In 2014, on his 60th birthday, Msgr. John Armitage, then vicar general of the Diocese of Brentwood, England, was appointed the rector of the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham in Norfolk.
Following the announcement, Cardinal Vincent Nichols said: “I am delighted to learn that Msgr. John Armitage is to take up this position. His deep devotion to Our Blessed Lady, his remarkable pastoral drive and enthusiasm, make his appointment a moment of great promise not only for the shrine, but also for the Church in this country and for our mission.”
Since his arrival, Msgr. Armitage has made it clear his mission is not just about the bricks and mortar of the ancient shrine. He wants the message of Walsingham to be better understood. As he points out, “There’s a significance to the spiritual health of this country that is linked to this place.”
The Catholic bishops of England have decided upon the rededication of England as the “Dowry of Mary.” This is to take place on the feast of the Annunciation 2020. In preparation for the commemoration, a statue of Our Lady of Walsingham, whose feast day is today, is touring all of the Catholic cathedrals of England. Msgr. Armitage explained to the Register the deep Marian devotion in England and its necessity amid the current culture.
What exactly is the “Dowry of Mary”?
Unique among all the nations, the Catholics of England have believed for centuries that their nation is in a special way the “Dowry of Mary.”
The word “dowry” (from the Latin dos, meaning “donation”) is sometimes understood as the donation accompanying a bride. In medieval English law, however, the meaning is reversed — a husband would set apart a portion of his estate designated for the maintenance of his wife, should she become a widow. The historical understanding of England as “Mary’s Dowry” is understood in this sense — that England has been “set apart” for Mary.
The title is believed to originate in the time of St. Edward the Confessor (1042-1066), though the precise origin is unknown. It had become widespread by the middle of the 14th century, and around the year 1350, a mendicant preacher stated in a sermon that “it is commonly said that the land of England is the Virgin’s dowry,” reflecting the origin of the title in the deep devotion of the English people to the Mother of God that existed in medieval England.
King Richard II, in 1381, dedicated England to Mary in a ceremony at Westminster Abbey, on the feast of Corpus Christi, in thanksgiving for his kingdom being saved at the time of the Peasants’ Revolt.
In 1399, Thomas Arundel, archbishop of Canterbury, wrote to his suffragan bishops:
“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 fervor of our praises and devotions.”
So the title of England as the “Dowry of Mary” was in use by the end of the 14th century, but Archbishop Arundel’s letter further indicates that, at the time of his writing, it was already in common use, indicating an earlier origin.
It was believed that England belonged in some special way to Mary, who was seen as the country’s “protectress” and who, through her powers of intercession, acted as the country’s defender or guardian. In the reign of Henry V (1386 -1422), the title was being applied to England in Latin texts; and according to the monastic chronicler, Thomas Elmham, English priests sought the intercession of “the Virgin, protectress of her dower,” on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt.
It is a title of England, established by an act of the king and proclaimed by Archbishop Arundel, which has never been rescinded by monarch or Parliament.
So it is a historic title, but does it have any relevance for today’s Catholics in England?
This ancient title is a clear expression of the depth of the devotion to the Mother of God that has been part of the expression of faith of the people of England for centuries. The thousands of people who go on pilgrimage to Marian shrines across the country, especially Walsingham, and who go annually to Lourdes and to Fatima is a clear expression that this devotion is very much alive today. The promotion of the “Dowry” is there to help us pass on to the next generation this ancient and profound trust in the Mother of God, as she calls us today to “do whatever he tells you.”
Of what does the “Dowry Tour” consist? How does it work?
The “Dowry Tour” initially is to all of the cathedrals of England, where a replica of the Holy House and the statue are the center of a triduum of prayer and intercession for the needs of the diocese. Parishes, schools and Catholic organizations are invited to attend over the three days, where there is a program of talks, the Rosary and an exhibition giving the history of the dowry and explaining Our Lady’s message to England at Walsingham. The bishop celebrates Mass on either the Friday or Saturday. A team from the national shrine, led by the rector, attends each visit.
What has been the reaction to it so far?
All of the cathedrals have agreed to take part in the “Dowry Tour.”
Is there support from the Church hierarchy for the tour?
The tour and the rededication have the full support of the bishops’ conference.
By 2020, what are you hoping will be achieved?
We are looking to deepen and promote devotion to the Mother of God in England, by helping the Catholic community to understand the deep roots of this devotion in the life of the Church and the country. Walsingham is one of the oldest shrines to the Mother of God; and in pre-Reformation times, it ranked with Jerusalem, Rome and Compostela as the most visited shrines in Christendom.
The message of Our Lady at Walsingham is very simple: She asks us to “share her joy at the Annunciation,” where her Son became our Savior.
What is the significance of the proposed 2020 rededication?
In 1381, King Richard II dedicated the country of England as “Mary’s Dowry” on the Solemnity of Corpus Christi at Westminster Abbey. On the Solemnity of the Annunciation in 2020, the dedication will not be of the country, but of the faith of the people of this country, as we seek to follow the words of our Blessed Lady to seek the will of God in our lives and “do whatever he tells us.” To assist people to prepare for this dedication, a form of dedication based on the Angelus, called the “Angelus Promise,” has been written (see below).
What is the role of the national Marian shrine in Walsingham in this effort?
The rededication of England as the “Dowry of Mary” has its roots in the many Marian shrines of Our Lady in England. Walsingham, as the national shrine, has a responsibility to promote this ancient title in order that the people of today may see the “the rock from which they are hewn” and, in line with this ancient tradition, build a new and powerful tradition of trust in the one whose “Yes” to God continues to inspire us today. The rededication is a simple but powerful commitment based on the story of the Annunciation and expressed in the “Angelus Promise.”
In the spiritual life of the nation, what is the meaning of this tour and rededication — and why now?
Each generation and moment in history brings great and sometimes dangerous challenges. Our moment in history is one such time. Our Holy Father Pope Francis says that “we are not in an era of change but a change of era.” Pope Leo XIII prophesied that: “When England comes back to Walsingham, Our Lady will return to England.” As the world and the Church face the challenges of our day, we turn to one who overcame her fear at the Annunciation, accepting, in faith, that nothing is impossible to God. Her “Yes” to God created the way for the light of Christ to enter into our world. In faith, like Mary, we wish to bring that light into the world of today.
K.V. Turley writes from London.
R: The Angel of the Lord declared unto Mary,
V: And she conceived by the Holy Spirit.
As God once called Mary, so today he calls me to seek his word in my life.
Hail Mary, full of grace …
R: Behold the handmaid of the Lord.
V: Be it done to me according to thy word.
Mary’s simple “Yes” opened her heart to God’s grace, and all things became possible. Let my “Yes” take away fear as I embrace God’s will and, like Mary, “ponder these things in my heart.”
Hail Mary, full of grace …
R: And the Word became flesh (bow or genuflect)
V: And dwelt among us.
Mary’s faith-filled “Yes,” conceived first in her heart, led to the birth of our Savior; as I commit myself to my faith-filled “Yes” today, I accept my Savior into my heart, bringing his life to my world.
Hail Mary, full of grace …
R: Pray for us, most holy Mother of God,
V: That we may be made worthy of the promises of God.
Let us pray:
R: Pray for us, O most holy Mother of God,
V: That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.
Let us pray: O Holy Mother of God, pray for us, and assist us as we dedicate ourselves this day. Your “Yes” at the Annunciation brought our Savior Jesus into the world, and you invite us to contemplate the great mystery of the Incarnation, sharing your joy in announcing that “the Word was made flesh and lived among us.” May our “Yes” this day open our hearts to serve our sisters and brothers in this, your Dowry, that they, too, may share our joy in the Good News that God walks among us. We make this prayer through Christ our Lord. Amen.