Have researchers cracked the 500-year mystery behind a sacred Norfolk symbol?
- Credit: Archant
For almost 500 years it was widely believed an important statue of the Virgin Mary had been destroyed in the English Reformation. But new research suggests it is being safely stored in a London museum. TOM CHAPMAN reports...
A cherished religious symbol thought to have been destroyed during the English Reformation may be sheltered safely in central London, new research suggests.
The Our Lady of Walsingham statue, which once stood beside the altar at Walsingham's Holy House in Norfolk, was supposedly burned during the 16th century.
But historian Dr Francis Young and Fr Michael Rear, a retired priest in the Diocese of East Anglia, have uncovered evidence which suggests the original image could be stored in London's Victoria and Albert Museum.
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The story goes that, in the year 1539, the wooden statue so lovingly adored by pilgrims from across the land was seized as part of the suppression of monasteries.
Having been carted off to London it was burned alongside effigies from other shrines, never to be seen again in its rightful home.
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Nearly 400 years later, in December 1925, the V&A Museum acquired a statue of the Madonna and Child from a saleroom in St James' at a cost of £2 10shillings. It became known as Langham Madonna, a reference to its origins at Langham Hall near Colchester.
Then, in 1931, Anglican priest Henry Joy Fynes-Clinton described the recent discovery of a 12th century "carved wooden figure" at an "old house near Walsingham". He alleged it was "almost without any doubt" a copy of the original - perhaps even the statue itself.
Had there been an error in assuming the image purchased by the V&A was from Langham, Essex? Perhaps it had actually come from Langham in Norfolk, just six miles from Walsingham.
"The whole mystery goes back to what originally happened to the statue," said Dr Young. "There are a couple of accounts that say it was taken to London and burned, but there are discrepancies which raise suspicions over whether this really happened.
"If you combine that with the story behind the interesting statue that arrived in the V&A in 1925, it is really intriguing.
"It has always been recognised that the Madonna looks like the statue of Our Lady of Walsingham. Most people said it is just from the same period, but we found there might be an error with the place name of Langham - and it seems almost certain it is incorrect."
At the London saleroom in 1925, the statue's former owner had told a museum representative that the statue "came from the church, now I think destroyed".
There is, however, no record of ruined churches in either Langham - Essex or Norfolk - making it far more likely he was referring to Walsingham Priory.
Sixteen years after the dissolution of the priory, Langham Hall in Norfolk was acquired by the Rookwood family. They are known to have hidden at least one other Our Lady statue, resulting in Edward Rookwood's imprisonment, and the researchers believe there may have been more.
The final piece of this mystifying puzzle revolves around the V&A statue's appearance.
"It's a fairly unremarkable wooden statue," added Dr Young. "But at the back there are dowel holes which may have been used to fix it to a throne.
"There also seems to be evidence that someone has chiselled at the base of the surviving statue, possibly demonstrating the original toadstone was removed.
"Perhaps the most compelling evidence of all is input from a German expert, who says the band around the statue's head would have been put in place to keep a crown there. The Our Lady of Walsingham image had a crown that was put there by Henry III in 1246."
Now Dr Young and Fr Rear are looking to strengthen their case by filling in the blanks, starting with how the statue ended up at a St James' saleroom.
They believe a sale of items from Langham Hall in the early-1920s could provide answers, and are appealing for anyone with information to come forward.
"Father Rear has been doing work on this for a number of years and, to begin with, I wasn't convinced," said Dr Young. "Now I would say with confidence that the statue in the V&A is the original Our Lady of Walsingham.
"This is our view but, on the balance of probabilities, it is likely to be the real deal."