Strange pilgrims

H and I went to Walsingham a couple of weeks ago. I found it fascinating as a theological voyeur. The whole place turns on a series of fictions.

These began in the 11th century, when a Norman lady claimed to have a vision of the Virgin Mary – ever after known as Our Lady of Walsingham – and endowed a priory as a result. The truth is that at the time, there were no viable sites for humble Brits to go on pilgrimage (and weren’t until a troublesome priest in Canterbury was despatched). It was simply a marketing exercise by the church – which clearly worked brilliantly until Henry VIII sent Cromwell’s Dissolving Formula across the country.

Next stop is 1896, when a Catholic woman, Charlotte Boyd, bought the ruined 14th century Slipper Chapel and restored it, and suggested a pilgrimage to visit Our Lady (OLW) in her new home.

Jump now to the 1920s and 30s, when Anglican vicar Alfred Hope Patten secured land to build an *Anglican* shrine. It’s an extraordinary place – typical 1930s architecture, and beautifully done, though also startlingly mawkish.

While building it, they found a mediaeval well, which has since been used (along with rumours of healing properties) to bolster the sacred credibility of the site.

I suppose I’d be hard pressed to say what I would regard as an *unconstructed* site for pilgrimage, but Walsingham doesn’t even have some bones. Now legions of rotund sexagenarians travel from far and wide, all in fealty to an 11th century illusion.