In 1539 the simple wooden statue of Our Lady of Walsingham that stood beside the altar of Walsingham’s Holy House, venerated by kings, queens, princes, cardinals and generations of faithful pilgrims, was torn down, carted off to London and burned, either in the courtyard of Thomas Cromwell’s house in Chelsea or at Smithfield.
This is the traditional account of what happened to the image of Our Lady of Walsingham. Yet contemporary accounts are vague, with the chroniclers unable to agree even on the location of the burning. Could it be that the statue was not, in fact, destroyed at all?
The idea that the image of Our Lady of Walsingham survived the dissolution of Walsingham Priory may sound a lot like wishful thinking, but new research suggests that a surviving statue could be the famous image of Our Lady. A damaged 13th-century English statue of the Madonna and Child in the collection of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, known as the ‘Langham Madonna’, is a unique survival of its kind. The statue’s striking resemblance to the image of Our Lady of Walsingham on the priory’s seal has long been recognised. However, a probable error in the provenance given when the statue was first donated to the V&A has hitherto prevented art historians from pursuing the possibility that the Langham Madonna is actually medieval England’s holiest image.
On December 23, 1925, a representative of the V&A purchased the Langham statue for £2 10s from a saleroom in St James. Curator RP Bedford ordered the purchase after he learnt the statue was “an oak figure of the Virgin and Child … said to have come from Langham Hall, Colchester”. The statue’s former owner further informed the museum’s representative that “it came from the church, now I think destroyed”. The probable error occurred in the assumption that the village of Langham referred to was Langham, Essex, rather than Langham, Norfolk, and that the destroyed church the unnamed owner referred to was Langham parish church (the churches in both villages are still standing), rather than the church where the image originally stood (Walsingham Priory).
Confirmation of the likely error comes in a letter to the Tablet of July 25, 1931 from the Anglican priest Henry Joy Fynes-Clinton:
Recently there was discovered in an old house near Walsingham, and sold, an old wooden carved figure apparently of the 12th century which almost without any doubt is a copy of the Walsingham Image, or even, may we think? the original, saved perhaps as other relics and holy things, by means of substitution being made for the purposes of satisfying the desecrators.
Langham in Norfolk is only six miles from Walsingham. The vicar of Langham, John Grigby, was arrested in 1537 for his part in the “Walsingham Conspiracy” of Catholics who resisted the destruction of the Shrine. Langham Hall was the home of the Calthorpe family, who became notable recusants, and was inherited in 1555 by the Catholic Rookwood family of Euston, Suffolk. Although the present Langham Hall dates only from the 1820s, Langham Hall in Essex is not much older. It was built between 1756 and 1772.
The Rookwood family of Euston, owners of Langham Hall from 1555, attempted to save at least one other image of Our Lady in the post-Reformation period. In 1578 Edward Rookwood was found in possession of a statue of Our Lady at Euston, hidden in a hayrick, during a visit from Queen Elizabeth I. Rookwood was imprisoned and the statue burned. It is altogether plausible that the Rookwoods were involved in concealing another Marian statue at Langham Hall.
The Langham Madonna has not been carbon-dated, so the possibility that it is a later medieval copy of a 13th-century original cannot be ruled out. However, in addition to its striking general resemblance to the seal image of Our Lady of Walsingham (the basis of all modern reconstructions of the statue), the Langham Madonna bears tell-tale marks that suggest it is the original statue, rather than a copy.
The first of these is a band around the Virgin’s head that was clearly intended to hold a crown (there is a gap in the back of the band allowing the crown to be seated securely under tension). The crown was given by Henry III in 1246. If the statue were a copy, we might expect to find a carved crown of the kind often found on modern copies of the statue, rather than a band to allow the fitting of an actual crown.
The second tell-tale sign is the presence of a large V cut at the base of the statue, clearly deliberate and very smoothly incised by a sharp chisel. According to Erasmus, who visited Walsingham in 1512 and 1524, there was a toadstone beneath the Virgin’s feet. Since this was a unique feature of the statue of Our Lady of Walsingham, the chisel marks on the surviving statue may be evidence of the removal of the gem.
The third sign that this statue may be Our Lady of Walsingham is the presence of seven dowel holes at the back of the image. The seal of Walsingham Priory depicts Our Lady sitting on a high-backed throne. While as many as seven dowel holes would seem unnecessary for holding in place a simple backing board, they would have been necessary to affix a high-backed throne.
In spite of all these similarities, there are also some differences between the Langham statute and the image depicted on the priory’s seal. The Langham image is not veiled, although it is possible that the veil on the Walsingham image was actual cloth rather than part of the design of the statue. Furthermore, the position of the Christ Child on the Virgin’s knee in the Langham image is slightly different from that depicted by the engraver of the priory seal.
The curator requires some additional evidence of provenance, but it may never be possible to confirm beyond reasonable doubt that the Langham Madonna is Our Lady of Walsingham.
The statue could be carbon-dated, but it is hard to see what else could be done. The identity of the owners of the two Langham Halls when the statue was sold are known, but their successors have not been traced. The saleroom in St James from which the statue was sold was bombed during the Second World War and it seems all records were lost.
Yet the accumulation of circumstantial evidence is compelling. Even if the Langham statue is not the image venerated at Walsingham, it seems certain that it is a copy, since the similarity to the seal image is so striking.
In conclusion, given the evidence that this was a crowned statue, and with regard to the Rookwood family’s history of hiding Marian images, we believe the balance of probability indicates that this battered image in the V&A is indeed the revered image of the Shrine of Walsingham.
Fr Michael Rear is a retired priest in the Diocese of East Anglia and author of Walsingham: Pilgrims and Pilgrimage. Dr Francis Young is a historian and folklorist specialising in the history of religion and supernatural belief