A pilgrimage to Walsingham is always a delight. It was there that I discovered Edith the Fair: Visionary of Walsingham, and I set about reading this book on the long journey back home. Bill Flint has researched the period meticulously, ransacking the Domesday Book, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and various charters and documents. Principally, this posthumously published work seeks to establish the visionary of Walsingham as none other than Edith, wife of the future King Harold, and not, exactly, someone called Richeldis de Faverches.
All that we know about the visionary of Walsingham is within The Pynson Ballad from the 15th century. There we have “Rychold”, a widow and lady of the manor in the time of Edward the Confessor in 1061. There is no record of a Rychold or “Richeldis”, and no mention of Faverches in the history books. Michael Rear, in his recent and magisterial Walsingham, Pilgrims and Pilgrimage, concludes that she must have been a tenant landowner, of the thegn (servant/attendant) class. She would have been holding terrain for Earl Harold Godwinson, the future King Harold of Battle of Hastings fame. Flint deduces that Richeldis was, in fact, an honorary title, “rich and fair”, even “highly favoured lady”. He links this with Edith Puella (“the Fair”).
Edith the Fair was the wife of Harold and daughter of Wulfhilda, sister of Edward the Confessor. This would mean that our visionary was none other than the wife of the last Anglo-Saxon king of England. Edith and Harold’s piety were apparent from the foundation of a chapel of St Laurence on their land in thanksgiving.
As for Faverches, Flint concludes that this was probably land near to Lisieux in Normandy and not a family name. Edith would have been an inheritor of dues from this land. Flint demonstrates the intricate network of holdings, rights and dues that made various first-born women and widows wealthy and influential in Anglo-Saxon England. A son, Geoffrey, appears later to make arrangements by charter for a religious community to take charge of the land and shrine as he prepared to go on a Crusade.
He survived, and the Canons Regular finally took it all into their care in 1153. Flint points out that such canons were not a monastic community as such, for they served directly under the Bishop of Norwich, rather than an abbot under the Pope. Their revenues were held for the king and carefully listed in an inventory for the lands passed to King William upon Harold’s death.
Flint assumes that William was careful to preserve the shrine under royal protection because of Edith’s association with Edward the Confessor, whom he respected and believed he followed as rightful heir. Its late closure (in 1538) might have been because of its lack of monastic status, and Flint wonders if Henry VIII wavered, remembering the link with the Confessor, and in his age and frailty had given in to his zealous Commissioners.
The book is difficult to follow at times, and would have benefited from a careful editor to iron out clarity issues and constant repetition of facts and ideas. But it is a treasure trove of Anglo-Saxon details and characters, showing a keen grasp of the society and the land holdings of the leading characters. Such attention to detail extends to his evaluation of the image of Our Lady and the rod/lily she holds, which is a form of the earlier, Saxon depiction of the Jesse Tree rather than the branching tree found in Europe. Historians familiar with this period will give this their own evaluation but Flint has made a strong and convincing case. “1066 and all that” will never sound the same again.
This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (16/10/15)