When England returns to Walsingham, Our Lady will return to England

The following article was published here on CP&S in 2011 with permission from the author. It had originally appeared in the UK Catholic Herald the previous year. Today 24th September, the feast of Our Lady of Walsingham, we are happy to republish it.

by Edmund Matyjaszek

This was a prophecy – or was it a promise? – given by Pope Leo XIII about the time when he asked the English Bishops in 1893 to consecrate their country to Mary, the Mother of God, recalling the ancient title the land enjoyed of being “Our Lady’s Dowry”.

Walsingham, a peaceful and very English village in North Norfolk, well off the beaten track nowadays, was the site in medieval times of the greatest shrine in Christendom – effectively Europe then – dedicated to Our Lady.  Norfolk then was one of the richest and busiest counties in England. For a time Norwich was the second city in England after London.

But as you drive or cycle or walk nowadays through its beautiful, sparsely populated countryside, it is hard to see this. But something quite unusual and extraordinary is stirring in Walsingham, pregnant with significance not just for our church but for our country. and indeed our  identity as a nation and a people.

The particular focus is the anniversary this year – the 950th anniversdary to be precise – of the traditional date of the vision that gave rise to the shrine. A local noble woman, Richeldis de Faverches (the surname is Norman, the first name, it appears, more Frankish or French), widowed but possessed of land and status, wished to do some “work” to honour Our Lady. In a vision she was taken to the Holy Land and shown the house at Nazareth where the angel Gabriel announced to Mary she was “full of grace” and was to “conceive a son”. Richeldis understood her “work” was to build a replica, or in the words of a ballad printed by King Henry VII’s printer Richard Pynson in about 1495, a “lyklynesse” that was to be a “newe Nazareth”.

But this “Pynson Ballad” 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.

This claim, to be Our Lady’s Dower, or Dowry – confirmed by Pope Leo XIII in 1893 – is an extraordinary one, shared by no other land. Neglected, forgotten, even scorned, but still prayed for and hymned in both Catholic and Anglican denominations at various levels, this is possibly the source of that sense of England being “special” that gave rise to poems such as Blake’s “Jerusalem” and informed Shakespeare’s stirring patriotic verse:

“This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England”

The concept is that England is set apart  as a gift (dower or dowry comes from the Latin word dos that gives us words like donor or donation – it simply means “gift”) for the Mother of God alone. It is hers, as a “dower” house belongs to a widow, say. The “domaine” of Walsingham became a “holy lande”. In fact modern research, examined in a historical conference at Walsingham earlier in March that was a prelude to the year’s celebrations known as “Richeldis 950”, showed how the whole of the region around Walsingham was replete with wayside chapels, marker crosses,  pilgrim “entry points” in King’s Lynn, and buried trackways that even now centuries later are visible through the woods. Being brought back to life are the very contours of this ancient pilgrimage, like a lost and buried land surfacing into view.

But the interest and focus of the this anniversary year is not confined to a kind of  ecclesial antiquarianism. Walsingham never was that. It was and is a potent source of spiritual help and “socoure”, as the old ballad says, “to all that devoutly visyte in this place”. In fact the power it held over the imagination of both royals and commoners – every King from Herny III in the 13th century to Henry VIII in the 16th , visited – was such that it was singled out for that reason for particularly vituperative – and one might add misogynistic –  destruction in 1538 by Thomas Cromwell’s  “Taliban”, in an attempt to eradicate all memory of the “witch of Walsingham” and her “idolatrous” beads, images and statues.

The shrine was wiped from the map. Its priests disembowelled. The Holy House burnt to the ground. But its memory proved harder to destroy.. The tale of its survival and re-emergence is a wonderful story in which both Anglicans and Catholics played a part. That is what this year of celebration proclaims, and with not just a pious hope but a real confidence and dynamism, given a startling contemporary impetus by the Ordinariate being proclaimed as that of Our Lady of Walsingham.

There are events, both national – at Westminster Cathedral on Saturday March 26th  Archbishop Vincent Nichols will celebrate Mass with the restored statue that Pope John Paul II had on the altar at his Mass at Wembley in 1982 being carried in by the new contemplative order “Community of Our Lady of Walsingham”, a modern example of how the spirituality of Walsingham is inspiring an inner transformation and renascence; then later flower festivals, historic exhibitions, concerts, readings and performances, culminating in the Dowry of Mary pilgrimage on Sunday September 11th followed by the closing ceremony on the Feast of Our Lady of Walsingham on Saturday September 24th.

But the keynote comes with the opening, appropriately enough, on the Vigil of the Annunciation on March 24th, with ecumenical vespers, followed by services in both shrines on March 25th, “Lady Day” the ancient start of the new year, the feast day of the  “great joy of my salutacyon” as Our Lady said to Richeldis 950 years ago.

In the word “ecumenical” (the Greek word means “home”) lies the real significance of this year and of the shrine now. After its destruction, the restoration was made in the 19th and into the 20th century by both Anglicans and Catholics. I do not think it is fanciful to see in the burgeoning Ordinariate the fruit of the prayers made by both “shrines” in this one place and the beginning of the institutional recovery of the unity of English Christianity.

It is not without controversy of course; it is not without difficulty. But the key element, spiritually, in Pope Benedict’s vision for the Ordinariate seems to be this open recognition of the Anglican patrimony as a “shared treasure”. This is a new note to strike, and makes the national narrative a common property of all Christians whatever their denomination. That is its contemporary significance, that the very desecrated “holy lande” of Walsingham is becoming the common ground of a restored love of place and country under God that puts spiritual values and their defence at the heart of the “English” endeavour. This healing of divisions that Walsingham and the Ordinariate represent holds out an immeasurable promise. From the healing of the church will come the healing of the nation. One day this will all be in the history books, but we can help make that history now by reclaiming our past with a view to making it our own, and the way to do it is to pack your bag, buy
your ticket, and like your ancestors of old set off on pilgrimage to Walsingham, to visit, as the promise of “olde antyquyte” still holds true:

The holy lande, Oure Ladyes dowre


The Feast of the Assumption celebrates the taking of Mary body and soul into the presence of God, into Heaven, at the end of her earthly life. It reassures us, as Mary is entirely human, that we too can entertain that hope for our eternal destiny.

There are many shrines and places where she has since made her presence known – in visions, in apparitions – and opened a gateway between heaven and earth. There is however only one country that entirely, as a country, is considered hers alone.
That is England, and it is the devotion that acknowledges it as her “Dowry” that does so.

This devotion is still widespread, summarised in the prayer “Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God and our most gracious Queen & Mother, look down in mercy on England thy Dowry”. On this feast of her Assumption it may be right to ask:
where does this devotion come from; and what, if any, is its meaning today?

The first thing is to dispel any uncertainty about the use of the word “Dowry”. It does not mean in this instance the dowry of a bride; it comes from the Latin word “dos”, meaning gift, or donation. The original legal meaning is “that part of a husband’s estate, which, on his marriage, he set apart for his wife’s maintenance should he leave her a widow. The land assigned for this purpose was considered a perpetual and inalienable gift”. The term “Dower House” is from the same root. England as Our Lady’s “Dowry” is therefore the place set apart in perpetuity for her use alone.

But what is the origin of this devotion? Its formal recognition was as early as 1381, in an attested ceremony in Westminster Abbey by King Richard II, that dedicated England as Mary’s “dos” or dowry. But the devotion was considered of “common parlance” even then. There is a tradition it dates back to Edward the Confessor, in whose reign Westminster Abbey was founded, and, in 1061, the Shrine of Walsingham. It was given papal approval in 1893 by Leo XIII who requested the English Bishops to re-consecrate their country to Our Lady.

Our Lady’s presence pervades English life and history: “Our Lady for her Dowry” was a battle cry at Agincourt; numerous flowers – marigold, Ladysmock – bear her name; pubs called the Salutation refer to the Annunciation; and of course Walsingham itself – ranked with Jerusalem, Rome and Compostella as one of the 4 great medieval pilgrimage shrines, but the only one dedicated to Our Lady – supremely attests to this devotion. Each September, there is still the “Dowry Pilgrimage” to Walsingham, at times led by the Cardinal.

But where did the devotion come from? What purpose does it serve? And why England?  To answer that we need to look at the origin, not just of the devotion, but of England itself; and to ask if by origin, or by analogy to Mary or to her own life, there is something particularly apt or appropriate in our country being her Dowry?

The “English” began to come here with the Anglo-Saxon invasions of the 5th & 6th centuries after the Roman legions withdrew. By the late 7th Century, there were emerging seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms: Kent, Wessex, Northumbria, East Anglia, Essex, Sussex, Mercia. By the late 700s, there are references to Offa of Mercia as “Rex Anglorum” or King of the English. But by common consent the country took its shape as a unified kingdom under the descendants of Alfred the Great of Wessex in the 10th & 11th  Centuries. It was then too that the word “England” as a country came into regular use in church and legal documents.

In fact, that is only half the story, and the lesser half. For England had already been in full administrative existence during these centuries, but as a purely ecclesial entity.
As early as 672 or 673, at the Synod of Hertford, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Theodore, had convened the bishops of all these various Anglo-Saxon kingdoms     (excepting Sussex, still to be converted), and they met under his overall authority and agreed a unity as one spiritual and ecclesiastical realm. I can find no other country, administered as such, as a united ecclesial realm, fully three centuries before the same borders her bishops observed became united under a single ruler. Quite simply, England was an ecclesial, a spiritual reality before she was ever a physical kingdom. Her spiritual existence pre-dated her political reality. She was conceived in the womb of the church before she became a realm in law.

Where else do we find this pattern where the spiritual precedes the physical,
where something is conceived in the heart and the mind before it is made full in the flesh? Why, in the very life of Mary as para 488 of our current Catechism proclaims, quoting the Second Vatican Council’s Lumen Gentium “The Father of Mercies willed that the Incarnation should be preceded by consent on the part of the predestined Mother”. And the Catechism later adds, quoting St Augustine “ Mary is more blessed because she embraces faith in Christ than because she conceives the flesh of Christ”.

Is this, by analogy with Mary’s own life, and based on the clear historical evidence of England’s emergence, the “reason” so to speak for the devotion? Furthermore, it was Mary’s assent, her free choice, as the Council Fathers re-asserted, that opened for us the doors of salvation. Has it not also been this same human freedom to choose, this liberty which is so precious to every man and woman, that her Dowry, England, has upheld down the centuries? Not just in ancient times with Alfred and the Danes, but in 1588, in 1805, in 1914 and of course, supremely, in 1940.

Is her Dowry, then, the place where the pattern of her life is to be mirrored and nurtured, in liberty and in free compliance with the law, not by fear or compulsion, but only by consent – given, never forced – as hers was? Is this the key to England?

A poet asked at the time of World War 1:

“Who stands if Freedom fall?
Who dies if England live?”

And as Churchill said in his first broadcast as Prime Minister in May 1940:

“I speak to you in a solemn hour for the life of our country…..and, above all, of the cause of freedom.”

Were they illuminating the heart of England’s mission, what it means to be the Dowry of Mary?

True to her origin, is England’s role as the Dowry of Mary to be found in being that particular place on earth where the truths of Mary’s life and of her Son’s, where the reality of spiritual values, of the spiritual realm, are to be forever upheld? That is, I would say, one reason, perhaps the reason, why England is her Dowry. Our task may well be to understand this, to love our country as her Dowry, and to uphold the values she stands for, with all the strength that God and his good Mother can give us, especially on this, the great feast of her glory.

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