obviously the focus of the medieval pilgrimage but the whole village and area were regarded as sacred. Walsingham was called England’s Nazareth and the Holy Land of Walsingham.

The statue of Our Lady was taken and burnt with certain other famous statues of Our Lady in July 1538 and the following month on 4 August the prior and canons signed a deed surrendering their house and all their possessions to the crown. They were pensioned off and the buildings and site were bought by a local gentleman, who demolished much of it and sold off the stone.

It was, however, more difficult to erase the memory of Walsingham. A local magistrate, Sir Roger Townsend, reported to Thomas Cromwell, one of Henry VIII's ministers, that he had punished a poor woman for claiming that the statue was working healing miracles, but added prophetically ‘yet I cannot but perceive the said Image is not yet out of some of their heads’. The image was gone but the place continued to draw people. Two former nuns whose convent at Dartford had been dissolved went to live in Walsingham according to a document drawn up by the Exchequer in 1555. Later in the century a Catholic, possibly Philip, Earl of Arundel, or more likely his tutor, Gregory Martin, wrote a heart-breaking poem

Bitter, bitter, oh, to behold the grass to grow
Where the walls of Walsingham so stately did show
Such were the works of Walsingham while she did stand,
Such were the wrecks as now do show of that holy land ...

In an early road book, Holinshed’s Itinerary, written fifty years after the dissolution of the monasteries, the first road, described as if it were the most important in England, is the road from London to Walsingham, and according to a book published in 1879, it was still known as the Palmers’ Way or the Walsingham Green Way. Even the stars were thought to point to Walsingham: Blomfield in his monumental history on Norfolk, written in the eighteenth century, said that ‘the common people ... believed ... what is called in the sky the Milky Way was appointed by providence to point out the particlar residence of the Virgin beyond all other places, and was on that account generally ... called Walsingham Way; and I have heard old people in this country so call and distinguish it some years past.’

Another rather distorted memory of the sacredness of Walsingham is connected with the surviving two wells in the priory ground. ‘Twin wells’ and miraculous healings are both mentioned in the Pynson ballad although they are not explicitly connected but Erasmus was told that the water of the wells was ‘efficacious in curing pains of the head and stomach’. A sceptical antiquarian, who had read Erasmus’ account, visited ‘the once celebrated seat of superstitious devotion’ in the 1770s and found the wells were regarded as wishing wells. Visitors had to kneel, put their hands into the water up to the wrists, wish, and then drink the water. If they did not disclose their wishes to anyone, they would be granted within twelve months.

The nineteenth century was greatly influenced by the Romantic Movement which popularised and romanticised the Middle Ages. This led to an antiquarian interest in surviving medieval buildings, cathedrals and churches, and the ruins of the dispoiled religious houses, but also, in the Church of England, to the Oxford Movement with its concern for holiness and revived interest in its Catholic heritage. In 1853-4 James Lee-Warner, the Anglican parish priest of Walsingham and nephew of the owner of the priory, or abbey as it had come to be called, carried out an excavation of the site. Very little remained above ground besides the gatehouse, only the east wall of the priory church and some parts of the refectory, but he did discover the bases of the western tower and establish the site of the Holy House. In 1875 J.G. Nicholls published a translation with notes of Erasmus’ Colloquy on Pilgrimage with its account of his visits to the shrine and in the same year Pynson’s Ballad was reprinted for the first time. A few years later, in 1879, a monumental volume was published by Edmund Waterton Pietas Mariana Britannica, which has 65 pages on Walsingham, devoted to the reproduction and discussion of most of the key documents on the history of the shrine.

Some Christians, Anglicans as well as Catholics, were not only interested in the history of holy places but wanted to buy them back so that they could be restored to the Church. One such was Charlotte Boyd9 who had been much affected by seeing the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey as a girl of 13. She bought West Malling Abbey in Kent and established a group of Anglican Benedictine sisters there. In 1893 she tried to buy the abbey grounds at Walsingham but Mr Lee-Warner refused, no doubt because he lived there in a splendid eighteenth century house.10 She then entered into negotiations with him to buy the fourteenth century Slipper Chapel, the last chapel on the pilgrim road, about a mile from the village. In the course of negotiations she was received into the Roman Catholic Church11 but Lee-Warner kept his word and sold it to her.12 It was in a ruinous condition but she had it beautifully restored and built a presbytery next to it. She made it over to the Benedictine community at Downside in 189612 envisaging it at first as a mission station though later as a restored Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham.

The Bishop of Northampton, in which diocese Norfolk lay, was reluctant even to allow mass to be said in the chapel because plans were afoot to re-establish the shrine at King’s Lynn where the nearest Roman Catholic parish was. Fr George Wrigglesworth was building a new church there which was to contain a chapel built to the dimensions of the Holy House in Loretto. The Pope, Leo XIII, presented a statue of Our Lady, modelled on one in the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin. It was carried in procession round the town and installed in the chapel with great ceremony on 19 August 1897. The next day there was a pilgrimage of between forty and fifty people to the Slipper Chapel, but it was not until 1934 when the Chapel was made the National Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham and there was a huge National Pilgrimage led by the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, that mass began to be said there regularly.

This was, at least in part, a reaction to the growing success of the Anglican Shrine under the inspiration of Father Alfred Hope Patten. He had become vicar of Walsingham in 1921 and within a year had put a statue of Our Lady of Walsingham, modelled on the medieval priory seal, into the parish church, before which the rosary was said publicly every day. Pilgrimages were organised by the League of Our Lady, the earliest Anglican Marian society founded in 1904, and by the Catholic League, which included visits to the Slipper Chapel and to the abbey grounds and the holy wells. The Anglican Bishop of Norwich was not happy about all this and was relieved when Fr. Patten agreed to remove the statue. He was not at all prepared for what happened next. In 1931, a piece of land was bought just outside the abbey grounds and a new copy of the Holy House built there with a covering chapel, which was extended in 1938 to provide a shrine church. Fr Patten was concerned to identify the new Shrine with the hallowed site of the original. He built the Holy House and the shrine altars with stones from the ruined priory and from other holy places, mostly ruined religious houses including those on Iona and Lindisfarne and at Glastonbury. He even used water diviners to trace a connection between the water in the well, discovered when the foundations were being dug, and the wells in the abbey grounds.

Pilgrims and visitors to the two shrines have grown in numbers over the last sixty years. It is estimated that there are now 250,000 each year. Originally there was a certain rivalry between the Catholic and Anglican shrines but the sacredness of the place, England's Nazareth, as well as the progress of the Ecumenical Movement, has led to much closer relations. In 1982, when Pope John Paul visited England, he was unable to go to Walsingham but the statue of Our Lady of Walsingham from the National Shrine was taken to London and carried into the Wembley stadium by the Director of the Catholic Shrine and the Administrator of the Anglican Shrine together, and placed on the altar where the Pope celebrated the mass. The Archbishop of York, who is one of the Guardians of the Holy House, in his sermon at the National Pilgrimage in 1996 spoke of the prophetic nature of the situation.‘Here in Walsingham the paradox of the one domain which encompasses the two Shrines is perhaps already a sign and foretaste of that day when the now imperfect communion which we share will be brought to the fullness of perfection through the Lord and Saviour of us all’. A Carmelite nun who lives nearby has simillarly spoken of Walsingham becoming a ‘one Shrine-Village with two focal points’.

In an ever increasingly secular society, Walsingham is once again widely recognised as a holy place. An Anglican bishop [Stockwood] said, ‘No matter how we may explain Walsingham, we cannot explain it away. And I am one of the thousands to whom it has been a Jacob’s ladder, a point of meeting between heaven and earth’. More tellingly perhaps, in August this year, in a radio poll, it was voted the nation's ‘favourite spiritual place’.


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