O England, thou hast great cause to make glad.
Thou attainest my grace to stand on a level
To be compared to the promised land of Zion
Through this glorious Lady’s support
And to be called in every realm and region
The holy land, Our Lady’s dowry;
Thus art thou named from old antiquity.
The Pynson Ballad, Verse 19, in Modern English
Introduction: Norman Walsingham
An Orthodox visitor to the tiny village of Little Walsingham in Norfolk will discover there a shrine to the Mother of God, which clearly reflects the mentality of High Church Anglicanism, known as Anglo-Catholicism. Recreated as recently as the 1930s, after being destroyed 400 years before at the Reformation, the shrine feels artificial, contrived and even rather alien to Orthodox. The birettas and general imitation of old-fashioned Roman Catholicism by High Church Anglicans seems fake. Orthodox have no desire, or need, to imitate old-fashioned or, for that matter, new-fashioned, Roman Catholicism. On the other hand, no-one can deny that there is a genuine atmosphere of sincere piety, peace and, most significantly, great grace, within the shrine. This must be recognised, whatever the offputting externals, which we must learn to see beyond.
Yet despite this, those with a sense of history will still be put off by the official version of the story of the shrine to be found in the guidebook. This openly states that the shrine originated in 1061 when a ‘Saxon’ (sic!) noblewoman ‘Richeldis de Faverches’ (sic!) had ‘a vision’ of the Mother of God. This is clearly nonsense. ‘Saxon’ noblewomen did not exist in England in 1061, English noblewomen did. Also you will not find any English noblewomen in 1061 with the clearly French Norman name of ‘Richeldis de Faverches’! Either the vision took place in 1061, but was granted to an Englishwoman and not to ‘Richeldis de Faverches’, or else it did not take place in 1061 at all, but during the Norman Occupation following 1066. Either one or else the other. It cannot be otherwise.
After a little research it is not difficult to discover that the name Faverches (then the name of a tiny village near Lisieux in Normandy) does indeed occur in connection with Little Walsingham. A historical document known as ‘The Norfolk Roll’ refers to the foundation of a Priory of ‘Augustinian Friars’ in Little Walsingham in 1130-1131, and precisely by a widow called Richeldis de Faverches, who died in 1145. She left her estate to her son, Geoffrey de Faverches, who took part in the Second Crusade, setting out in 1147. And one of the sponsors of that Crusade was the then Bishop of Lisieux.
Does this simply mean that the date 1061 is nonsense and the whole story belongs to twelfth-century Norman Roman Catholicism, to 1131? Where does the 1061 date come from? This is important for Orthodox. Although after the half-Norman Edward ‘the Confessor’, who promoted the new Roman Catholic religion, became King of England in 1042, a spiritual decline occurred in England, nevertheless until 1066, England was still in communion with the rest of the Orthodox Church. Thus, a vision of the Mother of God in 1061 has a meaning for Orthodox. Supposing the 1061 date is correct and, quite simply, it was someone else, an Englishwoman, who had a vision of the Mother of God? Clearly, we have to examine the origin of this 1061 date.
The 1061 date comes from one particular source, that of the respected Norman-born royal printer and poet Richard Pynson (c. 1449 – c. 1529). Pynson was employed by the Tudor kings Henry VIII and before him Henry VII (reigned 1485-1509). The latter made a three-day pilgrimage to Walsingham in 1487, after which he commissioned Pynson to write a Ballad about its history. Pynson’s Ballad was written at the very latest in 1494, when it was printed, but its lost sources presumably go back centuries before and include ancient oral traditions.
It surely cannot be some invention, as it mentions specifically 1061 and no other date. Indeed, the Ballad specifically states that the vision at the origin of the shrine occurred in the reign of ‘Edward the King’ (= the Confessor), that means before 1066. Moreover, the 1061 date was later confirmed by the very reliable antiquarian, royal archivist and poet John Leland (1503-1552). And the date is also confirmed by an earlier 14th century manuscript of the Book of Hours in the University Library in Cambridge (Ms. 1i. Vi. 2.Fo. 71r). This too maintains that the chapel in Walsingham was founded in 1061.
Writing in 15th century English, reminiscent of Chaucer, Pynson names the seer as a mysterious ‘Rychold’, the then Lady of the Manor. Now, according to the Domesday Book, the Lord of the Manor of Walsingham in 1061 was none other than Harold Godwinson (or Godwineson), King of England from 6 January 1066, and the Lady of the Manor was his wife Edith. This manor had come to Harold precisely by his marriage to Edith on 23 January 1045 when he was Earl of East Anglia, as recorded by the Little Domesday of Norfolk, compiled in 1088. Edith (c. 1020 – c. 1086) is given several names in the Domesday Book, among them precisely ‘Rychold’, meaning ‘Rich’ or ‘Fair’, and more poetically ‘the Gentle Swan’ (Another title, the ‘Swan-Neck’, comes from the Old English ‘swann hnecca’, probably a corrupted form of swann hnesce, ‘Gentle Swan’). Edith is recorded in the Domesday Book as Edfgifu the Rich, her name latinised as ‘Edeva’.
Edith had inherited Walsingham from her mother Wulfgyth, daughter of the King of England, Ethelred the Unready (+ 1012) and half-sister of King Edward the Confessor. Although Edith’s mother Wulfgyth, also called Wulfhilda, had married Ulfkytel the Brave, who died in battle in October 1016, Edith was almost certainly her daughter by her second husband, Thorkell the Tall, advisor to King Canute (Knut) and Earl of East Anglia until 1021.
Very much a Patroness of East Anglia, the Anglo-Danish Edith was rich and held a great many properties in East Anglia, notably in Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and Essex, as well as in Hertfordshire, Buckinghamshire, notably in Chesham, and dwellings in Canterbury, as is recorded by The Domesday Book. Her brothers owned property in Norfolk, specifically in Great and Little Walsingham. In 1045 Edith married Harold (c. 1022-1066), son of Godwin (also spelled Godwine) of Sussex. Harold had become Earl of East Anglia and inherited the East Anglian lands of Edith. Only in 1053, on his father’s death, did he inherit the title of Earl of Wessex. In turn he became King of England on 6 January 1066 on Edward the Confessor’s death.
As a devout noblewoman Edith had received an education and was recorded by the Abbot of ‘Eastholm’ as ‘keen and wise in her understanding’. One of the richest noblewomen in England, she employed a personal goldsmith, called Grimwald. She donated a valuable Gospel to the Monastery at Thorney in Cambridgeshire and was the benefactress of St Benet’s Monastery at Holme in Norfolk in 1046. Both she and her pious husband Harold were spiritual children of the saintly pastor Bishop Wulfstan of Worcester (c. 1008-1095). He was the only English bishop who was allowed to retain his Diocese by the Norman invaders, though he greatly regretted the Norman rebuilding of Cathedrals which favoured quantity (size) over quality (prayer).
Like King Canute (c. 990 – 1035), Edith and Harold were married in the customary way of the age in England by solemn promise, typical of the time all over Northern Europe. This was known as a ‘hand-fast marriage’. A number of dowry bequests were made at the time of Edith’s union to Harold, including Walsingham Manor, making Edith ‘the Lady of the Manor’ before 1061. They had six known children, Godwin (named in honour of Harold’s father), Edmund, Magnus, Gytha (named after Edith’s grandmother), Gunnhild and Ulf (the last four with Danish names; any East Anglian even today has Danish blood, an East Anglian myself, my DNA says that I am 11% Danish).
The importance of these children is indicated by the fact that Gunnhild was abducted after the Battle of Hastings. In 1068 Gytha was taken by her grandmother to Denmark in 1068 and then married the Prince of Smolensk, Vladimir Monomakh. She had some eleven children by him and so brought the bloodline of St Alfred the Great into the Russian royal family. Gytha reposed on 7 May 1107. One of her sons had a double name, the Slav Mstislav, and Harold, in memory of his grandfather.
It is said that Edith identified Harold’s mutilated body after his death at Hastings. It was because of Edith’s identification of Harold’s body that he could be buried, either by the monks of Waltham in Essex, which Harold had founded, or else at his family home in Bosham in Sussex, inside the pre-Conquest church. After the Battle, Edith disappears from the historical record. By 1086, her lands had passed to an invader. Possibly she joined Harold’s mother Gytha in Exeter, from where she may have been exiled after the siege in the winter of 1068. Perhaps she joined her exiled sons in Ireland, or joined Gytha in Denmark, as some suggest, and then Kiev. Others suggest that she may have set out on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, from which she did not return. We wonder if she did not arrive in Nazareth and there repose. After all her vision had been of the house in Nazareth where the Most Holy Virgin had received the Annunciation from the Archangel Gabriel.
Conclusion: The Future of Walsingham
If, as seems very likely, the Walsingham vision of the Mother of God took place in 1061 and was granted to Edith, the wife of Earl and then King Harold Godwinson, then we can now see that the Normans stole Walsingham from England, overlaying it with their anti-English myths. It was all part of their mythology that they had brought Christian civilisation to England and that before them there had been nothing and certainly no vision of the Mother of God to the benighted English. That is why they deleted the enemy King Harold and his Queen Edith from the history of Walsingham, assigning the vision to a later Norman woman, Richeldis de Faverches, who lived nearly three generations later. That is why they disguised Edith with the title ‘Rychold’, in order to confuse her with the much later Richeldis.
Clearly, having killed King Harold, his wife and children were still enemies and threats to the Norman usurpers. Harold had replaced his father Godwin as the focus of patriotic opposition to Norman influence in England under Edward the Confessor, who had spent more than 25 years in exile in Normandy. That is why the Norman clergy slanderously made out that Edith was Harold’s mistress and that the couple were not married, even making out that he married again in 1066, when he had made a political pact with a certain Alditha. Their fully legitimate ‘handfast’ wedding is still part of the Orthodox wedding ceremony today, when the newly-wed couple are led around the central lectern by the priest, their hands placed together on the priest’s stole. That is also why the Lombard Archbishop of Canterbury Lanfranc, appointed by William the Bastard in 1070, railed against the local English saints, who were often royal. It was a purely political and indeed racist move. Anything fine and noble in pre-Norman English culture had to be overlaid, buried and cancelled. Indeed in later times paid, Normanised scholars even gave the strange name ‘Anglo-Saxon’ to the English to try and alienate the English from their very own blood and kin.
As a result of her vision, Edith wished to do something special to honour the Mother of God, who appeared to her in 1061. In that threefold vision Edith was shown the house of the Annunciation in Nazareth, the place of the Incarnation, and was instructed to build a replica of the house in Little Walsingham as a place of pilgrimage where people could honour her. Mary is said to have promised, ‘Whoever seeks my help there will not go empty away’. That is what Edith did. This Annunciation was surely an announcement of consolation to the English before the defeat at Hastings and ensuing Norman Occupation that has lasted to this day, that Christ would always be with us.
Today, the shrine at Little Walsingham does have a tiny staircase chapel big enough only for half a dozen Orthodox. In the village itself there is also a tiny Orthodox chapel in a temporarily rented building, where a liturgy is held once a year, mainly for converts to Orthodoxy from Anglicanism. However, there is no church that is owned by Orthodox and there are very few Orthodox living, that is, who are incarnate, in the area. However, 25 miles away there is the historic port town of Kings Lynn which has strong Orthodox connections. Here there is no Orthodox church building, though there is a community of Orthodox. Could it be that an Orthodox church, dedicated to the Annunciation of the Mother of God, could be established in Little Walsingham, for the service of Orthodox and in memory of the piety of Edith, the last Orthodox Queen of England? From this tiny rural hamlet in Norfolk, the Mother of God reigns over England.
O gracious Lady, glory of Jerusalem,
Cypress of Zion and Joy of Israel,
Rose of Jericho and Star of Bethlehem,
O glorious Lady, reject not our askings
Thou dost excel all women in mercy
Therefore, blessed Lady, grant Thy great grace
To all that devoutly visit this place.
The Pynson Ballad, Verse 21, in Modern English
- In writing the above, we acknowledge a great debt of gratitude to the late Bill Flint, the author of a most interesting book called Edith the Fair, Visionary of Walsingham, Gracewing 2015. Although there are the mistakes of the amateur historian, this book has great merit.
- We are also indebted to the work Harold the Last Anglo-Saxon (sic) King, by Ian W. Walker, The History Press, 2010
- In our church in Colchester we have a very beautiful and very iconographic panaghia of the Mother of God of Walsingham. We had this made in the Ukraine three years ago for a worthy bishop. It is soon to be gifted to His Grace Metropolitan Joseph, who so keenly wishes his local Diocese of over 60 parishes to become incarnated into English life and tradition.
Archpriest Andrew Phillips,
1 September 2022