Tuesday, 28 July 2015


Part of the ruins of the refectory wall, Walsingham Abbey, Norfolk

Shakespeare  as ever so succinct, so evocative, captured  scenes like this when he wrote of the:

"Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang"  (Sonnet 73).

It is a striking thought that Shakespeare, whose parents had lived through the Reformation,   was already seeing ruins, only one generation from the dissolution of the monasteries.  Time did not dissolve these walls, they were deliberately hacked down and the roofs torn off to hasten internal decay.

Another poem, again from the sixteenth century, is attributed to Philip, Earl of Arundel (1557 - 1595). 

"Bitter, bitter oh to behould
     The grasse to growe
Where the walls of Walsingham
     So stately did shewe.

Such were the works of Walsingham
     Where she did stand
Such are the wrackes as noe do shewe
     Of that holy land.

Levell levell with the ground
     The towres doe lye
Which with their golden, glittering tops
     Pearsed once to the sky."

Philip Howard, Earl of Arundel was the son, grandson and great-grandson of men attainted for treason.  His great-grandfather, the third Duke of Norfolk, escaped death, (the fate of the other two) only because Henry VIII died in the night as the Duke was awaiting execution the next morning. The latter then spent the whole of the reign of King Edward VI imprisoned in the Tower of London, to be released on the accession of the Catholic Queen Mary.

Philip, a Catholic martyr, was also attainted for treason, and spent six years in the Tower awaiting execution, primarily for his Catholic faith.  He died of either malnutrition, dysentery or poisoning, (reports vary) in 1595 and was canonised by Pope Paul VI on 25th October 1970.

Walsingham had for centuries been a major centre for pilgrimage in England.  Every medieval king is said to have visited. 

Henry VIII walked barefoot from the slipper chapel and offered a necklace of great value immediately after the birth of his first son, Prince Henry, on New Year's Day, 1511, and made two payments in the same year to the royal glazier for work in the Lady Chapel.  Tragically, the baby died soon after, on 22nd February at barely seven weeks old.

Katherine of Aragon, his first Queen, wrote to Henry on 16th September 1513, after victory over the Scots at the Battle of Flodden, that she would now go on pilgrimage to Walsingham, and was recorded as being present there on 23rd September. 

The Abbey at Walsingham was destroyed by Henry VIII along with every other great religious house in England during the late 1530's, by which time much water had passed under the bridges of Henry's youthful idealism.

Walsingham has revived in the last hundred years as a place of pilgrimage.  There is both an Anglican and a Catholic shrine. 

When I visited on 7th July, the Union of Catholic Mothers was on pilgrimage at Walsingham. I was impressed.  These ladies, many of them advanced in years, processed from the Slipper Chapel
to enter through the great monastery gate and hear a mass under the former eastern window, the last remaining stones of the former abbey church.
As a mere tourist I was humbled by their dedication, and wondered whether I should consider becoming a Catholic myself.  Then I remembered that my mother (who died in 1987, and is a very distant figure to me now) had been brought up as a Catholic, although she never spoke about it to me.  My brother, who undertook extensive research in family history, unearthed the details. 
Perhaps it is not only the shape of a nose or the colour of hair which runs in families. 

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