Os grid reference TF9360 3678. Walsingham the famous English ‘Marian’ shrine and pilgrimage centre in north Norfolk is actually made up of two villages, Little and Great Walsingham, some 5 miles north of Fakenham and 20 miles east of King’s Lynn on the A148. In the grounds of the Augustinian priory ruins at Little Walsingham just south of Holt road, founded in 1153, 1162 or 1169? by Geoffrey de Favarches, are two holy wells that were dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary (Our Lady of Walsingham), but today these have, sadly, become wishing wells. Geoffrey de Favarches, son of Richeldis who had visions of the Virgin Mary in 1061, having visited the Holy Land had vowed to build a religious house on his land at Walsingham when he returned to England. He did not go back on his vow. Geoffrey was also associated with endowing Castle Acre priory in Norfolk, which had been founded earlier in c.1090 by William de Warenne, Earl of Suffolk.
The two healing wells are located just a short distance to the east of the turreted monastic archway, all that remains of the priory church (east side gable end), now a rather forlorn looking ruin standing all alone, but which in earlier times was a very grand religious house that had strong links to the shrine of Our Lady (which had stood at the north side of the priory church) and the healing wells. There are other ruins here, notably the west end of the refrectory, dating from around 1300, and other ruins including gatehouse and frater. To add to the religious buildings, a Franciscan friary was established in 1347, as a hospice for poor travellers, under the patronage of Elizabeth de Burgh, Countess of Clare, despite much opposition from the Augustinian canons of the priory who thought this would be a distraction for pilgrims coming to their house. Walsingham priory was dissolved in 1538 even though King Henry VIII had himself earlier visited the ‘Catholic’ shrine and left a candle burning there! – the friary was abandoned at the Dissolution in the same year, although some ruined walls from that building are still visible including guest-house and church, but today these stand on private land.
It was here in 1061 that the lady of the manor of Little Walsingham, Richeldis de Favarches, who had earlier been married to a Norman lord, had at least three visions, one of the Virgin Mary on her own who instructed her to build a replica of the holy house (Santa Casa) at Nazareth, one of St Mary with baby Jesus and another of St Joseph. This was done and a chapel and wooden shrine were established two years later. During the middle ages Walsingham became something of a place of pilgrimage and, this even more so in later centuries when kings, queens, the nobility and also the poor and disabled came to the Slipper Chapel, at Houghton St Giles, on what was the best known of the pilgrim routes to complete the 1 mile journey to the Roman Catholic shrine itself without shoes (barefooted). The Slipper Chapel fell in to ruin in 1538, but was restored by the local Catholic community in the 1890s; and later in 1914 it became the National Catholic Shrine to Our Lady – to where thousands of pilgrims come every year from all over the world. The Slipper Chapel houses a very lovely statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary and baby Jesus.
During the 14th and 15th centuries Walsingham had become known as ‘little Nazareth’ and even the ‘English Holy Land’- such was the fame of the place at this time in history. In 1931 an Anglican shrine was established near the priory ruins and a well was discovered where the foundations were to be built – this well was rather ‘curiously’ found to be connected up to the two healing wells, and so it too has curative properties. Today it is a renowned place of pilgrimage for Anglo-Catholics, Roman Catholics and, the Orthodox Churches, both in this country, and in Europe. According to the author David Pepin in his book Discovering Shrines And Holy Places, “For many twentieth-century pilgrims the annual pilgrimage to Walsingham is a highlight of the Christian year”. And it still is in the 21st century.
The two circular healing wells, with a larger square-shaped pool between them began to flow “again” at the instigation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, having been dried up for some considerable time; they were almost certainly pre-Christian, pagan springs. Our Lady instructed the saintly and, wealthy widow, Richeldis, to build a shrine and chapel that would represent the holy house at Nazareth; from which time the water in the two stone basins, close-by, became ‘effacious with healing qualities’ that would miraculously cure such ailments as: stomach problems and headaches etc. There also existed a chapel of St Lawrence at or beside the healing wells, but this has long since vanished. The small Romanesque entrance with a round-headed doorway and nice carvings was re-erected here in the 19th century but it originally stood eleswhere as part of the priory buildings. The two wells are covered with decorative iron lids and the larger bathing pool is often covered over. Also at one time a worshippers stone stood between the wells to allow pilgrims to sit and perform their usual water rituals.
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