...it's our town

Listed Buildings
of Ipswich Ancient House (Grade I)

Newsletter, April 2014 (Issue 195)

Gracechurch: the Ipswich Shrine

John Blatchly & Diarmaid MacCulloch: Miracles in Lady Lane; The Ipswich Shrine at the Westgate (J.M. Blatchly, 2013)

This book gives a remarkable insight into a lost chapter of Ipswich history. It contains primary research and fascinating hypotheses concerning the precise location of the lost Shrine of Our Lady of Grace just outside the town's Westgate and its fate.

The images at the back: an anonymous watercolour painting and an 1875 photograph show the almshouses built along either side of Lady Lane by Edmund Daundy at some time before his death in 1515. It is difficult to believe when one sees the rather bleak (and short) Lady Lane today. Ironically, these ancient, single storey buildings dating back to Tudor times were demolished as recently as 1877. Daundy happened to be the uncle of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey the second most powerful person in the country after the King. These almshouses were on the site of the 14th century St John's Hospital almshouses built for the poor of the parish of St Matthew. They adjoined the shrine chapel which stood just outside the Westgate (perhaps on the site of today's Franklin's haberdashery shop and QD store on St Matthews Street). The shrine chapel stood on the site of - or used the same structures as - the chapel of All Saints which, although not mentioned in Domesday, had early Norman decoration.

All Saints is first mentioned in documents of 1219, but is certainly earlier, and over time the name changed to the chapel of 'Our Lady of Grace' or Gracechurch. On January 8th, 1297 a royal wedding of Princess Elizabeth, daughter of King Edward I, to the Count of Holland took place in the shrine chapel, then one of England's major shrines of Marian pilgrimage. Edward I stayed in the town for the ceremony with 'a splendid court'. Many pilgrims were to follow in the ensuing years.

By 1327 documents record the recent discovery of an image of the Blessed Virgin, perhaps beneath the flooring of the chapel, and 'several great miracles had taken place'. Attracting further royal attention and becoming prosperous in the 14th and 15th centuries, the chapel of Our Lady of Grace can be seen as a younger sibling of the Marian shrine at Walsingham in Norfolk. The scene was set for a 'miracle' concerning the 'Maid of Ipswich' in 1516 when the twelve year old daughter of Sir Roger Wentworth of Gosfield (twice MP for Ipswich who lived at Thaxted in Essex), in a tormented state had a vision of the Virgin. She demanded to be taken to the shrine of Our Lady of Grace in Ipswich and was apparently cured in a tumultuous fashion. One notable witness was that most important resident of the town, Lord Curson who lived in his mansion on St Nicholas Street; he wrote down his account of events for the King.

Queen Catherine of Aragon visited the shrine in 1517, followed by Cardinal Wolsey, papal legate and Lord Chancellor, the same year and finally by King Henry VIII himself in 1522. Both royal visitors stayed at Curson House, during their visits. This patronage meant that it was boom time for the shrine and a number of hostelries jockeyed for custom from visitors and pilgrims. At the other end of town The Salutation public house survives today with its name evoking the Annunciation.

Wolsey's intention to establish a 'college' school to rival the likes of Eton College which would be linked to the shrine took shape around the same time. The Papal Bulls for his Cardinal College Ipswich were not in place until 1528. Opposition to worship of graven images and idolatry from Lollards, William Tyndale and, locally, the preacher Thomas Bilney was growing as the shrine became more famous and prosperous. In 1529 Wolsey was stripped of his government office and property by Henry VIII and Wolsey died in 1530.

From 1536 and under Wolsey's former servant, Thomas Cromwell, the Reformation and establishment of the Church of England progressed. Five Ipswich monastic establishments were dissolved along with so many others. The days of the already struggling Ipswich shrine were numbered and eventually the building was stripped of valuables and building materials. Evidence of its existence seems to have survived until the mid-18th century.

The seductive conspiracy theory that the Ipswich sculpture was not burnt at Chelsea, but smuggled from London by Catholic sailors and taken to Italy is dismissed by the authors of Miracles in Lady Lane out of hand. The style of the carving of the image in Nettuno is much later than the statue of the Virgin which was rediscovered in the Lady Lane shrine chapel by 1327. Also, those involved in the purging of idolatry from Thomas Cromwell downwards knew the importance of the removal of the image and its public burning; their failure to do so seems very unlikely.

This book is a fine addition to the rich roller-coaster of the history of Ipswich.

R Gaylard

(Both the Tourist Information Centre and Waterstone's stock Miracles in Lady Lane at £12.)

    Front cover of issue 195 Cover, issue 195

Back to top