The rededication of England as the Dowry of Mary this Annunciationtide is not a novelty; it is a reaffirmation of King Richard II’s formal consecration of his realm as Mary’s Dowry in 1381, which itself drew upon what was a well established tradition.
English devotion to Our Lady was prominent from the Anglo-Saxon period: we seem to have been ahead of the rest of Western Europe. From the late 13th century every church was required to have a statue of the Virgin, and some were to become objects of veneration. By 1400 Archbishop Thomas Arundel of Canterbury could write to his suffragan bishops as follows:
“The contemplation of the great mystery of the Incarnation has drawn all Christian nations to venerate her, from whom came the first beginnings of our redemption. But we English, being the servants of her special inheritance and her own dowry, as we are commonly called, ought to surpass others in the fervour of our praises and devotions.”
That fervour of praise and devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary is a continuing hallmark of Catholic life. By contrast, its rejection was initially one of the signatures of Protestant belief. Thus the spread of Reformation doctrines within England, in the 1530s and 1540s in particular, led to the near obliteration of traditional devotion. In 1538 a symbolic bonfire at the Chelsea home of Thomas Cromwell – the former house of Thomas More – consumed several of the most famous pilgrimage statues (possibly including that of Our Lady of Walsingham). A decade later, in 1548, all references to Our Lady were purged from the English liturgy.
Devotion to Mary survived in private. We have some evidence of statues being hidden and indeed forgotten until discovered centuries later. One such is Our Lady of Buckfast. Occasionally some obscure pilgrim sites attracted recusant Catholics, as at the Lady chapel above the ruins of the Carthusian priory at Mount Grace; at Knaresborough in Yorkshire; and at the remains of the shrine at Penrhys above the Rhondda. Elsewhere folk memory preserved a partial or confused memory of what had once been standard practice.
The recovery of that tradition of devotion to Mary through pilgrimage after Catholic Emancipation in 1829 was slow and partial, but some at least of the shrines that flourished in the time of King Richard and Archbishop Arundel were re-established during the 20th century. In some cases, Anglo-Catholics had led the way. Some recent moves to restore traditional shrines have been consciously ecumenical, such as the current proposal to re-establish that of Our Lady of the Oak in Islington.
The shrine of Our Lady of Pew, where in the turmoil of the Peasants’ Revolt Richard II vowed his realm to the Virgin as her Dowry, appears to have had two chapels: one in the abbey at Westminster and another in the neighbouring royal palace. Today there are again two statues of Our Lady of Pew or of Westminster.
Unlike shrines around a saint’s tomb, the origins of those of Our Lady are often poorly recorded. Walsingham was not unique as a pilgrimage destination. Others were regional rather than national in their appeal; some were very local indeed.
Tradition asserts that at the beginning of the 8th century the Virgin appeared to the swineherd Eoves at what was to become Evesham. She told him to bring Egwin, Bishop of Worcester there and to establish a church in her honour. This is the earliest recorded apparition of Our Lady in these islands and one of the first anywhere outside the Mediterranean world. From this arose the great and influential abbey which survived until 1540, when it was one of the last of the religious houses to be dissolved. After the Second World War a new shrine to Our Lady of Evesham was established in the Catholic Church there and an annual pilgrimage in June began.
The origins of devotion to Our Lady of Glastonbury at the medieval abbey are shrouded in myth. The ancient church of St Mary was burnt in 1184 but was speedily rebuilt. The 14th-century abbey seal depicts the Virgin holding in one hand the Christ Child and in the other what must be the Glastonbury Thorn. In 1939, a new Catholic Church of Our Lady St Mary of Glastonbury was built opposite the abbey site, which since 1955 has housed a statue of the Virgin. This has become the focus of pilgrimage.
The shrine of Our Lady of Caversham is possibly pre-Conquest in origin and it became very popular due, no doubt, to its Thames valley location. The old chapel site has been quarried away but devotion was renewed in the Catholic parish church in 1897, and in 1954-8 a 15th-century north European statue of the Virgin and Child was acquired and a skilful neo-Norman chapel was constructed to house it. In recent years wall paintings were added.
One of the most popular medieval Marian shrines was that of Our Lady of Grace at Ipswich. This existed by at least 1152 and had its own chapel just outside the town walls. The statue somehow ended up in the Italian seaside town of Nettuno. In 1987 an Anglican-Catholic Guild of Our Lady was established to recreate the Ipswich shrine. This ecumenical initiative succeeded with the dedication of a copy of the Nettuno statue in the historic church of St Mary at the Elms in 2002.
To the north of medieval London, in the Middlesex woods, was the shrine of Our Lady at Willesden. This certainly existed by 1249 when it had two statues of the Virgin. The image of the Black Madonna was another casualty of 1538, but in 1902 the new Anglican vicar James Dixon re-established the shrine. Two miles away the Catholic parish church now also houses a shrine and the two communities cooperate as at Walsingham.
An example of a very local shrine that has been revived is that of Our Lady of Allingtree on the western outskirts of Hereford. Here a new church of Our Lady Queen of Martyrs was built near the original site in 1996.
Probably the most frequented Marian shrine in the later medieval period in the north of England was that in the Carmelite priory in Doncaster, which was founded in 1350. It was re-established in 1868 in the new parish church not far from the original site. Along with the church it moved to a new building in 1973 and the shrine was reordered in 2008.
At Mount Grace Priory in North Yorkshire, after the dissolution of the priory, |the Lady Chapel on the hill above continued in recusant use, and in 1958-1961 it was restored and a pilgrimage was established.
The chapel of Our Lady of the Crag at Knaresborough dates from 1408. Carved out of the cliff above the river Nidd, it was still a place of Catholic devotion in the late 17th century when Celia Fiennes recorded visiting the “chapel with alter [sic] decked with flowers and the ground with rushes for ye devout which did frequent it”. Bequeathed in 1916 to Ampleforth Abbey and restored by the monks, it was provided with a new statue in 2000, and since 2016 has been administered by a charitable trust.
Elsewhere in the North, the shrine to Our Lady of Guisborough in the medieval priory was recreated in the Catholic parish church in 1949, and in 2008 a new icon was blessed in a consciously ecumenical service. The site of the pilgrimage shrine at the ruined 12th century St Mary’s Chapel at Jesmond near Newcastle continues to attract pilgrims.
Among the cathedral foundations now in the care of the Church of England, Canterbury and York have been the most prominent in restoring Marian devotion.
At Canterbury there is the chapel of Our Lady of the Undercroft. This was a secondary cult centre in the medieval cathedral and in 1924 the chapel itself was restored.
In the crypt of York Minster, a damaged 12th-century panel with the Virgin and Child was relocated in the early 20th century to a place of honour. The mutilated enthroned relief had been found, buried in the wall of the old Lady Chapel, during restoration work following the fire of 1829.
It has been claimed that in the Middle Ages Lincoln was regarded as the most Marian city of the most Marian county in England, surpassed only by Walsingham in attracting pilgrims. The great bejewelled statue of the Virgin enthroned by the high altar of the cathedral was another casualty of the Reformation, but its memory was invoked with the creation of a second Catholic parish in the city in 1943, that of Our Lady of Lincoln.
Beyond England the 20th century has seen the restoration of the shrine of Our Lady of the Taper at Cardigan in Wales, and in Scotland the consciously ecumenical renewal of the pilgrimage to Our Lady of Haddington.
So now, with the rededication of England as the Dowry of Mary, we can follow in the footsteps of our medieval ancestors and go where they went to seek the intercession of the Mother of God.
Photo: Our Lady of the Undercroft, Canterbury Cathedral (Flickr/Jim Linwood)