Continuing the theme of yesterday’s feast of Our Lady of Walsingham, today I’m sharing the original version of the Walsingham Pilgrim Hymn, written by Sir William Milner (1893-1960) and sung to the tune Lourdes, with its familiar refrain of the Aves. The hymn was revised by Father Hope Patten’s successor as Administrator of the Anglican shrine, Father Colin Stephenson, in 1960 (after Sir William’s death that year, and two years after Hope Patten’s death - canny timing, that). The version below is taken from the third edition of the The Pilgrims’ Manual, dated 1949 (the first edition was published in 1928, but the hymn predates this, as Father Cobb, in his history of the shrine, indicates that the first issue of Our Lady’s Mirror in 1926 mentions the hymn). In my 1949 manual the hymn is prefaced with these brief words of explanation: ‘This processional is based on the mediaeval legend, long loved by our Catholic forefathers’.
Comparing the two versions is an interesting exercise in literary taste, history, memory, and mixed emotion. The older form of the hymn is longer by five verses and, for those who enjoy the stuff of legend, it happily fleshes it out somewhat, particularly on the detail of Richeldis’ vision of the Virgin and the miraculous circumstances of the erection of the Holy House at the hands of Our Lady herself, with Lady Richeldis’ chaplain receiving an honourable mention. Also notable is that whereas the updated version of the hymn references Henry VIII as a ‘king who had greed in his eyes’ (the older version speaks, more poetically, of his ‘covetous eyes’) in relation to the treasures and wealth of the shrine, the older version sounds a more merciful note of regal rehabilitation (‘But his soul did repent, when he came for to die/And to Walsingham’s Lady for mercy did cry’). This is lacking in the present form, which feels, to me at least, notwithstanding the historical accuracy, just a tad heart-rending (especially when the accompanying organ sounds an ominous note during the verse; though I do realise that this is much enjoyed by others of a more mischievous disposition).
Father Stephenson’s version also includes a curious verse which, like the above, as an Anglican I always considered peculiar given the shrine’s place within the life of the established Church of England. Now, as a Catholic of the Ordinariate, it’s certainly much easier, theologically, to sing (‘And this realm which had once been Our Lady’s own Dower/Had its Church now enslaved by the secular power’), but its continued presence within the canon of the Walsingham Pilgrim Hymn of the Anglican shrine is even more baffling in light of the happy existence of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham. Sir William’s version makes no mention of this emasculation, thus rendering it more coherent for those Anglicans who have not (yet) taken up the generous offer of the Ordinariate which, if nothing else, promises that liberty for the Church from the slavish excesses of the secular power...
Of course the older version had its critics long before Father Stephenson amended it. Michael Yelton, in his excellent history of Father Hope Patten and the Anglican shrine, notes that Sir William’s words ‘have often been criticised for their banality,’ and references Bishop Henley Henson’s (then-Bishop of Durham) attack on it as ‘pitiable rubbish’. But in these days of revived traditional worship in its hieratic register of English (think Divine Worship: The Missal...), I rather like it. It won’t catch on too widely, of course, because the present version, now nearly sixty years old, is much-treasured, not least because there are some memorable and even fun verses to be found therein (‘Then lift high your voices, rehearse the glad tale/Of Our Lady’s appearing in Stiffkey’s fair vale’, and ‘So crowded were roads that the stars, people say/That shine in the heavens were called Walsingham Way,’ for example). Nonetheless, perhaps Sir William’s old hymn can be dusted off and brought out in an Ordinariate context from time to time where the rhyming of ‘meads’ with ‘bedes’ is happily married in verse, and where the use of such old-fashioned phrases as ‘celestial-crowned’, ‘full wondrous’, ‘for to die’, ‘right soon’, ‘forthwith goodly store’, and the like might be regarded as (albeit antiquated) treasures to be shared... Anyway, judge it for yourself.
Fr Lee Kenyon