These two villages must have got their names a thousand years ago or more, because since the dream of the lady Richeldis in 1061 started the pilgrimages which became so popular, Little Walsingham has become much the bigger village. This vision led to the wooden edifice purporting to be a replica of the house of the holy family in Nazareth and later a substantial priory was built to cater for the crowds.
It remained a major place of pilgrimage throughout the middle ages until the closure of the monasteries by Henry VIII in the mid 1530s. Earlier in his reign, when he was still a good Catholic, he had made the pilgrimage to Walsingham. The village was visited by the European scholar and Renaissance humanist Erasmus Roterodamus in the early sixteenth century. (His name is used today for a scheme to allow students to study abroad for part of their degree.) Walsingham became the symbol of the great beauty that was lost across the country when the monasteries were sold off and their walls used as quarries for stone. Several poems were written on the loss of Walsingham; this was not a short lived feeling either, as the English madrigal composer John Dowland composed the galliard Walsingham for lute in the early 17th century. By then it was more a memory of past glories than the raw emotions of recent desecration. Eventually however the feeling of sadness passed as East Anglia became one of the most puritan parts of England.
The fine Georgian Methodist chapel in Walsingham (still in use) is an indication of the strength of non-conformity in the area. The founder of Methodism, John Wesley had only been dead two years when the chapel was built in 1793-4, and to erect such an impressive structure in the early years of the movement speaks much of nature of religious enthusiasm in Walsingham. It was not so much anti-Catholic as non-Catholic; Catholicism meant nothing to country people of Norfolk. The cult of the Virgin Mary which had figured so largely in the minds of medieval Norfolk women and men was meaningless to eighteenth century Walsingham and its inhabitants. Their preoccupation was with such things as the evils of drink.
Walsingham continued to be an important place, but a secular one, not religious. It became the centre of legal proceedings, and held the County Court for that part of Norfolk and has a court room that was in use from the 17th century until the legal reforms of 1971 which ended (among other things) the Assize Court system. Little Walsingham also had a Bridewell which had 8 cells. Both the Court House and the Bridewell may still be seen from the outside at least. Until the 1990s the Court Room was open as a museum, although lacking any other displays than the original furnishings of wooden benches and prisoners’ cells.
Another feature of Walsingham life was the Fair. George Cushing in his book Steam at Thursford has a description of the magical effect of the fairground attractions in the wilds of Norfolk in the early 20th century. Thursford is close-by village for which Walsingham was positively metropolitan.
After centuries when the village of Walsingham ignored its past as a centre of pilgrimage this was revived in the latter part of the 19th century. In 1897 the Roman Catholics held the first pilgrimage in Walsingham since the Reformation. Significantly this was by Catholics from Kings Lynn and further afield. The first pilgrimage from within Walsingham itself happened after 1921 when the Anglo-Catholic Alfred Hope Patten became vicar of Great and Little Walsingham. Even then only the clergyman of Walsingham was involved; the earliest pilgrimages of the Anglican variety came from London, and were against the wishes of the bishop of Norwich, who got the vicar to remove a statue of the Virgin from the church. The modern pilgrimages which are now so much a part of Walsingham after centuries of neglect owe all their original power and much of their continuing influence to outside forces.
The Slipper Chapel was bought for the Catholic church in 1896. It lies in Houghton St Giles, a mile away from the village of Little Walsingham. Originally it was built in 1340 as the last chapel for pilgrims before reaching Walsingham.