John Armitage explores this dedication and its importance for today
Unique among all the nations, the Catholics of England have believed for centuries that their country is in a special sense the ‘Dowry of Mary.’ The word ‘dowry’ (from the Latin dos, meaning ‘donation,’ ‘gift’ or ‘endowment’) is commonly understood as the donation accompanying a bride upon marriage. In medieval English law, however, the meaning was reversed, in that a husband would set apart a portion of his estate designated for the maintenance of his wife, should she become a widow. On landed estates the ‘Dower House’ is a property set aside for precisely that purpose. The historical understanding of England as ‘Mary’s Dowry’ is understood in this sense—that England has been ‘set apart’ for Our Lady. Indeed, the very use of the term ‘Our Lady’ or the ‘The Lady Mary’ to refer to the Blessed Virgin Mary, although common in Western Europe from the twelfth century onwards, has a more ancient history in England, where the first extant example comes from an Anglo-Saxon poet at the end of the eighth century.
The title ‘Dowry of Mary’ is believed to originate from the reign of St Edward the Confessor (1042–1066) although the precise origin is unclear. It had become widespread by the middle of the fourteenth 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,’ thus reflecting the origin of the title in the deep devotion of its people to the Mother of God in the Middle Ages.
On the feast of Corpus Christi in 1381, King Richard II (1377–1399) dedicated England to Our Lady in a ceremony at Westminster Abbey as an act of thanksgiving for his kingdom being saved in the wake of the Peasants’ Revolt of that year.
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 fervour of our praises and devotions.’ The Archbishop of Canterbury’s letter is thus a further indication not only that the title of England as ‘The Dowry of Mary’ was in commonly usage at the end of the fourteenth century but also suggests an earlier origin.
It was believed that England belonged in a particular way to Our Lady, who was seen as the country’s ‘protectress’ and who, through her power of intercession, acted as the country’s defender or guardian. In the reign of Henry V (1386–1422) the title was 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 (1415).
‘The Dowry of Mary’ is thus a title of England, established by a royal act and proclaimed by an Archbishop of Canterbury, and a title which has never been rescinded by either the sovereign or by Parliament.
The first artistic evidence for the title was found in a painting which once graced the walls of the English Hospice of St Thomas of Canterbury in Rome, now the Venerable English College. The picture showed Richard II and his consort (Anne of Bohemia) kneeling before Our Lady and offering England to her. The king holds a parchment with a Latin inscription: ‘This is your dowry, O pious Virgin.’ It is possible that the painting portrayed Richard presenting England to Our Lady as her dowry in Westminster Abbey on the feast of Corpus Christi in 1381. This painting disappeared from the college during the French occupation of Rome.
‘The Wilton Diptych,’ now housed in the National Gallery in London, was completed around 1395 and depicts Richard II kneeling before the Virgin and Child. Carried by a supporting angel is the Cross of St George, the staff of which is surmounted by an orb featuring a minuscule map of England. An altarpiece from the same era showed Richard handing the orb to Mary, with the inscription ‘Dos tua Virgo pia haec est’—‘This is thy dowry, O Holy Virgin,’ words similar to those on the painting in Rome.
The Palace of Westminster is so called because it served that purpose for the kings of England before it became the seat of Parliament. Beside the palace was the Royal Chapel of St Stephen, to which was annexed a smaller one dedicated to Our Lady of the Pew. These chapels were converted into use by Parliament during the reign of Edward VI (1547–1553) and the paintings on the wall were covered over with oaken panels. However, when the Act of Union 1800 joined together the English and Irish Parliaments, some alterations had to be made to the chamber. When the panelling was removed from the wall, paintings were revealed in the interstices and were found to be as fresh and clear as on the day they had been covered up. According to the parliamentary reports of the time, behind the Speaker’s chair was a picture of the Virgin and Child with St Joseph bending over them, together with King Edward III (1327–1377) and his Queen (Philippa of Hainault) and their sons and daughters making an offering to Our Lady.
What are we to make of this picture? In Our Lady’s Dowry (1875) the historian Father Thomas Bridgett answers thus: ‘It may either have commemorated an historical event, or its execution may be considered an historical event in itself. It is not, nor does it record, an act of private devotion… Acolytes were holding lighted tapers and two angels were represented as taking part in a solemnity. It is the consecration of England, through its Sovereign to the Blessed Virgin. It was before the eyes of every King and noble until hidden by Edward VI.’
In the wake of the Reformation, the notion of England enjoying a special association or relationship with Our Lady became an important aspect of recusant Catholic spirituality. One of the English seminaries was the College of St Gregory the Great in Seville, where there was a painting which depicted Our Lady with her arms outstretched, and a group of English seminarians at her feet, with the words ‘Anglia Dos Mary’ (England is Mary’s Dowry.) This painting is now in the Royal College of Medicine in Seville. In the Royal English College of St Alban in Valladolid, Spain (founded in 1589), is was reported that there once was a painting which depicted Mary being handed a scroll carrying the words ‘We will remain under the shade of your wings till the wickedness passes.’ It is no longer in the college.
On the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, 29 June 1893, the bishops of England and Wales, in response to the wishes of the Pope Leo XIII, consecrated England to the Mother of God and to St Peter. This took place at the hands of Cardinal Vaughan at the Brompton Oratory Church in London. The action was a direct result of an audience with Pope Leo in which he recalled that England had long been known as Our Lady’s Dowry, thereby giving papal approval to what had been a hallowed tradition. The Pope spoke of: ‘The wonderful filial love which burnt within the hearts of your forefathers towards the great Mother of God… to whose service they consecrated themselves with such abundant proofs of devotion, that the Kingdom itself acquired the singular title of Mary’s Dowry.’
He also recalled the special devotion paid to St Peter, referring to him as the ‘principal patron’ of the country, and desired that devotion to these ‘two patrons of the faith’ and ‘guardians of all virtue’ be revived and a new consecration made by a solemn rite. Pope Leo foresaw such an action bringing great benefit on the people at that time, an era which marked a new beginning for the Catholic faith in England. The bishops, in a pastoral letter read in Catholic churches throughout England, stated: ‘To sum up all, it may be said that, in the mind of the Holy Father, and in our mind, the object and purpose of this solemn consecration of England to the great Mother of God and to Blessed Peter is to obtain an abundant outpouring of blessings upon the whole country and people of England the blessing of unity in Faith, Hope and Charity the blessing of such temporal plenty and prosperity as may redound to the glory of God and the salvation of souls.’ This dedication to Our Blessed Lady was to be remembered each year on the feast of the Holy Rosary (7 October) and that to St Peter on the Sunday after the 29 June.
In more recent times Cardinal Heenan, Archbishop of Westminster, acting on behalf of the Bishops of England and Wales, petitioned Pope Paul VI for permission for the Hail Mary to be recited at the conclusion of the Bidding Prayers in recognition of the special devotion of the people of England reflected in the unique title Dowry of Mary. At their meeting in October 1966 the bishops directed that such inclusion of the Hail Mary was to be obligatory.
‘When England returns to Walsingham, Our Lady will return to England.’
These prophetic words of Pope Leo XIII seem to indicate that Walsingham is intimately associated with the spiritual health of England.
The message of Our Lady to Richeldis was to build a Holy House to remind the people of England to ‘share her joy in the Annunciation’:
‘Walsingham, in thee is built New Nazareth
Where shall be held in a memorial
The great joy of my Annunciation.
First of my joys, their foundation and origin
Root of mankind’s gracious redemption,
When Gabriel gave me this news:
To be a Mother through humility
And God’s Son conceive in virginity.’
Mary was the first disciple, who has guided and inspired the Church since the beginning. She was the one who accompanied her son from the moment of his conception at the Annunciation to his death and resurrection and was present at the birth of the Church at Pentecost. This was the cause of Mary’s joy, that she witnessed the events of the life of her Son and our saviour. The establishment of the shrine of Our Lady at Walsingham arose out of the devotion of the Lady Richeldis, who had a great desire to honour the Mother of God. Walsingham is certainly not the oldest Marian shrine in England, but it is the place where Our Lady made herself known in spirit and asked for the replica of the Holy House of Nazareth to be built so that ‘all could share in the joy of my Annunciation.’ The fruits of this manifestation of the Holy Spirit brought joy, comfort and hope to all who came and continue to come on pilgrimage.
‘O England, you have great cause to be glad
For you are compared to the Promised Land, Zion
You are called in every realm and region
The Holy Land, Our Lady’s Dowry.
In you is built new Nazareth,
A house to the honour of the Queen of Heaven
And her most glorious Salutation
When Gabriel said at Old Nazareth, Ave
This same joy shall here be daily and forever remembered.’
The Pynson Ballad (first printed in 1495)
In the past, England was given as a gift to Our Lady, a donation reflecting the great love of her people who sought Mary’s prayers and protection. The gift to be given in 2020 will likewise reflect that same love of the Mother of God, but what will be offered will not be the country of England, but the gift of the personal faith of the people of this country as we seek once again the prayers and protection of the Mother of God. In particular, we ask Mary to assist the Church in the New Evangelisation, bringing the Good News of Jesus Christ to the people of today by the witness of the Catholic community. In his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi (1975), Pope Paul VI reflected on the power of witness: ‘Above all, the Gospel must be proclaimed by witness. Take a Christian or a handful of Christians who, in the midst of their own community, show their capacity for understanding and acceptance, their sharing of life and destiny with other people, their solidarity with the efforts of all for whatever is noble and good. Let us suppose that, in addition, they radiate in an altogether simple and unaffected way their faith in values that go beyond current values, and their hope in something that is not seen and that one would not dare to imagine. Through this wordless witness these Christians stir up irresistible questions in the hearts of those who see how they live: Why are they like this? Why do they live in this way? What or who is it that inspires them? Why are they in our midst? Such a witness is already a silent proclamation of the Good News and a very powerful and effective one. Here we have an initial act of evangelization.’
To this end, on Sunday 29 March 2020, the Sunday after the Solemnity of the Annunciation at twelve noon, the time of the Angelus, individuals will be invited to recite the new prayer based on the Angelus called ‘The Angelus Promise’. This may take place during Mass, or a Liturgy of the Word, or in one’s home, or people may wish to make a pilgrimage on that day to a shrine or their cathedral.
The Act of Dedication will begin after the recitation of the Angelus with the reading of the words of Archbishop Arundel: ‘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 fervour of our praises and devotions.’
Monsignor John Armitage is the Rector of the National Shrine and Basilica of Our Lady of Walsingham. This talk was given as part of the Dowry Tour. Details of the tour can be found at www.dowrytour.org.uk