“When England comes back to Walsingham, Our Lady will come back to England”


Universe Column for September 7th 2003

By David Alton

Walsingham is the perfect venue for the Youth 2000 summer festival. Having just been voted the nation’s favourite spiritual location here were a group of people who understand the real significance of the place and who know that in Walsingham can be found all the clues you need for the journey of life.

With their tents pitched in the fields alongside the national shrine, the youthful modern pilgrims enjoyed a long weekend of prayer, talks, and music. Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and the Sacrament of Reconciliation are a central part of Youth 2000’s charism – and the personal commitment, depth and love of their faith of the young people and families taking part is extremely impressive. This year their speakers included Cardinal Murphy O’Connor and Bishop Konstant.

I was particularly struck by the continuity represented by these young people – as the torch of faith is handed from this generation to theirs.

Here they were, pitched in some Norfolk fields, next to the Slipper Chapel where for hundreds of years pilgrims would leave their footwear and walk the last holy mile into the little town of Walsingham . Their pilgrimages were often acts of penance as they sought to be shriven and healed in the broken parts of their lives. Hundreds of years may have passed but the same needs are present today. Very different in appearance from the medieval pilgrims and singing songs unrecognisable to the Augustinian canons who cared for the abbey in Walsingham, yet these young Catholics are part of a long and faithful tradition.

English Catholics have been coming to this spot since about the twelfth century when the Lady Richeldis built a Holy House in honour of the Virgin Mary and the Holy Family. In a vision she had been shown the little house in Nazareth where the Annunciation had taken place and in her vision she was invited to build a home like it in Walsingham. The pilgrims who subsequently came included kings and queens and the lowliest of their subjects. Robert the Bruce came seeking a cure for his leprosy, Erasmus was here, so, ironically, was Henry VIII.

Henry’s confrontation with Pope Clement VII over his right to divorce led, of course, to the destruction of Walsingham. In 1538 Thomas Cromwell’s armed gangs destroyed the shrine and lay waste the religious houses. George Gisborough and a group of eleven Norfolk men led the Walsingham Rebellion – and were hanged, drawn, beheaded and quartered. The sub-prior of the Abbey was burnt alive on Walsingham’ Martyrs Hill. For more than 300 years Walsingham remained a silent ruin.

In 1894, thanks to a Catholic convert, Charlotte Boyd, the Slipper Chapel returned to Catholic hands and gradually pilgrimage was renewed. Youth 2000 can reflect that in 1938 Cardinal Hinsley led a gigantic pilgrimage of Catholic Youth to coincide with the fourth centenary of the desecration of the shrine; and that they are part of this tradition and one that stretches back to Saxon and Norman times.

Throughout the dark years, Catholics held in their hearts the old saying that “When England returns to Walsingham, Our Lady will come back to England .” Every time that young Catholics pitch their tents in Walsingham, and deepen and strengthen their faith, that day draws nearer.