Church Life,  Mother of God,  Spiritual Devotions

The Dowry of Mary

Statue of Our Lady of Walsingham, Westminster Cathedral, London. Photo © Will Ross.

Many years ago, at primary school in the south of England, we prayed a little prayer every morning in class which reminded the Blessed Virgin – as though She needed to be reminded – that England is ‘the dowry of Mary’. This ‘prayer for England’ included the words –

O Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God
and our most gentle Queen and Mother,
look down in mercy upon England, thy Dowry,
and upon us all who greatly hope and trust in Thee.

In England, devotion to the Mother of God is – and has been for many, many centuries – particularly strong and widespread. As a little child, praying this prayer with all my classmates every single day, it was not surprising that such a devotion became a deeply ingrained part of me and has remained with me ever since.

The title suggests that in some particular way, England belongs to the Blessed Virgin, that is Her property and She has particular rights over it – and responsibilities for it. It makes Her the special patron and protectress of the country.

The idea of England being the ‘dowry of Mary’ seems to have originated sometime during the Mediaeval period and had become broadly established around the Fourteenth Century, finding an appearance in some religious texts around that time. The day before the Battle of Agincourt, priests asked the prayers of “the Virgin, protectress of Her dower”. Five decades after this, the Archbishop of Arundel wrote that “we English, being … her own Dowry, as we are commonly called, ought to surpass others in the fervour of our praises and devotions”. The title eventually found it’s way to Rome where, in 1893, Pope Leo XIII spoke a to a group pilgrims who had come from Rome and he spoke of “the wonderful filial love which burnt within the heart of your forefathers towards the great Mother of God … to whose service they consecrated themselves with such abundant proofs of devotion, that the kingdom itself acquired the singular and highly honourable title of ‘Mary’s Dowry.'”

St Edward the Confessor, King of England, had sometimes spoken of England as the ‘dowry of Mary’. He is buried at Westminster Abbey, whose construction he began almost a thousand years ago, and his tomb shrine is the very heart of the Abbey. Directly opposite is a little chapel dedicated to the Mother of God, and which is much the same age.  Westminster Abbey was also the place where this title and dedicated nation of the nation would find formal royal recognition,. There, in 1381, the teenaged King Richard II made solemn vows dedicating the nation to the Blessed Virgin and he went so far as to establish the title of ‘Dowry of Mary’ in law, later promulgated by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Arundel, in the year 1399 –

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.

All of this found an artistic representation in the famous Wilton Diptych, now is the possession of the National Gallery in London. Painted on oak, this is a very rare piece of surviving Mediaeval art. The left panel depicts three Saints – King Edmund the Martyr, KingEdward the Confessor and Saint John the Baptist – presenting King Richard II (for whom the diptych was painted) to the Christ Child, held in arms of His Mother, and surrounded by a host of Angels. one of whom bears aloft the flag of England, the Cross of Saint George. At the very top of the flagstaff is an orb, upon which is painted the tiniest map of England.

The Wilton Diptych © National Gallery

The love for Our Lady in England finds a particular expression in the devotion to Our Lady of Walsingham, whose feast is celebrated today, 24th September, in both the Catholic and Anglican churches. This devotion began after a series of apparitions of the Mother of God at Walsingham, Norfolk, in 1061. Our Lady is said to have appeared to a woman of nobility called Richeldis de Faverches.

Our Blessed Lady is said to have shown the Holy House of Nazareth – where the Annunciation had occurred – to Lady Richeldis in a vision, and requested her to create a replica of the House in England. This was duly done and a statue of the Mother of God installed within it. The statue later received papal recognition and a papal coronation and the shrine itself become an immensely popular place of pilgrimage, one of the greatest in all Europe, for those who were unable to travel to the Holy Land.

Many of the Kings of England visited the shrine, before it’s destruction by King Henry VIII in 1538 during the English Reformation. The fate of the original statue is unknown although there are claims that a particular statue – ‘the Langham Madonna’ – in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London may in fact be the original, since it bears a strong similarity to the descriptions of the original statue at the Shrine.

The famous ‘Slipper Chapel’ was constructed in 1340 one mile from the original site – the name comes from the practice of pilgrims to remove their shoes (slippers) before walking the final mile to the Shrine barefooted. This little chapel was restored in 1896. The following year, Pope Leo XIII re-established the Holy House in the nearby parish Church of the Annunciation and a new statue was placed there. This was solemnly crowned in 1954 at the request of Pope Pius XII.

Today, there are Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox shrines at Walsingham – perhaps expressing something of the hope of the Lord in the Gospel “that they may all be one” (John 17:21). A further expression of this hope lies in the Personal Ordinariate of Our lady of Walsingham, established in 2011 by Pope Benedict XVI and providing a ‘bridge’ allowing those of the Anglican Communion to come to full communion with the Catholic Church. The Ordinariate have a recently-published book called ‘Divine Worship Daily Office (Commonwealth Edition)’ which is a daily office and a very close reflection of the usual Catholic Divine Office (the Liturgy of the Hours). The book is exceptionally beautiful and prayerful.

During the pandemic, the idea of seeking the protection of the Blessed Virgin came to the fore once again and the nation sought Her assistance by reminding Her anew of Her rights and responsibilities; Cardinal  Nichols of Westminster had taken a newly-painted Icon of Our Lady of Walsingham – entitled ‘the Dowry Painting’ – to Rome, where it was blessed by the Holy Father, Pope Francis.

There had been plans for three years to ‘re-dedicate’ England to the Mother of God but the pandemic got in the way of this – the Cardinal had made an appeal to the Catholics of England – “We are Mary’s Dowry! Please enrich that Dowry by offering to Her the best that you can give”. Finally, in March 2020, the prayer of re-dedication was offered by Christians across England, private individuals and the Catholic hierarchy; a planned Mass at Westminster Abbey was not able to proceed, because of the restrictions imposed by the pandemic, but a live-streamed Mass did take place at the shrine in Walsingham. And the prayer of re-dedication that day began with the same words I learned so long ago now in England –

O Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God
and our most gentle Queen and Mother,
look down in mercy upon England, thy Dowry,
and upon us all who greatly hope and trust in Thee.

Veneration of the Mother of God continues in England as strong now as ever. And She remains perfectly well aware of the rights and responsibilities She has in our regard.

Today, on this feast of Our Lady of Walsingham, we ask Her to once more look with great kindness upon England, Her dowry.

 

Catholic | Retired Nurse | UK

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