Our Lady of Ipswich

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Our Lady of Ipswich, now venerated in Nettuno, Lazio, Italy

Our Lady of Ipswich (also known as Our Lady of Grace) was a popular English Marian shrine before the English Reformation. Only the shrine at Walsingham attracted more visitors.


There was a time when England was known as 'Our Lady's Dowry'. Anglo-Saxon England sheltered many shrines to the Virgin Mary: shrines were dedicated to her at Glastonbury in 540, Evesham in 702, Tewkesbury in 715, Canterbury in 866, Willesden in 939, Abingdon before 955, Ely in 1020, Coventry in 1043, York in 1050, and Walsingham in 1061. By the High Middle Ages there were sixteen shrines to Mary in Suffolk alone.[1]

About half of the medieval churches in Suffolk were dedicated to St Mary under a particular title or devotion. Churches not dedicated to Mary, would have contained a Marian shrine, generally at the east end of the south aisle. Some shrines became so popular that they were translated to buildings of their own. This may be how the shrine of Our Lady of Grace came to be.[2] During the High Middle Ages, the shrine of Our Lady of Grace was second only to that of Our Lady of Walsingham.[3]


The medieval town of Ipswich was a busy maritime centre of trade and shipbuilding. The inns and taverns of the town were full of pilgrims who flocked to the shrine of Our Lady of Grace in Lady Lane, near St Mary the Elm Church.[4]

The shrine to Our Lady of Grace at Ipswich is first recorded in 1152.[5] In 1297 the daughter of Edward I, Princess Elizabeth, married the Count of Holland in the shrine.[2] Between 1517 and 1522, Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon paid separate visits to the shrine, as did Sir Thomas More and Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, who was born in Ipswich.[5]

The shrine was suppressed during the English Reformation, and its famous statue was taken to Chelsea to be burnt, along with the statue of Our Lady of Walsingham on 20 September 1538. There are no eyewitness accounts of the statue actually being burnt, although it is documented that the statue arrived at Chelsea. Regarding the image, Thomas Cromwell's steward wrote to him that he had received it, with 'nothing about her but two half shoes of silver'.[2]

A wooden statue of the Madonna and Child displayed in the local church of the Italian seaside town of Nettuno closely matches various descriptions of the Ipswich statue. The statue is known locally as "Our Lady of the Graces" or "The English Lady".[5] Radio carbon dating places the era when the tree was felled to provide the wood of which the statue is carved at circa 1280 to 1420 with 94% certainty.[6]

There is also evidence in the Nettuno archives that a statue arrived there from Ipswich in 1550.[2][7] It was classified as being in the English iconic style in 1938 by Martin Gillett, an historian of 13th century iconography. Although the statue had been altered (a throne had been replaced and the posture of the Christ child had changed), details such as the folds in the material and Christ's position on the right rather than the left knee suggest that the statue came from England.

at the time of the bombardment of Anzio during the Second World War, Nettuno's statue was temporarily re-located to Rome for safe keeping.[8]

During restoration work on the statue in 1959 an inscription was found on its back with the words IU? ARET GRATIOSUS, a rendition of the Marian phrase, "Thou art gracious". Ipswich was the only Marian shrine in England dedicated to Our Lady of Grace. Even more striking, when Martin Gillett first examined the statue in 1938, it was wearing two half shoes made of English silver, just like those described by Thomas Cromwell's steward 400 years before.

There are two theories as to how the statue may have reached Italy. One theory is that it was sold by an English official (perhaps Thomas Cromwell) instead of being burnt, although it is not clear why it would have got as far as southern Italy.

A second version of the story, popular in Nettuno, is that the statue was rescued by English sailors before it could be burnt, and smuggled on board a ship. In the Mediterranean they met a storm and took refuge in Nettuno and they donated the statue.[4] Moreover, a scientific analysis of a sliver of wood from the base of the statue has been found to have a high salt content - proving that it had at some point been in contact with seawater or sea spray.

As part of the Nettuno celebrations, thousands watch as the statue is taken down from high above the altar in the Basilica and, dressed in her finery, is taken in a grand procession through the streets for a week-long stay at the church of St. Giovanni.[4] A replica of the statue was presented to Pope Benedict during the week of the Shrine's feast, beginning the first Sunday of May.[9]

The shrine itself was destroyed, although it survived in legal deeds as a boundary description until the eighteenth century.

St. Mary at the Elms church


The shrine was just outside the walls of Ipswich, Suffolk, England. The site of the original shrine was just outside the west gate of the medieval town wall of Ipswich, and is marked by a plaque and a statue of Our Lady on Lady Lane.[3] A modern shrine is now in the Anglican parish church of Saint Mary Elms, a short distance away.

Early-16th-century miracle[edit]

The image of the Virgin at Ipswich became celebrated on account of a miraculous power of healing attributed to Our Lady of Grace.[1]

A miracle at the shrine of Our Lady of Ipswich is recorded by none other than Sir Thomas More in his book The Supplication of Souls, and he had news of it on first-hand knowledge. The miracle was bestowed on Anne Wentworth, the 12-year-old daughter of Sir Roger Wentworth, a friend of More's. Anne suffered from seizures in which she spasmed, blasphemed and was said to be able to utter prophesy "vexed and tourmented by our gostly enemye the devyll". After a vision in which she beheld the image of Our Lady of Grace at Ipswich, she was taken to the shrine and "layde before the ymage of our Blessyd Lady....grevously tourmented and in face, eyen, loke and countenance so grysely chaunged...that it was a terrible syght to beholde". There in the presence of the whole company, she was restored "perfytely and sodeynly". Anne, in grateful recognition of the miracle, took the veil and became a nun.

Modern devotions[edit]

A modern replica of Our Lady of Ipswich at Saint Pancras Church, Ipswich

In 1987, the Guild of Our Lady of Ipswich was founded by people from the Catholic church of St Pancras and the Anglican church of St Mary at the Elms. Their two aims have been: to pray for Christian unity and to plan and achieve the re-establishment of the shrine of Our Lady of Grace at Ipswich.

On 10 September 2002 a modern wooden replica of the Italian statue, carved by sculptor Robert Mellamphy,[8] was blessed and installed by the Anglican Bishop of Richborough in the church of Saint Mary at the Elms. The ceremony was attended by the Anglican Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich, the Roman Catholic Dean of Ipswich and representatives of the Orthodox and the Methodist churches.

See also[edit]


External links[edit]

Coordinates: 52°03′33″N 1°08′58″E / 52.0591°N 1.1494°E / 52.0591; 1.1494