London’s River Thames is a Mirror of History

London’s river is a reminder of Our Lady, the Mirror of Justice

The River Thames
The River Thames (photo: jplenio / Pixabay/CC0)

In the second week of February it was reported that a section of London’s River Thames had frozen.

At least 23 times between 1309 and 1814, the Thames has frozen over. On five of these occasions impromptu “Frost Fairs” were held on the river. The first of these took place in 1608 when the river froze for six weeks and became the scene of a boisterous winter party for Londoners.

The link between the city and its river is as solid as the ice upon which such fairs were held. In fact, one could argue London’s very existence is due to the river that flows through it.

The origins of the river’s name are obscure — some think “Thames” is Celtic in origin meaning “darkness” — but the river is the oldest thing in London, and the only thing that does not change. In contrast to London’s ever-changing face, it seems the waters of the Thames have merely reflected the history being played out on its banks. Without meaning or message of its own, the Thames is a mere mirror, one held up to thousands of years of human history. And, until recent times, that history has been dominated by Christianity and, more particularly, by England’s Catholic past.

During the 4th century, St. Alban, England’s proto-martyr, was beheaded in the British-Roman city of Verulamium (modern-day St. Albans). In his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, the Venerable Bede noted that, on the way to Alban’s execution, the martyr saint caused amazement in those who were to kill him by parting the waters of the Thames as he traveled to his death.

Now made holy by the British proto-martyr, these same waters witnessed in the seventh century St. Birinus baptizing the first Saxons, including Cynegils king of Wessex in the western stretch of the Thames. Around the same time, further downriver, St. Chad baptized the East Saxons. Thereafter, the newly converted Saxons built England’s first Christian churches, made of wood, on the riverbanks.

Centuries later the Norman rulers enlarged these Saxon churches. They also built palaces and castles by the river, notably the Tower of London. In addition, along the Thames the number of religious houses expanded — Benedictine abbeys such as that at Westminster. In The Historic Thames(1907) Hilaire Belloc went so far as to suggest that from the late Saxon era to the years following the 1066 Norman Conquest, England “was actually created by the Benedictine monks.”

These monks created what we know today as London. It was the monks in abbeys by the Thames who built the first bridges over the river; and these same monks who brought culture and learning, industry and prosperity to its banks. London’s citizenry today might be surprised to know that so much of their prosperous metropolis owes its origins to these monks of earlier times who, if remembered now at all, are only recalled in the place names associated with them, such in Westminster.

Today, with odd exceptions, these once great religious houses are ruins. Inevitably, the English Reformation brought its revolutionary destruction to London and its religious culture on the Thames. Thereafter, the dark river flowed no longer alongside monasteries but by the shattered stones of what had once been a vibrant and integral part of English life. In April 1534, it was the Thames that brought Sir Thomas More downriver to meet his accusers and on to the Tower of London and eventual martyrdom overlooking the river. It was this same river that passed beneath London Bridge where the severed heads of Catholics who refused to accede to the new order were placed on spikes.

The Thames continued on her course through the years of martyrdom that followed, and on to a Second Spring, when once again upon its banks Catholic churches would be erected. One of the first of these was built in 1849 — a church dedicated to St. Birinus.

Of the early medieval churches on the banks, many were dedicated to Our Lady. From the 7th century to the time of Henry Tudor, churches in Mary’s honor sprang up on both sides of the river. It is reckoned that along the banks of a river that runs for only 215 miles there were as many as 50 churches so dedicated. Of the churches on the Upper Thames to the churches of the estuary, surpassing in number all others are those dedicated to St. Mary.

One of the most famous of these was at Caversham. The origins of the shrine of Our Lady in Caversham are a mystery. The first definite historical record dates to the year 1106, when Duke Robert of Normandy presented to this shrine a relic of Christ’s Passion brought back from Jerusalem following the First Crusade. By 1162, the care of the shrine was entrusted to the Augustinian Canons of Notley Abbey, near Aylesbury, Wiltshire.

Throughout the Middle Ages the fame of Our Lady of Caversham spread across the country. Pilgrims came not only to pray, but also to present votive offerings at the shrine, so much so that by the 15th century the shrine-statue was plated in silver. In 1439 Isabella Beauchamp, Countess of Warwick, left 20 pounds of gold to be made into a crown for the statue. England’s kings and queens came up river from Windsor to visit the shrine. The last royal pilgrim was Queen Catherine of Aragon. In the summer of 1532, as her husband Henry VIII demanded a divorce, the queen came to ask the aid of Our Blessed Lady.

Eventually, Henry’s demand led to divorce for his kingdom as well as wife. On Sept. 14, 1538, Dr. John London, a government agent, arrived at Caversham. In a single day he closed down the 500-year-old shrine. In so doing, he stripped the shrine bare and had the statue of Our Lady shipped down river to be duly burnt before the chief architect of Henry’s new religious order Thomas Cromwell.

In 1896, however, a new Catholic parish of Our Lady and St. Anne was established at Caversham. And, in the Marian Year of 1954, the Shrine of Our Lady of Caversham was once more erected with a stone chapel in the Norman style. A large oak statue of Our Lady and Child, said to be 500 years old, and from Northern Europe, had been found in an antique shop in London. It was installed and solemnly blessed at the new shrine of Caversham.

The man most associated with the Second Spring in England was St. John Henry Newman. Referring to the Marian title, “Mirror of Justice,” he wrote, “When our Lady is called the ‘Mirror of Justice,’ it is meant to say that she is the Mirror of sanctity, holiness, supernatural goodness. … Reflecting back the attributes of God with a fullness and exactness of which no saint upon earth, or hermit, or holy virgin, can even remind us. Truly then she is the Speculum Justitiæ, the Mirror of Divine Perfection.”

Therefore, today, it seems fitting that on the banks of the Thames, alongside London’s liquid “mirror,” there should be a shrine dedicated to the “Mirror of Justice,” and one that does not merely reflect history as reveals its fulfillment.