By Mike Russell
For all who know the history of the dissolution of the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, the accepted narrative is that on the 14th July, 1538, royal commissioners took charge of her statue and conveyed it to London to be burned, along with her sisters of Basingstoke, Caversham, Ipswich, Penrhys, Willesden, Worcester and others. But contemporary records disagree where these images were burned. Was it at the Lord Privy Seal Thomas Cromwell's house in Chelsea or Smithfield, where many executions and burning took place?
There is a tradition that the image of Our Lady of Ipswich was rescued and taken by sailors to Nettuno in Italy and in celebration of this legend, there have been many pilgrimages by the Society of Mary to venerate her there.
But did the most famous image of Our Lady of Walsingham escape being burned? Do we still have her image but haven’t recognised it for many years? This is a question Fr Michael Rear asks in his second edition of his excellent book “Walsingham: Pilgrims and Pilgrimage” In Appendix 3 Fr Rear draws our attention to an image in the Victoria and Albert Museum (the V&A), London of an apparently 13th-Century oak crowned Virgin, known as the Langham Madonna, that bears a striking resemblance to the image of Our Lady of Walsingham as she appears on the Priory Seal. It was on this seal that Fr Hope-Patten’s modern statue of Our Lady of Walsingham, was modelled, the same image that is venerated in the Holy House at the Anglican Shrine today.
A striking resemblance is not enough in itself to suggest that the wooden statue is that or Our Lady of Walsingham. There are other pointers. For example, the Langham Madonna has a band carved into her head to hold a precious metal crown, whereas most wooden statues of the time had carved, wooden crowns that were gilded. So this makes the Langham Madonna an especially important statue indeed. There are no records of any other statue in England of Our Lady having such a carved band to secure her crown except that of Our Lady of Walsingham. The golden crown was given in 1246 by King Henry III, who went on pilgrimage to the Shrine some eleven times. Another possible proof are the seven dowel-holes at the back of the image which would have fixed the statue to the high-backed throne shown in the Priory seal.
But perhaps the most telling proof lies in the confusion of origin. The Langham Madonna was bought by the V&A in a sale on 23rd December, 1925 and was said to have come from Langham Hall, Colchester; its previous owner believed it came from a church that was now destroyed. But the medieval church at Langham, Colchester, still stands, whereas the church-shrine at Walsingham was indeed destroyed! Further, there was no pilgrimage or cultic image of Our Lady around the Colchester Langham, so therefore no need for an image with a solid gold crown! But there was a Langham Hall only six miles to the north-east of Walsingham. In 1555, the Hall was inherited by the Rookwood family of Euston, who were ardent Catholics. Edward Rookwood had been imprisoned in 1578 for harbouring a statue of Our Lady. Could the statue of Our Lady of Walsingham have been better hidden in Langham Hall, only to be found centuries later and sold by then owners who had no idea of its provenance? The identity of the owners of both Langham Halls in 1925, when the statue was sold, are known but their successors have never been traced, so further investigation is stalled in this direction. The London saleroom from whom the V&A bought the statue might have been able to shed some light on the provenance but it was destroyed in the London Blitz. So we are left with gaps in our knowledge that can’t be filled.
However, there are some differences between the Langham Madonna and the Priory seal image that need pointing out. The Priory seal has Our Lady of Walsingham veiled and there is no veil on the Langham statue. The position of the Christ-Child on Mary’s knee is slightly different also in the Langham version. But that begs the question, “How accurate is the Priory seal carving?” We shall never know the answer to this question, just as we are not yet able to affirm that the Langham Madonna is really the most precious statue in all of English medieval Catholicism. But Time has a strange way of throwing up truths when it suits him and perhaps we shall be treated to further revelations in the not-too-distant future. Perhaps Mary will give him a nudge!
Rear, M.: 2019: Walsingham: Pilgrims and Pilgrimage; Gracewing, second edition.