Houses of Austin canons: The priory of Walsingham

A History of the County of Norfolk: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1906.

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'Houses of Austin canons: The priory of Walsingham', in A History of the County of Norfolk: Volume 2, ed. William Page( London, 1906), British History Online [accessed 21 July 2024].

'Houses of Austin canons: The priory of Walsingham', in A History of the County of Norfolk: Volume 2. Edited by William Page( London, 1906), British History Online, accessed July 21, 2024,

"Houses of Austin canons: The priory of Walsingham". A History of the County of Norfolk: Volume 2. Ed. William Page(London, 1906), , British History Online. Web. 21 July 2024.

In this section


An anonymous ballad from the press of Richard Pynson, circa 1460, of which there is a unique copy in Pepys Library, relative to Our Lady of Walsingham, thus opens:—

Of thys Chappel see here the foundatyon

Builded the yere of Christ's incarnatyon

A thousand complete sixty and one,

The tyme of Saint Edwarde, Kinge of this region. (fn. 1)

It proceeds to relate how the noble widow Lady Rychold de Faverches was favoured by the Virgin with a view of the Santa Casa at Nazareth, and commissioned to build its counterpart at Walsingham. Eventually

Our blessed Laydie with blessed minystrys,

Herself being here chief Artificer

Arrered thys sayde house with Angells handys,

And not only rered it but sette it there it is.

That the chapel was founded in the time of Edward the Confessor is also confirmed by Leland. (fn. 2) The earliest deeds in the chartulary of Walsingham Priory name Richeldis, the mother of Geoffrey de Favraches, as the founder of the chapel; but the term founding in this case refers to the re-establishment or re-building of the chapel by that lady after the Conquest.

About the year 1169, (fn. 3) in the episcopate of William Turbus, Geoffrey de Favraches, on the day he set out for a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, granted to God and St. Mary and to Edwy his clerk the chapel of Our Lady which his mother had founded at Walsingham with all its appurtenances, together with the church of All Saints, Little Walsingham, to the intent that Edwy should found a priory. Shortly afterwards these gifts, with slight additions, were confirmed to the Austin Canons of Walsingham by Robert de Brucurt and Roger, earl of Clare. (fn. 4)

It is clear that the chapel of Our Lady of Walsingham was of no small repute ere the priory was established, for it was very unusual in the twelfth century to find a mere chapel in the possession of lands, tithes, and rents. The chapel was enclosed within the priory precincts, and from its earliest establishment a continuous stream of pilgrims found their way to this sanctuary. The offerings speedily enriched the priory, and though fluctuating much at different periods, produced a considerable income for the four centuries of its existence. Roger Ascham, when visiting Cologne in 1550, remarked: 'The Three Kings be not so rich, I believe, as was the Lady of Walsingham.'

Among kingly pilgrims may be named Henry III (1241), Edward I (1280 and 1296), and Edward II (1315). Edward III, in 1361, granted £9 towards the expenses of John duke of Brittany, for his expenses in this pilgrimage, and licence of absence from London, to his nephew, the Duke of Anjou (one of the French hostages) for a like reason. The same king, in 1364, gave safe conduct to King David of Scotland and twenty knights to make pilgrimage to Walsingham. (fn. 5)

But it was not merely offerings in money that made the priory prosperous; gifts of lands, rents, and churches were bestowed on the canons soon after its foundation. A confirmation charter of Henry III in 1255, confirmed the substantial benefactions of eight different donors, (fn. 6) and Edward I, when at Walsingham in 1281, confirmed to the priory the churches of St. Peter, Great Walsingham, St. Clement, and St. Andrew, Burnham, St. Andrew, Bedingham, Tymelthorp, and Owelton. (fn. 7)

The taxation of 1291 shows that the priory had then possessions in eighty-six different Norfolk parishes, and that its annual income from such sources was £79 2s. 6¾d.

Clement V, in 1306, sanctioned the appropriation by the priory of the church of St. Peter, Great Walsingham, value £10, of their patronage; the church was to be served by one of their canons. (fn. 8) Royal sanction to the appropriation of the church of St. Peter, Great Walsingham, was not granted until 1314. (fn. 9) On 5 May, 1309, at the instance of Queen Isabella, licence was granted to the priory of Walsingham for the acquisition in mortmain of lands and rents to the yearly value of £40. This instrument was vacated on 9 May, 9 Richard II, because the priory had by then acquired lands and tenements to that amount. (fn. 10)

In May 1385, the priory paid the king the heavy fine of £100 to secure the alienation to them in mortmain of considerable lands and manors in Norfolk, including the manors of Great and Little Ryburgh, of the value of £40 yearly, to find four chaplains, canons or secular, to celebrate daily in the newly-built chapel of St. Anne within the said priory for the good estate of Joan, widow of Thomas de Felton, knight, and for her soul after death, and for the souls of the said Thomas, Thomas his son, and others, and to find a light to burn daily therein at high mass. (fn. 11)

Prior Thomas and his convent obtained licence in mortmain, in 1465, for the acquisition of lands, tenements, and rents, in relief of their 'poor possessions,' to the value of £40, that they may pray for the good estate of the king and queen and for their souls after death. (fn. 12)

About 1345, the prior and canons of Walsingham petitioned Elizabeth, lady of Clare, beseeching her to abandon her intention of permitting the Franciscan friars to have a house in either Great or Little Walsingham. They advanced various reasons against the coming of the friars; but they were all of them of a purely selfish character, and did not touch on the higher grounds of education and of a faithful ministering to the poor, which were no doubt the actuating motives of this noble lady in her new foundation. The petitioners stated that they foresaw that certain tithes would lapse and that their income derived from mortuary masses and offerings at burials, churching of women, confession and other occasions would certainly diminish. The most interesting objection was that wherein they stated that for the security of the valuable jewels that had been presented to their shrine by Lady Elizabeth and her ancestors and others, the gates of the priory were always closed at night; that the pilgrims who arrived late were accustomed to make their offerings the next morning; and that this would probably not be the case if they were entertained by the friars. (fn. 13) It is satisfactory to know that the petition failed.

In 1346, John de Watlington, canon of Walsingham, obtained an indult to choose a confessor for plenary remission at the hour of death. (fn. 14) Benedict de Bodham, another canon of this house, had the dignity of papal chaplain conferred on him in 1350, (fn. 15) and in the same year Canon Benedict and Thomas de Clare, prior of Walsingham, obtained the papal indult for plenary remission at the hour of death. (fn. 16) James de Wighten and Richard Brutiham, canons of Walsingham, obtaining the like privilege in 1352. (fn. 17) Pope Urban, in 1364, granted a faculty to Prior Thomas to dispense four of his canons provided they had completed their twenty-second year, to be ordained priests, there being but few, owing to the pestilence. (fn. 18)

On March, 1384, the custody of the priory was given by the king to the sub-prior, acting on behalf of his kinsman Roger, son and heir of the late earl of March, a minor, in consequence of contention between the sub-prior and John Snoryng, prior, the latter being wasteful of its revenues in his desire to secure the position of abbot. This step was taken on the advice of a commission, presided over by Michael de la Pole, the chancellor, appointed to inquire into the dispute. (fn. 19)

One of the charges against Prior Snoryng was that he had interfered with the weekly market at Walsingham, placing divers windows and doors in the priory wall on the site where it was held. The letters patent, however, of 1 March, giving the custody of the priory to the sub-prior, were speedily cancelled, for on 9 March the prior was allowed to resume his rule, but only upon finding three recognizances of 1,000 marks each, pledging him to keep the priory and all its lands and manors without waste or alienation until the next Parliament, and further pledging him not to go or send to the Roman Court. (fn. 20)

Further financial irregularities on the part of Prior Snoryng resulted in his suspension and eventual removal from the office in 1387—8 by the commissaries of the bishop of Norwich, against which sentence he appealed to Rome. The king took the priory and its possessions into his own hands, appointing a commission, at the head of which was the abbot of Holm, for its due administration. Licence was granted to Snoryng in 1389 to pass beyond the seas, to defend his right before the Holy See. In June 1391, a further licence was granted by the crown to Snoryng to prosecute to a conclusion in the Roman court his long pending suit, Sir Thomas Geney, and three citizens and mercers of London giving bail, each in 1,000 marks, that he would not during his stay attempt aught against the king's regality or the laws and customs of the realm. (fn. 21)

Conditional absolution was granted by Boniface IX, in May 1398, from excommunication of Prior John Harford and the convent of Walsingham, together with relaxation of their interdict, and the annulment of formal papal letters and proceedings. Thomas Fornesete, canon of this house, having set forth to the pope that for certain reasons he had formerly, without leave of his superior, thrown off his habit, broken iron chains and prison and left his order, the pope ordered the archbishop of Canterbury and the bishops of Norwich and Ely to carry out, with regard to him, Pope Benedict's ordinances as to apostates. The recent petition of the convent of Walsingham, however, set forth that the bishop of Ely, in defiance of the pope, absolved Thomas and ordered restoration to his canonry and prebend, as well as payment of his costs in going and returning to Rome. They further stated that on their refusing to receive Thomas, the commissary of the bishop of Norwich excommunicated the convent and put the priory under interdict, from which sentence they appealed to Rome, adding that Thomas had suppressed the truth. (fn. 22)

The episcopal visitations at the end of the fifteenth and beginning of the sixteenth centuries prove that the priory of Walsingham, corrupted probably by the wealth that pilgrims poured into its lap, was the most disorderly and demoralized religious house of the diocese. (fn. 23)

Bishop Goldwell held a personal visitation of the priory on 1 September, 1494, when John Farewell was prior. The prior and sixteen canons attended the visitation. Matters were evidently in an unsatisfactory state, but no one dared to speak of aught save trivial complaints, and the record expressly says that the prior was afraid to say all that he knew. The bishop deferred his injunctions, and soon after Prior Farewell resigned and accepted the rectory of Ryburgh.

Twenty years elapsed before there is record of another visitation. During that period the wealth of the priory had materially increased, chiefly owing to the royal example of Henry VII and Henry VIII, which made pilgrimages to Walsingham fashionable among the nobility and courtiers. The number of the canons nearly doubled, and disorder increased in a like ratio. The visitation of Bishop Nicke on 14 July, 1514. revealed a sad state of affairs. The prior and thirty-one canons were severally examined. The inquiry proved that the prior was leading a scandalous life; that he went by night into the chapel of Our Lady to abtract treasure; that he kept an aged fool; that he treated the canons with insolence and brutality, and had deliberately warned them in chapter before the visitation that those who revealed anything to the bishop should suffer for it. His evil example had corrupted the canons, many of whom broke bounds, frequented taverns, and were constantly quarrelling, whilst some had even broken into the prior's cellar, stolen his wine and sat up at night drinking. No wonder that the servants were insolent and the boys rebellious. The bishop at once issued certain strict injunctions, and associated the prior of West Acre with Prior William Lowth making the latter swear to receive none of the goods or possessions of the house without the knowledge of the coadjutor prior. The visitation was then prorogued until 15 March.

On 30 August of the same year, further regulations for reformation of discipline were promulgated in the chapter-house by Dr. Thomas Hare and four other commissaries of the bishop. These chiefly related to the strict wardenship of the chapel of Our Lady, ordering that the warden do pay over all money received into the treasury every Saturday, and at the same time go through the inventory of the jewels. Prior William Lowth was compelled to resign, and Richard Vowell was appointed in his place. It is anything but creditable to the bishop and others concerned that the evil-lived Lowth was permitted to become prior of West Acre.

On the vacancy occurring, the prior took the opportunity of obtaining the cancelling of the congè d'èlire that had been wrongfully issued by Henry VII, on 15 September, 1503, for the election of Prior Lowth; evidence being produced that the convent had always elected a prior without licence from the Earls of March, their founders, or from any of the king's predecessors. (fn. 24)

The bishop at last issued new statutes for the rule of the priory, but Prior Vowell was unable to obtain their acceptance by a majority of the convent, and the attempt led to much dissension. On 13 July, 1520, the priory was visited by the suffragan bishop of Chalcedon. The sub-prior Edmund Warham, who had held that office for many years, and two of the canons gave loyal support to the prior, but six of the canons told the visitor to his face that they declined to have anything to do with the new statutes, whilst eight others were in other ways refractory. The scandals, however, seem to have abated; the prior and sub-prior merely complained of disobedience. The suffragan and his fellow commissioners called upon the seven worst offenders to submit themselves and ask pardon, which they seem to have done. As penance, they were required for the next seven days to take the lowest places in quire; on the next Wednesday to fast on bread and beer; and on the same day, after the Lady Mass, to kneel before the high altar and say five Our Fathers.

The visitation of August 1526, seems to show that Prior Vowell had by that time purged his house of disorder and disobedience; but there were complaints that no scholars were sent to the university, and that the younger brethren had no one to instruct them in grammar.

The last visitation was held on 9 August, 1532, when Prior Vowell produced his accounts and inventory. The aged Sub-Prior Edmund Warham testified omnia bene, and so did John Clenchewarton the cellarer, Nicholas Mileham the treasurer, Simon Orry the sacrist, John Harlow the chanter, Richard Garret the warden of the chapel of Our Lady, and the rest of the twenty-three canons, save one, who were present. The one complainant was Canon William Race, who alleged that two of his fellow canons were irregular at mattins, and that there was some shortness of food. It is pleasant to find that at the last visitation of this once disorderly house nothing was found worthy of reformation. (fn. 25)

Mention has already been made of some of the earlier royal visitors to the shrine of Walsingham, and its fame did not wane with the progress of time. An anxious affectionate letter of Margaret Paston to her husband John Paston, when he lay ill at the Inner Temple, dated 28 September, 1443, tells the sufferer how her mother had vowed an image of wax of his own weight to Our Lady of Walsingham and that she herself had vowed to undertake a pilgrimage to that shrine for his sake. (fn. 26) The Paston Letters also tell of Henry VI's visit to Walsingham in 1455; of the intention of Edward IV and his queen, if her health permitted, to undertake the pilgrimage in 1469; of the Duke and Duchess of Norfolk going there on foot from Framlingham in 1471, and of the Duke of Buckingham undertaking the same in 1478. (fn. 27)

Henry VII kept Easter, 1487 at Norwich, and from thence went in pilgrimage to Walsingham, where he visited Our Lady's church, famous for miracles, and made his prayers and vows for help and deliverance.' When the king soon afterwards gained a victory at Stoke, ' he sent his banner to be offered to Our Lady at Walsingham, where before he made his vows.' (fn. 28) The same king, by his will, ordered an image of silver-gilt to be set up in the shrine.

Henry VIII made here an offering of 6s. 8d. in 1510. On a subsequent visit, according to Sir Henry Spelman, the king walked barefoot from Barsham to the chapel of Our Lady, and offered a necklace of great value. (fn. 29) The wellknown letter of Queen Katharine of Aragon to the king, announcing the victory of Flodden (1513), concludes: 'and now go to Our Lady at Walsingham, that I promised soo long agoo to see.' (fn. 30) In April of the same year Admiral Howard wrote to Henry VIII as to Master Arthur Plantagenet, who, being in great peril of shipwreck, called upon Our Lady of Walsingham for help, and vowed that if it pleased God and her to deliver him, that he would not eat flesh or fish till he had seen her. The admiral excused him from service to enable him to fulfil his vow. (fn. 31)

In the king's book of payments there are entered, under 1509—William Halys, king's priest, singing before Our Lady at Walsingham, half a year's wages 100s.; for the king's candle there, 46s. 8d.; for 31/8 oz. of fine gold for the king's little chain, £6 6s. 8d., and making the same, 6s. 8d.; in January 1511, offering at Our Lady of Walsingham, £1 14s. 4d.; in June of the same year, part payment for glazing Our Lady's Chapel at Walsingham, £20. In November, 1512, £23 11s. 4d. was paid to Barnard Flour, for glazing Our Lady Chapel, Walsingham. In November, 1515, there are entries of 100s. as half a year's wage to Sir Richard Warde for singing before Our Lady at Walsingham, and the king's candle there again cost 46s. 8d. (fn. 32)

In September 1517, Cardinal Wolsey, when in bad health, made a pilgrimage to this shrine, to which there are various allusions in the State Papers. The cardinal was again there in 1520, and apparently as devout as any one. But the times were against these pilgrimages, and there came a change. In 1528 Wolsey, as legate, issued a decree granting to Richard Vowell, the prior of Walsingham, and his convent—in consideration that the universal devotion by which the priory was first sustained was now cooled, through the perverse reviling of some and the pestiferous preaching of others—the Austin priory of Flitcham, which had fallen into decay through neglect, and the possessions of which were adjacent to those of the former. Four resident canons were to be maintained for the due celebration of divine service. The prior in return for this grant promised to have daily mass celebrated for Wolsey, and to pay a pension of 10s. to the bishop of Norwich and his successors for episcopal consent to the scheme. (fn. 33) The 'king's candle' was still kept burning at the Walsingham shrine, 43s. 4d. being paid for its maintenance at Lady Day, 1529, together with £5 for the king's mass priest ' before Our Lady.' (fn. 34)

In her will, Katharine of Aragon, who died in January 1536, provided that some personage should go to Our Lady of Walsingham on pilgrimage, distributing twenty nobles on the way. (fn. 35)

On 18 September, 1534, Richard Vowell, the prior, Edmund Warham, the sub-prior and twenty of the canons signed their acceptance of the king's supremacy. (fn. 36)

The Valor Ecclesiasticus of 1535 returned the annual income of the priory from endowments as £391 11s. 71/8d., whilst the offerings even in 1534 amounted to £260 12s. 4½d. These offerings were threefold: those made at the chapel of Our Lady £250 1s; at the sacred milk of Our Lady 42s. 3d.; and at the chapel of St. Lawrence, £8 9s. 1½d.

It was apparently with reference to this Valor that Prior Vowell wrote to Cromwell on 24 October, 1535:—

At my latest visit to you for valuation of the oblations in Our Lady's chapel, you desired me to make suit to you again when the certificate of the commissioners was brought in, and. beg audit for Rob Towneshend, to whom I have made known my mind more fully than I can write. Without your aid our house shall never be able to bear the charges. (fn. 37)

Cromwell's visitors, Legh and Ap Rice, were here about the beginning of 1536; if the scandalous comperta are to be believed six of the Walsingham canons confessed their incontinency to these men. They noted that there was much superstition in feigned relics and miracles.

There is no formal report extant as to this house in the return of the county commissioners, but a letter of Richard Southwell's to Cromwell, dated 25 July, 1536, shows that their duties were delegated to Sir Thomas Lestrange and Mr. Hogges, who were ordered to sequestrate all money, plate, jewels, and such-like stuff found at the priory. From this remarkable letter it is clear that Southwell either believed, or affected to believe, that someone in Walsingham Priory followed some black art or made use of the philosopher's stone, whereas the discovery was probably a mere chemist's laboratory:—

Emoung other thinges the same Sir Thomas Lestrange and Mr. Hoges dyd there fynd a secrete privye place within the howse dyd ever come, as they saye, in wiche there were instrewmentes, pottes, bellowes, flyes of suche strange colors as the lick none of us had seene, with poyses and other thinges to sorte, and dewyd gould and silver, nothing there wantinge that should belonge to the arrte of multyplying. Off all wiche they desyred me by lettres to advertyse you, and also that from the Satredaye at night till the Sonday next folowinge was offred at their now beinge xxxiijs. iiijd. over and besyd waxe. Of this moultiplying it maye please you to cawse them to be examyned, and so to advertyse unto them your further pleasure. (fn. 38)

On 22 September of the same year Prior Vowell wrote to Cromwell. From this communication it is evident that there was a good deal of underhand work going on in the convent. The prior denied that either he or his chapter were privy to certain articles and letters that had been sent in their name to Cromwell, and accused, Robert Wylsey (one of the canons who had subscribed to the king's supremacy in 1534), of having forwarded them, which he partly acknowledged. It is significant that the prior concludes his letter by saying that he sends Cromwell by the bearer his 'fee' for the ensuing year. (fn. 39) A list of Cromwell's blackmail from the threatened houses for this year includes £4 from Prior Vowel. (fn. 40)

The shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham has obtained an undying fame by the visit of Erasmus, the great scholar of the Renaissance, who used his most pungent satire to expose the vanities of pilgrims and pilgrimages. When Erasmus was at Cambridge in May, 1511, he wrote to his friend Andreas Ammonius, that, in fulfilment of a vow, he was about to visit the virgin of Walsingham. and to hang up some Greek verses there. (fn. 41) These verses are given in his works as collected by Frobenius in 1540. (fn. 42) They have been thus Englished:—

'Hail! Jesu's mother, blessed evermore,

Alone of women God-bearing and virgin,

Others may offer to thee various gifts,

This man his gold, that man again his silver,

A third adorn thy shrine with precious stones;

For which some ask a guerdon of good health,

Some riches; others hope that by thy aid

They soon may bear a father's honoured name.

'Or gain the years of Pylus' reverend sage.

But the poor poet, for his well-meant song,

Bringing these verses only, all he has,

Asks in reward for his most humble gift

That greatest blessing, piety of heart,

And full remission of his many sins.' (fn. 43)

It is impossible to doubt that at this time Erasmus shared the usual opinion of the day on pilgrimages and special shrines. It was not until 1524 that Erasmus put forth his colloquy on pilgrimages, wherein he introduces an imaginary conversation as to an imaginary second visit to Walsingham. In the colloquy Erasmus supposes a meeting of two friends, Menedemus and Oxygus, the latter of whom has just returned from pilgrimages to Walsingham and other shrines, stating that the town is almost sustained by the resort of pilgrims. Oxygus describes the wonders of the place, the gold, the silver, and the precious stones offered to the image of Our Lady, the marvels worked at the holy wells, the miracle of the knight on horse-back, for whose admission the portal of the chapel stretched itself, the various relics and especially the crystal phial containing some milk of the Virgin. The Santa Casa, said to have been miraculously conveyed there centuries before, specially attracted the attention of Oxygus, who commented upon the apparent renewing of the walls, the roof beams, and the thatch. All this was admitted by the sacrist, and after his assent he was asked: 'As now no part of the old building remains, how do you prove that this was the cottage which was brought from a great distance?' whereupon the sacrist ' immediately showed us a very old bear's skin fixed to the rafters; and almost ridiculed our dulness in not having observed so manifest a proof.' The most amusing part of the satire is where the sub-prior of the house saluted Oxygus, asking him if he was not the man who on a visit some years before had hung up a votive inscription in Hebrew characters? On receiving an affirmative answer, the canon proceeded to state how laboriously they all had striven to read it, and how many spectacles had been wiped in vain. Whenever any doctor of theology or law had arrived, he was at once conducted to the inscription. Some declared it was Arabic, others that it was meaningless. At last, however, someone arrived who was able to read the title, which was in Latin. But they all finally agreed that the inscription was in Hebrew, because no one knew Greek, and anything that they did not understand they always called Hebrew.

It is singular to reflect that this part of the colloquy has several times served as a text for the ignorance of dwellers in monasteries. No one would have been more amused than Erasmus at this literal interpretation of his ironical reference to an ignorance of Greek. Every canon of the house would be bound to understand Latin, and some few would almost certainly know at least the elements of Greek. Prior Vowell, though not an estimable man, was a scholar, and was chosen just about this time to preach the Latin sermon at Leicester, when the general chapter of the English province of the Austin canons was held there.

The articles of inquiry for the guidance of the second visit of the sub-commissioners to Walsingham Priory are still extant. (fn. 44) They were to ask for inventories of all the jewels, relics, plate, and movable goods, and whether any had been alienated, sold, or pledged? What were their relics of most estimation, and what proof they had of their truth? Whether the keepers of the relics did not solicit offerings, and why they were not all in the same place? What was the greatest and most undoubted miracle done there by Our Lady, together with proof of the same? Whether Our Lady's milk be liquid, and who was sacrist about ten years ago, and whether he did not renew it ? Also—

what is the saying of the buylding of Our Ladye chappell, and of the first invencion of the image of Our Ladye there; what of the house where the bere skynne is, and of the knyght; and what of the other wonders that be here, and what proves be thereof?

No one can read that part of Erasmus' colloquy relative to Walsingham, and this long list of nineteen articles of inquiry, of about ten years later, without at once realizing that the articles were based upon the statements of the colloquy, and were drawn up by someone who was thoroughly conversant with its terms. Doubtless the English scholars of the new learning, and Cambridge generally, would be well conversant with this spirited satire of Erasmus. And yet, oddly enough, by a process of inversion, these articles have been more than once cited to prove the exact truth of all the statements in the colloquy.

The priory of Walsingham had a special hold on Norfolk, even in places far remote from the town. The concourse of pilgrims from all parts of England, as well as from over the seas, kept Our Lady of Walsingham vividly in mind. The chief road by which they travelled, which passed by Newmarket, Brandon, and Fakenham, is still called the Palmers' way. Those pilgrims who came from the north passed through Lynn, where the pilgrims' chapel, with a beautifully groined roof, yet remains; thence they passed on by the priories of Flitcham and Coxford. Another great road led from Yarmouth, through Norwich and Attleborough, past the hospital of Bec, where thirteen beds for Walsingham pilgrims were ready every night. At South Acre, West Acre, Hilborough, Prior's Thorns, Stanhoe, Caston, and other places, as well as Lynn, special chapels were provided for the wayside devotions of the zealots who were wending their way to Walsingham.

No wonder, then, that the suppression of the lesser monasteries in 1536, and the general upheaval of matters pertaining to the ancient faith of the populace, should have aroused much bitterness with regard to the threats against Walsingham. In April, 1537, depositions were taken before Sir Roger Townsend and Sir John Heydon against George Gysburgh, of Walsingham, charged with expressing regret that so many houses were dissolved where God was well served, and advocating a rising of the commons. George Gysburgh confessed to discussing with one, Ralph Rogerson, a rising against the suppression of the abbeys, believing that Walsingham would soon go. (fn. 45) On 3 May, Sir Roger Townsend and Richard; South well wrote to Cromwell as to the apprehension of the rest of the 'conspirators.' They had seized Nicholas Mileham, sub-prior of Walsingham, who by the confession of one, Watson, was privy to the proposals; they thought that the Gysburghs (father and son) and Ralph Rogers would make a larger confession if examined by Cromwell and others of- the council, for in their confession, so far, they did not touch the sub-prior, a man of lewd inclination. (fn. 46) On 20 May, Prior Vowell, the time-server, wrote an unctuous letter to Cromwell thanking him for favour shown to him and to his kinsman taken into the Lord Privy Seal's service; with the letter he sent 'a poor remembrance' as a further bribe to Cromwell. (fn. 47) Cromwell's accounts show that this poor remembrance was the big round sum of £100. (fn. 48)

The charge against these 'conspirators' was somewhat flimsily sustained, and their offence had certainly not gone beyond words, but the punishment was awful and speedy. On 24 May, 1537, a special commission sitting at Norwich Castle condemned no fewer than eleven of the accused to be drawn, hung, beheaded, and quartered for high treason. The executions took place in different parts of the county, so as to arouse more terror. On Saturday, 26 May, Ralph Rogerson and four others were executed at Norwich; on 28 May, two more were executed at Yarmouth; on Wednesday, 30 May, Sub-Prior Nicholas Mileham and George Gysburgh perished on the scaffold at Walsingham; and on 1 June the young William Gysburgh and John Pecock, a Carmelite friar, suffered at Lynn. Several others, including two clergy, were condemned to life imprisonment.

A few days after the execution of the subprior and another at Walsingham, namely on 3 June, depositions were taken before Sir Roger Townsend of certain who charged Henry Manse, the priest in charge of Our Lady's Chapel of Walsingham, with certain seditious words. The main evidence was that of one Sutton, 'a sore and diseased person,' who would persist in coming to the door of the chapel annoying the pilgrims. When Manser rebuked him at the request of the pilgrims, he retorted with froward and naughty words. Thereupon Manser requested one of the constables to put Sutton in the stocks, and when there Sutton retaliated by charging Manser with using seditious words to certain pilgrims from Lincolnshire. Apparently this evidence was considered too tainted to lead to another execution. (fn. 49)

On 31 August Sir Roger Townsend, writing to Cromwell, strongly commends Prior Vowell to his favour, saying that he had been the taker of one of the most rank traitors privy to the Walsingham conspiracy, probably referring to the sub-prior. There was then a matter at issue between the prior and the cellarer, and Townsend begged for Cromwell's support of the prior in his suits. (fn. 50)

On 14 July 1538, the obsequious Prior Vowell wrote to Cromwell, that, in accordance with his instructions, he had attended on the commissioners, who took away the image and all the gold and silver things from the chapel. As for the silver which still remained in the house, he begged that it might remain to sustain unavoidable charges in connexion with their suits for the translation of their house into a college. (fn. 51)

Richard Gresham, writing to Cromwell, on 25 July, acknowledging his letter to the effect that it was the king's pleasure to dissolve the house of Walsingham, stated that he had written about it to the prior, who, he doubted not, would raise no difficulty. (fn. 52)

On 4 August Prior Vowell duly surrendered his house and all its possessions to William Petre as royal commissioner. (fn. 53) Eight days later Vowell wrote to Cromwell, regretting that the priory had not been turned into a college, and begging for the parsonage of Walsingham, so that he might not be his grace's chaplain in name only. He pleaded his age and impotency, had heard that the king had granted him a pension of £100, and hoped to have it confirmed. (fn. 54)

An unsigned communication to Cromwell of this date throws some light upon the mean way the suppression commissioners behaved, and how ready folk were to curry favour with the Lord Privy Seal by reporting their conduct. This statement is to the effect that at the dissolution of Walsingham, a rich cope and a vestment were in the prior's chamber reserved for my Lord Privy Seal, but Mr. Southwell suddenly coming into the prior's chamber asked who it was for. Vowell replied, 'For you, if it be your pleasure,' and Southwell took it away. Cromwell has endorsed this communication, ' Touching Mr. Southwell.' (fn. 55)

Bishop Latimer wrote a jocular letter to Cromwell in June, 1538, suggesting the burning of the image of the virgin of Walsingham and others: 'they would make a joly mustere in Smythfeld.' (fn. 56) John Husee, writing to Lord Lisle, on 18 June, also attempted to be witty on the same subject:

This day our late lady of Walsingham was brought to Lambithe (Lambeth), where was both my Lord Chancellor and my Lord Privy Seal with many virtuous prelates, but there was offered neither oblation nor candle. What shall become of her is not determined. (fn. 57)

Melancthon, on 1 November of the same year, exulted in the overthrow of the image of 'Mary by the Sea.' (fn. 58)

Among the Lady Day accounts of 1538 the usual payments were made for the king's candle, and to the king's priest who sang before Our Lady at Walsingham. But when the Michaelmas payments came round the entry runs:

'For the king's candle before Our Lady of Walsingham, and to the prior there for his salary, nil.' (fn. 59)

On 20 October, 1539, the late prior received a grant of the exceedingly large pension of £100 in reward for his obsequiousness and considerable bribes to Cromwell. Fifteen of the canons at the same time received small pensions of about the usual rate, varying from £6 to £4. (fn. 60) Nine of them were living and in receipt of pensions in 1555.

Notwithstanding the destruction of the priory and its adjuncts, and the execution of its subprior, it was found impossible to eradicate at once all the belief in the minds of the common folk in the virtues of Our Lady of Walsingham. Small wonder, too, if such was the case; for the majority of the adults of the district could well remember the time when the very king who now dealt so cruelly with those who maintained their faith in it had walked many miles barefoot to the shrine, and they had seen the royal taper burning before the sacred image down to Lady Day, 1538. Sir Roger Townsend, in 1564, wrote to Cromwell, telling him of a poor woman of Wells, who imagined a false tale of a miracle done by the image of Our Lady after it had been carried away to London. Sir Roger examined her, and as a result caused the poor old thing on a wintry market day in January to be set in the stocks very early in the morning. At nine o'clock, when the market was fullest of people, she was placed in a cart, with a paper set about her head on which was written 'A reporter of false tales,' and carried about the market place and other streets, tarrying wherever there was a crowd, 'young peoples and boyes of the town castyng snowballes at her.' Then the aged woman was again set in the stocks and kept there till the market closed. It is a sign of the times to find this worthy county justice and tool of Cromwell's concluding thus—

Thys was her penans; for I knewe no lawe otherwyse to punyshe her butt by discretion; trustyng itt shall be a warnyng to other lyght persons in such wyse to order their self. Howebeitt, I cannot perceyve but the seyd Image is not yett out of sum of ther heddes. (fn. 61)

An Elizabethan ballad entitled 'A Lament for Walsingham,' thus concludes:—

Levell, levell with the ground The Towres doe lye,

Which with their golden glitt'ring tops Pearsed oute to the skeye.

Where weare gates noe gates are new, The waies unknown,

Where the presse of freares did passe, While her fame far was blowen.

Oules doe scrike where the sweetest himenes Lately wear songe,

Toades and serpents hold their dennes Where the palmers did throng.

Weepe, weepe, O Walsingham, Whose dayes are nightes,

Blessings turned to blasphemies, Holy deeds to dispites.

Sinne is where our Lady sate, Heaven turned is to helle;

Sathan sitte where our Lord did swaye, Walsingham, oh, farewell!

The site of the priory, with the churchyard and gardens, was granted by the crown to Thomas Sidney, master of the hospital of Little Walsingham, immediately after its dissolution, for the sum of £90. Sir Henry Spelman, in his History of Sacrilege, asserts that he was employed by the townsmen to buy the priory church and the site for the use of the town, but having obtained it he kept it for himself.

Priors of Walsingham (fn. 62)

Length of Rule Year of
Name Years Appointment
Ralph 20 1153
Richard 13 1173
Alexander 21 1186
William 47 1207
Peter 16 1254
Alan c. 1263
William 9 1270
John 20 1279
Philip 14 1299
Walter de
Wyghtone 22 1313
Simon de
Wineton 14 1335
Thomas Clare 10 1349
John Snoring 27 1359
John Harford (fn. 63) (?) 15 (?) 1387
Hugh Wells 35 1402
Thomas Hunt 37 1437
John Farewell 29 1474
William Lowth 10 1503
Richard Vowell 24 1514

Of the first seal, early thirteenth century, there is an indistinct impression attached to an undated charter, showing the priory church with central tower, &c. (fn. 64)

The second seal, late thirteenth century, is a circular seal (2¾ in.) of bold execution. Obverse: The priory church, from the south, with roundheaded doorway containing the half-length figure of an old man; two round-headed windows, each containing the bust of a saint, or canon; a crested roof; and a central tower, with two towers at each end. Legend:—


Reverse: The crowned Virgin, with nimbus, seated, has the Holy Child with nimbus, on left knee; and a fleur-de-lis sceptre in the right hand. Overhead and at the side are curtains. Legend:—



  • 1. Arch. Journ. xiii, 115.
  • 2. Leland, Collectanea, iii, 26.
  • 3. This date is arrived at from a careful study of the years of the different priors' rule, as given subsequently from the dateless chartulary list. It is highly improbable that Geoffrey, of an age to make a pilgrimage in 1169, was the son of a lady who founded the chapel an 1061; possibly he was grandson.
  • 4. Walsingham Chart. Cott. MS. Nero E. vii.
  • 5. Nichol, Pilgrimages of Erasmus (1875), lxvi, 79; Rymer, Foedera (Rec. Com.), vi, 315, 324.
  • 6. Chart. R. 39 Hen. III, m. 5.
  • 7. Ibid. 9 Edw. I, m. 75.
  • 8. Cal. Papal Reg. ii, 19.
  • 9. Cal. of Pat. 8 Edw. II, pt. 1, m. 11.
  • 10. Ibid. 2 Edw. II, pt. 2, m. 9.
  • 11. Ibid. 8 Ric. II, pt. ii, m. 15.
  • 12. Cal. of Pat. 5 Edw. IV, pt. ii, m. 4.
  • 13. Cott. MS. Nero E. vii, fol. 152. The petition is given both in French and Latin.
  • 14. Cal. Papal Reg. iii, 233.
  • 15. Ibid. 393.
  • 16. Ibid. 402.
  • 17. Ibid. 473, 505.
  • 18. Ibid. iv, 41.
  • 19. Pat. 7 Ric. II, pt. 2, mm. 21, 23d.
  • 20. Cal. of Pat. 7 Ric. II, pt. ii, m. 17.
  • 21. Pat. 12 Ric. II, pt. 2, m. 9; 13 Ric. II, pt. 1, m. 36; 13 Ric. II, pt. 2, m. 32; 14 Ric. pt. 2, m. 6.
  • 22. Cal. of Papal Reg. v, 157-8.
  • 23. See Dr. Jessopp's introduction to the Norw. Visit.
  • 24. L. and P. Hen. VIII, i, 911.
  • 25. Jessopp, Norw. Visit. (Cam. Soc.), 57, 113, 147, 170, 252, 314.
  • 26. Paston Letters (Gairdner), i, 48.
  • 27. Ibid. passim.
  • 28. Lord Bacon, Life of Henry VIII, vi, 56, 59.
  • 29. Spelman, Works, ii, 149.
  • 30. Ellis, Orig. Letters, I, i, 29.
  • 31. Cott. MS. Calig. E. ii, fol. 141.
  • 32. L. and P. Hen. VIII, ii (2), 1442, 1449, 1451, 1458, 1469.
  • 33. Ibid. iv (2), 2254.
  • 34. Ibid. v, 309.
  • 35. Cott. MS. Otho, C. x, fol. 216.
  • 36. Rymer, Foedera (Rec. Com.), xiv, 519.
  • 37. L. and P. Hen. VIII, ix, 229.
  • 38. L. and P. Hen. VIII, Cleof. E. iv, fol. 231.
  • 39. Ibid. xi, 196.
  • 40. Ibid. App. 16.
  • 41. Epistola, 114.
  • 42. Tom. v, 1109.
  • 43. Erasmus, Pilgrimages, by J. G. Nichols (ed. 1875), 102.
  • 44. Harl. MS. 791, fol. 27.
  • 45. L. and P. Hen. VIII, xii (1), 482.
  • 46. Ibid. xii (1), 521.
  • 47. Ibid. xii (1), 573.
  • 48. Ibid. xiv (2), 782.
  • 49. L. and P. Hen. VIII, xii (2), 9.
  • 50. Ibid. 223.
  • 51. Ibid. xiii (1), 510.
  • 52. Ibid. 536.
  • 53. Ibid. xiii (2), 11.
  • 54. Ibid. 32.
  • 55. Ibid. xiii (2), 506.
  • 56. Ibid. xiii (1), 437.
  • 57. Ibid. 521.
  • 58. Ibid. xiii (2), 287.
  • 59. Ibid. 529, 535, fols. 12, 39.
  • 60. Aug. Office Bks. ccxxxiii, fol. 13b.
  • 61. Ellis, Orig. Letters (ser, 3), iii, 162.
  • 62. A list of priors, drawn up at the time when Prior Lowth was compelled to resign (1514), is given in the chartulary (Cott. MS. Nero, E. vii, fol. 149b). It is without dates, but gives the length of each rule; the year of Our Lord is supplied in some instances by calculation, and in others from the episcopal registers, &c.
  • 63. A note at the end of the chartulary list states that John Harford, the fourteenth prior, bore the name and office of prior during part of the lifetime of John Snoring. A plea was made before the bishop that Harford had not received the major part of the votes of the convent; but though his election on that account was not episcopally ratified, he was accepted by the priory as their superior.
  • 64. Add. Ch. 19275.
  • 65. B.M. lxix, 31, 32; Ackn. of Supr. (P.R.O.), 112.*