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: 07/30/2019, frankbeswick
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?


Only logged-in users are allowed to comment. Login
frankbeswick on 08/10/2019

What a good explanation of presence. Thank you Mira.Your observation about presence being felt in little things is also important.

The point that you make is that presence does not depend upon physical proximity, as you could sense the presence even though you are well over a thousand miles away.

Mira on 08/10/2019

I think of presence as Life from a spiritual realm felt through an object or a person. I also think of it in terms of a certain connection with a person or an object. Frankly, I'm surprised that so many people fail to recognize spiritual presence in the little things. Our being in the world speaks volumes about us being so much more than matter. One does not need miracles to acknowledge this, even though there are plenty of miracles around, such as the birth of children and their development in the womb.

Returning to your comment about the statue, I know that Orthodox Christian icon makers, for instance, pray and sometimes fast or do other religious rituals before they start painting an icon and while they work on it. I believe that in doing that they establish a connection with Life which helps Life pervade the icon once this object is completed.

frankbeswick on 08/06/2019

You mention that the statue has presence, Mira, and that makes me wonder what is presence. You can sense the presence of the statue even though you are not in physical proximity to it. How does a person or object have it ?Does presence extend through space and if so how does a picture of an object mediate it?

These are questions to which I have no answer.

frankbeswick on 08/04/2019

Yes,indeed, Mira.

Mira on 08/04/2019

That 12-century statue, even damaged, has so much presence!
Thank you for this article. I never knew about this backlash against Catholics the way you present it in your articles. It's good to know and to ponder on.

frankbeswick on 07/31/2019

You say that those of you whose families suffered Henry's wrongs should keep the story well circulated. Veronica knows more family history than I do, so I am unsure whether we Beswicks suffered in any way other than the general English population did. Of course, our Irish ancestors suffered much. I did read once of a couple of Beswicks in 1603 being fined for non-attendance at a Protestant church, though whether or not they were related to me I know not.

frankbeswick on 07/31/2019

Your response is completely accurate and well said. Henry was an anti-Christ character.

It is true that in the English speaking world history was written with a Protestant bias.It was also a bias in favour of the landowning class who profited from stolen church lands.Here is the truth. The destruction of schools run by monks and nuns was terrible. Libraries were scrapped or torched. Education for women, provided to some degree by nuns, disappeared. Endowments for the poor were stolen by the king, and the wonderful system of craft guilds, which provided social security for their members, was plundered and destroyed. Good people were tortured, imprisoned and murdered for their faith. A great wrong was done to England by its rulers.

I consider Henry's successors to be less bad than he, and James was probably not the worst,

blackspanielgallery on 07/31/2019

One underlying idea that comes through several of your articles, and in particular this one, is the extent of the persecution of Catholics Henry VIII inflicted. Our history books are not complete on this. He is cited as having broke with Rome over a marriage issue for which a dispensation was granted, but he tried to nullify the dispensation when it favored his desire to do so. He then proclaimed himself head of the Church of England, and had clergy follow him. The cruelty was diminished in the books, so it is important that those of you whose families have suffered his wrongs keep the story well circulated.

I believe some of his successors were also extreme. I may be wrong on this, but it seems James was perhaps just as bad.

As for hidden icons, this is a real possibility. Destruction of icons is a final act, the Germans took icons for their own, a step higher than what Henry did. I see an early version of Hitler, and a candidate for the title anti-Christ.

The break with Rome is softened here in the United States in opinion. I once assigned classes to research an incident where weather influenced history. Too often I got the unfortunate storms and the Armada, and inevitably they would claim Divine intervention through a Protestant wind. It shows they favored what the outcome came to be of Henry's actions, and how they falsely attribute an event to God's favor on their position. This shows the soft view of Henry in the United States.

frankbeswick on 07/30/2019

Well observed about the statue. I suspect that the modern statue was not intended to be an exact likeness, but is strongly dominated by Italian style, which was a big influence in 19th and 20th century English Catholic art. It is possible that the seal was not an exact likeness, as artistic and scribal errors are often found in mediaeval works.

I do not know why Calthorpes and Rookwoods are untraceable.

DerdriuMarriner on 07/30/2019

frankbeswick, Thank you for the paper trail and the product lines.
A prevalent notion among genealogists on this side of the pond considers the world's best genealogists as based in the New York City Public Library and in the United Kingdom. Do you know why it is that Calthorpe and Rockwood family descendants are untraceable?
The article Was the Original Walsingham Statue Really Destroyed - Or Is It in the V&A? by Fr Michael Rear and Francis Young for the Catholic Herald July 25, 2019, includes side-by-side photos of the Langham Madonna and, as a modern statue based on the seal, of the Lady of Walsingham. They indicate that the Christ Child is positioned differently on the former than on the latter. Is it possible that the seal was not an exact likeness?

You might also like

England Under the Tudors: Would King Edward VI Have Been a Goo...

Edward VI reigned between 1547 and 1553 when he was just a boy. It's hard to ...

Lady Jane Boleyn: Vindictive Woman or Pawn in a Plot?

Jane Boleyn is known for her part in bringing down the Boleyn faction. How mu...

Remembering the Battle of Flodden 500 Years On

It was the largest battle ever fought between Scotland and England. Yet it w...

Disclosure: This page generates income for authors based on affiliate relationships with our partners, including Amazon, Google and others.
Loading ...