Photograph: Robert Mellamphy’s wooden sculpture in St Mary at the Elms Church, image from the Ipswich Historic Lettering website.

One of late medieval England's most celebrated shrines, the home of an image of the Blessed Virgin Mary is, or at least it was, in Ipswich.  The Shrine is a carved figure of the Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus. The Chapel was located on the corner of Lady Lane and St Matthew’s Street (the chapel was demolished to make room for an early Tesco supermarket).

This seemingly uncompromising position for an important place of pilgrimage was alongside (but just outside) Ipswich’s West Gate, an important and busy entrance through the town’s ancient ramparts. Both Henry VIII and Queen Catherine of Aragon made pilgrimages to the shrine, Catherine on more than one occasion. Edward I had been the first royal visitor. His daughter married, in 1279, the Count of Holland in the Chapel.

The site of the Chapel of Our Lady of Grace in Lady Lane is now marked with a bronze image of the Virgin and Child by the sculptor Robert Mellamphy, placed there in 1990. There is a story that the original, ordered to be destroyed by Henry VIII in 1538, was whisked away and taken, eventually, to the port of Nettuno in Italy.

John Blatchly and Diarmaid MacCulloch researched and published Miracles in Lady Lane in 2013 which suggests that the statue in Nettuno is Renaissance in style, not medieval and is thus unlikely to be the original Ipswich version.  This doesn’t alter the importance of the chapel, or the shrine, nor can it change the history of the visits made by royalty and others making a pilgrimage to Ipswich. 

It is time to celebrate the importance of the carved figure, albeit the modern replacement, and an interdenominational service will take place at St Mary’s in Elm Street in March, the anniversary of our link with Nettuno.

The modern shrine is an ecumenical one, members of the Islamic faith also honour the Virgin Mary.  Representatives of different Christian denominations will be present for the service to celebrate the anniversary.  The celebration is to be led by the parish priest, Father John Thackray, and will take place in St Mary’s, Elm Street at 11.00 am on Saturday 26 March.

The occasion will also re-establish the civic link with Nettuno and the establishment of a Guild of Our Lady of Grace. In 1977, the Guild of Our Lady of Ipswich (later renamed Meryemana) was founded with two aims: 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 Our Lady of Ipswich was ‘re-established’ in her new home in the ancient church of St Mary at the Elms. The service of consecration was in the presence of representatives of many denominations (including Muslims). Those present included the Right Reverend Bishop Richard Lewis, the Episcopal Visitor The Right Reverend Bishop Keith Newton, Suffragan Bishop of Richborough, Mgr Peter Leeming, Father Andrew Phillips, the Reverend Elizabeth Bellamy of the Methodist Church and Elahe Mojdehi (formerly of the Suffolk Inter-Faith Resource). Civic dignitaries were present led by the Mayor, Councillor Richard Risebrow. It was a truly ecumenical occasion and a cause for great celebration. Happily, this medieval church, on the site of an even earlier church of St Saviour, is the nearest to the original shrine in Lady Lane.

Twenty years after this installation of a statue of the Madonna and Child, and the establishment of the Guild, prayers will again be said by this very mixed congregation.  Members of the Ipswich Society are invited to join in the celebrations. 11.00 am Saturday 26 March 2022. 

For further information contact Father John Thackray, 

John Norman

[See also an article by Diana Lewis in the  Ipswich Society Newsletter, Issue 151, April 2003.]

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