Vetusta Monumenta: Ancient Monuments

Plate VI: Ruins of Walsingham Abbey in the County of Norfolk


Coenobii Walsinghamensis Quod Reliquium Est.

Translation [EB]

What Remains of Walsingham Abbey. 


Engraved by Gerard Vandergucht after J. Badslade in 1720. 


A view of the abbey ruins, evidently much more extensive than they are now.  

Provenance and Location

Only the east front of the abbey church with its large window opening remains standing on the site in Walsingham, North Norfolk.  The Augustinian monastic house (technically not an abbey but a Priory of Canons Regular) was established in 1153 to house the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, a national pilgrimage site since the eleventh century.  The shrine and priory were suppressed and destroyed by Henry VIII in 1538.

Commentary [NH]

This topographical print of Walsingham Priory is the earliest example of a more popular approach in Vetusta Monumenta, reflecting a taste for landscapes with ruins.  In 1724, Samuel and Nathaniel Buck began publishing their series of antiquarian prints in the same style, which became very popular and eventually encompassed every county in England and Wales.  This engraving of Walsingham found its way into an Album of 208 Prints, Views, Etc. formed by Sir Nathaniel Curzon some three decades later, suggesting that it appealed to collectors as a single print.  The more highly finished views of Fountains Abbey (plates ix-xii)  and other such prints in Vetusta Monumenta tend to diverge from this first example by showing more architectural detail.  This plate, however, is more typical for the period; by including spectators, it alludes to the kind of tourism promoted, along with more learned pursuits, by antiquaries such as William Stukeley (whose Itinerarium Curiosum appeared in 1724; cf. plate vii).   

The emphasis on landscape over detail here may also result from the choice of artists.  Neither the draftsman, J. Badslade, nor the engraver, Gerard Vandergucht, appear elsewhere in Vetusta Monumenta.  Vertue, who engraved the vast majority of the plates, admired Vandergucht and was himself trained by the latter’s father, Michael Vandergucht (Clayton 2004).  Gerard Vandergucht also achieved prominence as an antiquarian engraver working for Stukeley and others, but the difference between his style and Vertue’s may be appreciated by glancing at plates 13-14, a set of further Norfolk antiquities engraved by Vertue three years later.  Little is known of Badslade, a topographical artist, whose detailed drawing of Howland Great Dock, Deptford, was engraved commercially about the same time.  The Walsingham plate was evidently complete by 1 February 1720, when “it was ordered that Three Prints of Walsingham Abby be presented in the Name of the Society to Mr Badslade for his drawing of the Same, which he favor'd us withall" (SAL Minutes I.39).  

The landscape orientation of the print lends emphasis to the one strongly vertical feature of the ruin, the east front of the priory church.  The rather squat animal and human figures also indicate vertical scale.  Samuel and Nathanael Buck’s view of the same scene ten years later (Buck 1739: n.p.) suggests that substantial alterations took place soon after or perhaps had already begun by the time Badslade made the drawing.  The other portions of the fabric appearing behind the east front as well as the exterior wall  in the foreground are all absent from the Bucks’ print, first published in 1730, while the modern farm buildings remain together with the fragments of medieval building appearing on the extreme left of this image.  However, a large neoclassical mansion now appears to the left of these fragments, identified as belonging to “Lee Warner Esq.” in the Bucks’ caption (which also traces Warner’s relation to previous owners of the abbey site since the Dissolution of the Monasteries).  If we are to trust the Bucks’ representation, Warner built a circular enclosure around the east front to emphasize it further, presumably after demolishing the other parts depicted in the Vetusta Monumenta plate.  This iconic façade, with its high pointed arch and smaller round window at the top, is now the only piece of the fabric remaining and accordingly emphasized in promotional material by the site’s current owners.   

The antiquarian interest of this site, proverbially known as “England’s Nazareth,” is readily apparent today from the presence of active Catholic, Anglican, and even Orthodox shrines of Our Lady of Walsingham along with the ruins and other heritage sites in the village (originally Little or New Walsingham, now conjoined with Great or Old Walsingham).  Antiquaries in 1720 would have had access to much of the rich antiquarian material that is still used to tell the story today: the priory’s thirteenth-century seal, showing the church and the shrine’s legendary statue of the Virgin and child on its two sides; a fifteenth-century ballad narrating the vision of Richeldis de Faverches in 1061, in which the Virgin revealed the scene of the Annunciation and directed her to build a replica of the house in Nazareth (the original wooden chapel); pilgrimage narratives by Erasmus, who visited the site in 1511, and many others—even Henry VIII made the pilgrimage, twenty-eight years before his own officers suppressed the priory and took the famous statue to London to be destroyed (Page 1906: 400); and historical narratives by John Leland and William Camden, among others.  Erasmus, as quoted in Richard Gough’s 1789 English translation of Camden’s Britannia, meditates fervently on the senses in which the Virgin may be said to “reside” in the chapel, which was attached to the north side of the priory church (Gough 1789: II.97).  Gough, in his extensive commentary on the text, notes that “the Galaxy was pretended to point to this place, and thence called Walsingham Way”; he also provides a useful list of all the building components that survived in 1789 (II.112-13).

English anti-Catholic sentiment ran even higher in 1720 than in 1789 and the prints-only format of Vetusta Monumenta (through 1763) allowed the editors to avoid committing themselves to any potentially controversial narrative.  Gough’s epithet for Walsingham in 1789, “the English Loretto” (alluding to a Marian pilgrimage site in Italy), is still relatively discreet but captures something of the competitive spirit that may be said to inform English antiquarianism from its formal revival in 1718, or even from Elizabethan times: even visually insignificant medieval remains such as Walsingham Priory were national antiquities that spoke of a monumental past to rival that of the Mediterranean world.   

Works Cited

Buck, Samuel and Nathanael.  1726-39.  A Collection of Engravings of Castles, and Abbeys in England.  2 vols.  London.

Camden, William. 1789.  Britannia, or, A chorographical description of the flourishing kingdoms of England, Scotland, and Ireland . . .  enlarged by the latest discoveries, by Richard Gough.  3 vols.  London: Printed by John Nichols.

Clayton, Timothy.  2004.  ‘Vandergucht, Gerard (1696/7–1776).’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.  Oxford: Oxford University Press. [accessed 31 July 2014]

Curzon, Sir Nathaniel, comp.  Album of 208 Prints, Views, Etc. 

Page, William. 1906.  “Houses of Austin Canons: The Priory of Walsingham." In A History of the County of Norfolk.  Vol. 2.  349-401.
Norwich. Date accessed: 31 July 2014. 

Society of Antiquaries of London.  1718-.  Minutes of the Society’s Proceedings.

Further Reading

Kennedy, Andrew.  2002.  “Antiquity and Improvement in the National Landscape: The Bucks’ Views of Antiquities 1726-42.” Art History 25.4: 488-99. 

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