DURING the reign of James I who died in 1625, a paper now in the British Museum was discovered which gives an account of a picture described as very ancient and known to have been in the church of St Thomas' hospice in Rome. It portrayed a king and queen kneeling and presenting the island of Britain to Mary saying "This is thy dowry, 0 loving Virgin, wherefore rule it." The king in the picture is said to be Richard II who died in 1399.
This was the proud title this country was given. Devotion to Mary was once part and parcel of the culture of England. English children were carefully trained in devotion to her. The great schools and universities honoured her. At Oxford, for 'example, Corpus Christi college was dedicated to Christ in the Blessed Sacrament and to his Mother. At Magdalen College it was the custom for the students to say the rosary every day; New College was dedicated to Our Lady; her statue still crowns its gateway.
It was a time which inspired architects to raise beautiful buildings in her name, when love of her inspired the chisel of the sculptor and guided the hand of the painter. All over the country there were numerous shrines and sanctuaries in her honour., Among them was Glastonbury, the most ancient, and Walsingham, the most famous, known as the holy land of Walsingham.
Huge numbers of pilgrims made their way to these shrines, especially to Walsingham. Kings, statesmen, famous soldiers and crowds of ordinary folk went there to pray to obtain help in their hour of need or to rr ee ct ue irvne dthanks rfeo sr 0 sinoemem be se ns ee fni tt there A punishment for some misdeed. The shrines were loaded with gifts, many of them costly. Sometimes votive hearts were offered as symbols that the donors had given their hearts to Our Lady.
A strange offering was that of Sir Robert Wingfield in 1517.. He was English ambassador to the emperor. He wrote to the king for permission to resign his functions in order to make an offering of his beard to Our Lady at Walsingham "where by the leave of God I would gladly leave my beard which is now so strange a colour." The late medieval practices in regard to pilgrimages and shrines came to an end with the spoliation of those shrines when they attracted the attention and cupidity of Henry. VIII.
The shrine shall be pillaged, and the gold spent The jewels gone for light ladies' ornaments. With the shrines went also _ many of the images of Mary. Before that time they were seen everywhere and they were mostly very beautiful. Here statues made of wood, marble or stone kept guard over church. and cathedral, each one having its lady chapel with its own statue; they were seen at the entrance of bridges and gateways and at roadsides. The shopman placed her image on his signboard, the innkeeper on his, the Angel inns of today recall it, the soldier wore it on his surcoat and it even graced the crown of England.
When Edmund Campion was being dragged through the rainy streets of London on a December morning the hurdle on which• he lay came opposite an archway in Newgate. The martyr struggled to rise and bow at the little statue of Mary which was in its niche above the archway and thus saved from the hammers of those who had destroyed so many. The final salute to the Mother of God by Campion on his way to death symbolised the destruction of an ancient love and the passing of a beauty more lovely than flowers or sunshine.
A contemporary writes: "In the month of July, the images of Our Lady of Walsingham and Ipswich were brought up to London with all the jewels that hung about them, at the king's commandment, and divers other images, that were used for common pilgrimages, because the people should use no more idolatry unto them, and they were burnt at Chelsea by my Lord Privy Seal."
From the time of the conversion of England up to King Henry VIII's reign there was scarcely one king who did not leave some proof of his love for Our Lady, either by building a church in her honour, or by erecting and endowing a monastery or by large donations to her sanctuaries, or by going on pilgrimage to some celebrated spot where her power had been made manifest. Thus King Edward I made his way to Walsingham because of a great favour he attributed to her. "When a yong man he chanced to be playing at chess with a knight in a vaulted chamber, when suddenly, and without occasion', he rose and went away; when lo! an immense stone, which would have crushed him if he had remained, fell on the very spot where had been sitting". He attributed his escape to the Blessed Lady of Walsingham.
During those times people loved to link Mary's name with all that was most beautiful.
Many flowers were named after her; among them were Marigold, Our Lady's Mantle and Our Lady's Seal, while the snowdrop was purification flower. Numerous streets and districts were called after her. Many survive today. In London there is Marylebone and Ave Maria Lane and in the country at large there are a number of places beginning with the title St Mary.
It was also an age of chivalry. Our Lady was the chief patroness of the highest order of knighthood in the country, the Order of the Garter. This was the ancient form of investiture: "To the laud and honour of Almighty God, his immaculate mother and St George, the holy martyr, tie or gird your leg with this most noble Garter, wearing it to the increase of your honour, and in token and remembrance of this most noble order; remembering that you being admonished and encouraged in all just battles and wars, which only you shall take in hand both strongly to fight, valiantly to stand, and honourable to have victory."
So much has been lost. The fragrance, the beauty, the values, the very pictures by which our ancestors lived have been banished from men's minds. The problem before our country today is a moral rather than a political one. The recovery of a sense of national purpose can only come through the rediscovery of something to live by, which means in the end a living faith.
The Christian faith with its doctrine of the incarnation is surely the answer. Christ and his mother have been at the foundation of European icivilisation. They have left their mark everywhere. What is needed is the rehabilitation of this Christian belief and the Christian principles and ethics that follow from it. "Popular morality is a wasteland littered with the debris of broken convictions — but nothing has taken their place," wrote a modern writer.
Maurice Nassan SJ