The earliest reliable mention of devotions to Our Lady of Willesden dates from 1502 when Queen Elizabeth (1466–1503), wife of King Henry VII sent money to Willesden and other Marian shrines across England, presumably to solicit prayers for the impending birth of her seventh child. Also, in February 1503, shortly after the Queen’s death, an allowance of money was paid:
to a man that went on pilgremage to our lady of Willesden by the quenes commaundement.
Hostility to the Shrine was also being recorded. In 1509 Elizabeth Sampson of Aldermanbury in London was accused of insulting the statue of Our Lady of Willesden and in 1521William Dorset of King’s Langley in Hertfordshire was accused of stopping his wife from making a pilgrimage to Our Lady of Willesden on the grounds that it was a waste of money.
In 1517 William Litchfield (var. Lychfeld, Lichfield &c), Vicar of Willesden and Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral died and was buried in the chancel of Willesden church before the image of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Litchfield also gave to the church a gilt chalice, ‘the same to remain to the use of the said Church and the honour of the Blessed Virgin for ever’ and this chalice is still in regular use. Litchfield’s memorial brass can be seen in the floor of the chancel.
In 1525 the two youngest daughters of St Thomas More (1478–1535) – Elizabeth and Cecily – were married at Willesden, in a chapel (‘oratorio’) at the house of the MP Sir Giles Alington (1499-1586). He was the second husband (m.1524) of More’s step-daughter Alice Elrington (nee Middleton, d. before 1564). The house and chapel were two and a half miles from Willesden church at West Twyford; property that came to Alington on his martiage to Alice, it having been the property of Alice’s first husband Thomas Elrington (d.1523).
Thomas More made reference to the shrine at Willesden in his Dialogue concerning heresies (1528/9). Later, in An Answer to Thomas More’s Dialogue (1531), the avowedly Protestant William Tyndale (c. 1494–1536) complained of those who endlessly repeat:
Our lady of Walsingham pray for me; Our Lady of Ipswich, pray for me; Our Lady of Wilsdon, pray for me
Thomas More later stated that the character of his Protestant interlocutor in the Dialogue concerning heresies was actually based on Thomas Bilney.
More’s biographer Thomas Stapleton (1535-98) says that More regularly made pilgrimages on foot to shrines up to seven miles from London, thus encompassing Willesden. One such pilgrimage to Willesden was during the first week of April 1534, with More staying at the home of Giles and Alice Alington just days before his final arrest and eventual martyrdom.