The origins of the shrine of Walsingham are lost in the mists of antiquity, it seems fair to observe. It is a very old shrine, that is beyond doubt: it was founded some time in the reign of Edward the Confessor, making it one of the few things in our country that predates the Norman Conquest. However, that word “founded” raises a few questions. How do you found a shrine? Nowadays, I believe, shrines are erected through a due canonical process; but back in the day, shrines, one has the feeling, emerged, and the myth of foundation may well postdate the actual start of the shrine by many decades if not centuries.
These thoughts occur to me as I have been reading Edith the Fair, Visionary of Walsingham (Gracewing) by the late Bill Flint, a book which represents the fruits of his investigation into the origins of Walsingham. Whereas the standard account says that the shrine was built following the vision of a lady called Richeldis, or Rychold, Mr Flint has identified this mysterious figure with none other than Edith the Fair, wife of King Harold, who fell in the Battle of Hastings.
The history of late Anglo-Saxon England is, to put it mildly, complex. Any historical narrative is dotted with names that seem to have come straight from the pages of Tolkien – a particular favourite of mine is Thorkell the Tall, who was Edith’s father. He was a Dane, and his wife, Edith’s mother, was a daughter of King Ethelred the Unready. So Edith was the granddaughter of an English King, and the daughter of a Danish father, at a time when the English throne was ricocheting back and forth between Danes and Anglo-Saxons. Just to make things even more complicated, this Edith was not Edith the wife of Edward the Confessor, who was Harold’s sister. Thus it is that the last two Queens of Anglo-Saxon England were called Edith. But herein lies a controversy. Edith the Fair (or Edith Swan Neck, as she is often called) is often described as Harold’s mistress not his wife; it seems they were not married in the Church but “in the Danish manner”, more danico, whatever that quite means. But Bill Flint is insistent that Edith was Harold’s true wife, and that Walsingham was Harold’s property, and Edith was the visionary who founded the shrine.
Edith did not have a very happy life. She had the melancholy task after the Battle of Hastings of identifying King Harold’s body, which was so badly mauled that only she was able to identify it according, it is said, to certain marks on it that she alone knew. There were children from the union and they, like her, spent their lives exiled in Europe. Indeed, many of the Anglo-Saxons, dispossessed of their lands, did take to wandering through Europe, and many made their way to Constantinople where they formed the Varangian Guard serving the Emperor, who particularly prized such soldiers for their prowess and stature.
Bill Flint’s book opens up a chapter of history that is little known, and that we are in danger of forgetting. Anglo-Saxon England, in its twilight, seems a fair country from this distance in time. We should not let its persistent memories be lost to us. And Edith the Fair’s legacy is with us still in the shrine of Walsingham.