Our Lady of Walsingham Shrine: The Slipper Chapel at England's Nazareth

Statue of Our Lady of Walsingham and altar with precious reredos

Before the Protestant Reformation the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham in Norfolk, England was one of the most visited shrines in the Catholic world.  In England it was second only to Canterbury in the ranks of importance for English pilgrims.  Under royal patronage its prominence grew, receiving visits from multiple kings and queens.  By the time of its destruction in 1538 during the reign of Henry VIII, the shrine had become one of the greatest religious centers in England and Europe.  

Today about 300,000 people visit each year.  Sadly, the shrine was never rebuilt after the Protestant Reformation. Visitors to the original site are met by gardens and majestic rubble, all that remains of the old medieval monastery, destroyed by order of King Henry VIII.  Since the Protestant revolt, the site is owned by a private family.  Today it is open for tourists and pilgrims with regular business hours and a gift shop.  For a small fee visitors can enter and walk the grounds, imagining what the site must have looked like before its untimely destruction.  Many hope and pray for restitution - that one day it will be returned to rightful Catholic hands and be rebuilt.  It is a remarkable thought: the property was stolen from the Catholic Church and never returned.  Meanwhile, after hundreds of years English-speaking pilgrims continue to journey here to pray and experience the metanoia of pilgrimage, or conversion of heart.  

The slipper chapel exterior front (main entrance)

History of the Shrine

The history of the shrine dates back to the eleventh century - nearly one-thousand years ago - when an English noblewoman by the name of Richeldis de Faverches is said to have experienced heavenly apparitions of the Blessed Mother.  That was in the year was 1061.  The event is recorded as one of the earliest Marian apparitions and certainly the most cherished in English history.  

According to legend, Lady Richeldis wished to do something special in order to give honor to the Blessed Mother.  She had a series of 3 visions in which Our Lady fetched her soul from England and brought her to Nazareth during a religious ecstasy. There she saw the house of the Annunciation, a brick structure built into a cave.  Our Lady is said to have requested of Lady Richeldis that she build a replica of the house in her native village of Walsingham, a place where people could come and pay homage to her, the Mother of Jesus.  Mary is said to have promised, "Whoever seeks my help there will not go away empty-handed."  The chapel that was constructed came to be known as the "holy house" and became a shrine and focus of pilgrimage until its destruction by Henry VIII.  

Mass in the slipper chapel

Accordingly after the apparition, construction of the shrine began and was plagued with problems.  One night Lady Richeldis heard the sound of heavenly singing.  She went out to her garden where she found the little house completed, about 200 yards from the original site that had been marked for construction.  Richeldis saw what she took to be angels leaving the now completed shrine, a simple wooden structure with 4 small turrets and a central tower.  At a later date the shrine was encased in stone as it grew in prominence and was further embellished over the years to give glory and honor to God and Our Lady.  

The sacristy of the Slipper Chapel has an exquisite collection of fitting Gothic vestments 

Development of Pilgrimage 

After the chapel was built, pilgrims flocked here and a priory and monastery was established to care for the shrine and tend to the spiritual ministrations of all those who came to visit.  People wanted to see where Mary had appeared and they wanted to see the shrine that was built by angels as a replica of Mary's house in Nazareth.  In the common heart a special place of honour and affection was won by the British people, unwearied by the distance and inconvenience of travel.  While for most people the Holy Land was too distant to visit, Walsingham became a more convenient place of pilgrimage, ranking alongside Jerusalem, Rome, and Santiago de Compostella.  The shrine was visited by many important personages, including Erasmus in 1512.  Even King Henry VIII himself had come here on pilgrimage, proof of the devotion of the British Sovereigns, paying allegiance to Our Lady with great fervour.

Welcome sign for pilgrims to the Slipper Chapel

The End of the Shrine and Rebirth    

Over the years Walsingham became famous with wealth and prestige.  Lavish gifts were left by many who came to visit. Therefore, its fall under Henry VIII was symbolic.  On the eve of the Reformation in 1513 when Erasmus visited, he wrote: "When you look in you would say it is the abode of saints, so brilliantly does it shine with gems, gold and silver...Our Lady stands in the dark at the right side of the altar...a little image, remarkable neither for its size, material or workmanship."    

Floor design of the Slipper Chapel

In 1538, with the Protestant rebellion in full swing, Henry VIII allowed the priory, monastery and shrine to be looted and destroyed.  He ordered the sacred statue of Our Lady of Walsingham to be burnt at Chelsea.  However, the memory of the shrine and its devotions was less easy to eradicate.  The site of the shrine with buildings, monastery, churchyard and gardens was given by the Crown to the Thomas Syndey family.  All that remains today is the gatehouse, the chancel arch and a few partial outbuildings.  The Elizabethan ballad, "A Lament for Walsingham," expresses what the people of Norfolk have felt at the incredible loss of their shrine during the years of strife, long since passed. 

1950s Window in the Slipper Chapel commemorating the Assumption

The only image that survived of the original statue was a representation seen in the seal/stamp of the pre-Reformation medieval priory.  Over the past 100 years, interest in the pre-Reformation shrine, its lost statue, and pilgrimage has grown.  In 1921 the local Anglican vicar had the idea to recreate the famous statue based on the image depicted in the seal.  In 1922 a new statue was set up in the local Anglican church.  Regular pilgrim devotion followed among both Anglicans and Catholics.  During World War II, Walsingham was a restricted zone closed to visitors.  In May 1945, American forces organized the first Mass in the old priory grounds since the Reformation.  After the war, the Catholics, too, recreated their own statue of Our Lady of Walsingham.  Hand-carved in Oberammergau, Bavaria, it depicts Mary enthroned as Queen wearing a golden Saxon crown and golden slippers, carrying the Child Jesus with Christ holding a Gospel book and Our Lady holding a lily flower.  

Window in the Slipper Chapel from the reign of Ven. Pius XII

The Slipper Chapel

Because the original shrine was destroyed, the Catholic shrine seen today is not on the original site. Instead, it is located in what had been the last chapel on the old pre-Reformation pilgrim route to Walsingham from London.  This historic old chapel is located outside the village of Walsingham in the countryside amid farm fields on a windy country road, a mile from the original site.  This shrine is informally known as the "Slipper Chapel," or the Chapel of St. Catherine of Alexandria. It was built in 1340 and miraculously survived the harsh years of the Reformation.  Because this chapel was the final "station" on the old pilgrim route where pilgrims arrived usually by foot on their way to Walsinghamt, i was at this last stop that pilgrims would remove their shoes and walk the final "holy mile" to the shrine barefoot (hence the designation "Slipper Chapel").  This gem of the fourteenth century architecture was raised to the status of a minor basilica in 2015, given the title of Basilica of Our Lady of Walsingham.  

Embarking on the Holy Mile walk from the Slipper Chapel

After the Reformation era destruction of the Walsingham shrine, the sanctuary of the Slipper Chapel fell into disuse and was variously used over the centuries as a poor house, a forge, and even a cowshed.  By God's grace it was purchased in 1896 by a local wealthy woman, Charlotte Pearson Boyd (1837-1906).  Boyd, who was a convert to Catholicism from Anglicanism, purchased the building from a farm owner and had it restored as a proper chapel.  She donated it to Downside Abbey to be once again a house of prayer.  The plaque below commemorates the event.

Slipper Chapel dedication plaque from 1930

In 1897 the chapel was re-established as a shrine, with proper authorization for the public veneration of  Our Lady of Walsingham, by papal rescript from Pope Leo XIII.  The picturesque presbytery was built in 1904 with the help of Thomas Garner, one of the leading English Gothic revival architects of the Victorian Era.  

The site of the original Abbey in downtown Walsingham

In 1934 the Bishop of Northampton celebrated the first public Mass in the chapel in 400 years.  Two days later Cardinal Francis Bourne led a national pilgrimage of the Catholic bishops of England and Wales with more than 10,000 people to the shrine. 
On that occasion the Bishops of England and Wales, with the approval of the Pope, designated the Slipper Chapel as the National Shrine of Our Lady for England.  

In the 1950s new stained glass windows were installed in the chapel, commemorating the proclamation of the dogma of the Assumption of Our Lady into Heaven by Venerable Pius XII.  In 1954 Venerable Pius XII delegated his nuncio, Mons. Gerald O'Hara to crown the statue of Our Lady of Walsingham in his name.  Moments after the coronation, two white doves descended and landed on the lap of the statue, which was seen by participants as a miraculous sign.  Devotees then processed barefoot the "holy mile" leading to the ruined old shrine inside the village of Walsingham.  The chapel continues to be embellished.  In 1961 the altar rail and sanctuary lamp were installed.  The annual feast day is September 24.   

Hours for visiting the original Abbey grounds

A New Statue

The first post-Reformation statue of Our Lady of Walsingham was one designed by Professor E.W. Tristram.  He, too, took the details from the image on the old 15th century seal of the priory.  It was enthroned in 1934 during the most memorable national pilgrimage. 

The present statue venerated in the chapel today is different.  It came into being in 1954 when Bishop Parker of Northampton commissioned the Canadian artist Marcel Barbeau to carve a new statue from stone.  On August 15, 1954 this present statue was solemnly crowned near the site of the original Shrine in Walsingham on behalf of Pope Pius XII, by his apostolic delegate, Archbishop O'Hara.  The crown was made by Mr. W. F. Knight of Welingborough, with golden jewelry that was donated by the faithful.  The crown is still taken out for special occasions.  The statue stands on a special throne off to the side in the Slipper Chapel.  

Our Lady is depicted as a simple woman, a mother, seated on the throne of wisdom.  This is in the midst of the Church, represented by the two pillars that are symbolic of the gate of Heaven, with seven rings to signify the seven sacraments and the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit.  The arched back of the throne brings to mind the rainbow which was set as a sign of God's fidelity to His creation.  Mary is clothed in the blue of divinity for Christ, the white of motherhood, and the red of virginity.  In her hand she holds a lily scepter, with three blooms to symbolize that she was virginal before, during after the Savior's birth.  As the woman of the new creation, the new Eve, she crushes beneath her feet a toadstone, symbolic of the power of evil.  As the Queen of Heaven and of England, her Dowry, Mary is crowned with a Saxon crown.  On her knee is the Child Jesus, as the Word made flesh, holding the book of the Gospels with his right hand raised in the double gesture of blessing and teaching.  Catholics travel here from across the Realm and Empire to pray before this sacred statue.     

Beautiful vestments at the Slipper Chapel from Watts in London

The Holy Mile

In former years pilgrims arrived by foot from London or elsewhere in England.  Today Catholics usually arrive at the Slipper Chapel by car, taxi, or coach bus. There they have Mass and set out for the "holy mile" walk, singing songs and praying the rosary as they carry their shoes and joyfully walk the last mile barefoot.  They follow a well-paved country road with scenic views that leads into the village, along the windy River Stiffkey.  In the crisp autumn air, shotguns from hunters can be heard in the distant fields. As pilgrims arrive in the village of Walsingham, they will see the original site of the shrine - marked Walsingham Abbey, located on the right side of the road that runs through the center of the village.

The ruins of the old Franciscan Friary, visible on the Holy Mile walk

Nota Bene: Insider info for Pilgrim's Traveling to Walsingham

Trains run from King's Cross Railway Station on the edge of central London to King's Lynn in Norfolk.  Taxis are available from the train station at King's Lynn to the Slipper Chapel, passing near the Queen's winter estate where her father passed away, known as Sandringham.  I recommend after morning Mass at the Slipper Chapel to walk the holy mile and visit the old Abbey grounds in downtown Walsingham.  

Next, lunch across the street is a great experience at the Black Lion Hotel where the menu includes proper English pub grub.  Don't forget to try the local gin from the fountains of Walsingham (my absolute favorite), called Archangel Gin, made at a nearby farm (we like to buy local).  Leave time for window shopping in Walsingham.  Not to be missed also is the Church of Our Lady of the Annunciation near the King's Lynn train station (on London Road), built in 1897.  This is where the Holy House was rebuilt for pilgrims, and a Catholic church was built for royal guests who were Catholic to attend Mass while visiting the royal residence at Sandrignham Estate). 

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