THE most famous Marian image in medieval England, which was believed to have been burned in the 16th century, could be safe and sound at the Victorian and Albert Museum, two historians have said.
The image of Our Lady of Walsingham — a simple wooden statue that stood beside the altar of Walsingham’s Holy House — was believed to have been burned in 1539, in London, either in the courtyard of Thomas Cromwell’s house in Chelsea, or at Smithfield.
But it has long been recognised that a 13th-century statue of the Madonna and Child at the V&A, known as the Langham Madonna, bears a striking resemblance to the image of Our Lady of Walsingham on the priory seal.
In 1931, six years after it was acquired by the museum, Henry Joy Fynes-Clinton, one of the founding guardians of the Anglican Shrine at Walsingham, wrote in The Tablet of the discovery of a carved wooden figure “in an old house near Walsingham”. It could be a copy of the Walsingham image, he suggested, or even the original, “saved perhaps as other relics and holy things, by means of substitution being made for the purposes of satisfying the desecrators”.
Writing in the Catholic Herald last month, Fr Michael Rear, a former Vicar of Walsingham, now a retired RC priest in the diocese of East Anglia and author of Walsingham: Pilgrims and pilgrimage, and Dr Francis Young, a historian and folklorist, pointed to “compelling” circumstantial evidence in support of this theory.
The provenance attached to the statue is an error, they argue: it did not come from Langham Hall, Colchester, but Langham, Norfolk, which lies just six miles from Walsingham. The owner of the statue, who told the V&A that it had come from a church “now destroyed, I think”, was referring to the priory church in Walsingham.
Langham Hall was the home of the Calthorpe family, who became notable recusants, and was inherited in 1555 by the RC Rookwood family of Euston, Suffolk, who attempted to save at least one other image of our Lady in the post-Reformation period by hiding it in a hayrick. Last week, Dr Young described a history of families in East Anglia who preserved images.
Evidence for the statue’s destruction was “unreliable”, Dr Young said; his view was that the 16th-century Commissioners knew that it had been hidden, and “passed off a dud” in the ritual burning in order to fulfil their orders.
The Herald article notes that, although the Langham Madonna is not an exact replica of the priory-seal image (it does not have a veil, for example) it bears “tell-tale marks” which suggest that it may be the original, including a band around the Virgin’s head that was clearly intended to hold a crown (a gift from Henry III in 1246), and dowel holes in the back of the image, which would have been necessary to affix a high-backed throne.
Dr Young hopes that further studies will now be undertaken: possibilities include the recovery of papers from the families who lived at Langham Hall, and carbon-dating of the statue, to rule out that it is not a later copy of the original.
It was “probably never going to be possible to know” for sure, he said, and he and Fr Michael are not calling for relocation to Walsingham. But he hoped that the V&A would correct the provenance of the statue.
“This is the most famous statue in the whole of medieval England,” he said. “People came from around Europe to see [it]. Even the possibility that this might be Our Lady of Walsingham makes it very significant.” People often assumed that everything was destroyed in the Reformation, but there were “strenuous efforts to protect precious objects.” To suggest that no attempt would have been made to protect the Walsingham image was “inconceivable”.
A V&A spokesperson said that the sculpture was “a rare survival of English medieval sculpture that was a typical product of the early 13th century. Although we cannot completely exclude the possibility that it was the cult image once venerated as Our Lady of Walsingham, the lack of material evidence means that it may never be possible to know this sculpture’s precise origins. At present, the V&A is not intending to undertake carbon-dating.”