In the half-century since the publication of the 1961 excavations, many new scientific techniques have been developed. If
undertaken today, the results would be more illuminating and perhaps modified in some way compared with those in the
1968 publication by the Royal Archaeological Institute.
This is no flight of fancy. Recently the world famous mask of
Pharaoh Tut ankh Amun underwent a re-evaluation. Nearer to home additional information has been added to the Sutton
Hoo Burial site, Suffolk, and the warrior’s mask given a completely different appearance from that initially accepted by the
So what is written here is all we can presently offer. There could be minor adjustments or a significant re-
interpretation in the future assuming that all site evidences were not destroyed by previous investigations.
The major historical documentary evidence is too well attested to be re-examined, though I had come independently to the
conclusions of Hedley Hope-Nicholson,
with this additional comment: Earl Harold Godwineson (later King Harold II, killed
at Senlac, Hastings in 1066) became Earl of East Anglia in 1041.
He and his father were overlords of the area. The
Domesday tenant at Walsingham noted by Hope-Nicholson, the freeman Kettel, was a younger brother of the variously
named Wolkitele, Wolcild or Aelfketel.
Both inherited the property from their mother, Wolfgyth whose detailed will dated
is listed in P.H. Sawyer as ‘Sawyer 1535’.
Lee Warner 1853
Limited but vital archaeological investigations began in 1853. Volume XIII (1856) of The Archaeological Journal printed a
lecture given by Canon James Lee Warner at Cambridge University in 1854 outlining his discoveries. It is difficult to believe,
but before his work the site of the Chapel and Holy House had long been forgotten, and only the standing portions of the
monastery were known from visual evidence on the ground and engravings. He set out to discover the actual site of the
Shrine; something of the surrounding Chapel’s appearance and precise details of the conventual buildings under the lawns.
He wrote up his discoveries on the extensive rebuilding of the church and additions to the cloister, dormitory and western
tower. Finally he noted what turned out to be the entrance into the Shrine Chapel from the north aisle of the church and
beyond that the plan, though inaccurate, of the Chapel and Shrine. His lecture was in two parts, the second section being
the culmination of his hopes. Using documentary evidence, especially the relationship between the Common Place and the
Yard of Our Lady’s Chapel,
he had carried out test excavations near the north wall of the Priory church and several
associated areas towards the ‘Knight’s Gate’. He had also consulted the work of William of Worcester alias Botoner, then in
Corpus Christi College, Cambridge who made an Itinerary or pilgrimage to Walsingham in 1479/80. William’s idiosyncratic
measurements of the Priory buildings had confirmed to Lee Warner the accuracy of his own work. He now began the search
for the Lady Chapel. Ultimately he claimed to have exposed the C15th ‘novum opus’ as William of Worcester called it, which
enclosed the shrine and the base of the shrine itself despite the area being under a shrubbery where only a series of small
pits could be opened. Again the measurements given by William of Worcester and slightly later descriptions in 1511 and
1514 by Erasmus encouraged him to write, ‘Not a shadow of a doubt can exist as to their identity’. He then spoke
confidently of a wooden shrine standing on a raised platform in the centre of the Chapel floor and entered from the main
church’s north aisle through a special doorway by climbing up three steps. He envisaged pilgrims streaming through, then
leaving by a parallel north door perhaps with a sheltering canopy over it after which they found themselves in the separate
‘yard of Our Lady’s Chapel’. From there they could return to the Common Place by an as yet undiscovered Gate. He also
postulated a West porch on a grander scale, tiled red and yellow. Among the many stone fragments were parts of two
different angels each bearing sections of engraved scrolls: ‘Ave Maria Gratia Plena’. He thought that this chapel’s external
design was similar to the north transept’s. Of long-term significance is the old seal he produced showing on one side the
Norman cruciform church and on the reverse the Virgin and child used for later representations.
Within four years Mr Henry Harrod FSA, one of Canon Lee Warner’s co-workers and the secretary of the Norfolk
Archaeological Society disputed certain aspects of his assessment. Harrod thought for example that Erasmus’ description of
the Chapel as ‘perflabilis’ meant ‘isolated’ thus standing apart from other buildings, which did not tally with the recent
excavations. ‘Draughty’ is now the usually accepted translation. The Chapel had no glazed windows before Henry VIII paid
for them in the early years of his reign.
Lee Warner doubted some of his own conclusions too. So the scene was set early
for disputes and confusion. Visitors to the Anglican site and its earlier refectory will recall a diagram you could examine
while standing in the queue based on Fr A Hope Patten’s 1931-38 excavations. It showed the site where the Anglican
Shrine stands with footings of earlier buildings which he claimed were foundations of the original shrine chapel. This has
long since been set aside in favour of the idea that it may have been the site of a pilgrim inn or the Old Almonry.
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Rainbird Clarke, H Bond 1955
From time to time archaeologists took advantage of chance circumstances to investigate small sectors in and near the
Priory site. Fresh evidence came to light when Walsingham Rural District Council installed main drainage in the summer of
1955. A long trench starting from a point between the Anglican shrine and the river bridge and then running along the
eastern side of the grounds, cut across the line of the earlier Norwich Road and pierced the northern precinct wall near a
small entrance gate. Mr Rainbird Clarke, curator of the Norwich Castle Museum, called in to inspect, saw that the
foundations of the medieval entrance known as ‘Knight’s Gate’ lay immediately under the modern one. This was the site of
the well-known legend of Sir Raaf Boutetort (1314) recorded by the Norfolk Antiquarian Francis Blomefield
in the various modern guidebooks. Sir Raaf had sought sanctuary from his enemies but only a miracle enabled him to gain
access through this low, narrow wicket (about 3' high and 2' wide), as he was mounted and fully armed.
One moment he
was outside; he prayed for help to the Virgin Mary and the next moment he found himself safely within the precincts. On
his first visit in 1511, Erasmus saw a copper plate fixed on the gateway reciting this tale.
The 1955 excavation report by H Bond brings to the reader’s attention the nearby close of land called ‘Brooker’s Dock’ and
mention of the surname de Bruecurt corrupted he thought into Boutetort. The Bruec(o)urt family features at Bynham in
1108 and a land grant in Walsingham itself between 1146 and 1174 by Robert de Brucurt. Dock or Docknum is a small
corner field. William de Breucourt alias Favercourt according to Blomefeld was dispossessed of his Norfolk lands when he
rebelled against King John. The date he gives means this was over the loss of Normandy in 1204. John made vassals
choose between Norman or English property. The lordly Clare family was the recipient of de Breucourt’s confiscated lands.
Following the line of the new sewer, the edge of the original Priory enclosure may have been found, and the East End of the
church. Further on by analogy with the set plan of other priories lay the south edge of the Infirmary and the ‘Garden called
Jubilee’ made in c.1394. The papal Jubilee year was 1389. A case in point here is that contemporary techniques can
identify plants that once grew in gardens by pollen and soil analysis. In 1955 there was only evidence from dried material
that the canons planted vines on this south-facing wall. Fishbourne Roman Palace’s formal garden set out by the early
1970s and Kenilworth Castle’s Elizabethan Garden (2006-08) are examples of newer applications.
The Report also used extensively topographical evidence, documents and maps from c.1387 to 1906 to build up a picture of
the northern part of Little Walsingham, refuting the suggestions made in 1931 that the Anglican Shrine occupied the site of
the medieval one. Bond identified this site as ‘Powerscroft’ believing the building fragments were those of an inn or the old
and the well within the Anglican Shrine to be ‘Cabbokeswell’.
Charles Green, A B Whittingham 1961
The 900th anniversary in 1961 of the traditional date for the creation of the Holy House, gave impetus to a re-evaluation of
the entire site. Charles Green, a leading East Anglian archaeologist, became its Director, assisted by S.C Vincent on loan
from the Ministry of Works (its permission was needed to reopen parts of the site), with A B Whittingham as Surveyor of
Works, and with most labour undertaken by volunteers. The period of time allowed for all this work was short: only 3
weeks from 2 August followed by a final and extra week in September. The owner of the Abbey was sparing in the area of
garden he allowed the excavators to reopen and inspect.
Green undertook an examination of the above ground building fragments to the west and east of the Abbey church and the
site of the Chapel and Holy House. Whittingham investigated the monastery’s domestic buildings to the south of the church
and concentrated on previous field plans and notes made in the 1850s. His exhaustive survey of remains incorporated into
the Abbey House was reminiscent of that more recently undertaken by Dr Richard Morris at Stoneleigh Abbey, Warwickshire
and published in 2004. Green and Whittingham working together analysed and dated many newly found moulded stone
Chronology of the Priory Buildings
Henry Harrod had published ground plans in 1857 and 58, showing an Augustinian Priory built on traditional lines. The
magnificent priory church in its final phase was 244ft long and 62ft wide with a 30ft square central tower. The associated
buildings were constantly in a state of flux with renovations, additions and elaboration. Green targeted excavations to
prove the truth of Harrod’s outlines and obtain fresh evidence. The Augustinian canons had first come to England in 1105.
A Charter associated with Geoffrey de Faverches had established a group of them in Little Walsingham in 1153: Prior, sub-
prior and 20 canons. By this date Green discerned there had been a chancel with a wide aisle, and extending two bays east
by the C13th. Westwards was an incomplete Norman style church, smaller than the C14th one, with narrower aisles and of
only six bays. Its transept was to the west of the later one. This was probably the case as late as 1232-34 when Henry III
made gifts of 40 giant oaks for the church roof, a further 20 for the prior’s lodgings and perhaps the guesthouse. By
reference to the accounts, this first phase was probably completed by 1280.
The growing popularity of Walsingham pilgrimages led to amassing sufficient money for an almost complete rebuilding of
the complex on a larger scale during the C14th. There may have been additions eastwards in the C15th too. Starting with
the first phase in the period 1300-1320, the nave, extended west by one bay, now allowed for a western tower; the aisles
were widened by about a foot while distinctive styles of window-tracery point to a new Refectory and Cloister of similar
By the mid C14th changes were afoot at the east end of the church. Two bequests may have helped from Elizabeth de
Burgh who died in 1360 and Sir Thomas Uvedale c.1367. He specified new work in the Choir. An interpretation of the
surviving structures suggests the High Altar at the far east end with its reredos between doors leading to a vaulted passage
carried across the window sill. The canons’ stalls were east of the crossing. The great east window by analogy dates from
c.1385. John Yarmouth, sub prior, arranged for the church roof to be painted and the Jubilee Garden enclosed. Only the
central tower needed completion with a great bell added in the first third of C15th. The West Tower may never have been
finished. A later northern chapel off the Choir may have held the Cheney altar (1493).
Where the Cloister joined the transept space was so cramped because of redesigned features that a novel entrance was
made. The lower steps of the night stairs were set back elegantly into the treasury. They emerged in the cloister not the
church. In the 1330s the east range, Prior’s ‘Camera’ and Chamber above were rebuilt with private latrines and drains. The
Camera was of high calibre construction and of the most modern design for the time. A circular staircase off which were
the latrines, led to an upper chamber. Embedded within the Abbey House is the mid C15th Prior’s Hall and beyond it,
postulated by Lee Warner (1856) and Harrod (1857) was a solar over a buttery, a classical C15th design. This suite of
rooms including the upper chamber was suitable for distinguished or royal guests. An alternative entrance/exit to these
rooms, it was suggested, lay by way of a long corridor or slype, but the site of the Abbey House makes a decisive
reconstruction impossible. A two-story house shown on a drawing could be royal servants’ quarters.
Suggestions about the buildings’ appearance using scenes shown on C18th and 19th engravings add to an image of
sophisticated features. The 1955 excavation included uncovering part of a possible, separate guest-house and/or additions
to the infirmary such as an infirmarer’s camera next to the Garden called Jubilee. A 1720 print shows an upper floor behind
the slype. This may be the site of William Lynne’s Library c.1440. Lee Warner found here signs of a vaulted chamber at one
architecturally with the Refectory pulpit. If so this was an almost novel concept. The Lector could collect his books from the
library bringing them downstairs at meal times. This flight of stairs also allowed the Prior access from his own private
rooms on the first floor to the Refectory. The main entrance to the library was by climbing the day stairs, then through the
dormitory. Two squints look towards different chapels: probably from the prior’s camera towards his private chapel and
secondly towards the holy wells and the chapel of St Laurence. There is little archaeological comment on the two sacred
springs that stand above the south bank of the River Stiffkey within the Priory grounds and some 200ft from the original
Holy House. Their healing waters were said to cure stomach complaints according to a Book of Hours belonging to the last
Priors. Geologically there must be a strata or band of rock from which water emerges readily. A recent academic book on
the history of East-Anglian monasteries c.650-1200 suggests the existence of an early community in the vicinity.
some evidence that chapels dedicated to St Laurence in the later C12th may formerly have been consecrated to Edmund,
the revered East Anglian saint.
Prior Wells (1402-36) rebuilt the west range creating an Outer Parlour further south. This was another two-storey building:
the Guest Hall, at first floor level. The kitchen centrally placed served the Refectory, Prior’s Hall and infirmary. Further west
lay an Inner Courtyard clustered around which was an extensive series of out offices, stores, brewhouse, bakery and other
buildings. The external entrance to this complex was through a Gate near ‘Le Horne’ with a gate jamb still to be seen. The
surviving Gatehouse of c 1400 with its porter’s lodge led into the Outer Court. The range of buildings south of this entrance
housed the stables and New Almonry. A lost ‘Gate’ opened onto Common Place and finally there was the postern: Knight’s
Gate. The Priory Barns lay to the south of the river and a water mill stood opposite the parish church.
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The Shrine Chapel
One important objective of this 1961 ‘dig’ was to clarify details of the Chapel and Marian Shrine within; and establish
accurate dating. The end results on dating were disappointing. Green wrote, ‘The record evidence . . . seems to point to a
date fairly early in C12th’, but with nothing conclusive because ‘it was a very disturbed site.’ This was less the activities of
Lee Warner and more the fact that from C18th the area had been a shrubbery and garden with laid gravel paths. He came
to the conclusion about the site as a whole that all the previous plans including one as late as 1956 by J C Dickinson had
some faults. However by combining the earlier even 1850s work with the up-to-date results a more accurate and reasoned
outcome had been reached.
The excavators examined the C14th Priory church’s widened north aisle, revealing it once had red and grey floor tiles and a
set of three steps leading up into the Shrine Chapel through an archway. This Chapel almost touched the main building, but
was distinct from it and slightly offset. It ‘differed by four degrees of arc from the axis of the church’.
Green believed the
poor alignment was very significant. Nothing could be allowed that might alter this ancient wooden Shrine’s original
position. Here stood the very Shrine set up by ‘Richelde de Fervaques in c 1130-31’ wrote Richard Marks who suggested it
might have resembled the wooden church at Greenstead, Essex.
The new Chapel walls blotted out all light in the north
aisle of the church. The rectangular ‘novum opus’ measured between 46' 6" and 48' 6" east to west depending on where
one took measurements and 30'` north to south and the Shrine 23' 6" x 12' 10" so corresponding very nearly with those
paced out by William of Worcester. Only the footings remained but enough to produce an exact picture of the building.
Green took the phrase ‘infra aream’ to mean the floor at a lower level below a heavy superstructure or platform on which
was a base to hold the slot-beam for a wooden room: the sacred shrine or Holy House itself. Only sherds of Purbeck
marble now remained on the Shrine floor whereas Lee Warner found complete, unbroken tiles. Green postulated an
ambulatory at a higher level. The pilgrims would parade around the outer sector, might then mount the stairs to the higher
level where after 1513 they could admire the brightly coloured stained glass.
How can we date this ‘novum opus’? It has a
terminus post quem
of 1479/80, when William of Worcester made his visit.
Artistic features can help fix the earliest date. The excavation revealed parts of window mullions similar to those in Norwich
cathedral dated c.1436. Fragments of highly individual carved leaf designs also surviving at Woolpit Church, Suffolk, itself
then a site of Marian devotion with a sacred well, point to a master mason known to be working from 1439 to 1451. There
were two later additions: an elaborate C16th west porch floored in glazed yellow tiles and an annexe to the east of the
Shrine whose purpose could not be established. Within it were several burials.
There were 30 interments in the Chapel, many being disarticulated skeletons. Calvin Wells made a generalised report on
them, considering them of little value historically. He compiled a detailed Report on one particular skeleton found buried in
the Shrine itself. This was possibly the remains of Sir Bartholomew Burghersh, a noble who died 5 April 1369, step grand
son-in-law of the Lady Elizabeth de Burgh, patron of the Priory, owner of Little Walsingham, founder of the Friary and heir
of the Clare Barony.
Current scientific analysis would have revealed far more including his geographical area of origin,
probably more on his pathology and could even have included facial reconstruction. We learn this was a powerfully built
man about 5' 10" tall with a narrow patrician face and strong brows. He died in the age range 45-60 according to the
Report though proven biographical details give a more likely age of 50. There was evidence of a possible military career
with a well-developed right arm musculature, some minor traumas, repetitive strain injury and a degree of osteoarthritis.
His teeth showed exposure to a tough grain diet commensurate with an army camp existence. This would fall in line with
what we know about De Burghersh from documentary sources. He fought from 1339 in the early stages of the Hundred
Years’ war at Crecy (1346) and Poitiers (1356) and was one of the Black Prince’s retinue. He was a Knight of the Garter and
a pilgrim to the Holy Land. His mother Elizabeth de Verdon was born by c.1308.
The few ‘finds’ were nondescript and added nothing to a dating sequence.
© Doreen M K Agutter 2011
Charles Green and A B Whittingham in
Journal of the Royal Archaeological Institute
Green and Whittingham in
Charles Green, the Director at Walsingham in 1961, had been in charge of the Sutton Hoo excavations in mid 50s. A
Survey of his work was published 1983.
Friends of Walsingham Occasional Paper
XII, March 1961.
Harold II: the Doomed King
. p 121.
Kathryn A Lowe of Clare College, Cambridge, discusses it fully with extensive references and translations in an article: see
Notes and Queries
P H Sawyer,
Anglo-Saxon Charters: an annotated list and biography
article by Canon J Lee Warner in
XIII, 1856, p 118.
. Archaeological Journal XIII p 126.
British Library Seal LXIX.32, dated to C13th.
Exchequer accounts June 1511: glazing £20.0.0; Nov 1512 £23.11.4 by Barnard Flower the King’s [Henry VIII] glazier.
H Bond, ‘Walsingham Topography’ in
, Volume 31 part 3, 1955 (published 1957), pp 363,4.
An Essay towards a Topographical History of the County of Norfolk
, volume 9, 1808.
The medieval destrier was in fact very small like a Shetland pony. A man lying on his horse like a modern jockey and
without stirrups might with precision lent by fear have dashed through this aperture.
. pp 362-65 ‘Walsingham Topography’- map and diagrams.
Green & Whittingham,
Journal of the Royal Archaeological Institute
Landscapes of Monastic Foundations: the establishment of Religious Houses in East Anglia
(Boydell Press, 2004).
. p 269.
Dr Richard Marks,
Image and Devotion in late medieval England
(Sutton Publishing 2003), p 196.
. pp 193-97.
For her Good Estate. The life of Elizabeth de Burgh
(St Martin’s Press, New York, 1999).
She was the second of three daughters of Theobald de Verdon whose wife Margery died in 1312.
Archaeology at Walsingham Priory 1853-1961
Doreen M K Agutter, 2011
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