By Mark Michael

The details spill out like the plot elements of a classic British detective story: a statue imbued with sacred power; a royal agent bent on its destruction foiled by a family of traditionalist conspirators. Handed down for generations, it was sold for a song, only to be rediscovered by a pair of art historians in the halls of one of the world’s most famous galleries. Throw in a records warehouse bombed in the Blitz, countryside as bucolic as Miss Marple’s St. Mary Mead, and a persistent pious legend that like sleeping King Arthur, the true image waits for just the right moment to reemerge and bring spiritual revival to the land once called “Our Lady’s Dowry.”

English art historians Fr. Michael Rear and Frances Young propose just such a tale in an article recently published in The Catholic Herald. The Langham Madonna, a battered 13th century English statue in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, they claim, is actually the original statue of Our Lady of Walsingham, the most sacred image of medieval England.

Historians have long assumed that the simple wood statue of the Madonna and Child that stood beside the shrine’s main altar was hauled away and destroyed in 1539, when the Priory Church at Walsingham was torn down and its religious community dispersed by order of King Henry VIII. Contemporary accounts of the statue’s fate, though, are notably vague. They list two different locations for the statue’s burning — at the heretics’ pyre at Smithfield and in the court of Thomas Cromwell’s house at Chelsea. There are no eyewitness accounts of the event.

Rear and Young propose instead that the statue, widely known for its miraculous powers, was hidden by local Catholic loyalists (a phenomenon documented widely in the work of Eamon Duffy). They have even discovered a potential mastermind, the Rev. John Grigby, the vicar of Langham, Norfolk, a small village six miles from Walsingham. Grigby had been arrested in 1537 as part of the “Walsingham Conspiracy,” a thwarted plot to defend the shrine’s pending destruction with arms, that had been hatched among the peasants of the surrounding villages by Ralph Rogerson, a yeoman farmer who doubled as a lay chorister in the priory church. Unlike the principal conspirators, who were hung, drawn, and quartered, Grigby was allowed to return to his ministry.

Grigby’s most prominent parishioners at Langham were the Calthorpes of Langham Hall, who resisted pressure to accept the new Anglican faith, remaining recusants, or secret Catholics. Another recusant family, the Rookwoods of Euston, Suffolk, inherited Langham Hall a few years later, in 1555.

The family was known to have attempted to hide at least one other image of Our Lady in the decades after the English Reformation. In 1578, while hosting a visit by Queen Elizabeth, Edward Rookwood was arrested when an image of Our Lady of Euston was found in his possession, hidden in a hayrick. The statue was burned, and Rookwood was imprisoned. But perhaps the authorities failed to notice an even more famous image also secreted in Langham Hall.

The similarity between the Langham Madonna and modern images of Our Lady of Walsingham has long been noted by perceptive patrons of the V&A. The first modern statue was commissioned in 1922 by Fr. Alfred Hope Patten, the Anglo Catholic vicar of Little Walsingham, as part of his project to refound the ruined shrine. Hope Patten instructed the Bavarian woodcarvers who crafted the statue to work from the model of the medieval priory seal, the only surviving depiction of the statue.

But the idea that the Langham Madonna could be the actual 13th century shrine statue had rarely been considered. Rear and Young propose that this is due to an error in the provenance record passed on to the museum when the statue was purchased on December 23, 1925, for just £2 10s in a London saleroom.

As English road trippers know well, villages in widely disparate sections of the country sometimes bear the same name. There are, in fact, three villages in England called Langham, in Norfolk, Essex, and Rutland. The London saleroom had claimed that the Madonna had come from Langham Hall, Essex, near Colchester, a place that lacked any association with conspiratorial clergy and statue-hiding recusant gentry.

A connection with the Langham near Walsingham had actually been suggested in 1931 by the famous Anglo Catholic vicar of St. Magnus the Martyr, Henry Fynes-Clinton. In a letter to The Tablet in 1931, Fynes-Clinton, who was also one of the original Guardians of the refounded shrine noted,

“Recently there was discovered in an old house near Walsingham, and sold, an old wooden carved figure apparently of the 12th century which almost without any doubt is a copy of the Walsingham Image, or even, may we think? the original.”

Rear and Young grant that the Langham Madonna may be only a later copy (devotional copies were common then as they are now). The Langham Madonna’s presumed 13th century origin could be confirmed through carbon dating. But the records of the London saleroom were destroyed during the Second World War, when the warehouse where they were stored was hit by a Nazi bomb.

But the art historians point to unusual details, circumstantial evidence that make it more likely that the statue is actually the original Our Lady of Walsingham. The Langham Madonna has a neatly chiseled notch at its base that could indicate the removal of a toadstone noted by Erasmus during his 1512 visit to the Shrine. A band around its head could have been designed to secure the large crown donated by King Henry III in 1246. A series of dowel holes on the back of the image could have been used to secure it to the throne shown on the medieval priory seal.

The Rev. Kevin Smith, the current priest administrator of the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham said he’s intrigued by the possibility that the Langham Madonna may be the original, but there are too many uncertainties in Rear and Young’s case to convince him. “It’s a cause of interest, but nothing is proven, and likely nothing ever will be proven,” he told TLC. “The image was alleged to have been burned, but there was hope that it would appear again. Until now, there has been no evidence for this. But we’ve always said, wouldn’t it be wonderful if it turned up in someone’s garden.”

Still, he’s excited about the way that the claims are bringing the Walsingham story to life again. “I think it’s a wonderful opportunity to get people talking about Our Lady of Walsingham. If it is the original statue, wonderful. If not, it’s still wonderful, revisiting something that happened a thousand years ago and celebrating Our Lady, who has been influential in the life of so many people.”

Smith said he visited the Langham Madonna at the V&A recently after learning about the historians’ claims. “It’s a very beautiful statue, but it’s in quite a state of disrepair. It does seem very different, being in a glass case with a label on it.”

He said that even if the Langham statue were proven to be the original shrine image, he’s content to keep the one Fr. Hope Patten had designed for the Holy House in 1922, especially since the 1922 statue was recently restored, at considerable cost. “We’ll just keep it as it is,” Smith said. He noted that a Walsingham Festival was held for the first time at Westminster Abbey last May, and the restored statue was carried into procession and seated at the place where English kings and queens are crowned. A similar first visit to the North of England is planned for the future.

In any case, Smith admitted, the V&A authorities are unlikely to ever allow the Langham statue to Walsingham (or to sell it back for the 1925 purchase price). “Even if it were proved to be true, it’s very unlikely that the V&A would allow it to be removed from the museum or to be used in a devotional way. If it were true, there’s not much we could do with it.”

The Rev. Jeff Queen, the rector of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Fort Thomas, Ky., recently refounded the U.S. Friends of Our Lady of Walsingham, an organization that promotes and supports the work of the shrine. He agrees with Smith that it makes little sense to propose an Elgin marbles-like case for the repatriation of the statue to Walsingham. “I would imagine it should stay in the V & A,” he told TLC, “so that not just the faithful that go to Walsingham can see it, [but] so all the world who come [to London] would have the opportunity to see it.”

He added that he is grateful for the newfound interest in the statue. But the original 11th century appearance of Mary to the Lady de Richeldis and the building of the Holy House, a copy of Jesus’ boyhood home in Nazareth, are really more important to Walsingham piety than the statue. “For me, the apparition is what is important. The other things are visible and tangible reminders of that. I find the icon of her here in my parish as deeply stirring as being in the Holy House.”

Queen is intrigued, though, by the possibility that the original statue may have been hidden for centuries. He likened the story narrated by Rear and Young to a painting of Christ in his boyhood church that was mysteriously preserved from harm when fire broke out inside the building.

If the fabulous tale is true, he said it would carry a spiritual lesson:

“In the midst of chaos, God still protects us and provides for our needs. There were faithful people who, even though the culture had shifted and would seem to have been turned on its head, they still clung to the faith they had been given and tried to safeguard and protect that for those that would come after them.”