is rich and diverse, filled with legends and romance, persecution and hope for the future. The earliest Christian missionaries to the British Isles brought their love of the gentle virgin to the Celtic and Anglo-Saxon peoples, and it spread like wildfire, infusing older Pagan traditions and locations with new Christian meanings.
In the Highlands of Scotland, a Neolithic stone structure regarded as sacred by the pagans was renamed “The Praying Hands of Mary.” In Glastonbury, England, a site resounding with pre-Christian mysticism, the mythologized chieftain Arthur Pendragon, who defended Christianity against the aggression of Pagan tribes, was said to have seen a vision of the Holy Mother and later borne an image her on his shield.
She was also given the title “Our Lady of Glastonbury” in honor of the tradition that Joseph of Arimathea planted the first Christian church in Britain on that site, along with the Glastonbury Thorn which blossomed every Christmastide and Eastertide. In Cornwall, it was even said that she had physically visited with the Christ Child during one of Joseph of Arimathea’s journeys as a tin trader for the Roman Empire, giving rise to the carol, “I Saw Three Ships” and the old Cornish miner’s cry, “Joseph was a tinner!”
It was recorded that King Alfred the Great had a deep devotion to Mary, and in keeping with this spirit, G.K. Chesterton depicted Our Lady appearing to him on the Battlefield of Ethandune: “Seven swords were in her hearth/And one was in her hand”. Likewise, on September 8, 997, it was recorded that the city of London was saved from a Viking invasion through her intercession on her birthday.
During the Middle Ages, England was called “Our Lady’s Dowry”, and “Lady Masses” in honor of the Virgin became increasingly popular, with glorious polyphonic choir pieces performed in her honor. The Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, which housed a miraculous statue of her, was a major site of pilgrimage for royals, nobles, and common folk alike, earning it the title “England’s Nazareth” and becoming renowned for its famous silver seal. In Wales, The Shrine of Our Lady of Cardigan housed a mysterious wooden statue of The Virgin found by the riverside with a taper in her hands that was always kept burning.
Likewise, the earliest ballads about involving Robin of Locksley, who took to Sherwood Forest as the champion of the oppressed, reveal that he had a deep devotion to the Blessed Mother and was often found “telling his beads/all in the greenwood among the green reeds.” It has even been speculated that Maid Marian is actually a covert reference to the Maiden Mary. The chivalric code of knighthood always placed a high emphasis on Mary, and thus on the respect owed to all women. Whether to celebrate the turning of the seasons in harvest festivities or preparing to launch a charge in a bloody battle, in was traditional to call on “Our Lord and Our Lady” in one breath.
During the Protestant Revolt, there was a violent overthrow of past religious and cultural traditions by radical adherents to the iconoclast sect. Monasteries were despoiled and church interiors were stripped; the statues of Our Lady of Walsingham and Our Lady of Cardigan were burned, along with countless other religious articles and relics of the saints. Even the supposed bones of King Arthur were destroyed, so associated was he with the Catholic England was past generations. Recusant Catholics were designated as “Robin Hoods” because of his own devotion to the Virgin Mary, and the legends of the Prince of Thieves temporarily fell out of fashion.
But Mary remained a comforting presence for underground Catholics as they struggled through generations of being a hunted and ostracized minority. St. Edmund Campion, known as “The Diamond of England” for his brilliance and charisma, claimed to have seen a vision of Our Lady in Belgium before he departed for England disguised as a jewel merchant to minister to the persecuted Catholic community there. She foretold that he would die a martyr, and a year later he was captured and condemned in a mock trial before being dragged through the muddy streets of London to Tyburn Tree where he would be hanged, drawn, and quartered for treason.
As he was dragged under Newgate Arch, he caught sight of the statue of Mary standing there, too high for the Protestants to smash. With his arm spasmodic from torture, he still managed to raise it in a salute to his Heavenly Queen. “Come rack, come rope, I will not talk”, had been his famous statement as the rack-master had tried to make him divulge information about his fellow Catholics. Now he took those secrets with him in death. It is little wonder that the Campion flower is also called “Our Lady’s Rose.”
Now the story has come full circle through the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, established by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI to help those Anglicans who wish to be received into the Catholic Church while still retaining their cultural and liturgical traditions in keeping with the fullness of the faith. Walsingham and Cardigan have both made been turned into centers of ecumenical reconciliation and devotion, and perhaps most poignantly, there is a medieval statue of the Madonna and Child that still stands on the outside of Westminster Abbey, built by St. Edward the Confessor in honor of Peter, Prince of the Apostles. She seems to be reminding the British people that even if they may have forgotten her, she has never forgotten them. Perhaps it is a call from her to come Home to her Son at long last.
|The Statue of Our Lady of Walsingham|