Edith the Fair: Visionary of Walsingham
Church Times Bookshop £9
THE stories of two women are particularly and inextricably woven into the history of the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. The first, obviously, is our Lady herself; and the second is the foundress, Richeldis, who in 1061 received the vision instructing her to construct the first replica of the Holy House on her land in Norfolk.
But who was Richeldis? Her real identity has long been a matter of conjecture and debate. The late Bill Flint’s book argues that the “Richeldis”, or “Rychold”, of texts such as the mid-15th-century Pynson Ballad was not a name but a description, meaning “rich and fair”, and that the lady in question was in fact Edith, the wife — and Flint considers that their marriage was unquestionably valid — of Harold Godwinson.
The Domesday Book shows that before 1066 the manor of Walsingham belonged to Harold of Wessex; but before his succession to his father’s title he was appointed Earl of East Anglia by Edward the Confessor. The centre of Harold’s activity in Norfolk would have been Fakenham: a centre of business, the location of the Royal Assize, and not far from the then important port at Wells-next-the-Sea. Walsingham would have been a pleasant retreat for Harold, and a convenient residence for his wife and family.
Flint concludes that it was to the rich and fair Queen Edith, then, that the Mother of God appeared, instructing and helping her to build the original Holy House, and promising great favour to those who asked for her prayers under her title of Our Lady of Walsingham.
The work is generally well-researched and convincingly presented, and deserves to appeal to a wide audience: it should be of interest to pre-Conquest historians — both ecclesiastical and secular — as well as to those with an interest in the development of European Marian devotion and the history of Walsingham in particular.
It is not always obvious, however, whether the book — whose author was clearly a devout Roman Catholic — was intended to inform or to proselytise. Flint’s regular dogmatic assertions and frequent pieties grate in what would otherwise be a respectable academic work, and he refers to “a great ecumenical gathering” now existing at Walsingham, made up of “the ancient churches of Rome, [and] the East” and “the Anglican community”. I will gladly declare an interest; but without the Anglican Shrine at Walsingham the gathering would be very far from great indeed.
Dr Serenhedd James is Director of the Cowley Project, and an Hon. Research Fellow of St Stephen’s House, Oxford.