Dowry House Retreat is known affectionately to many as ‘the old Sue Ryder place’ and is situated directly opposite the Priory Gatehouse on Walsingham’s High Street. Built between 1470 and 1496, the twelfth-century Augustinian Priory used it as a pilgrim hostel, providing hearty meals and warm lodgings. During the 15th Century, Walsingham enjoyed the reputation of being one of the world’s most renowned shrines – along with Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago de Compostela – and of all these, Walsingham was the only one dedicated to Our Lady. So pilgrims came from far and wide to honour Our Blessed Mother.
The religious landscape of England changed dramatically during the Reformation of King Henry VIII and in 1537, as churches throughout England were desecrated, the Priory at Walsingham too was dissolved and the grounds passed into the hands of the King, despite the fact that the Priory was one of the first religious houses to sign the Oath of Supremacy in 1534. The Prior was rewarded with an annual pension of £100; however, the sub-prior refused to sign the oath and so was assigned the fate of being hung, drawn and quartered on what posthumously became known as Martyrs’ Field. Tradition states that the sub-prior, Canon Nicholas Mileham, was held overnight in the cellar of what is now Dowry House Retreat, along with layman George Guisborough who also refused to sign the Act of Supremacy. Dating of individual parts of the building is difficult: wattle and daub walls were uncovered during renovations and part of one is exposed on the first floor giving us a glimpse of some of the history of this building.
After the Reformation, the building was used for different purposes: for trading businesses, as a post office, a coffee shop and accommodation. The exterior of the building, facing onto the High Street, was given a brick façade in the 19th century. More recently, in 1982, Sue Ryder purchased it to provide a retreat house for her staff in this quiet, grace-filled place known as England’s Nazareth.
In 2006 Peter Hoye bought the property and began renovating it to update the retreat centre for modern-day pilgrims. His dream was to have a religious community living on-site, praying in the chapel and offering hospitality. In 2016 he generously passed over the management of the retreat house to the shrine and Bishop Alan Hopes invited the Community of Our Lady of Walsingham (COLW) to run the centre, “for the shrine, for the diocese and for the nation.”