Christopher Howse: Nazareth near Sandringham

1 05 2011

From the Daily Telegraph:

The man who rebuilt Westminster Abbey as we saw it on television yesterday, Henry III, had devotion to three places of pilgrimage: the shrine of St Edward the Confessor, whose coffin he helped carry in 1269 to its new resting place behind the high altar at Westminster; the tomb of St Thomas Becket at Canterbury; and the Holy House at Walsingham.

King Henry made a pilgrimage to Walsingham, in north Norfolk, not so far from Sandringham, at least 11 times during his long reign of 56 years. Walsingham, which is celebrating its 950th anniversary, is today the most ruinous of his three favoured destinations, yet it attracts large numbers of visitors. Each year, about 300,000 pilgrims visit the Anglican shrine, re-established in 1931, while 100,000 go to the Catholic shrine. This includes some 6,000 Tamils in July alone, half of whom are Hindu.

There is an uncomfortable feeling among the Christians at there being two separate shrines, yet the fact remains that the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church are not the same thing. It is notable that the personal ordinariate (the official association for Anglicans who wish to retain corporately some of their religious patrimony after becoming Roman Catholics) is dedicated to Our Lady of Walsingham.

It is fair to say that the flavour of Walsingham’s Anglican Shrine is very High Church. At the national pilgrimage at the end of May, Mass will be conducted outdoors, followed by a procession with an image of the Virgin Mary, and benediction.

What is the notion behind the shrine at Walsingham? It is not focused on the Virgin Mary so much as on the Incarnation of Christ. This is seen through an unusual optic: the Holy House built as a replica of the house at Nazareth, where the angel announced to Mary that she was to be the mother of Jesus.

The house at Nazareth that was reputed to have been this very spot survived into the late 13th century. A pious legend has it that the house was then transported by angels to Loreto, on Italy’s Adriatic coast. But Father Michael Rear in his new book Walsingham, Pilgrims and Pilgrimage (St Pauls Publishing, £19.99) favours the explanation that it was not angels but the Angeli family, related to Byzantine emperors, who transported the stones of the old house to be reassembled at Loreto.

The Holy House at Walsingham, by contrast, never claimed to be built from the stones of Nazareth. Indeed the reputed founder, Lady Richeldis, a noble widow, was instructed in a dream in 1061 to build a house of wood according to specified dimensions. The year 1061 puts the foundation in the reign of Henry III’s hero Edward the Confessor. Some would date it to the 1130s. In any case, it was intended to be a setting for devotion to God Incarnate.

Walsingham became one of England’s most popular pilgrim destinations. Pilgrims would wear badges – depicting the Annunciation, for example – to show that they had accomplished their end. Then, in 1538, the priory at Walsingham was suppressed, the shrine broken up and the precious offerings (such as the gold crown given by Henry III) carted away. By an irony, the appearance of the statue of the Virgin Mary and Child at the shrine is known only from the seal of the priory attached to the deed of surrender to Henry VIII.

The image is of the “Seat of Wisdom” type. The Virgin Mary is depicted on a throne with the Child on her knee. Jesus embodies Wisdom as described in the biblical book of Proverbs: “I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning before ever the world was.”

The curtains depicted on the priory seal are taken to refer to the veil of the Temple, hiding the Ark of the Covenant, originally holding the tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments. These words of God have as their counterpart the Word of God in St John’s Gospel: the Word made flesh.


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