Fr. Matthew is a priest of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham and currently serves as Parish Priest in a rural parish in the English Midlands. He is also a school chaplain and is passionate about ministry with young people. Fr. Matthew is the author of Building the Kingdom in the Classroom, which details his experiences of ministry in schools.
I often make the bold claim of being the parish priest at the center of England. Just a few miles from my house, but still within my rural parish, stands the High Cross marking the centre of Roman Britannia. Today the ancient Fosse Way crosses the equally historic Watling Street, although their convergence nowadays forms a busy road junction. As a priest with a strong devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, I could also lay claim to serving in the parish at the heart of Our Lady’s Dowry.
England has been known as Mary’s Dowry since Anglo-Saxon times. Successive kings and noblemen perpetuated the belief that this county was set apart for Our Lady for all time. Often when we think of a dowry we imagine a payment to a bride or her family before her wedding but the term derives from the Latin word "Dos", meaning gift or donation. England, therefore, was given to the Blessed Virgin Mary as a perpetual gift or donation.
Whenever in London, I always try to spare a few hours to visit the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square. One of the great treasures, which is a must-see, is the Wilton Diptych. This is a portable altarpiece completed for King Richard II in around 1395, and is a rare survivor of medieval religious art. The painting shows King Richard II being presented by his patron, St. John the Baptist, to Our Lady and the infant Jesus. The King is flanked by two great royal saints, St. Edward the Confessor and St. Edmund. These represent both the royal line and the religious heroes of medieval England. Richard II kneels in an earthy landscape, whilst the Blessed Virgin Mary and Child stand in a paradise meadow, blossoming with flowers and flanked by 11 angels. This painting is of most significance because it is one of the earliest depictions of England being presented to Our Lady as a gift, her dowry. In minuscule detail we see this earthy king presenting his Heavenly Queen with a flag of St. George which is surmounted by an orb engraved with a map of England.
The battle cry at Agincourt on Oct. 25, 1415, reputedly raised by King Henry V, was “Our Lady for her dowry; St. George and St. Edward to our aid.” This shows the importance placed upon Our Lady’s Dowry for the spiritual and temporal protection of the English people by their ruling monarchs. A tract printed by the craftsman Richard Pynson in the 15th century, and now known as the Pynson Ballad, demonstrates the common devotion to Mary’s Dowry, held outside of the Royal Court:
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 region
The holy lande, Oure Ladyes dowre;
Thus arte thou named of olde antyquyte.
No other nation claimed such an honor as this. Before the Reformation, England was as advanced as any other European country in steadfast devotion to Our Lady.
With the Reformation came the fanatical destruction of so much of the great Catholic heritage, art and architecture of England. Shrines were destroyed, important images of Our Lady were taken to Chelsea and burned, and holy men and woman died for their faith. Alongside this iconoclasm and terror came the dimming of the memory of Our Lady’s Dowry. However, for some the hope and promise of this special honor was never completely extinguished. Recusant families, those who kept the flame of Catholicism burning during penal times (when Catholicism was outlawed), maintained the faith at great personal cost. For many of these families, the belief in Mary’s Dowry spurred them on during their most difficult and trying years and gave them strength to persevere through persecution.
Belief that England was Mary’s Dowry was always something which had been promoted from within the nation by the English people themselves. Whilst the devotion is thoroughly English, its restoration began with a commission from Rome which, after the wilderness years, gave new vigour and hope to the growing Church within these shores. Pope Leo XIII asked the Bishops of England and Wales to re-consecrate England to the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Peter during their meeting with him in Rome in 1893. This gave the Dowry papal backing and the Bishops duly did as they were asked. Today many of my older parishioners remember this prayer which was said at the conclusion of Mass for the conversion of 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.
By thee it was that Jesus our Saviour and our hope was given unto the world;
and He has given thee to us that we might hope still more.
Plead for us thy children,
whom thou didst receive and accept at the foot of the Cross,
O sorrowful Mother.
Intercede for our separated brethren,
that with us in the one true fold
they may be united to the supreme Shepherd, the Vicar of thy Son.
Pray for us all, dear Mother,
that by faith fruitful in good works
we may all deserve to see and praise God,
together with thee, in our heavenly home. Amen.
This really captures the spirit of that time and remained a well-known and much-loved prayer right into the 20th century. It sad that is so easily fell into disuse, but in the years after the Second Vatican Council there seemed a growing a reluctance to speak about England as Mary’s Dowry. For many it no longer made sense to speak of the county in that way, in what was now a multi-faith and multi-ethnic nation. The pursuit of Christian unity also led many to believe that there should be a growing emphasis upon the common ground existing between different Christian communities and a de-emphasis upon aspects of the Catholic faith that made us appear different. Within this development of thought, Our Lady often was viewed as a stumbling block and obstacle to unity. Rather than a greater relationship with other Christians, this neglecting of the Blessed Virgin Mary left a whole generation unaware of the great power and beauty that devotion to Our Lady can bring.
The tide now seems to be turning. England’s National Shrine of Our Lady at Walsingham is experiencing something of a renaissance. There are significant developments and important plans for expansion and renewal. Walsingham and Mary’s Dowry have always been inextricably linked and so it seems right that a renewal at the National Shrine should also be linked to fresh emphasis upon re-establishing a devotion surrounding our Lady’s Dowry. This is something that the present Rector of the Shrine, Mgr. John Armitage, has been keen to promote and it is wonderful news that the Bishops have responded by agreeing to consecrate England once again as a gift to Our Lady.
The Bishops are certainly taking a bold step and the act of Consecration will take place at the Basilica and Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham within the next two years. This is something that many of us are looking forward to with hope that it many bring a renewal in devotion to Our Lady and also a rejuvenation of the Church in our country. More than ever, England needs a mother. We live in a society which is becoming increasingly broken and fragmented. The gap between rich and poor is widening, families are divided and morality seems, at best, to be confused. Just as in ages past, could Our Lady becoming once more to our spiritual aid? “Mother of us all, look down in mercy upon England thy Dowry.”