In the fifth of their series on Marian shrines, Stephen and Elizabeth Usherwood tour the Cotswolds.
AS most medieval Marian shrines have disappeared, the surviving links with them are very precious. Hailes Abbey near Winchcombe, Gloucestershire, founded by a brother of Henry III, is in utter ruin, but a Madonna discovered there in 1870, hidden under a barn floor, was given to the post— emancipation Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady and St Bernard at Mount St Bernard in Charnwood Forest, Leicestershire.
The Abbey church, designed by Augustus Pugin in 1843 and enlarged in the 1930's, is plain, almost severe; massive circular piers support double-chamfered, sharply pointed arches; there are no side chapels; a number of simple stone table altars are placed against the aisle walls, each with a Crucifixion carved in the bare stone above; one is dedicated to St Stephen Harding, the English founder of the Cistercian order, another to the Guardian Angels. Over the narthex is a life-size figure of the Virgin, based on the preReformation seal of Furness Abbey. In front of this masterpiece the community gathers at the end of the day to sing the Salve Regina. The exterior of the church is dominated by a square tower supported on the transept crossing above the high altar. Nearby a massive outcrop of rock draws the eye heavenward; in a cleft at -the top stands the gentle figure of Our Lady, inviting visitors to pray in the forest silence while only two miles away the great juggernauts roar up and down the M 1.
In the garden of the Dominican convent at Stone near Stafford stands a statue of Our Lady given by Dr Spencer Northcote to Sister Margaret Hallahan, and in the chapter room is an image of Our Lady of Assebrock which she brought with her when, after a novitiate in Bruges, she came to the Midlands to work with Bishop Ullathorne.
The 13th century Cathedral at Lichfield, with its three spires, built on a foundation of natural rock, where a Saxon cathedral once stood, was dedicated to St Mary and St Chad (who reigned there as bishop from 660 to 672). A beautiful Lady Chapel was added a century later, but the whole building was badly damaged by Parliamentary gunfire in the Civil War and lost all its medieval stained glass. In 1803 a splendid sixteenth century stained glass, purchased in Belgium, was installed in the Lady Chapel.
At Worcester medieval masons extended the Cathedral of Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary to almost twice its original length, adding a Lady Chapel with transepts to the east of the high altar, while preserving the large Norman crypt, built on the site of a Saxon cathedral dedicated to St Mary. The Lady Chapel's five lancet windows can be seen from the nave, an unusual effect, and enshrined in the blank arcading of its south transept is a small alabaster Madonna which has been there since 1470. Hidden at the Reformation but now revealed, it is a great rarity in an Anglican cathedral.
Gloucester's Lady Chapel, which was also an extension added to the earlier part of the Cathedral, finished about 1500, has galleries for singers and musicians. The great east window depicting the Coronation of the Virgin, has below it the coats of arms of noblemen who fought at the battle of Crecy in 1346.
The Saxon saint Egwin founded, in the eighth century, an abbey at Evesham near Worcester, dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, on high ground safe from floods, but protected by the winding river Avon, where she had appeared both to him and to St Eoves (after whom the town is named). Many monks sought refuge there after William the Conqueror's harrying of the North, and a Norman knight, Rein frid, horrified by the sight of Abbess St Hilda's famous convent at Whitby in ruins, joined the community. Later, with two companions, he was sent to re-establish monasteries at Wearmouth, Jarrow, Whitby and York. Evesham Abbey continued to prosper for three centuries, and a Mary Mass was said there daily. At the dissolution a treasured statue of the Virgin was carried off to London and burnt in Chelsea with a number of others, but today the town again has a shrine of Our Lady of Evesham in the Catholic church dedicated to her and to St Egwin.
In the history of living shrines that of Our Lady of Prinknash is one of the most moving. Now to be seen in the soft light of an Abbey church built in the 1960's by a Benedictine community, this Virgin and Child, carved in dark oak, relieved only by the gilding on the crowns, is the work of a fifteenth century craftsman probably from the Netherlands. The Infant Jesus, carried on his mother's right arm, looks up, and, seeing the sadness in her face, caresses her cheek. Anglican monks, who first came to Prinknash from Caldy Island near Tenby, were granted the rare privilege of being received into the Catholic Church as a community.
In 1926 Prior Upson (later Abbott) visited Lourdes, and, when celebrating Mass in a private chapel, saw the statue, which had once belonged to St Thomas More, perhaps a gift from his friend Erasmus of Rotterdam. It had been smuggled out of England after the saint's martyrdom, and its owner, Agnes Mary Pia Sutcliffe, one of his descendants, insisted that the Prior should take it home to be enshrined "for the conversion of England".
The Abbey is sited near the crest of high wooded hills, near Painswick in Gloucestershire, where a wonderful peace pervades the scene, the great dome of the sky absorbing every sound, At St Peter's Grange nearby, the community offer the hospitality enjoined by St Benedict to visitors of every religion or of none. The architect grouped the monks' cells, refectory and a library of 40,000 books close together on the upper floors of a fortress-like building. At ground level is the church, its apse forming a bastion that proclaims to all the plain below: "A mighty stronghold is our God."