Uniting England around Our Lady
One of the great treasures of the National Gallery is the Wilton Diptych. Completed in around 1395 as a portable altarpiece for King Richard III, it is amongst the earliest depictions of England being given as a gift to Our Lady.
The Diptych shows Richard III being presented to the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child by St John the Baptist, St Edward the Confessor, and St Edmund. Richard and the saints stand in an earthly landscape, while the Virgin and Child, who are surrounded by angels, are in a paradise meadow covered with flowers. Richard kneels in homage before the Virgin and Child. Nearby angels are carrying the Cross of St George, which is surmounted by an orb engraved with a minuscule map of England.
England has been known as Mary’s Dowry since Saxon times. Before the Reformation it was held that this dowry was a perpetual and inalienable gift whereby England was set apart for Our Lady. Many kings of England continued to promote and hand on this devotion, including Henry V who supposedly raised the battle cry at Agincourt “Our Lady for her dowry; St George and St Edward to our aid”.
But the Pynson Ballad (c1495), as it is known, goes on to state far more:
O Englonde, great cause thou haste glad for to be,
Compared to the londe of promys syon
Thou atteynest my grace to stande in that degre
Through this gloryous Ladyes supportacyon,
To be called in every realme and regyon
The holy lande, Oure Ladyes dowre
Thus arte thou named of olde antyquyte.
England is unique in this respect. No other nation has ever claimed such an incalculable honour.
With the Reformation came the destruction of much of the evidence of our country’s great and noble Catholic heritage, including Mary’s Dowry. Whilst the momentum of England as Mary’s Dowry slowed, for some the vision never dimmed and was central to much recusant identity.
Devotion gained new heart and vigour when in 1893 Pope Leo XIII spoke to the Bishops of England and Wales about this ancient title during their visit to Rome. He asked the bishops to re-consecrate England to the Blessed Virgin and to St Peter, thus giving the Dowry papal authority.
Mary’s Dowry and our National Shrine at Walsingham have always been inextricably linked. The Dowry Pilgrimage continues, and a new exhibition at the Shrine charts the story of devotion to Our Lady in England, demonstrating its importance to the Church in this land.
It is wonderful that our bishops have decided to rededicate England as Our Lady’s Dowry at Walsingham within the next two years. Such an act could bring renewal in our Church and our nation and is a bold statement about commitment to the conversion of England and devotion to Mary.
I would dearly love to see England truly become Mary’s Dowry, but am aware some may be less enthusiastic.
In some circles there seems to be a reluctance and embarrassment about increased devotion to Mary. During the last century, the pursuit of Christian unity led many to believe that there should be an emphasis placed upon what Catholics and non-Catholics hold in common, and to de-emphasise aspects of the faith which differentiate us.
In this context Our Lady became viewed as a stumbling block rather than an aid to unity and renewal. We need to ask ourselves: has abandoning traditional devotions to Our Lady done anything to advance unity with our separated brethren? No. This approach robbed a whole generation of the power and beauty of devotion to Mary, and unity seems as elusive as ever.
The rededication of England as Our Lady’s Dowry presents an opportunity for us to gather around Our Lady once more and put aside our divisions. Mary is the mother of all people, and should be seen by Catholics as a bridge in the dialogue between different faith communities and groups.
If we give this rededication our support, then from the healing of the Church may come the healing of the nation. I hope that Catholics have the confidence to embrace Our Lady once again for the rejuvenation of our common life.
Pastor Iuventus is away
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