The reformation of Langham, Norfolk: notes regarding an enigmatic object of devotion, a church that vanished, and the so-called “Langham Madonna”

by Barendina Smedley

 In 1086, when the Domesday Book was composed, what is now the little village of Langham in Norfolk — in our own time, a small place of fewer than 400 souls — already had two churches. These two churches stood only about 300 meters distant from each other. Langham had long been divided into two main manors, which probably explains the two churches and their foundation well before the date of the Conquest. 

One of these churches — St Andrew, associated with the manor variously called Langham Magna, Langham Episcopi or Langham Bishop — still exists today, under the dedication St Andrew & St Mary. The building stands on a little ridge at the centre of the present-day village, with the land sloping away to the sea to the north, towards a little stream to the south. The other — St Mary, associated with Langham Parva — was located a short distance down the road towards Binham, apparently always outside the main settlement. It was probably the fact of this ridge and the road running along it that gave the village its unremarkable name, shared with parishes in Essex, Suffolk, Rutland and Dorset. 

Yet St Mary disappears from the records at some point between the creation of the Valor Ecclesiasticus of 1535, where it features, and the national inventory of church goods of 1552, where it does not. 

What happened? Of these two churches, St Andrew seems always to have been the more prominent. By the twelfth century it was a vicarage, under the control of the bishop of Norwich. The bishop also had a “palace” in the parish, to the west of the road to Field Dalling alongside what is now known as the Ford, which may — if one accepts local opinion on these things — have previously been the site of a Roman villa. Certainly Roman material has been found at the site. Meanwhile part of the flooded moat of the bishop’s palace is still visible, set in a damp sort of meadow with horses grazing nearby and some working farm buildings immediately next to it. (Peter Tolhurst, Norfolk Parish Treasures: North and West Norfolk, Black Dog Books (2014), p. 91.) 

The ecclesiastical taxation of 1291-92 assessed the bishop’s church, St Andrew, at £3 10s 0d. St Mary, in contrast, where Sir John Cokefield, a layman, was patron, was only worth at 10s. (See here) As for the Valor Ecclesiasticus of 1535, it assessed the value of St Andrew at £4 11s 8d per annum, while St Mary was worth £3 10s 5d. These were, incidentally, both relatively poor livings by wealthy north Norfolk standards. The Valor Ecclesiasticus assessed neighbouring Blakeney, for instance, as worth a clear £27 13s 4d per annum. But then Blakeney was, at the time, one of a trio of thriving Glaven ports, while Langham remained, as it always has been, primarily agricultural. 

For a small village, Langham St Andrew is an impressive church. The current structure was (re)built in flint in the fourteenth century, then enlarged and enriched throughout the course of the fifteenth century, with major restoration campaigns in 1868, 1900, 1906, the mid 1980s and doubtless at other times as well. From the tall tower with its late fifteenth century crenelated parapet, on the right sort of day, one can, allegedly, see all the way to Norwich. There is a general feeling, expressed by Pevsner among others, that the 1868 renovation left the church looking “lifeless”, but this seems unkind to me. On a bright spring morning, when the snowdrops are in bloom and the sunlight catches the flintwork and the old render, it’s a wholly delightful, atmospheric place, both inside and out. 

Langham St Andrew, as seen from the road running from the direction of Blakeney towards Binham and Walsingham

But let us consider, for a moment, the interior of the church. One of its most striking features of St Andrew these days is its bold asymmetry. While the nave has a south aisle complete with a chapel at the end, there is no north aisle whatsoever. What there is, however, is a strange, slightly wonky filled-in arch, larger than a normal doorway, in the north wall, just east of the present entrance. On the outside, meanwhile, someone has scored into the (1980s?) render the outline of a roofline, and then a door within that. Pevsner thought that the “mysterious, shapeless” arch might signal the existence of a vanished chapel. (Nikolaus Pevsner and Bill Wilson, Norfolk I: Norwich and North-East, Yale University Press (2002) p. 584.) 

Such “missing” portions of medieval churches are, of course, more usual than otherwise. The parish next door, Cockthorpe, had its chancel shortened, probably in the seventeenth century, and has blocked-up south-facing wall openings. The church of Cley-next-the-Sea, in its current form built during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, straddling as it did so the trauma of the Black Death, now has both its massive, ornate transepts blocked off — indeed, it’s possible that this may have happened soon after they were built, well before the reformation, due to the loss of a third or more of the local parishioners. And as we’ve seen, St Mary’s Langham vanished altogether. 

The filled-in arch on the north wall of Langham St Andrew

And St Mary’s really did vanish. We know very little about it now. We have literally no idea what the church looked like. The living, however, continued to function for centuries after the church had gone, basically as a means of augmenting the value of other livings held by the same patrons. 

Throughout its history, St Marys seems to have been in the hands of local gentry families, including the Cockfields, Astleys, Bacons and Calthorpes — a circumstance that linked it indirectly with other local entities, such as the manor of Cockthorpe, as well as with two of the three manors that made up Blakeney.

St Mary’s was in ruins by 1602. A survey at the time reported the following of Langham Parva: “The Church there is whollie ruynated and p’faned long since, by Mr. Calthorp, sometyme Lord and Patrone thereof, there are no p’rishners dwelling in the said towne.’ In other words, by 1602 no one in Langham was a parishioner of St Mary — not because no one lived in Langham, which was no more or less populous than usual, but rather, because no one in Langham was a parishioner of St Mary. (Samuel Tymms, East Anglian, Or, Notes and Queries on Subjects Connected with the Counties of Suffolk, Cambridge, Essex and Norfolk, Volume 2 (1866) p. 225.) In 1743, when the parishes of Cockthorpe and Langham Parva were united formally with the livings of Blakeney and Glandford, the church of St Mary was described as “demolished beyond the memory of man”. 

We have a list — gappy, as these things typically are — of clergy presented to the living of St Mary, Langham. This appears as Appendix 1 at the end of these notes.

These days, the site of the church — to the north of the Binham Road, just before the point where it splits off from the road to Cockthorpe — is nothing but the corner of an empty field, edged with a rather ordinary hawthorn hedge. A few modern houses sit directly to the east of it. There’s a stone under the hedge, but of course this might simply be any old stone. The church must have had a burial ground attached to it, but as far as I am aware, having checked the Norfolk Heritage Explorer website, no burials have been found in the field, let alone any more substantial archaeological remains. 

St Mary’s was there for at least five hundred years — until it wasn’t. What’s left of it now is only the Marian dedication, folded in with the dedication of Langham’s still-extant church.

Let us return, now, to the question of that blocked-up arch at Langham St Andrew. 

Our Lady of Tofte

In his worthwhile and admirable discussion of the early sixteenth century wills of Langham parishioners and what these tell us about religious change — probably the best thing written about religion in Langham — Michael Medlar identified St Mary’s church with Our Lady of Tofte. (See Michael Medlar, ‘Early sixteenth century wills of Langham as indicators of religious change’, The Glaven Historian 9, p. 31, online here) This is not unreasonable. “Our Lady of Tofte” is a phrase that crops up in many of the extant late medieval wills left by the inhabitants of Langham. Testators very often bequeath a small sum — 6d., 12d. — for the “reparacion” of Our Lady of Tofte. Unsuprisingly, at the reformation, more or less at the point where St Mary’s itself seems to go out of use, bequests to Our Lady of Tofte also vanish. 

So one can see why Medlar associates the two. Yet while his view is worth taking seriously, I am not sure I agree with it. 

Take, for instance, the will of Richard Blys of Langham St Andrew, made in 1473, and slightly before the scope of the wills covered in Medlar’s essay. (See NRO: NCC, Colbald 29.) In this will, unless I’m misreading it, Blys, a parishioner of St Andrew, first leaves the customary offering to the high altar of Langham St Andrew the Apostle, before, immediately afterwards, leaving the sum of 6d for the repair of the “capelle” of “Sancta Maria Toftes”. Yet we know from the Domesday Book, and indeed the Valor Ecclesiasticus, as well as several other references, that St Mary’s, Langham was a church — a rectory — never a chapel. Surely the more likely reading, here, would be that the church of St Andrew had within it a chapel — not just an altar or a light — dedicated to “Our Lady of Tofte”? And if so, it’s not unreasonable to consider whether this chapel was in fact the now-demolished structure located next to the present north door of the church of St Andrew. 

As for the church of St Mary, Medlar said that he was only able to find the wills of two parishioners associated with this church — John Robyn [sic] (1519) and John Estweke (1522). In both these cases, however, I think he is mistaken — and again, the nature of the mistake tells us something about Our Lady of Tofte. 

John Robyns, describing himself as of “Langham Bysshopp” — i.e. Langham Episcopi — asks to be buried in the “sanctuary of our blyssed Lady of Tofte”, bequeathing to the “sed chapell” 3s. 4d. Only then does he leave money to the high altar of St Andrews (a customary bequest, to avoid excommunication for nonpayment of tithes), 8d. to the church of St Andrew, and 8d. to the gild of the Blessed Trinity. In other words, John Robyns shows every sign of being a parishioner of St Andrew, who wants to be buried in the sanctuary of a chapel — not in the church of St Mary. A chapel and a church aren’t the same thing, and a Tudor testator, let alone the parson who may well have written out the actual will, would have been well aware of this. Intriguingly, John Robyns also asked that “Seynt Gregorye Trentall” be sung — “if it may be borne” i.e. if his funds would allow it, “otherwise the halff” — “in the chappel foresaid for my sowle and for my ffriendes sowles”. Finally, he made the executor of his will John Skarlett, “parson of Langham” — Langham St Andrew. 

In passing, the “Seynt Gregorye Trentall” deserves an explanation. This was not a cheap devotional option — although John Robyns doesn’t specify the cost, around the same time, other English testators would leave as much as £10 for this special series of 30 masses, said by a single priest on ten specific feast days over the course of the liturgical year. The intention here was to free the donor’s soul — and, in this case, the souls of his friends — from Purgatory as swiftly as possible. If it is right that these masses were to be celebrated in what was, in effect, a small chapel adjoining the donor’s parish church, the implications here are interesting — not least, in terms of Robyns’ preference for the altar of Our Lady of Tofte over the high altar in the same church.

Similarly, John Estweke, the other testator thought by Medlar to have been connected with St Mary Langham, describes himself as of “Langham Bysshopp” and asks to be buried in “church yarde of Seynt Andrew” — so, no obvious connection with the church of St Mary there. After leaving the usual donation to the high altar, he goes on to leave a bequest of 4d. to the Rood Light, and then 12d to the “reparacion of Our Lady of Tofte”. The next bequest is to “our mother holy church”, i.e. the cathedral at Norwich, so closely connected with St Andrew, Langham. The gild of the Holy Trinity receives 20d., and the gild of St Andrew receives 12d. John Estweke then asks for a trental of prayers for his soul and those of his friends, to be sung in the church of St Andrew. He bequeaths 13s. 4d. for the reparation of the church of St Andrew. Only then does he move further afield, leaving 20d. to the reparation of the house of the Grey Friars (ie Franciscans) in Walsingham, 20d. to the (Carmelite) friars in Blakeney and 20d. to the Black Friars (i.e. Dominicans) in Norwich. Finally, John Skarlett, parson of Langham, is to have 12s per year for three years after Estweke’s death, presumably to encourage him to say prayers on his behalf. 

Both Robyns and Estweke may have been unusual testators. Both were clearly not only very devout, but also able to afford to express their devotion with generous and imaginative bequests. Both, though, were surely certainly parishioners, not of St Mary, but rather of St Andrew — and both showed a positive commitment to Our Lady of Tofte. 

Although as of now I have only read a dozen or so late medieval Langham wills — I hope to read more in due course, but at about £18 a time as online orders from the Norfolk Record Office, they are frankly a bit of a mad extravagance — from what I have seen, the way these two man regarded Our Lady of Tofte is, in fact, fairly typical. Her chapel appears to have been, like the Rood Light or the various gilds, very much part of the life of the parish, not some sort of alternative to it. 

Having said all that, there is one will that may well provide evidence for Medlar’s view that Our Lady of Tofte was indeed identical with St Mary Langham. This is the will of Oliver Dawbeney, made in 1532. Dawbeney was, by some distance, the richest man to be resident in Langham at the time. I think he may have been a merchant — he asked to be buried before St Erasmus (i.e. before the image of St Erasmus, who, like St Andrew, was a patron saint of sailors. In his extremely short will, Dawbeney leaves quite a number of bequests, most of them connected with the church of St Andrew, including gifts to the gilds there and also to the rood light. Crucially, though, while he doesn’t mention Our Lady of Tofte, he does offer 6d. to “Owre Lady of Little Langham”. 

So perhaps this simply means that I need to read more of these wills. Before moving on, though, it’s worth adding that whichever of us is right about Our Lady of Tofte, Medlar’s essay regarding the pre-reformation wills of Langham comes to absolutely the correct conclusion about these wills — that in them one sees no “early warning” that some sort of protestant religious reformation is about to overtake popular piety. On the contrary, devotion to features of parish worship such as gilds, lights and Our Lady of Tofte appears to have been sustained and genuine — and there are certainly signs of interest in bequests to other local religious institutions, not least houses of mendicant friars, and to specific intercessory prayer sequences, such as that St Gregory trentall.

In summary, then, we may perhaps have located Our Lady of Tofte in a now-vanished chapel of a still-extant church. What, though, was Our Lady of Tofte?

Imagining Our Lady of Tofte

Our Lady of Tofte was, I suspect, a venerated image of the Blessed Virgin. Although virtually forgotten today, in her time she was clearly well known in her own specific locality, which is why she attracted bequests from Langham parisioners — the sole means by which evidence of her existence has been preserved. 

How, though, are we to conjure up a mental picture of Our Lady of Tofte, or at least try to understand what these long-ago Langham testators thought they were doing when they left sums of money to her? Faced with a total lack of concrete evidence, our best alternative is a combination of analogy, common sense and imagination. 

As we have seen, it’s possible that the chapel of Our Lady of Tofte adjoined the church of St Andrew, whilst retaining its own special status — its “sanctuary”, its own restoration fund, if not its own burial rights. 

We may further imagine that the chapel contained an altar, probably with a locally well-recognised statue of Our Lady located nearby. We cannot know whether the statue was made of precious metal, wood, stone or something else — whether it was well or crudely carved, or indeed how old it was. The statue may have been enhanced with, or indeed semi-camouflaged by, a series of opulent robes, necklaces, veils, in some cases false hair, perhaps even a crown. In the dark of the little chapel, lit mostly by candles, it may in any event have been quite hard to see the statue itself, as opposed to what stood around it. There would, though, have been plenty of candles — precisely the sort of gift that the pious would offer to Our Lady. 

It’s not impossible, had Our Lady of Tofte  been seen as even potentially miraculous, that her image might have been surrounded by ex votos, commemorating happy outcomes associated with her intercession: perhaps models of body parts cured of their ills, or ships safely returned from hazardous voyages. Her altar might have had a painted or sculpted reredos. The “sanctuary” may even have been separated from the rest of the little chapel by a screen, itself painted with figures of saints or donors. There may have been windows with painted glass, while the walls and ceiling may have been coloured too. We simply cannot know.

It would not be surprising if Our Lady of Tofte had her own stipendary chaplain, although I have yet to see any actual evidence of this. But when imagining this chapel, we need to remember that there would, presumably, often have been a priest in it, celebrating Mass, including at the behest of people, alive or dead, well known to other Langham parishioners. The sights, sounds and smells of this would have been very present in the physical structure of the nave, not just the chapel itself. And if pilgrims from near or far were visiting the chapel, this too would have made an impression on parishioners. 

Why, though, this association with “Tofte”? In late medieval parlance, “toft” in itself usually meant a homestead together with the land attached to it, or — less commonly — a grove of trees, perhaps on a hilltop.“Toft” also sometimes occurs as a surname — although this isn’t, I think, a normal way to designate particularly venerated statues of Our Lady. 

Happily, however, the surviving cartulary of the Benedictine priory at Binham gives us at hint here. In these documents, “Tofte” or “Toftes” — which occurs at several points — refers to what is now called Toftree, a tiny hamlet near Fakenham, in more recent times in the hands of the Townsends of Raynham. (There is at atmospheric yet informative account of the church at Toftrees, with beautiful photos, on the Norfolk Churches website here) While I have seen no evidence that any particular image of Our Lady was venerated at Toftree, my best guess is that there was some now-unrecoverable connection between Toftree and Our Lady of Tofte, as venerated at St Andrew’s church in Langham. (For an admirably accessible, immaculately-curated edition of the Binham Priory cartularies, see Johanna Margerum (ed), The Cartulary of Binham Priory, Norfolk Record Society (2016) passim.)

This may sound woefully vague, and at some level, of course it is woefully vague. Yet it’s worth remembering how sketchy and contingent our knowledge of the origin stories behind some of the most important pilgrimage site actually is. St Thomas of Canterbury’s martyrdom was, of course, magnificently well documented, not least because it took place in the presence of highly educated individuals who were uniquely able to report, research and disseminate the narrative of his murder and the miracles that followed thereafter. But in the case of Our Lady of Walsingham, what we know about the origin story of the Holy House there — which is to say, not what historians say about it now, but what medieval people may have believed to be the case regarding it — derives solely from one four-page pamphlet, printed in the fifteenth century, now surving in one single example only. And we know nothing, I think, of the origin story of Our Lady of Willesden, much venerated for five centuries before the destruction of the images there in 1538. The same is true of Our Lady of Pew, Our Lady of Ipswich, and many others. So perhaps it isn’t surprising that the origins of Our Lady of Tofte remain an enigma.

As well as a statue, the chapel of Our Lady of Tofte may also have included some sort of relic. For while great pilgrimage sites such as Walsingham, Canterbury or, further afield, Chartes or even Constantinople held the most highly esteemed Marian relics — clothing that had been worn by the Blessed Virgin or even, better still, her actual hair or her milk — even less important shrines sometimes provided access to replica items certified to have been in contact with an actual relic, hence “sanctified”. These included girdles (zona) associated with the Blessed Virgin (often loaned out to local women to help them in childbirth), perhaps a vial of extremely diluted breast milk provided by a pilgrimage site such as Walsingham, or miscellaneous replica relics derived from items thought perhaps to have been used by the Blessed Virgin. Yet as the medieval period progressed, some historians have detected a distinct movement in the focus of adoration from saintly relics to images capable of miraculous healing. So perhaps Our Lady of Tofte started as one sort of venerated site, but later evolved into another. 

Our Lady of Tofte: pilgrimage begins at home

All of this may, perhaps, seem surprising. For many present-day readers, the concept of “pilgrimage” conjures up visions of long, difficult journeys to far-flung destinations. But Diana Webb and Eamon Duffy, among others, have made the point that for most late medieval English people, pilgrimages were less about epic treks to famous places like Canterbury or Walsingham — let alone Rome, Constantinople or Jerusalem — than to these very local, in some sense rather ordinary sources of potentially miraculous intervention. John Leland’s Itinerary, although not very systematic, provides us with one of our few non-testamentary glimpses of these lesser shrines, repeatedly citing images “hauntid with pilgrimes” in the early sixteenth century yet in our own time almost entirely forgotten. This galaxy of now-forgotten saints’ chapels and altars, perhaps complete with relics, must once have been a prominent feature of popular devotion, not least in a wealthy and well-connected areas like the medieval north Norfolk coast, where Langham was located. 

Blakeney haven, for instance — which is to say, the villages of Snitterley (later called Blakeney) Wiveton and Cley-next-the-Sea — must have attracted a reasonable number of pilgrims who wished to travel to Walsingham, but who preferred to approach the area by coasting craft. Blakeney’s parish church had an altar dedicated to St Thomas of Canterbury — perhaps not surprising, as the thirteenth century probably marked the height of Blakeney’s importance as a place, coinciding exactly with the moment at which the cult of St Thomas and his miracles reached its zenith. This altar may well have encompassed relics donated by wealthy benefactors: anything from a flask containing St Thomas’ blood (much diluted with water), to an actual blood-stained bit of cloth relating to St Thomas, to portions of his garments or items previously owned by him. Such relics would both save the residents of Blakeney the effort of travelling all the way to Canterbury in search of the saint’s intercession, but would also attract for the donor the grateful thanks and prayers of all those whom St Thomas had helped. 

At nearby Cley, there was an altar dedicated to St James the Apostle — a saint whose cult had achieved huge popularity in England by the thirteenth century, largely inspired by Henry I’s devotion, culminating in the gift of a major relic — the Apostle’s mummified hand — to Reading Abbey. Wiveton, like Blakeney, had an altar dedicated to St Thomas of Canterbury. 

Meanwhile, pilgrims travelling from Blakeney haven to Walsingham would, if they were taking the most obvious route, have passed by Langham’s two churches. Indeed, the chapel of Our Lady of Tofte would, if it was located where it seems to have been, been visible to such pilgrims as they passed, rushing along more or less the last lap of their journey towards Walsingham itself. 

Perhaps, then, it’s possible to be a bit cynical about all this. Was Our Lady of Tofte some sort of money-spinning project laid on by the Bishop of Norwich in order to benefit from the pious excitement of pilgrims who were by that point only an hour’s walk distant from the second most famous pilgrimage site in England — sited where it was to, in effect, pick up passing trade? This seems unfair. Not least, those bequests from local people surely argue that there was more to Our Lady of Toftes than devotional opportunism. 

It’s not as if there weren’t plenty of other ways in which Langham testators could have expressed their pious aspirations. Looking at the church of St Andrew today, we see it furnished with all the things one would expect of a normal, well-kept, well-used Anglican church in a rural parish. But in order to understand how Our Lady of Tofte would have fit in here, we need to re-imagine the rest of the church as well, and some of what is still present in the church helps us do that.

Langham church once had a rood-loft. This is vividly clear from what remains: not only the doors that opened out onto the rood beam, but also the tiny winding staircase leading up to them. The rood itself would have included an image of the crucified Saviour, flanked by Saint Mary (to the north) and St John (to the south). At ground level, the screen — judging by those that still exist in plenty of nearby parishes — would have featured paintings of relevant saints, but also openings through which the high altar might easily be seen by those in the nave, and may also have had altars set up against it. 

But there would also have been other images in the church. As we have seen, for instance, from Oliver Dawbeney’s will of 1532, there was certainly an image of St Erasmus — attested only, as far as I can see, in that one source. Other wills reveal the existence of gilds of the Holy Trinity and of St Andrew, each of which presumably had its own altar and image. There are plenty of references to the rood light (burning up on the rood beam), the plough light, and to Our Lady’s light — again, candles burning before images. Further, Medlar has noted references to a “Hallowmass light” and “Solomon’s light” — and who can feel confident that the list is exhaustive? 

And then alongside this, the people of late medieval would have had access to religious experiences outside the parish church. We have seen that there was a degree of interest in the various orders of mendicant friars operating locally, who may have offered particularly dynamic preaching and distinctive forms of spirituality. But devotional activity could also take place in domestic spaces, through private prayer, perhaps guided by one of the increasing number of printed primers or books of saints’ lives, or through contemplating of privately-owned items such as alabaster heads of St John the Baptist. other religious scenes or indeed actual relics. It could also take place through personal behaviour, such as a conscious effort to enact the seven corporal works of mercy wherever possible, whether through membership of a gild or confraternity, or more privately. We know that East Anglia was well provided with religious drama as well as the more usual processions and public rituals. In short, however it was that Our Lady of Tofte functioned within this rich and complex landscape of devotion, veneration of her image was only one of many different options on offer. 

We have, to the extent we’ve glimpsed Our Lady of Tofte, seen her through the lens of late medieval piety — that of the very late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. But it’s possible that she was around much longer than that. While it’s possible to debate the exact point at which Our Lady of Walsingham began to be an object of devotion, that date is unlikely to have been later than the middle of the twelfth century, and may well have been earlier. The twelfth and thirteenth centuries in England saw a huge eruption of enthusiasm for wonder-working relics and pilgrimage, not least as a way of dealing with very human problems such as infertility, physical or mental illness, inexplicable misfortune and moral guilt. The catastrophe of the Black Death and subsequent epidemics meant that as the fourteenth century passed, spiritual concerns often focussed more directly on death, purgatory and personal salvation. With the fifteenth century came an increased emphasis on the parish and its community — those gilds, lights and other communal devotions we have seen, however glancingly, in those two wills, but also processions and dramatic performances — as well as aids to individual devotion such as that now included printed books, accessible to many. 

This is all a long way of saying that the thing we call “medieval religion”, far from being static, was continually evolving as the world around it evolved and changed. We have seen, too, how much the church of St Andrew must have changed. Not least, it had been virtually rebuilt between 1400 and 1510, so that many of those who lived through the first years of the English reformation would well have remembered the completion of that tall tower and the first peal of those bells. In any event, we need to remember that whatever Our Lady of Tofte might have meant to people in 1530, she may have meant very different things to their forebears in 1450, 1350 or in 1250.

At another level, it’s possible to argue that intensely local cults such as Our Lady of Tofte, in taking a universalising creed and giving it such a specific and tangible focus, served functions that might, in a pre-Christian world, have been carried out by a genius loci. Post all of Ronald Hutton’s fascinating work on these issues, we are no longer allowed the fond intuition that, in this case, some sort of lesser Romano-British deity associated with, say, the little stream called the Ford and the water-meadows through which it runs, or perhaps just the little hill sitting above it, managed to elide seamlessly into Our Lady of Tofte, a local instance of the benevolent Marian energy sweeping across an increasingly Christianised devotional landscape. Perhaps we might just about get away with insisting on a long-running enchantment of ordinary places, the sense that they might be capable of producing miraculous outcomes, with a shift only in the theological schema underpinning it, now, alas largely lost.

All the same, though, humans being what they are, it is not hard to imagine that for ordinary people living in Langham, at least in the late medieval period, Our Lady of Tofte might have seemed more approachable, perhaps even more efficacious for their own needs than better-known shrines further afield. St Thomas the Martyr was, after all, endlessly visited by kings and queens, great men and women, crowds of pilgrims from anywhere and everywhere. And although she was only a few miles down their own road, the same was true, ceteris paribus, of Our Lady of Walsingham. Our Lady of Tofte, in contrast, might have more time and more patience to deal with matters relating to especially Langham — a sheep that was somehow fading, a difficult pregnancy, the salvation of some elderly person known perhaps only to a few dozen people, yet very much loved by them all the same. And who are we to say they were wrong? 

Langham St Andrew, seen from the north east

The reformation of Langham, Norfolk

There must have been an actual moment, at some point during the 1530s, when someone in Langham first realised that Our Lady of Tofte — whether her image was located in the church of St Andrew, or somewhere else — was unlikely to be able to remain where she was, or indeed to be venerated as she had been, for very much longer.

Admittedly, there had long been complaints about the cult of the saints, with particular emphasis on the apparently “superstitious” treatment of images and relics, and the way in which unscrupulous people exploited the credulity or desperation of the ignorant — not that there was anything unique to religious in most of the latter. The Lollards had long argued that money offered to saints’ shrines would do more good if given in alms to the poor, a line of thought that gained not only theological credibility but also populist traction. At the other end of the spectrum, the tediously snarky Erasmus mocked pilgrimages to Canterbury and Walsingham, before later trying to clarify, once it was far too late to do much good, that of course he hadn’t meant to undermine devotion to the Blessed Virgin or the saints more generally. And as we have seen, fashions in piety had never been static. Diana Webb’s Pilgrimage in Medieval England (Hambledon and London, 2000) illustrates this vividly: although pilgrimage seems to be a more or less universal human practice, the shape it takes can change very rapidly indeed, as the world around it changes.

Still, when the successive waves of the Henrician reformation started to be felt in Langham, at first Our Lady of Toftes might not have seemed under threat. Quite possibly, the people of Langham didn’t have strong views about the respective roles of the pope versus the king. Some of them might have been quite pleased to have access to an English language Bible, although of course as the Glaven ports, with all their hard-to-police marsh and creeks, had always been a smugglers’ paradise, so probably anyone in Langham who really wanted edgy religious texts wouldn’t have struggled to find them. Also, in a parish where the bishop of Norwich was the chief landowner and the patron of the living, there may have been some support for limiting the privileges of the clergy. The Ten Articles of 1536, with their mixed messages, to some extent illustrate the scope for ambivalence. When the reformation started, it was by no means clear how far it was going to go, nor indeed how fast.

The start of the dissolution of the monasteries, on the other hand, must have made clear that more profound and immediate changes were afoot. Although at the start, in 1536, not all religious houses were suppressed immediately, it was fairly clear that all were under threat. The Pilgrimage of Grace and, in particular, the Lincolnshire Rising would have had a direct effect on Langham, in that troops raised locally to combat these risings did, at least in some cases, return home full of sympathy with the rebels’ aims and with an enhanced awareness of the possibility of organised revolt. Also, as late as the winter of 1535, pilgrims from Lincolnshire and elsewhere were still travelling to Norfolk to seek the help of Our Lady of Walsingham, so there would have been plenty of opportunities for exchanges of rumour, opinion and advice.

In April 1536, whatever discontent the people of Langham may have felt about the radical reforms of the past year or so burst out into the open in truly spectacular fashion, with the discovery of what has become known as the Walsingham Conspiracy. (By far the best source for this remains C. Moreton, “The Walsingham Conspiracy of 1537”, Historical Research, 63:150, pp. 29-43.) 

The Walsingham Conspiracy was an attempted insurrection that never really made it past the planning stage, as it was promptly reported to a local gentleman, Sir John Heydon of Baconsthorpe (just the other side of Holt), who immediately sent news of it to Richard Gresham in London and Sir Roger Townshend at East Raynham. At this point, the whole weight of Tudor law enforcement came down upon north Norfolk. As the plot hadn’t progressed very far, only about 25 conspirators were arrested — all of them of low degree, as Richard Southwell, another Norfolk man sent up from London to oversee the mopping up operation, reported to his superiors with almost audible relief. 

Without getting into much detail, the point of the insurrection was two-fold. The rebels disliked and distrusted the ever-increasing power that had accrued to the local gentry, particularly in their role as landlords — and they objected to the suppression of the monasteries. Their hope, apparently, was that by capturing the more offensive local landowners and seizing their land, they would bring their grievances to the attention of the King, who would surely listen with sympathy to their complaints. As everyone who has written about the conspiracy has commented, the rebels don’t seem to have learned much from the Pilgrimage of Grace and its deeply unhappy ending. 

All of those arrested came from north Norfolk. Three, in fact, were from Langham. They were Thomas Manne alias Thomas Carpenter (a carpenter), John Sellers alias John Taylor (a tailor), and — perhaps most surprisingly of all, John Grigbie (sometimes spelled “Grigby”), the vicar of Langham St Andrew. Of these men, both Manne and Sellers were amongst the 11 men ultimately executed for their part in the plot. The executions took place in Norwich, Yarmouth, Lynn and Walsingham. Manne was hanged at Norwich on 26th May 1537, while Sellers was executed two days later in Yarmouth.

In Walsingham, the site of the executions was what is now a triangle of scrubby pasture framed by the Eugene Link Road and the Edgemere Road, and these days called Martyrs’ Field. The men who were executed there would have been hanged in front of a crowd. Next their entrails were drawn out and then their bodies hacked into quarters, boiled, and hung up in various prominent locations, as a message to other would-be rebels. Presumably the pilgrims who were still, even then, visiting the image of Our Lady of Walsingham would have passed these grim totems of secular authority as they made their way into or out of the village.

As for John Grigbie, vicar of Langham, he seems simply to have gone back to his parish and his living, where he continued to act as scribe and witness for parishioners’ wills, as well as carrying out his other liturgical and pastoral duties. We will never know, I suppose, why Grigbie escaped execution. It’s possible, of course, that he wasn’t involved in the conspiracy at all. Or perhaps he was, but when faced with the wrath of the local gentry and the prospect of violent death, he decided to provide evidence against his fellow conspiritors. Finally, because we know nothing about who he is or how he ended up with the living that he did, we shall never know whether he might have been able to call on some powerful patron who was able to protect him. But in any event, Langham was not a big place, so its brief involvement at the heart of an event of such importance must surely have reverberated around the community for years afterward. 

Parenthetically, in the context of the dissolution of the monasteries, it’s striking that the rector of the next-door parish of Blakeney, John Cleyton (d. 1541) — a high-flying pluralist who, as well as being the incumbent of several other parishes, was Master of the College of the Holy Trinity in Attleborough — was also a confidante and possibly the chaplain of career soldier and courtier Richard Radcliffe, the first earl of Sussex, and in that capacity not only preached against the Pilgrimage of Grace but was also present at the suppression of the abbeys of Whalley and Furness in the spring of 1537. Cleyton, who had previously been a sidekick Henry VII’s attorney general Sir James Hobart, had taken Thomas Cromwell’s illegitimate son out for a fun day of hunting, and generally enjoyed moving in grand circles, was largely non-resident (a kinsman was, for at least some of the time, his curate) so he may never have met John Grigbie. All the same, though, it’s interesting to speculate what the two of them must have thought of each other. 

 Meanwhile, the Augustinian priory at Walsingham had also been very much caught up in the Walsingham Conspiracy. Two lay-choristers there had been key figures in the conspiracy, but the sub-prior, Nicholas Mileham, a man of “lewd inclination” according to one rebel, was also implicated, as was a former canon, William Betts. Mileham ended up being hanged outside the priory walls — presumably more or less in front of what is now the Bull public house. 

None of this helped the case of Our Lady of Walsingham. Towards the end of 1538, the priory at Walsingham was suppressed, the Holy House demolished, and the famous image of Our Lady vanished from public view, all under the supervision of Sir Roger Townshend, who had played a part in putting down the Walsingham Conspiracy, and who was also soon to be a major landowner in Langham. 

It was presumably at more or less this point, in 1538 or thereabouts, that Our Lady of Tofte was removed from her chapel and ceased to be a part of normal devotional experience in Langham. Under the pressure of official reform — which, admittedly, vacillated unpredictably between protestant innovation and traditionalist retrenchment — worship in Langham was changing quickly. The next decade or so saw the introduction of vernacular liturgy, the abolition of gilds and of intercessory prayers for the dead, the removal of all those lights and images and side-altars, probably the whitewashing of the interior of the church and the removal or “defacing” of stained glass windows. The interior of the church of St Andrew must have looked almost unrecognisable. 

It was probably also at this point that the church of St Mary fell out of use. The later years of the Henrician reformation, in suppressing chantry chapels and introducing changes in the patronage of so many livings, often saw the disappearance of relatively underused churches where there was another, more successful parish church nearby to take up the slack. 

How did the inhabitants of Langham react to these changes? On the surface, like most of their contemporaries throughout England, they conformed — whatever they may have thought of the constantly shifting, sometimes quite cynical policy shifts, they did as they were told by the relevant authorities. Yet it’s hard to detect any great enthusiasm here. To the extent that the official inventory of church goods of 1552 opens a window onto the conversations going on in vestries and amongst parishioners, one gets the sense that the churchwardens did as little as they could get away with doing. As late as 1552, after all, the parish still retained two silver-gilt chalices; sets of vestments of made up of black satin of Bruges, green satin of Bruges, white silk and dornix, including three copes; silk and painted altar-clothes and banners; two “cross cloths” (to veil the altar and rood crosses on Good Friday?); a cross of “latten” for Lent; as well as three bells. 

Given that they’d already sold off goods from which there was still 40s. remaining, and that there was, at that point, no liturgical reason to hang on to many of these items, the luxurious copes in particular, the implication is more one of dutiful compliance than burning protestant zeal. The churchwardens further certified that they had sold off “ornamentes plate jewelles and belles” “with and by the consent of the hole parysh” — a phase which, although formulaic, rings with a sort of anxiety on the part of the churchwardens that they shouldn’t be held personally responsible for this sale if, with another change of policy, their activities suddenly became unpopular. These were, perhaps, men who had watched the falls of Cromwell and Cranmer and could imagine these dramas being reprised on small, more familiar stages.

What became of the money from all these sales? The churchwardens certified this, too:

Whereof we have bestowyd toward ye makinge of an bulwarke at Waborn [i.e. Weybourne] and for the beakon with ii mens harnes for the Kinges warres and the heygh weyes with other nedful things. The reste of the monye remay’th in our handes intendinge therwith to repare white and mende the church and do other thinges as nede requiryth. 

So the investment that had previously been directed towards popular piety was now being spent on “the King’s wars” and related infrastructure projects — and of course altering the interior of the parish church to eradicate any memory of what had been there previously. Did this include work to remove all signs of Our Lady of Tofte? (A transcript of the 1552 Inventory of Church Goods for the Hundred of Holt, Norfolk can be found here )

From then to now

Compared with other north Norfolk churches one might mention, Langham St Andrew was pretty comprehensively reformed. 

Comparison makes this obvious. Looking around other neighbouring churches, one can find all sorts of things that speak of pre-reformation piety: surviving chancel screens (some of them still bearing saints’ images), fonts depicting the Seven Sacraments, Easter sepulchres, memorial brasses still soliciting prayers for the souls of the deceased, old stained glass, roofs featuring angels, a tower meant to house a Sanctus bell, patches of surviving wall paintings, bench-ends decorated with everything the medieval imagination had to offer. 

Almost none of this appears in Langham St Andrew. Possibly the oldest thing left in the church is a magnificently bulky Purbeck marble font — and here, I think Simon Knott of the Norfolk Churches website is correct in his suggestion that the font may have been removed from the church during the late medieval rebuilding, only to be pressed back into use after the Interregnum, possibly because the more fashionable and up-to-date late medieval font had either been destroyed or lost. Other than this, what is there? Only glimpses of some wall painting at the east end of the chancel, too incomplete to read properly.

The reason for this relative lack of pre-reformation survivals isn’t hard to intuit. Before, during and after the Tudor reformations, the patron of the living at Langham St Andrew remained the bishop of Norwich — meaning that through those crucial years from the middle of the the sixteenth century to the middle of the seventeenth century, the incumbent vicar was likely to have been a convinced protestant. Meanwhile the manor of Langham Magna — comprising most of the land in Langham — had first come into the hands of the Crown, then to the Gresham family, then to Sir Nathaniel Bacon, and then finally to the Townshends of Raynham. Thomas Gresham, Sir Nathaniel Bacon and the Townshends were all more puritan than otherwise. They were not the sort of people who would have tolerated a parish church stuffed with “monuments of superstition”. All of them were perfectly capable of attempting to impose their own doctrinal views on those over whom they had any control. 

The other landowners with any significant say in the life of the parish were the Calthorpes, who lived nearby at Cockthorpe, a tiny hamlet about twenty minutes’ walk to the north and west of Langham. Of these, James Calthorpe, who died in 1558, only a short time after Queen Mary did, left a will that tells us at least something about his own religious views. If we combine this information with what we know about his clerical patronage, we are left with the picture of a pragmatic man who appears more obviously interested in the status of his family, and in ensuring his own dynastic legacy, than he was in the finer points of protestant theology — although as with many of his contemporaries, his circumspection may have camouflaged any number of broadly traditionalist views. His own son, Christopher Calthorpe, married Joan, daughter of Roger Rokewood of Euston in Suffolk, but died in 1562. Their son, James Calthorpe, seems to have been, like his cousin Sir Nathaniel Bacon, a puritan. 

I suspect this concentration of reformed, increasingly puritan patronage and more or less direct social pressure must, over time, have made it harder for religious traditionalists to function in Langham than was the case in some other nearby parishes. At some point I hope to look at late Tudor and early Stuart visitation returns in the hope of unpicking this matter further. Still, the change in church furnishings speak clearly of the change in devotional practice. In the wake of the Tudor reformations, for most parishioners, Christianity was more than ever a religion of the Word: of the Bible, but also of the Book of Common Prayer, the homilies and, for the parishes whose incumbents’ learning stretched to it, actual preaching. Gone were the appeals to the senses: the lights and painted surfaces, the incense, processions and plays, sung liturgy. Gone, too, was a high degree of lay autonomy. Where one parishioners were offered quite a range of devotional options — cults of different saints, recourse to powerful and sympathetic female exemplars and intercessors, pilgrimage, the ability to hire stipendiary clergy to perform specific liturgical functions, the different devotional “styles” of the various monastic and mendicant orders, the ever-growing canon of printed religious materials including saints’ lives and primers — the options had now narrowed considerably. Hence the box pews that reinforced the parish hierarchy, the pulpit raised up before them, whited walls relieved only by memorials lauding the more eminent and wealthy dead of the parish.

For those who embraced protestantism, it must be said, there were various ways in which to take their journey of faith further — not all of which were welcomed by those in positions of authority. One of these went under the label of ‘prophesying’, something which, circa 1574, was reported as taking place at Wiveton, as well as Wighton, Holt, Fakenham, North Walsham, Norwich and other Norfolk towns — which would have brought it within range of the keener Langham protestants.

‘An exercise of prophesying’, in the Elizabethan church of the 1570s, was an event featuring several sermons — anywhere from two to four — preached on the same text by different preachers, in front of an audience consisting both of laypeople and clergy, gathered together for the occasion, which is to say, in no way confined to actual parishioners. There were some in the church, very much including Elizabeth herself, who disapproved deeply of such events, and did a great deal to suppress them, although when she finally did so in 1577, they were instantly reborn as ‘combination lectures’, although with the important difference that in the case of combination lectures, the sermons were not all preached to one text, with the invitation to debate — and heterodoxy — that inevitably provided. Further, as Langham was so near the Glaven ports, with their easy access to the Low Countries, Germany and the Baltic, access to not-entirely-licit theological texts was particularly easy.

Again, though, looking at visitation returns may help us to understand the extent to which the men and women of Langham accepted the new order, and indeed the extent to which they embraced the obvious alternatives: more extreme forms of puritanism, catholic recusancy, or indeed simple, profound indifference.

Here are two puzzles regarding Langham St Andrew which a long morning with those visitation returns might address. 

The first is simply the surprising length of the chancel. Its tall tower notwithstanding, St Andrew’s isn’t a huge church — yet its chancel is, surely, very long relative to the rest of it. Why is that the case? 

Secondly, and perhaps related — on the exterior of the east wall of the chancel, below the big east window, there is, near ground level, a low arch made up of freestone. The wall itself is built of flint that was once rendered, but to me at least, differences in the surviving lime mortar suggest that the arch was filled in at some time after the wall above it was completed. Following an interesting conversation about this subject on, of all places, Twitter, I am increasingly persuaded that the arch, rather than serving a purely functional purpose (e.g. as a straining arch, compensating for some sort of problem with the ground on which the chancel was built) may instead once have held a tomb. This did sometimes happen, both to bring some high-status dead person closer to the high altar within, but perhaps also to attract the notice of those passing who might be persuaded to offer prayers for whomever lay within. Examples of tombs set into external niches include the following: St Mary’s church, Great Brington (Northampton); St Bartholomew’s church, Lostwithiel (Cornwall, 13th century burials); St Michael & All Angels, Kingsland (Herefordshire); St Peter’s, Stanton Lacy (Herefordshire, 14th century burials). But if this was the case at Langham, whose tomb was located there, and why? And more to the point, what if anything does this tell us about Our Lady of Tofte?

The exterior of the chancel of Langham St Andrew — was this once a tomb niche?

There are many points at which the arch might have been filled in, either for structural or, indeed, borderline iconoclastic reasons, or simply out of pure indifference. We have seen that in 1868, the then-incumbent James Montague Randall organised an expensive and comprehensive renovation of the church. Here is what the Norwich Mercury had to say about it at the time:

The chancel has been repaired at the private cost of W Rippinghall, Esq, of Langham Hall. The works of the church reflect the highest credit on Mr W Rush, of Langham, builder. The lead and two unuseable bells were sold by faculty, and realised £160; the contributions of parishioners and friends amounted to £240. There is a deficiency of nearly £40, towards which the collection after the services [on the day of re-opening] is an acceptable help. The works consist of a new roof to the nave, south aisle, and porch; the north wall has been repaired outside, and the walls stuccoed inside. The pillars, arches, and mullions have been picked and cleaned throughout; twelve new windows have been put in — eight in the church, filled with cathedral glass, and coloured border, and four plain windows in the clerestory, supplied by Messrs. J and J King, of Norwich, and greatly admired. All the seats in the church are open, except one, about which a law suit was threatened had the churchwardens attempted to remove it. The floor of the porch has been renewed, an underground stove fixed, and matting, etc, etc, added. A new pulpit and prayer desk have been given to the church — the matter by Mr and Mrs Sheringham, of Thornage. A very handsome velvet cover, elaborately embroidered, for the communion table, has been presented by Mrs Burchett, of the Manor Cottage; the Commandments, on two tablets, beautifully illuminated, by Mrs Rippinghall; and new service books, by Mrs W Joyce. 

(Norwich Mercury, 26 December 1868, here)

This, too, is another moment which pre-reformation survivals might have been lost, if they had not all gone before, along with the post-reformation box pews, earlier pulpit, and probably a great deal else. The vicar at the time was of an evangelical orientation — in the older sense, in that he was more obviously interested in missionary work than he was in drawing upon the earlier heritage of his parish. Without further evidence, though, we cannot tell at what point that arch in the north wall of the church was filled in, or at what point whatever had stood outside the arch — the remains of a chapel? — was finally cleared away. 

On the north wall of Langham St Andrew, to the east of the porch, the outlines of a door and a roofline have been traced into the 1980s (?) render

It is only really in the period around the time of the Great War that we encounter any particular enthusiasm for the parish’s deeper past — specifically, in the (re) introduction in the south aisle of a Lady Chapel. This chapel is mostly notable for a delightful reredos (1922) in memory of Elizabeth Browne Harris (d. 1890) — a descendent, as it happens, of the great Sir Thomas Brown. The reredos was commissioned by Mrs Harris’s son, Herbert Elwin Harris FRCS, a distinguished surgeon. The reredos was designed by John Page of Blakeney, painted by Ellen Woodward of Bushey and the carving is by J Howard & Sons of Norwich. The painted panels depict the Virgin Mary holding her Son in her lap, showing him off to the three Magi under the supervision of a saint who might or might not be St Matthias. (But where is Saint Andrew?) The group is flanked immediately by Saint Elizabeth and John the Baptist, but also by the distinctively East Anglian saints Julian of Norwich, Withburgha of Dereham, and an unnamed saint — possibly St Edmund, his golden garments reflected in the water below his feet. It’s precisely this East Anglian element that anchors the chapel so firmly in local devotional traditions.

Reredos at the east end of the south aisle of Langham St Andrew

The reredos was commissioned at more or less the high water mark of Anglo-Catholocism in north Norfolk — the moment when Mowbray O’Rorke, the colourful ex bishop of Accra famed for wearing unfeasibly tall episcopal mitres, was rector of nearby Blakeney, when processions and sung liturgy were the norm in many local churches, and — crucially — when the veneration of Our Lady of Walsingham, revived after so many centuries, was finally taking shape in its Anglican as well as its Roman Catholic manifestations. All of which brings us to the final point worth addressing in these rather miscellaneous notes on Langham — the fascinating case of the so-called Langham Madonna.

The other Langham Madonna

In 2019, Fr Michael Rear and Dr Francis Young published some truly stunning research suggesting that a thirteenth century oak statue of the Virgin and Child, held in the collection of London’s Victoria & Albert Museum since 1926, might well be the original image long venerated as Our Lady of Walsingham.

The V&A’s record of the so-called Langham Madonna can be found here

The case is set out in more detail elsewhere, notably in an appendix to the 2019 reissue of Fr Michael Rear’s Walsingham: Pilgrims and Pilgrimage. There is also a briefer account on Dr Francis Young’s website.

Here, though, is a quick summary of Rear and Young’s arguments. 

  • The statue in the V&A’s collection bears a striking resemblance to that shown on the seal of the Priory, which is probably the best surviving record of the appearance of the Walsingham statue. The two images match each other closely, down to details such as individuals folds in the Virgin’s garments.
  • Although the V&A’s provenance notes suggest that the statue was “said to have come from Langham church, near Colchester, Essex” in 1925, as the “gift of Mr E. R. D. Maclagan CBE through [the] Art Fund”, there is evidence showing that this provenance is not reliable. In particular, the statue may well have come not from Langham near Colchester, Essex, but rather from Langham, a Norfolk village just six miles distant from Walsingham. 
  • At least two contemporaries with knowledge of the sale speculated that the V&A statue might be the original Walsingham image.
  • The V&A statue has unusual features — fittings for a metal crown, fittings to allow the statue to be attached firmly to a throne-type setting, a crudely hacked-out portion at the Virgin’s feet. These possibly correspond, respectively, to the gold crown offered to Our Lady of Walsingham by Henry III, the large throne that also appears on the priory seal, and the precious “toadstone” that, according to Erasmus and others, sat under the feet of Our Lady of Walsingham. 
  • While it is often assumed that the wooden statue venerated at Walsingham was burned at Chelsea in 1536, in fact the evidence for this is far from conclusive. Other devotional images certainly did survive this phase of the protestant reformation, either through concealment or, possibly, through the tacit complicity of those sent to enforce reformation policy. 

Suffice to say that I find Rear and Young’s arguments wholly compelling. In particular, it is very hard to explain why the V&A’s image should resemble the Walsingham seal so exactly, have such elaborate fittings to attach it to a throne or similar support — or, indeed, why there is a chunk of wood hacked out of the front of it — if it is not the actual statue once venerated at Walsingham or, at worst, a very early and close copy of the same.

What follows, then, is not intended to challenge the general argument in any way, but rather to clarify a few minor details, in the hope that this will bring us closer to finding actual proof of origins of the V&A’s statue. 

The V&A’s “Langham Madonna” (author’s own photo)

First, there is an implication in the appendix to Walsingham: Pilgrims and Pilgrimage that the statue now in the V&A was consigned to auction by whomever removed it from “Langham Hall” or indeed “Langham Church” — the slightly confused documentary evidence around the provenance means that either place is possible — was “removed” in or very shortly before 1925, when the item appeared at auction. Based on my experience of art sales, however, I think this is potentially a mis-reading of the evidence. 

If the statue had been sold, for instance, by the owner of Langham Hall, no auction house or museum would list it as “said to have come from Langham Hall” — because there would have been no reason to water down the provenance with that cautious “said to”. 

By way of analogy, I personally own a fifteenth century oak roof boss, sold in the past ten years by a well-known London auction house as “said to have come from Orton church” — the church in question being All Saints, Orton in Northamptonshire, a church that was restored in 1868-87 and 1906, and that has now been redundant for several decades. In other words, the ceiling boss was not being sold by those presently responsible for the church, but rather by someone who — probably working from the word “Orton” carved on the back in rather old-fashioned lettering — asserted, semi-credibly, an association with Orton. 

This isn’t, by the way, pedantry for its own sweet sake. In the case of the Langham Madonna, it may well mean that the statue had not come from Langham church or Langham Hall in 1925, but rather, that it had been in some sort of collection somewhere for an unknown amount of time, albeit in a context where someone recalled a connection with “Langham”. For instance, just to make up one possible scenario, in 1924, a middle-aged daughter might have been clearing her late father’s house, and sending various things to auction. “What is this?” the auctioneer’s agent might have asked. “Oh, I don’t really know, except Father always said that it came from Langham” the vendor of the item might have replied. This, in turn, gives us a longer stretch of time over which discovery or sales history might have occurred. 

Secondly, there’s a perfectly good reason why anyone who sold or collected late medieval English art and furniture might have heard “Langham” and thought immediately of the house near Colchester. 

In 1913, the Langham Hall estate (Essex) was sold at very well-publicised auction. (See the Chelmsford Chronicle – Friday 22 August 1913.) While the Hall itself had been substantially rebuilt in 1740, Valley Farm, which was also sold at this time as a part of the dispersal of the larger estate, was a much older house, reputedly dating back to the fourteenth century. (See photo here) Confusingly, oak panelling and perhaps other late medieval features were later removed from Valley House and inserted at Langham Hall. (See account here) Hence if the word “Langham” meant anything to the sort of people who were interested in acquiring objects for the V&A — and I’m sure it did — then perhaps this explains why Essex came immediately to mind. 

Ultimately, though, we must face the fact that our two best sources of information regarding the V&A statue are at variance, to the extent of being mutually contradictory:

  • The V&A curator R P Bedford who first spotted the statue in a sale by Messrs Robinson, Fisher & Harding in Willis’s Sale Rooms in King Street, St James, taking place on 23 December 1925, eventually reported that “I learnt from the former owner that it came from the Church, now I think destroyed”. He had previously informed Sir Eric Maclagan (1879-1951), director of the V&A, that the statue was “said to have come from Langham Hall, Colchester” so the comment about the church should be viewed in that context — i.e. that it is clarifying or correcting his previous remark, presumably on the basis of better information.
  • Six years later, on 25 July 1931, Fr Henry Joy Fynes-Clinton (1875-1959) wrote to the Tablet, stating that “recently there was discovered in an old house near Walsingham, and sold, an old wooden carved figure apparently of the twelfth century …” which Fynes-Clinton believed to be a copy of the Walsingham image, or possibly the image itself. 

Of these two sources, I take the written notes of R P Bedford to be the more credible, as he was reporting on a then-recent conversation in a professional capacity, while Fynes-Clinton’s statement could conceivably be based only on hearsay, and as such, may enshrine (as it were) a misunderstanding of what he had been told.

There is no doubt that Fynes-Clinton and Maclagan were well acquainted, and indeed, had almost certainly discussed this very statue. Fynes-Clinton, a well-educated and well-connected Anglo-Catholic clergyman, was rector of St Magnus Martyr in the City of London, but more to the point, he was also a founder guardian and substantial benefactor of the Anglican Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. (See a very full biography here) Meanwhile, Maclagan, keeper of the V&A — a distinguished art historian and himself a very learned and literate man — was also a founding guardian of the Shrine. (See Maclagan’s biography here) The two men obviously knew each other, shared interests and beliefs as well as a high standard of scholarship, and were deeply committed to the Anglican Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. 

Many years later, in 1961, in the course of a lengthy article on the history of the Shrine, Hedley Hope-Nicholson — an Anglo-Catholic barrister and would-be literary figure — commented on the Fynes-Clinton letter, recalling that “The late Sir Eric Maclagan, when keeper of the Museum drew the writer’s attention to the possible identity of the wooden figure with the far-famed image thought to have been burnt at Chelsea”. 

So if, as seems almost unarguable, Fynes-Clinton and Maclagan were aware of each other’s opinion regarding the V&A statue, then there is really only one version of the story that makes sense. This is that the statue was indeed “discovered in an old house near Walsingham” — possibly, but not necessarily, “recently” prior to 1925 — but that it was taken from a church — “now I think destroyed” — at a place called Langham.  

Well, there is a charming old church at Langham, Essex, dedicated to St Mary, but as far as I have been able to discover, no church there has ever been destroyed. In contrast, as we have seen, the church of St Mary at Langham (‘Little Langham’) vanished between 1535 and 1552, while the church of St Andrew at Langham may have lost an important Marian chapel around the same time. 

Given the way this story has played out, it is understandable that attempts to locate the “old house near Walsingham” have focused on Langham Hall in Langham, near Walsingham in Norfolk. The Norfolk-based Langham Hall, however, was built by local squire Stephen Frost Rippingall in the early 1820s. Hence it seems unlikely that anyone would have referred to it as “an old house” in 1931, at least in the context of finding a medieval statue there. 

Further, Langham Hall was definitely not built on the site of some earlier, similarly important building stuffed full of fascinating recusant relics. It was only following the enclosure of the parish in the early nineteenth century that the Rippingall family was able, through exchanges, to put together a sufficiently large parcel of land on which to construct the Hall (see Michael Medlar, “Enclosure in Langham 1815 to 1820: winners and losers”, Glaven Historian no. 11, especially p. 15.)

Meanwhile, the other house of any consequence in the village, Manor Cottage — formerly the home of Captain Maryatt of Children of the New Forest fame — was rebuilt in the 1880s by local squire and Tory politician F T S Rippingall, the same man who also, at that date, owned Langham Hall. (Pevsner, strangely, attributes the present building to “1885 for Lord Suffield”, for which I don’t think there’s the slightest bit of evidence — see, inter alia, Norfolk Chronicle – Saturday 28 March 1903, p. 2.)  Meanwhile Orchard House, on the Field Dalling Road —which in 1891 was occupied by retired farmer Thomas Seeley — has sixteenth century origins, but I have so far seen no evidence of anything of interest being found there.

Here, though, is a further point where it might be worth refining one of the arguments made by Rear and Young in their work on the Langham Madonna. 

The appendix in which the argument is set out states that after the reformation the Calthorpes were lords of the manor in Langham. As we have seen, however, this is only half true. Langham had, since before the Conquest, been divided into two manors, connected with its two parishes. Of these, “Langham Episcopi” or “Langham Magna”, corresponding with the still-extant church of St Andrew, was held by the bishops of Norwich, very briefly by the Crown, and then, after 1555, by the Sir Thomas Gresham, by which it came into the hands of Sir Nathaniel Bacon. Again, neither Gresham nor Bacon, both puritans, were likely to have been enthusiastic custodians of a no-longer-licit venerated image. After that, the manor was held by the Townsends of Raynham — Sir Roger Townsend having been one of the local gentry responsible for suppressing the Walsingham Conspiracy. 

As for “Langham Parva”, corresponding with the vanished church of St Mary, Langham, it is true that by 1434, this was held by the Calthorpe family, and continued to be so well into eighteenth century. As we have also seen, the relevant branch of the Calthorpe family had their base at Cockthorpe, a tiny hamlet only a short distance from Langham. From at least the fifteenth century to perhaps late in the seventeenth century, the Calthorpes were primarily resident at Cockthorpe Hall. Cockthorpe Hall was, by all accounts a large, impressive, flint-built structure, rebuilt in the early seventeenth century but then abandoned at some later point in the seventeenth century, with ruins still visible well into the nineteenth century, perhaps even the early twentieth century.

This earlier Cockthorpe Hall, now replaced with a well-intentioned if charmless modern structure (see here), is not to be confused with the partially sixteenth century house now called Cockthorpe Hall, which was previously called Cockthorpe Manor, or Manor Farm, and served as the farmhouse for the substantial Calthorpe agricultural holdings. Similarly, while it is true that Christopher Calthorpe (1529-1562) married Joan (or Jane) Rokewood (c 1536-1606), daughter of Roger Rokewood of Easton in Suffolk, the Langham and Cockthorpe properties continued within the Calthorpe line. 

I have yet to see any evidence suggesting that the Calthorpes ever lived in Langham — but as their centre of operations was only a short walk away, why would they? I also believe that the land on which Langham Hall was built was always attached to the other portion of Langham anyway — the portion belonging to the Townshends. George, Marquis Townshend is named as lord of “the manors of Langham and Morston, otherwise Langham cum Morston” in the Inclosure Act of 1793 [NRO, DCN 53/3/1].

Nor have I seen any evidence that, as Rear and Young claim, the Rokewood family ever “inherited” Langham Hall. At some point during the nineteenth century or early twentieth century, the Frost / Rippingall families (e.g. the Rev Stephen Frost Rippingall and his descendants) seem to have become lords of the manor as well as the principal landowners in the village — a status they maintained into the early twentieth century — while the Case family became increasingly significant at Cockthorpe, where they remain to this very day. 

All of which is a very long way of saying that if we are seeking an “old house” where the statue now in the V&A may once have been hidden, Langham Hall in Norfolk simply cannot be that old house. What may, however, have happened, is that the statue was found in an old house in the general Walsingham area, connected with a tradition that it had once been removed from a now-destroyed church. The name “Langham” also featured in that story. So perhaps that “church” might be either a garbled folk-memory of the destruction of the church of St Mary Langham, the chapel of Our Lady of Toft, or, indeed of the Augustinian priory church at Walsingham. All these options are worth considering. Also, someone should perhaps have a word with the Case family, who still live at Cockthorpe. If there’s an old house out there where an old oak statue was discovered in the early years of the twentieth century, then surely their very own Manor Farm / Manor House ought to be there in the frame. 

Is it really possible, though, that the statue of Our Lady of Walsingham could have survived the dissolution of her chapel at the priory church in Walsingham? Rear and Young make a strong case for such a survival, and it seems to me an entirely plausible one. Although there are at least two accounts suggesting or implying that her statue was taken to Chelsea, neither of these is clear that the statue was ever destroyed. Further — to make a point I know I’ve made before, and may well need to make again before we are done — it is far from obvious to me that the image of Our Lady of Walsingham, once stripped of all her garments and adornments and crown, would have been distinctively recognisable even to those who had previously seen her enshrined in Walsingham, in that smallish, dark space, lit only by the glimmering light of beeswax candles. 

Further, some venerated objects that might not have been expected to survive the protestant reformation seem, however surprisingly, to have done so. It appears, for instance, that the mummified hand unearthed in 1786 at Reading, Berkshire may well be the hand that was donated to Reading Abbey by Henry I in 1126, and venerated there as a relic of St James the Apostle until 1538. (There is a good article about this hand here) The hand had apparently been walled into the east end of the abbey church. Elsewhere, there are grounds to believe that the bones of St Thomas the Martyr survived the destruction in 1538 of his magnificent and internationally celebrated shrine at Canterbury, and indeed that they remain buried within the cathedral to this very day. (John R. Butler, The Quest for Becket’s Bones, Yale University Press (1995) — n.b. the 1995 version of this book is more better than The Relics of Thomas Becket: a true-life mystery (2020) by the same author, covering the same ground in less detail.)  

Of course, there is a basic difference between these relics — the physical remains of dead Christians — and the statue venerated as Our Lady of Walsingham. Logically, the body parts themselves weren’t the problem for at least the more sensible reformers — the offence lay in the way the body parts were regarded, raising issues of idolatry, deception and fraud. Thus if they could be buried in a way that would prevent any further “abuses”, that may have been a satisfactory solution for all concerned. A famously venerated statue, on the other hand, would have had nothing whatsoever to recommend it to an iconoclastically-minded protestant reformer. It was easy enough for such people to quote Deuteronomy 7:5, itself only one of several verses along similar lines, giving God’s instructions about how to deal with the worshippers of Baal: “But thus shall ye deal with them; ye shall destroy their altars, and break down their images, and cut down their groves, and burn their graven images with fire.” For anyone who regarded Our Lady of Walsingham as a “graven image”, then, the Biblical message could hardly be more explicit. Onto the bonfire she, as well as her “sisters” from lesser shrines such as Our Lady of Tofte, must surely go.

Yet at the same time, we must be careful not to project back on the first decade of the Tudor reformations some sort of anachronistic dichotomy between proto-puritans and proto-recusants. In truth, especially in these early days before divisions became entrenched, many individuals — perhaps even the majority — may have occupied a slightly noncommital, pragmatic, cautious middle ground. 

We have already encountered two examples of this. We have met the rather worldly and high-flying rector of Blakeney, John Cleyton, who was happy enough to help in the suppression of Furness and Whalley priories, but who also cherished his role as master of the College of the Holy Cross at Attleborough (a chantry foundation) and in his will of 1541 asked for intercessory prayers. Similarly, James Calthorpe’s will of 1558 is framed in slightly more obviously reformed language than was Cleyton’s — for instance, Calthorpe stresses his belief in salvation through Christ’s passion alone — but his obsession with memorialising his family within their own local church has more than a whisper of commemoration about it. Both of these men would have been familiar with the events surrounding the Walsingham Conspiracy, and would have had their own views about the destruction of the priory at Walsingham. Both, however, were also sufficiently pragmatic to have remained, as far as we can tell, well within the ever-shifting limits of official orthodoxy. And here, their experience was probably not unlike that of the Langham churchwardens who wanted to put in writing that their sell-off of treasured church goods was done with the approval of the whole parish — or indeed the 1868 churchwardens who kept a single box pew in place because they were frightened of litigation if they didn’t. Not everyone is cut out to be a martyr, although it’s also true that some of the most effective acts of resistance necessarily operate beneath the radar.

We have seen, in those 1552 returns relating to the inventory of church goods, that when the protestant reformation came to Langham, it did so not with a bold, burning, iconoclastic zeal, but rather with what were basically a set of official forms to be completed and returned to the relevant bureaucrats. The men who painted out images of saints, or removed the side-altars then made good the gaps they had left, were paid by the parish to do so. All those copes, the cross-cloths, the painted altar-frontal — far from being thrown onto the flames, these were sold off by parish officials, who then had to account for what they did with the money. 

So when Our Lady of Toft was lifted down from her place above the altar, stripped of her finery and removed from her chapel, it’s reasonable to assume that she was sold off to someone — quite possibly someone local — for a modest sort of sum. Possibly few questions would have been asked about the end to which she was being purchased, either because those questions had answers too obvious to require explanation, or because articulating the answers might endanger everyone involved. The simplest thing may simply have been to hide her away somewhere, hoping that some change of policy would, one day, restore her legitimacy. But perhaps when Queen Mary’s reign began — and with it, the restoration of something resembling traditional religion — it didn’t seem right the right moment to produce her statue once more with a flourish, if only because the very act of doing so might have exposed what her “rescue” would have been — which is to say, an attempt to subvert or elude both secular and ecclesiastical authority, the former overseen by local gentry who were still present in the parish, still acting as landlords and law enforcement officers, no matter who reigned as monarch. And then, with the passage of generations, it’s quite possible that everyone more or less forgot about that old piece of timber wrapped up in some sacking that lay in the corner of the cellar under a pile of other disregarded lumber. Life moves on.

My point, here, is that it isn’t necessary to postulate an unbroken line of fiercely determined Catholic recusants, ready to offer up their lives in the defence of the faith of their fathers, in order to imagine a way in which Our Lady of Tofte might have survived the massive catastrophe of the reformation, that destroyed in a few decades the great majority of the then-extant corpus of English visual art. All it might have taken was a village where not everyone felt certain how things were going to go, where many people were a bit anxious or cautious, and where some questions were certainly better left unanswered. 

But this has all taken us some distance from the fate of Our Lady of Walsingham, and indeed from the statue now reposing in an underground gallery of the V&A.

Sadly, as an English wooden statue of the Virgin and Child, apparently created in the twelfth century, the “Langham Madonna” appears to be a unique survival. Because of this, we have no way of knowing how typical, or otherwise, she may have been. By way of comparison, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York holds a thirteenth century French Virgin and Child, carved from oak and probably from the Meuse Valley, which has very broad similarities. (It can be seen here) The Virgin has her foot on a serpent (not unlike the “toadstone” under the foot of Our Lady of Walsingham), and as with the V&A statue, the infant on her lap is perched rather insecurely. The Met statue differs, though, not only in the treatment of the drapery, but in the fact that the crown is part of the carved image. Looking at that crown, it must have been extremely difficult to carve — it’s ornate, delicate and very thin. We cannot know whether more “ordinary” English statues of the Virgin Mary, such as Our Lady of Tofte, would have worn crowns that were integral to the sculpture, or whether some of them would simply have had a fixing for a metallic crown. Such a crown need not have been an actual crown of gold, given by a monarch — it might simply have been made, for instance, of gilded base metal, something medieval artisans would have had no difficulty creating, any more than they would have struggled to create paste “jewels” or similar works of artifice, which might have been perfectly adequate for a minor local chapel.

Erasmus, in his famous account of visiting Walsingham, puts more effort into snark and superiority than he does to providing an actual description of the image of Our Lady that he saw there. He certainly describes her, though, as being displayed in a dark place, and if I read him correctly, he also comments that her statue is small and of unremarkable workmanship. So what, in fact, could a normal pilgrim have seen of the statue? The pilgrim would have seen the golden crown, the imposing throne, the flowing robes, the depiction of the Veil of the Temple rent asunder — all by the dazzling light of so many candles. The statue itself, the centre of the spectacle, may well have been largely hidden by its accoutrements. Indeed, the appearance of the image of Our Lady at the present-day Anglican shrine shows how this may have worked in practice. There are some good photos of the inside of the Holy House here. Today, it’s the crown, the mantle and the light of the candles that makes the strongest impression. So if this was equally true of the original image, then how difficult would it have been to pass off a vaguely similar statue as the Walsingham statue? And is this, in turn, another part of the puzzle as we try to imagine how Our Lady of Walsingham might have survived?

Let us return, for a moment, to Eric Maclagan, the man who acquired the “Langham Madonna” for the V&A. Maclagan was, in all sorts of ways, a fascinating man. After the Great War he had served for years on the Paris Peace Conference commission.  His personal friends included Clive Bell, Edith Wharton and W B Yeats. The courtier Sir Alan Lascelles was, I think, his brother-in-law. He was an early collector of the work of Henry Moore. His Burlington Magazine obituary may have been written by fellow Old Wykehamist Kenneth Clark, of Civilisation fame. Nor was McLagan inexperienced when it came to spotting historic houses. In 1951, he headed the committee responsible for identifying houses of historic importance at the start of what became England’s current historic buildings listing scheme. Furthermore, his father, William Maclagan, had served as archbishop of York from 1891-1908 — and, while Maclagan Sr had operated within the mainstream of the Anglican tradition, he was also seen as being at the distinctly “high” end of that spectrum. In short, he had no shortage of experience when it came to art or religious practice, no lack of self-confidence, powerful connections and institutional support.

All of this begs another question: if Maclagan felt confident that the statue now in the V&A was in fact the original image of Our Lady of Walsingham, given his own manifest devotion to Our Lady of Walsingham and her Anglican shrine, then why did he, or those around him, make no effort to purchase the statue for the Anglican shrine?

By way of comparison, in 1954, when 15th century Nottingham alabaster statue of Our Lady came up for sale at the Grosvenor House art fair in London, having previously been purchased from a French collection, the Very Reverend Eric Milner-White DSO, the Dean of York and Cardinal Bernard Griffin, Catholic archbishop of Westminster, engaged in a bidding war to secure the image for their respective cathedrals. Cardinal Griffin won, and the statue is now set amongst the treasures of Westminster Cathedral, venerated as Our Lady of Westminster. (See here and here) In this case, individual Anglicans and Roman Catholics agreed that there was something special and worthwhile in bringing a pre-reformation English image back into their respective churches — that an older statue was, in some sense, better than a modern copy. 

Similarly, in 1922, the image of Our Lady of Buckfast was installed within the Lady Chapel of the recently rebuilt Benedictine abbey — the only Benedictine Abbey in Britain rebuilt on its original pre-reformation site. The statue in question is relevant here because it was, in part, a rediscovered medieval image, found by builders in a wall on the abbey site. As, however, the remaining portion of the image was only the lower part of Our Lady’s body, the rest of the statue was “recreated” using, by way of evidence, a medieval seal of Buckfast Abbey held in the British Museum. Again, the preference for having even some fragment of an original statue present seems very much in contrast with the decision at the Anglican shrine of Walsingham (For the statue at Buckfast Abbey, see here)

Why, then, did Maclagan not try to ensure that the Langham Madonna ended up as a venerated image, rather than as a museum display? Two possible answers occur to me. 

The first, admittedly rather shallow one, is that Maclagan may simply not have thought that the V&A statue, for all its evident age and rarity, was either sufficiently well-preserved or, as far as that goes, particularly attractive. The V&A statue is, after all, quite battered. The Virgin has lost not only her crown, her sceptre, part of both her arms, her gilding and most of her paint, but also — rather crucially — the head of her Christ child. For all these reasons, she is much less “pretty” than, for instance, Our Lady of Westminster mentioned above, let alone a beauty like another statue Maclagan would have known well — the one set above the main gate at Winchester College. (See image below.) Maclagan, with his prescient enthusiasm for the work of Henry Moore, surely had enough vision to recognise what his contemporaries might have called the “primitive” power of the carving — those huge round eyes, the solidity of the form, the insistent rhythm of the fabric’s incised folds — yet at the same time, he was probably pragmatic enough to realise that some would-be pilgrims might find the damaged quality of the image off-putting. 

Remarkably, this fourteenth century statue of the Blessed Virgin at Winchester College seems never to have been moved from her plinth above the main gate

It might also be pointed out that when, in 1930, under Maclagan’s leadership, the V&A held an exhibition of English medieval art, the Langham Madonna wasn’t included. As Maclagan put it in the catalogue introduction, 

Practically all the examples of English medieval work for which a high artistic importance can be claimed have been gathered together into the North Court from the various Departments of the Museum; and with these have been combined at least an equal number of loans selected on the same principle of excluding objects of purely archaeological interest and choosing, when possible, only the best.

The Langham Madonna did not, alas, make the cut.

The second reason may have been a basic matter of timing. Maclagan only became a founder guardian of the Anglican shrine in 1931, more than five years after the purchase of the V&A statue — and ten years after Fr Alfred Hope Patten, then the newly-installed vicar of Little Walsingham, had commissioned a new statue of the Our Lady of Walsingham for the parish church there. Prior to that, of course, in 1897, Roman Catholic devotees of Our Lady had installed, with Papal blessing, a newly-fashioned statue of Our Lady of Walsingham in the former Slipper Chapel of Houghton St Giles a short distance from Walsingham. So by 1925 Walsingham already had not one but two venerated images of Our Lady. Without a proper biography of Maclagan — something I’m surprised doesn’t exist, as his life was a very interesting one — it is hard to know when his connection with the shrine at Walsingham began. In 1925 Walsingham and its history might not have been in the forefront of his thoughts the way it was a few years later. He might not have known Norfolk at all well. If it’s right that he later thought that the V&A statue had important Walsingham associations, he might not have realised this until it was, alas, too late to do much good.


I am aware that this is a rather a long set of “notes”, that I have raised more questions than I have answered, and also that the words “perhaps”, “possibly” and “presumably” feature suspiciously often in this text. Unfortunately, though, parish history is very much the territory of “known unknowns” — failures in the historical record, to be acknowledged and regretted, but also sometimes bridged.

I am further aware that in the pages above I have done quite a lot of “imagining”. Here, though, I make no particular apology. This comes back to the point about those gaps in the historical record, and the best means of bridging them. 

Indulge me, if you will, in one further act of imagination. 

Although I think it is very likely that the statue in the V&A is identical with the one once venerated in the priory church at Walsingham, I cannot prove that this is the case. Nor can I explain with any certainty how the Our Lady of Walsingham might have been saved from destruction. Nor, as far as that goes, can I explain what became of Our Lady of Tofte, that less famous image that was clearly once very much cherished and respected in Langham.

Here, at least, is one possibility.

Perhaps, at some point in 1538, when it became clear that Our Lady of Walsingham’s statue was to be taken down, her Holy House destroyed and the priory itself dissolved — and there must have been some notice of that — it occurred to everyone, at more or less the same time, that Our Lady of Tofte’s little chapel was also certain to be suppressed. The parishioners of Langham may not have liked this, but following on from the experience of the Walsingham Conspiracy only a year or two before — and at a time when the boiled and preserved body parts of the executed conspirators were probably still on display only short ride away from Langham — they may not have felt they had much choice in the matter. 

So it was that the little chapel was emptied, the altar hacked out and made good, the lights and ex votos cleared away, the tombs — some of them quite recent — oddly naked and exposed without all the apparartus of piety that had previously surrounded them. The statue of Our Lady of Tofte was stripped of her robes and her crown. Without them, she, too, may have looked oddly naked and exposed, or at least very unlike the familiar image that parishioners had gazed upon regularly as they passed in and out of their own parish church. 

Perhaps her statue was sold off to someone in the village. The churchwardens noted down the payment and added the coins to the sum in the parish chest, ready to fund whatever irksome expense the king’s wars threw up next.

Meanwhile, not far away, Sir Roger Townshend oversaw the tearing down of what had long been the one of the two most significant pilgrimage destinations in England — a place visited by monarchs, peers and prelates, foreign and domestic but also by countless “ordinary” people over several centuries, seeking the intercession of the Blessed Virgin in their various troubles and tribulations — a site so sacred that, in popular estimation, even the stars themselves pointed out the way to it. 

There must have been a day when the workmen arrived, full of bravado and probably beer as well, and started tearing things down. There must have been that very distinctive smell of demolished buildings, the dust that hangs in the air, the unexpected absence of what had, up until then, seemed uncomplicatedly, reliably present, leaving everything feeling a bit unstable in its wake.

The image of Our Lady of Walsingham would have been prised away from her gilded throne. She would have had her robes removed, her gold crown pried off, the enigmatic but surely valuable “toadstone” chipped away from under her feet. These, clearly, would need to be sent off to London, along with all the other wealth of the priory. Perhaps the toadstone could be re-set in a ring where it would ward off the effects of poison. There’s an example of such a ring here, and another one here.

But what about the image itself? There wasn’t much to it — seen close up, it was an underwhelming thing, not much more than an old block of painted oak. Perhaps some workman was clumsy enough to knock the image of the Christ child from her arms — but then laughed it off as if he had done it on purpose. Or perhaps he did indeed do it on purpose? 

It hardly mattered, that. Things were different now. 

Perhaps Sir Roger simply set the image aside, as unimportant — the gold, the jewels, the toadstone, the “superstition” and the central role of the local gentry in enforcing the demands of national government having been the truly important parts of the story. Alternatively, though, perhaps he had been asked to send the statue back to London, in case someone decided that a striking visual display of iconoclastic zeal might be in order. Perhaps it took a little while to figure out what he needed to do. In the way of badly-managed demolition sites, quite a lot of material lay around in heaps, awaiting its final disposition.

Is it impossible that someone, for whatever reason, might have swapped some other discarded, now-discredited statue — let us say, for the sake of argument, Our Lady of Tofte — for Our Lady of Walsingham? Would most people on site have noticed the difference? And, even assuming they spotted that something had happened — that the image seemed a bit smaller or differently painted — would they have taken it upon themselves to mention it? 

Perhaps James Calthorpe had come across to Walsingham to spend a few hours with his cousin Sir Roger, catching up on local or court-based news and gossip, as well as dealing with few practical issues of purely Langham-related interest. Perhaps, indeed, he wanted advice as to what he should do about the perpetually nere-do-well church of St Mary Langham, of which he was at that point the patron. 

Perhaps he even wanted — as many people must have done — to acquire some of the truly magnificent fund of reclaimed building material thrown up by the demolition. Perhaps he carted away loads of the stuff — stone, glass, lead, who knows what sort of treasure? He may even have wanted to take away some timber. But then many other local people — less famous folk whose very names we have now forgotten — will surely have done the very same thing. The scene must have been a very confused one. 

In situations like that, who knows what might happen? 

Part of what remains of Walsingham Priory

The one thing we can say for certain is that the attempts to turn Walsingham into an ordinary, non-numinous place were not a great success.

A couple of years later, on 20 January I540, Sir Roger Townshend had reason to write to Cromwell about Our Lady of Walsingham. In that cold wintery month, a poor woman from the nearby town of Wells had been arrested for her claim of a “falce tale of a Myracle to be doon by the Image of our Lady that was at Walsyngham syth the same was brought from thens to London” — i.e., for claiming that although the image of Our Lady had been taken away to London, she was still capable of producing miracles. 

It is striking, incidentally, that neither Sir Roger nor the poor woman seem to have said anything to imply that they thought the image of Our Lady had been destroyed by fire.

In any event, at Sir Roger’s instigation, at dawn one market day, the woman was put in the stocks in the increasingly bereft and aimless village of Little Walsingham. Then, from about 9 o’clock in the morning, at the time when most people were about, she was paraded in a cart through the narrow streets, a piece of paper set about her head announcing her as “a reporter of false tales”. The cart was stopped here and there so that “young people and boys” could throw snowballs at her. Then she was returned to the stocks until the market closed. 

In reporting this, Sir Roger’s tone was almost one of apology: he was aware that within the law, he couldn’t do much to stop this sort of thing, other than trying to make an example of this particular case. (Not that he said so, but how very convenient that the complaint here was against someone who, by reason of her gender and her poverty, was particularly powerless.) Referring more generally to his north Norfolk neighbours, Sir Roger concludes his report to Cromwell as follows: “I cannot perceyve but the seyd Image is not yett out of sum of ther heddes”. 

This was an understatement. 

Outraged emptiness can exert a power all its own. Recently, for the first time in decades, I visited Canterbury Cathedral, and was struck once again by the sheer symbolic oddity of the place. 

Canterbury is, and always has been, the mother church of the Anglican communion. Yet it’s a building — an almost overwhelming sensory experience — focused specifically on that which is no longer present. Everything there — the rising stages of the architecture, those foot-worn steps, the stained glass, the floors with their repurposed stone slabs and mosaic tile pavements, the tombs and monuments, the opening-out of spaces, the entire flow of anyone’s journey through the place — still circles around the absent presence of England’s most famous saint and martyr, Thomas of Canterbury, better known to most today as St Thomas Becket. As with the Holy House at Walsingham, St Thomas’s shrine at Canterbury was demolished in 1538. The gold and jewels were carried off in vast chests to bulk up the royal treasury. The distinctively rose-pink stone structure supporting the shrine was smashed and dispersed. The saint’s bones vanished from view, either because the royal commissioners had destroyed them or, as it has been rumoured ever since, because someone had managed to hide them away. 

Yet the effect of all this, far from consigning St Thomas to oblivion, is, if anything, to heighten his centrality to the space. Freed from the literalism of physicality, the aching gap left by the demolition of that shrine somehow pulls everything towards it, then throws it back again with redoubled force — insisting, as it does so, that whatever there was, and is, of sanctity in that space, it continues to transcend the ordinary logic of flesh, metal, stone — and, indeed, as far as that goes, the facile pretensions of worldly power and might.

Canterbury Cathedral: the small candle in the centre marks the site of the shrine of St Thomas the Martyr

(For the attempts to abolish Becket, see this)

What all of this means as a metaphor for Anglicanism, I shall leave for those more learned than I am to decide. The relevant point here is, I think, the similarity between what happened at Canterbury and what happened in Walsingham.

Sir Roger Townshend’s contemporaries, accustomed to regarding that little Norfolk village as precisely what it had been — which is to say, a centre of Marian devotion famous far beyond the shores of Britain, a place to which many thousands had made their journeys every year for centuries past, a uniquely holy and efficacious site — were hardly likely to forget what had been taken from them. This must surely have been as true for those who regarded the Walsingham pilgrimage as idolatry as it was for those who continued, with whatever degree of circumspection, to venerate the Blessed Virgin. Absent or present, audible as anthem or lament, Our Lady of Walsingham’s memory was always somehow there.

Owls do scrike where the sweetest hymns
Lately were sung,
Toads and serpents hold their dens
Where the palmers did throng.

(There is an accessible, modern-spelling version of The Wracks of Walsingham here)

Indeed, to this very day, even if one somehow disregards all the modern reinventions of Our Lady of Walsingham’s cult, the village of Little Walsingham still conforms to the shape and presence of the priory that is no longer there. The streets curve round it, the positions of the open areas reflect it, even the pubs and cafés acknowledge it in their placement. The surrounding villages — Warham, Wighton, the Barshams, Binham, Houghton St Giles, even Langham itself — all somehow seem to lead there. And still, in spring, between Candlemas and Lady Day, pilgrims flock to Walsingham from all around Norfolk and further afield. Their intended aim is to admire, photograph and celebrate the snowdrops, which in truth are genuinely spectacular. In doing so, though, they process through the “Abbey” (i.e. priory) grounds, past the two holy wells, in and out of the folds of that gentle well-worn landscape. And at the centre of that site, unavoidably, is all that is left of the structure that once housed Our Lady of Walsingham: that soaring empty arch, replete with female symbolism, still framing a landscape of fecundity, hope, and healing. 

Well, on that level, perhaps it doesn’t really matter whether the statue once venerated as Our Lady of Walsingham was burnt on a bonfire, or wrapped in sacking and hidden in a corner of some dark cellar in Langham, or indeed imprisoned in a sterile and charmless plastic box in Room 8 of the V&A’s William and Eileen Ruddock Gallery, where those who wish to acknowledge her must be content with the odd sotto voce Ave Maria, bemused exchanges of glances with those who have quite clearly come to do the same thing — or perhaps just an attempt to imagine her as she once was, and may someday be again. 

Walsingham today: bare ruin’d choirs, dead leaves — but also the first of the snowdrops


Appendix I: Rectors of St Mary, Langham

(Much of what follows is from Francis Blomefield, ‘Holt hundred: Langham Parva’, in An Essay Towards A Topographical History of the County of Norfolk: Volume 9 (London, 1808), pp. 410-411. British History Online here)

1305: Oliver de Kirkeby (presented by Sir John de Cokefeld, knight)

1310: Edmund de Cokefeld (presented by Sir John de Cokefeld, knight)

1322: Peter de Walton (presented by Lady Cecilia de Cokefeld)

1335: Robert Wyleby

1378: will of William Walton, rector of Langham [NCC will register Heydon 228]

1378: John Michel (presented by Bartholomew Bacon)

1383: Nicholas Halles (presented by Bartholomew Bacon)

1397: William Tillere (presented by Joan, relict of Sir Bartholomew Bacon)

1398: Jeff Coke (presented by Joan, relict of Sir Bartholomew Bacon)

1401: John Wyterpyn (presented by Joan, relict of Sir Bartholomew Bacon)

1416: Godfrey Mayster (presented by Joan, relict of Sir Bartholomew Bacon)

1417: Stephen Schirreve (presented by Joan, relict of Sir Bartholomew Bacon)

1437, William Herbald (presented by Richard Calthorp esquire)

1468: John Sherwyn (presented by Robert Mekylfeld and Margaret his wife)

1503: Thomas Palmer 

1606: prior to this date, Ralph Same occurs as rector

1606: William Simson

1622: Robert Pearson

1742: the patron was Mr. Calthorp

Appendix II – Incumbents of St Andrew, latterly St Andrew & St Mary, Langham

The list below has been developed from the following sources: Blomefield’s “Norfolk”, an attractive list of incumbents within the church itself, and references that appear in wills, newspaper accounts and other documents. This list is obviously not exhaustive, but I am providing it here as I think it is more complete and more accurate than any similar existing list. 

1176 – Ralph Hindoveston

1318 – William de Burgh instituted vicar, collated by the Bishop of Norwich.

1340 – Robert de Tweyt

1344 – John Geyst

1350 – Edmund Athelwald

13?? – Robert Fulbeck

1371 – Richard Otehith

13?? – Walter de Spendlove

1377 – Thomas Burgeys

1386 – Thomas Moretoft

1431 – Reginald Bryd

1432 – John Ellesmere

1434 – Robert Gybbys

1452 – Thomas Bonet

1462 – Thomas Salmund

1469 – Richard Hadylsey

1487 – William Hakon, a canon regular

15?? – Thomas Nicholas

1522 – John Skellett is mentioned in several Langham wills as “parson” 

1532 – John Gregbie /Grigby [wrote will for Thomas Dawbeney 1532, caught up in Walsingham Conspiracy in 1537, although he was let free again afterwards]

1552 – Thomas Sale (?) appears as clerk

1552 – Robert Key

1559 – Henry Tuddenham

1568 – John Bucke

1610 – James Pearson

1662 – vacant

1668 – Thomas Colby

1678 – Thomas Frost

1695 – Samuel Thorneton?

1679 – Johannes Harmer

1722 – John Stone

1727 – John Springold, by Jos. Ward, clerk

1758 – Henry Bryant

[1788 – Christian Boldero]

1801 – Montague Rush

1804 – Sir George Lee – “the Lee family will likely become extinct as the present reverend baronet [Sir George Lee] is a shocking cripple and no woman would come near him were it not for the vanity of becoming a Lady” – NRO WGN 1/4/134, 5 Jun 1803, Thomas Hearn, London, to William Gunn, Irstead

1820 – Joseph Gascoyne Balleslittle

1822 – Francis Ellis

[NB while the Rev Stephen Frost Rippingall lived at Langham Hall as lord of the manor, and his name is prominently associated with the parish, I can see no sign that he was ever actually vicar of Langham]

1845 – Michael John Mayers – ordained as a deacon by Archbishop Magee of Dublin on 10 June 1827. Vicar of Langham Bishops, in Norfolk, from 1845 to 1850, British chaplain at Marseilles from 1852 to 1864, and Rector of St Peter Chesil, Winchester, from I865 until his death early in 1881. He and his cousin William Michael Mayers (also a priest) came from a Jewish family, but were converted by the efforts of William Marsh from the London Society for Promoting Christianity among the Jews (LSPCJ). See 

1850 – John Montague Randall – a published author and a district secretary of the aforesaid LSPCJ, who raised a great deal of money in Norfolk for the organisation, as well as spearheading the major restoration of Langham church in 1868. By the later years of his career he was totally blind. “Langham Church Book” (NRO PD 569/28) may contain further information. 

1894 – Leslie Rimmer Paterson

1898 – William Henry Finlayson

1909 – John Henry Toy (not “Troy” as given in other lists)

1932 – Francis John Prior Wallis

1939 – Ernest John Jackson

1947 – Daniel Fountain Wrench

1955 – Robert Walter Ainsworth

1959 – Harry Vincent Saunderson

1968 – Dennis Rider

1972 – Philip Steer 

1974 – Llewelyn Fawcett

1991 – Robert Charles Wright

1997 – Edwin John Penny

2005 – Joanna Elisabeth Anderson

2010 – Ian Christopher Whittle