The village of Walsingham is alive and well; the Abbey itself was largely destroyed in 1538 during the English Reformation and became a private house.
The memory of our “Lady of Walsingham” demands longer pause before the beautiful ruins of the priory at that place. It is difficult to account for the reputation obtained by this monastery. In 1061, a lady, the widow of Richoldis de Favarches, erected a small chapel in honour of the Virgin Mary, in imitation of the Sancta Casa at Nazareth; and to this chapel, the lady’s son added a Priory for Augustine canons, and built a church. In these facts there does not appear to be anything at all unusual or remarkable; not the less, however, did the shrine of our Lady, erected in the chapel, become the most popular place of resort, without exception, that Old England contained. Even Thomas à Becket’s shrine at Canterbury seems to have been hardly so much visited. Foreigners came hither from all parts world, guided, they fancied, by the light of the milky way, which the monks of Walsingham persuaded the people—so Erasmus says—was a miraculous indication of the way to their monastery.
Many kings and queens were among the pilgrims: above all, let us not forget to mention, for the sake of the strange contrast the incident presents to the subsequent acts of the same man, Henry the Eighth came hither in the second year of his reign, and walked barefoot from the village of Basham.
Not many years after, the image of our Lady was burnt at Chelsea, to the horror of the Roman Catholic world; and who should direct the act, but that same quondam [i.e. former] worshipper and royal pilgrim to Walsingham, King Henry.
Prior to the dissolution of the monastery, Erasmus visited it. The chapel, he says, then rebuilding, was distinct from the church, and contained a smaller chapel of wood, with a little narrow door on each side, where strangers were admitted to perform their devotions, and deposit their offerings; that it was lighted up with wax torches, and that the glitter of gold, silver, and jewels would lead you to suppose it to bo the seat of the gods. A Saxon arch, forming part of the original chapel, still exists; and there also remain extensive portions of the church and monastery, among which may be especially mentioned, on account of its exceeding beauty, the lofty arch, sixty feet high, which formed the east end of the church, and two wells called the Wishing wells, from which whoever drank of the waters obtained, under certain restrictions, whatever they might wish for: at least so many a devotee was told and believed.
Most of the convent ruins are now included in the beautiful pleasure grounds of a modern residence Walsingham Abbey. (Fig. 703.) (p. 186)