Donald Hole, England’s Nazareth, 1939

  CHAPTER VII FRESH DISCOVERIES pp 66-80 EVER since the opening of the new buildings in 1931 the need had been kept in mind for a considerable extension of the outer Chapel in order to provide accommodation for the increasing number of pilgrims. On the Fifth Anniversary of the Translation (October 15th, 1936) an anonymous gift of £4,578 4s. Od., made it possible to put this long-contemplated scheme into being, and the work was begun early in the following year.    It was while the ground was being prepared for new extension, that the wonderful discovery was made which has been alluded to in a former chapter.    The foundations were unearthed of a narrow rectangular building with turrets at each corner and a central porch, † a plan of which, drawn to scale, is here given. The following details are derived from an official account, drawn up by Fr. Hope Patten on behalf of the College of Guardians.*    The total interior length is 56 ft. 3 in., divided into two parts. The first or main portion is 48 ft. long by 18 ft. 8 in. wide, and the second section at the east end 8 ft. 3 ins., by 18 ft. 8 ins. These two parts were evidently separated by a wall 3 feet thick of which less than a yard remains.    All the walls at the east-end are wider than those of the main building, being 2 feet 7 inches to 1 foot 8 inches.    At the angles of the 48 foot section are the remains of four small turrets; the eastern pair are rather larger than those at the west-end.    The east-end section is bounded on the north and south by the eastern turrets, but its north wall extends 4 feet 3 inches beyond the turret on that side, while to the south of it are the remains of what seem to be a well enclosed within walls. This suggests that the east-end is a later addition.    Upon the assumption that these foundations are those of a small church or chapel, two suggestions have been put forward as to the purpose of the eastern section; one is that it was the Sanctuary, and that it was   ------------------------------ * An Account of some Recent Discoveries at the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, Norfolk. † see p 75. ------------------------------ separated from the nave by a narrow arch in its western wall; and the other opinion is that it possibly formed a Sacristy or treasury.    A little to the west of the centre of the north wall are the remains of what seems to be the footings of a porch. Unfortunately the corresponding entrance in the south, if there was one, could not be uncovered owing to the presence of the Shrine chapel built in 1931. On the inside of the west wall about a yard of plaster remains on the flint work, and about two feet of the same work was uncovered on the outside of the north wall. Upon the soil between the walls was a thin layer of black wood and twigs about two feet away from the north wall and covering the centre of the space for about 23 or 24 feet east and west.    Mr. Arthur E. Henderson, F.S.A., R.B.A., F.R.I.B.A., suggested that this wood had been used as a raft to carry some other and smaller building of wood The probability was that the wooden house was built upon a few large stones, as barns and haystacks are in Wiltshire and elsewhere. As a matter of fact one very large rounded flint was found approximately at the point where the angle of such a wooden Chapel might have been placed.    That the wood had been discoloured by the action of damp, has been verified by the South Kensington Museum, and as a matter of fact water is to be found almost everywhere on this site, about 18 inches below the level of the “raft.”  There were also some nieces of burnt wood, possibly rafters.    Outside the west wall, 10 feet from the south-west “turret” we uncovered a solid mass of flintwork, 6 feet by 5 feet, with a socket in the centre; this is clearly the base of a cross.      Round the interior of the foundations the remains of quite a number of tiles were uncovered, more or less in situ, lying close to the walls, at one place at the west end on their original bed of cement. There were several ½ in. thick and very brittle, of a grey brown colour showing traces of red and yellow. There were broken ones with a dark green glaze on the top side, others dark brown (1⅛  in. thick), others mottled brown and green (1¼ in. thick) and others bright yellow. An interesting point worthy of note is that these tiles correspond almost exactly to the description given in the report of similar finds made on the floor of the Franciscan Friary in Walsingham, uncovered in 1932.    Within, also, was an iron ring and fittings and two keys which, according to the South Kensington Museum, “so far as can be judged in its corroded state appears to be of the 15th or possibly 16th cen-tury date.”   The question at once arises:  Are these foundations those of the original Shrine?    The only two sources of information now available for determining the position and measurements of the ancient Shrine are :--  (1) The Itinerary of William Botnor, commonly known as William of Worcester, written about 1479.  (2) The “Colloquy” of Erasmus, contained in his “Pilgrimage of Pure Devotion,” describing a visit paid to Walsingham by that writer in 1511.      From William of Worcester we learn that Richeldis’s little Santa Casa was built of wood, a fact which we might have already deduced from the mention of “carpenters” in the Pepysian Ballad. It measured 23 feet 6 inches by 12 feet 10 inches, and was enclosed in an outer building or chapel which he calls a “novum opus,” implying that it was of recent construction or had been newly repaired at the time of his visit. The measurements of this outer building he gives as follows—Longitudo novo operis de Walsingham continet in toto 16 virgas; latitudo continet infra aream 10 virgas. A virga is equivalent to a yard (36 inches) so that the above measurements would be 48 feet by 30 feet. But what does he mean by infra aream?    Mr. Lee-Warner identifies this “novum opus” with the chapel or transept which he found adjoining the north wall of the Priory Church, at the east-end of which he found “a platform of solid grouted masonry, which measures from east to west 20 feet and from north to south 40 feet.” But he, too, is puzzled by the expression infra aream. “Authority” he says, “seems wanting for the use of the word ara, as equivalent to altare, or a mere slip of the pen would account for the ambiguity. But the area (whatever it was) seems to have been identical with the platform of solid masonry which forms the eastern end of the  ‘novum opus.’ The expression ‘infra aream’ may imply that it was elevated; but why William of Worcester excluded it from the internal measurement of the chapel of which it formed the most honourable part, is not apparent.”    It is rather difficult to follow Mr. Lee-Warner's argument. He identifies the north transept, or “Lady Chapel” as he calls it, with the Novum Opus of William of Worcester, and he tells us that the dimensions correspond so exactly that there can be no doubt as to their identity. But he does not give the measurements of the “Lady Chapel,” he only tells us that at the east end of it, there is a platform of solid masonry measuring 20 feet from east to west and 40 feet from north to south. From this it follows that the interior of the “Lady Chapel” must measure 40 feet from north to south, and presumably 50 or 60 feet from east to west, as is indeed suggested by his plan, presuming that it is drawn to scale. But the “Novum Opus” measured 48 feet by 30 feet. How then, can it be identical with a building measuring 60 feet by 40 feet?    The measurements of the foundations discovered in 1937 correspond much better. The interior measurements (excluding the Sanctuary or Treasury between the western turrets) are 48 feet by 18 feet 6 inches. The length corresponds exactly; the width is 111 feet short. But we are still at a loss to account for the phrase infra areas. Fr. Hope Patten suggests that it may indicate an exterior measurement, as if for some reason William of Worcester had been able to measure the length of the chapel from the inside, and it is certainly a remarkable coincidence that the distance from the north angle of the north-west turret to the south angle of the south-west turret measures exactly 32 feet.    But in any case it is difficult to rely upon the accuracy of William of Worcester's measurements. He does not appear to have used any measuring instrument, but simply to have paced the distances, and according to his own account the length of his paces seems to have varied. Thus in one place in his Itinerary he says :— “Twenty-four of my steps make twelve yards (virgae),” while in another place he says “Fifty yards make eighty- five of my steps,” which shows a variation of 3 inches. It has been pointed out that according to William of Worcester's pacings the cloisters of the Priory were 108 feet square, whereas Lee-Warner's measurements shows them to have 99 feet by 96 feet.  We can only say that nothing conclusive as to the position of the “Novum Opus” can be deduced from William of Worcester.    top of page We now come to the evidence of Erasmus.    He describes a visit to Walsingham in the form of a colloquy or conversation between two fictitious characters, Menedemus and Ogygius, the former a somewhat sceptical and cynical enquirer, the latter a simple-minded pilgrim rather too ready to believe all he is told. It is thought that both of these characters represent Erasmus himself, the first, as he was at the time of writing—the second as he had been at a more devout and religious period of his life. Thus Ogygius describes the Priory Church: The Church is graceful and elegant; but the Virgin does not occupy it; she cedes it, out of defference to her Son. She has her own Church, that she may be upon her Son's right hand. Menedemus. On his right hand? To which point then looks her Son? Ogygius. Well thought of. When he looks to the west, he has his Mother on his right hand. When he turns to the sun-rising she is on his left. Yet she does not even occupy this; for the building is unfinished, and it is a place exposed on all sides, with open doors and windows, and near at hand is the Ocean, the father of the winds. Menedemus. It is hard. Where then does the Virgin dwell? Ogygius. Within the Church which I have called unfinished, is a small Chapel, made of wainscot, and admitting the devotees on each side by a narrow little door.    When Erasmus speaks of the place where “the Virgin dwells” he is of course alluding to the famous Image of Our Lady. When he speaks of the place occupied " by her Son," he is alluding to the Blessed Sacrament. This was normally kept in a hanging Pyx over the High Altar of the Priory Church, though, at the time of Erasmus's visit, it may have been exposed in a monstrance, as he says “The Eucharist shone somewhat brighter.” His meaning, however, is quite plain;—looking west from the High Altar of the Priory Church, the building which enshrined the Image of Our Lady would be on the right hand, i.e., on the north; looking east, it would be on the left hand.    It seems impossible to reconcile these statements with Lee-Warner's theory that the Shrine was situated in a kind of north transept of the Priory Church itself. In that case it would have been more natural to describe it as lying in front of the High Altar, looking west; and behind it, looking east. To say that it lay to the right of the High Altar implies that it was some little distance away. Erasmus clearly speaks of three distinct buildings :   1. The Priory Church, which is “graceful and elegant.” 2. “Her own Church.” 3. “A small Chapel” which is within her own Church.      There has been a constant tradition that the Shrine stood apart, on the north side of the Priory Church in the cemetery of the canons. It is recorded in connection with Edward II's visit to Walsingham on February 1st, 1325-6, that “the King made an offering at the High Altar to the Image of the Blessed Virgin in a small chapel situated in the burying ground.” (Hist. C. Norfolk, p 71). top of page      There is no record of when the covering building—Our Lady's “Own Church” was erected over Richeldis’s Santa Casa. William of Worcester, as we have seen, speaks of it as novum opus (new work) in 1479. Whether this means " new " in comparison with the much older Santa Casa which it enclosed, or new in the sense of having only recently been built, is uncertain. Erasmus speaks of it as still unfinished, or undergoing re- construction some 30 years later, in 1512, for he speaks of it as being open to the winds on all sides, while King Henry VIII (on the evidence of his Exchequer Books) made grants for the glazing of the windows in 1512 and 1513.    All this appears quite consistent with identifying the novum opus with the foundations discovered in 1937, but not in the least consistent with Lee-Warner's theory as the north transept of the Priory Church.    A further argument is adduced by Fr. Hope Patten from the remarkable similarity in the plan of the walls uncovered in 1937 to the building depicted on the reverse of the seal of the Priory of Walsingham. “Experts,” he says “have told us not to put too much credence in this, as the buildings depicted upon the seals of the medieval period were generally quite conventional, but Mr. Henderson was asked what sort of place he would reconstruct, if it were possible upon the foundations. His reply was at once ‘a rectangular building with four small turrets one at each angle, with a porch in the centre of the north wall and a wooden tower in the centre.’ He was then shown a print of the 12th or 13th century seal which he had not seen before. Later he wrote, ‘I consider that the reproduction of the seal which was shown to me by the Vicar, is a very good memory rendering in the medieval manner. Probably the seal cutter was supplied with a rough sketch, and this is his translation of it.’”    The fact that this “Lady Chapel” is depicted on the 13th century seal of the Priory shows that it must have been built long before William of Worcester's visit in 1479, and that it could only have been a novum opus in the sense of being under repair or re-construction at that time.    Another remarkable and suggestive fact about the newly-discovered foundations, is that they are exactly parallel to the Priory Church. " In March, 1938, a compass bearing was taken along the foundations from west to east, and gave a reading of 121°. On the same day a bearing taken through the centre line of the Priory Church from west to east read 121°. In other words, both foundations are orientated 18° twenty minutes south of true east, which is a little to the east of east-south-east." This peculiarity could be accounted for on the supposition that both the Church and the novum opus conformed to the orientation of the Santa Casa of Richeldis in its original position.    Once more.  Upon the supposition that the 1937 foundations are those of Our Lady's Chapel, some light is thrown by Erasmus upon the enclosed space at the eastern end, measuring 18 feet 8 inches by 8 feet [page 77] 3 inches. He tells us that “the Canon in charge of the Shrine exhibited the golden and silver statues (presented by various pilgrims). ‘This one,’ says he, ‘is entirely of gold; this is silver gilt.’  He added the weight of each, its value and the name of the donor . . .  he drew forth from the Altar itself a world of admirable things the individual articles of which, if I were to proceed to describe, this day would not suffice for the relation.” (Pilgrimage to Saint Mary of Walsingham and Saint Thomas of Canterbury, p. 42). “This,” continues Fr. Hope Patten, “seems to imply the existence of a larger space than an ordinary Altar would have beneath it, and a small treasury would explain this reference.”   Two arguments have been adduced against the claim that the foundations uncovered in 1937 represent the original site : (1) They are too far away from the " twin wells," which are stated in the old Ballad to have been only 200 feet away. (2) They are so far to the north that they must be altogether beyond the ancient boundaries of the Priory.   To this it is replied :    (1). The Ballad says “two hundred feet or more" which allows a somewhat vague margin. It does not profess to record any accurately-ascertained measurements, but merely current tradition written down 400 years after the event. In any case it tells equally against the authenticity of Lee-Warner's alleged site, which Harrod tells us was 300 feet distant from the wells in question. The distance of the 1937 foundations from the wells is only slightly greater.”  If a compass point is placed within the supposed site of St. Laurence's chapel at the wells, the radius of the circle cuts both sets of foundations, so that the honours are easy on that point.”      There is another ancient tradition to the effect that Our Lady indicated to Richeldis the site on which she wished her house to be placed by the appearance of a spring of water which suddenly gushed up from the ground. This may possibly be identified with the holy well within the present shrine and only a few yards to the south of the recently-discovered foundations. But it is impossible to reconcile with the statement of the Pepysian Ballad that the House was miraculously moved “two hundred feet and more”  from where Richeldis had placed it. This second tradition is supported by the fact that there is reason to believe that the “twin wells” in the Priory grounds are fed from the wall in the Shrine by an artificially-constructed conduit, in which case they must be of a more recent date, though they certainly existed when Erasmus visited Walsingham as he testifies to the fact that “the water is very colde and medycynable for the hede ake and that hart-burninge.”  “Thay saye," he adds, “that the fountayne dyd sprynge owte of the erthe at the commaundement of Our Lady.”  This may apply either to the “couple of pittes bothe full of water to the brynkes,” or to the original fountain near the Shrine from which they were fed. The fact is that the argument from the wells is too inconclusive to be of any use.      (2) With regard to the objection that the 1937 foundations are too far to the north to be within the old Priory grounds, lying as they do, on the other side of the Norwich road, the answer is that we do not exactly know the ancient boundaries of the Priory grounds, but there is reason to believe that they extended a good deal further to the north than they do at present.      “What we are sure about is that ‘Gylberte de Clare, Erle of Glowceter and Hertford, patron of the said place and he gaffe therto viii acres 1 rod of land in Magna Walsingham and the ground without the west-gate which is now called the common place.’  (From the Middle English preces of the Cartulary of Walsingham).     “The Common Place is still bounded on the east, the side which abutted upon the Chapel Yard of Our Lady, by medieval houses, and the only place where the westgate could have stood is where the road which divides the present Shrine from the ‘Abbey’ grounds enters the Common Place. Moreover there is an ancient wall behind these houses which is broken by the road.      “In 1935 foundations of a wide wall were uncovered to the north of the foundations of 1937 running from an angle of the barn, now used as the Pilgrims' Refectory, right across the Hospice garden to an angle near the ‘Calvary,’ where it abuts upon another wall running in a direct line to the south.    “Lee-Warner says in reference to his foundations, quitting the building by the Northern doorway we find ourselves in the separate yard of Our Lady's Chapel, and might have left the precincts of the Abbey, either by the west gate opening upon the Common Place or by the Ostiolium perpusilium of Erasmus, the memory of which is preserved in Knight Street.    “The site of the Knight's Gate is still unknown but we can be fairly certain of the whereabouts of the west gate of the Cemetery or Chapel Yard. It is quite reasonable to assume that this way into the precincts was open by day and was used as a way to the Shrine and out to the Norwich road by Knight's Gate on the north. At the Dissolution this way had become such a recognized path that it was either claimed by or given to the town ' and so became a public road."*    In conclusion we may say, that, although lacking absolute proof, the probability of the 1937 foundations being those of the old Lady Chapel or Novum Opus of William of Worcester, is so great that it may be taken as established.   --------------------------------  * An Account of some recent Discoveries, p. 7. ------------------------------- top of page return to Archaeology page

Donald Hole