The UK has a number of pilgrim locations – Walsingham, Canterbury – being well known and each have their set days in which pilgrimage would be particularly valuable. Our Lady of Egmanton is not one of those places which comes to mind when the world pilgrimage is raised. But a pilgrimage site it is and for three set feast days in the year – it becomes the focus of those seeking devotion. Being a Marian shrine- the Assumptiontide – is the most important. Thus, on the first Saturday of August the church becomes a pilgrim site.
Why Egmanton? That is a good question. It is believed that the shrine was established when apparition of the Virgin Mary to a local woman in nearby Ladywood, sometime prior to the 12th century. A similar tradition is of course associated with Walsingham but there a firm date and name of the women are given. It seems a bit coincidental for the church which became a stopping off point for Walsingham to have a similar story. Come what may the shrine did become a site of pilgrimage. There is evidence of pilgrims is evident at the church with the discovery of pilgrim ampulla and the scratched crosses on the door jam said to have been done as evidence of the completion of a vow. Then in 1547 it was destroyed.
In many cases that would have been that if it was not for the Duke of Newcastle. He had a desire to restore the shrine to its former glory employing Ninian Cowper to improve much of fabric, repaint and return the effigy of Our Lady. Such a splendid job being done that upon opening the door and seeing it one is at first shocked by its splendour.
Once the church had been restored it seemed obvious that pilgrimage would be soon revived. A Guild of Our Lady of Egmanton society was formed in 1912 and regular assumption tide pilgrimages begun in 1929. The ceremony consists of Mass, outside afternoon procession of the effigy of Our Lady and benediction. with pilgrims coming from Leicester, Leeds, Sheffield, Lincoln, and more locally. A year later the Rev. Alfred Hope Patten, who had restored the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, made the trip along with a group of his people and gifted a banner to the church, which is still there today. Since then many other pilgrimages have been made to Egmanton. It has been a popular pilgrimage for members of the Anglo Catholic movement and on its Golden Jubilee in 1979, the High Mass was undertaken by the Lord Bishop of Southwell, the Rt. Revd. John Denis Wakeling. Even today those attending came from different both geographically and religiously with a congregation made up of High church Anglicans, Roman Catholics and Orthodox.
I asked the question about the relationship between the diocese, the local vicar and the use of the church for Anglo-Catholic services. I was informed that it had been a fraught one and originally, a vicar was appointed to close the church down as surplus to requirements in the 1930s instead this appeared to springboard the further revival. It has not been plain sailing since though with some incumbents refusing to attend and sitting in the vicarage when the pilgrimage was on. Today there appears to be a more ecumenical approach.
Bar a lady in the church, which was also open, it is usually only open Thursday afternoon, there was little sign that this was a pilgrimage day. I crossed the road into the village hall where a splendid array of cakes and food was being prepared including one of the most delightful pavlovas I had ever seen! Soon a few people appeared and became to make their way to the church. In the past there had been a formal procession around the village as described below:
“I visited Egmanton as a pilgrim on several occasions in the late 1980s and early 1990s and on a couple of occasions helped carry the portable statue of Our Lady along the village street and back to the church. It was all rather charming in a very Anglo-Catholic way – some of the villagers getting on with their Saturday afternoon gardening as we pilgrims wended our way past, and some of the artificial silk flowers falling out of the holder on the plinth as we processed along…symbolic of graces bestowed by Our Lady I decided.”
I was told that in the 1960s the Marian statue was being carried into the church proudly when it hit against a low yew tree branch fell of its platform and smashed on the floor. The effigy had been borrowed so the congregation were keen to to repair it and fortunately it was put back together as good as new! This would happen before the service but the organisers this year felt that due to covid numbers may well be down and so it was not organised. Which of course was disappointing and one hope it returns in the near future. Today the pilgrims flowed many touching the carved crosses left by medieval pilgrims of the past.
The service begun with devotions to the effigy of our lady within the shrine beside the altar and one feels like we are brought back to the pre-Reformation time. Soon the church filled with incense and song. The most remarkable was an elderly lady who stood up and gave a spine-tingling Ave Maria….then after the service back to sample that pavlova!
All in all Egmanton pilgrimage can be seen as one of the purest of the revived pilgrimages. It isn’t overly gaudy or over commercialised but it fulfils the need to connect spiritually with a place, a moment in religious history, and it is more evocative because of it. A small pilgrimage perhaps but one which connects with the real heritage of our Christian past.