The Mystery of the Langham Madonnna

by frankbeswick

Did England's most sacred statue survive the Reformation's vandalism?

Most of England's religious art was destroyed at the Reformation by iconoclasts and looters. Some pieces survived, but not many.One treasure thought to have been burned was the statue of Mary at Walsingham. But in recent years some people have begun to think that the statue survived. The evidence for its survival has weight, but is not completely watertight.There are gaps in what needed to be a very secret story of life under the cruel Tudor dynasty and its fanatics.

Image courtesy of Teotea, from Pixabay


Let us imagine. That night in 1538 the Walsingham villagers knew when to turn away their eyes and say nothing. Doors were shut and curtains drawn when Calthorpe,the devoutly Catholic lord of  manor of Langham, approached the chapel with some men and a priest. Someone carried a bundle. The doors were opened and Calthorpe and his men quickly got to work. The sacred image was unpicked from its seating on the altar and the contents of the bundle were uncovered: a replacement for the ancient statue venerated for centuries was hurriedly pinned into position, Then the men  left quietly, taking the sacred image of Mary and her son to we know not where.

Spiriting away a  threatened statue had already been done at Ipswich, where the statue of Our Lady of Grace disappeared before the commissioners arrived and it turned up at Nettuno in Italy, where it has stayed since then. So why not do the same with  the Walsingham image? 

Next day the royal commissioners arrived to seize the statue.The local people said nothing as the replacement was carried away to be burned either at Smithfield, a notorious execution site,  or in Thomas Cromwell's garden. But the villagers carried the memory of their beloved statue with them. In 1564 a woman from nearby Wells was sentenced to a day in the stocks,where her feet were fastened in a board in the market place and people allowed to throw rotten vegetables at her. Her crime? Saying that the destroyed image still continued to work miracles.Had she nearly given away the secret? We don't know.

In 1578 there was an unpleasant incident.Elizabeth the First toured Norfolk, inflicting her expensive presence on the Catholic sympathizing gentry of the county.Earl Howard was left ten thousand pounds in debt by the visit, but the lower ranking Edward Rookwood, whose family had inherited Langham Hall from the Calthorpe's, was allowed to entertain the queen and then accused of being Catholic, and his house and grounds  searched. It seems that Rookwood was protecting Catholic items, and a statue of the Madonna was discovered in  a hay stack.He did ten years in prison in Norwich castle, and  was only released in 1588 when the Spanish Armada was attacking England and the queen needed Catholic support.  Needless to say the haystack and the statue were burned,But the sad consequence of the arrest was that Ambrose Rookwood,Edward's son, who was an infant when his father went to prison,  was so  embittered that he became one of the Gunpowder Plot conspirators in 1605 and was executed.

But in the twentieth century century a statue was found in an old house in nearby Langham whose owner had died. The new owners thought it an antique and in 1925  it was bought for the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. It was an ancient oak statue of the Madonna and child datable to 1200-1230. Someone in the Walsingham region had carefully and lovingly preserved, the statue, passing the responsibility down through the generations until their line stopped. Was this the ancient Madonna of Walsingham?. 

The Statue and its Provenance

The statue is small, a mere forty six centimetres by 23, but the dowel holes in the back inform us that it was affixed to an altar piece.This means that it came from a church rather than a domestic dwelling, a fact that is important as there were copies of the Walsingham image made in the mediaeval period. Investigators have found traces of paint on the  statue's surface, so at one time it had been well-maintained.There is some damage, for one hand is missing, why we know not.

The seal of the priory of Walsingham, found on surviving documents,shows us what the statue looked like, and in 1931 an Anglican clergyman, Henry Fynes Clinton, noted that the statue was almost identical to the image on the seal.He said that it came from a church now destroyed. This is significant, as only monastic churches were destroyed at the Reformation, parish churches survived. So we are dealing with a monastic image, and nearby Walsingham was the prime candidate.Clinton speculatively hoped that we had found the long-lost statue. A high church Anglican, he was sympathetic to the revival of the shrine that was taking place.

The way that the Langham Madonna differs from the image on the Walsingham seal is that the seal's image shows Mary with a veil, whereas the Langham Madonna has no veil, but this is not very significant because it is possible that the Madonna had a cloth veil replaced daily. 

A mistake in provenance might have delayed recognition. There is another Langham. Besides the Langham in Norfolk where the statue was found, there is a Langham in neighbouring Essex. The museum authorities assumed that we had got the statue from Essex Langham, but Fynes Clinton said that it came from the Norfolk one. The clue that it was from Norfolk comes from the fact that Langham in Essex still has its pre-reformation church, as does Norfolk Langham. So the pointers go back to a mediaeval monastic church. 

Descendants of the Calthorpe and Rookwood families cannot be traced to give any further information, for their estates were sold long ago and family history  would probably have been long forgotten.So there is no information from that source. The museum that bought the statue was originally of the opinion that it was a copy, a rarity in its own right. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London is a large, high status museum specialising in artistic items, so it will want to maintain the highest standards of proof and provenance before coming to any conclusion.

Of course, in history proof is not possible, there is only justification. Maybe we will never know if this is the lost image.  Or maybe an untold story will be discovered. 

What Now?

The museum is being rightly cautious about the provenance of the statue, and the various churches  are not demanding it back. They currently have their own statues of Mary at their shrines, which keep pilgrims happy enough with the pilgrimage experience. 

But wrongs must be righted, and the English Reformation was a grave wrong when much that was good was destroyed good and/or stolen. Furthermore, there is a special significance in ancient images that exerts  a strange and beneficial power on the human psyche. So to rectify the wrong could the image be returned to Walsingham, possibly on permanent loan from the museum? For the image was never meant to be a museum piece, but a powerful sign of the sacred feminine, the Mother of God, shining out for God's message and presence in the world.So hopefully the image will return to its ancient home.


[I have not been able to source a non-copyright image of the Langham Madonna, but if you type in Langham Madonna, Victoria and Albert museum you will find it in the museum's search the collections facility. It is classed as a virgin and child statuette.]

Updated: 11/21/2023, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 11/29/2023

Public cemeteries are openntonall. Private cemeteries are not.

DerdriuMarriner on 11/29/2023

Family history and genealogy amateurs and professionals access graves, thereby accounting for the existence of Find a Grave.

Does the "ordinary" public get to access private and public cemeteries on your eastern side of the Atlantic pond?

frankbeswick on 11/28/2023

I do not know why the families are untraceable. Sometimes records are lost, maybe because of accidents.

DerdriuMarriner on 11/28/2023

The fifth paragraph to the second subheading, The statue and its provenance, alerts us that "Descendants of the Calthorpe and Rookwood families cannot be traced to give any further information, for their estates were sold long ago and family history would probably have been long forgotten."

July 30, 2019, you answered my previous, related question that day with the reply that "I do not know why Calthorpes and Rookwoods are untraceable."

I associate British Isles-er with the world-best family historians and genealogists.

Might it be possible that family history and genealogical indices preserve the last known families with whom the Calthorpe and Rookwood families intermarried? If not, might it be known the exact places and times when all traces perished?

Such an endeavor seems no longer possible on Ancestry, where dates and names with their boxes checked for exact spellings and times send no results and dates and names with their boxes not so checked send results for any name and time other than those requested.

frankbeswick on 11/28/2023

We usually accept the place names that we inherited, no need for change.

DerdriuMarriner on 11/27/2023

Word origins and their progression into other pronunciations and spellings interest me.

A few minutes ago I looked for Langham online.

English Wiktionary makes Langham an Old English phrase for "long homestead" (from lang hām).

It might be unlikely for eastern pondersiders to evolve the aforementioned name into something in line with Modern English, correct? (That occurs among western pondsiers ;-{!)

frankbeswick on 11/25/2023

Of course. Historical records omit much, material that recorders think unimportant and material they may not want to preserve. Recordsvare sometimes accidentally destroyed.

DerdriuMarriner on 11/25/2023

No historical account of someone or some place somewhere in the British Isles goes against my image of British Isles-ers as the world's best family historians and genealogists (even as the New York Public Library and the New England Genealogical Society acquit themselves quite nicely ;-D)!

Is it possible that there are area oral traditions when the historical account falters?

frankbeswick on 11/22/2023

I do not know the answer to this question, but there seems to be no historical account of the owners in the years between the Reformation and the modern age.

DerdriuMarriner on 11/22/2023

The last paragraph in the first subheading, Concealment, concerns changing house ownership in the early 20th century.

Do descendants of the early-20th-century buyers still occupy or own that house?

Might a house history have been written following such an important discovery as the Walsingham Madonna?

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