Chris Phillips charts the history of church, shrine and pilgrimage in Willesden

The first reference to a church in Willesden occurs in the record of a visitation from St Paul’s in 1181. Indeed, when the officers of William the Conqueror visited Willesden to obtain statistics for the Domesday Book, they could not even find a priest living among the villeins. It is just about possible that there was no church at the time, but it’s perhaps more likely that the priest in nearby Kingsbury was looking after it, or that the Dean of St Paul’s, as rector, made direct arrangements for services. If we are to look further back in time for evidence of the foundation, we must be prepared to be slightly more speculative.

There is no evidence for a Saxon building on the site of the present church, but we must assume that there was one. Of course, the Saxons built in wood and so it’s no surprise that any evidence has perished. We can prove beyond reasonable doubt that King Athelstan (grandson of Alfred the Great, AD 924–940) granted the land, because we have a charter issued towards the end of his reign confirming the deed.

In lots of villages the parish church dominates the surrounding settlement, but in Willesden this was not so. Why was this? I am slightly fearful of answering this question, because a lack of documentary evidence means we cannot be certain. It is said that Athelstan was passing the site on his way to battle further north. Finding a group of monks from the monastery of St Erkonwald at a spring (presumably the ‘well by the hill’ from which we derive the name Wells-don, now Willesden), he asked for their prayers. Following his success in battle, and in thanksgiving for their prayers, he granted the lands to the monastery and a church was built on the site of the encounter. No doubt the spring, if it did indeed rise here, was a very convenient place to conduct baptisms and to evangelize the local people who came to use the waters.

There is no doubt that Athelstan granted the ten manors in Neasden and Willesden to what is now the Dean and Chapter, but sceptics may point to the church’s position being explained due to the rectory manor being at the far end of the village. As for the legend of a spring, or a holy well, we must admit that contemporary scholarship has doubted its existence. The church is sited on a hundred feet of London clay, and so the chances of an aquifer being present are quite small. Yet despite some scepticism, there remains a strong commitment among local people to the tradition of the holy well. Whatever its origin, however, there has been quite a serious problem with flooding in the vault for some years now, which is causing damage to the stonework of the building. Investigations are soon to take place that have the potential to establish the facts beyond doubt for the first time—I for one am excited about what this might uncover!

Let us continue our story: some years later, Archbishop Lanfranc reconstituted the abbot and clergy of the monastery as the Dean and Chapter of St Paul’s. The Dean and Chapter retain the living to this day, and eight prebendal stalls in the Cathedral have their traditional manors in the original parish of Willesden. These continue to remind us of Athelstan and his gift.

The current church building dates from Norman times, though it has been substantially altered over the centuries. The oldest monument is the font, made from Purbeck marble in the eleventh century. The earliest inventory of which we still have record was conducted in 1249. The church is said to have contained two large sculpted images of Our Lady at this time. Exactly when the cult of the Virgin of Willesden became popular we cannot be sure, but because devotion to Mary had grown so rapidly after the Norman conquest this might not have been unusual. Neither can we be certain why Willesden was chosen as the place, rather than one of the many other churches dedicated to Our Lady in the local area—notably Harrow, founded by Lanfranc and blessed by St Anselm himself, or Hendon, which was an important landmark for those travelling along the Edgeware Road. Perhaps there was something attractive about the position of the church, away from the nearby village centre and in a relatively secluded spot at the end of a long lane arched by trees, beyond which lay marshland and the River Brent. Or perhaps a miracle took place there—certainly there are local stories told about historic visions of Mary. And perhaps the foundation story of the monks and the well is explanation enough. The reputed healing properties of the water, until recently pumped into the church for pilgrims to use, has drawn people to the church for many years. Perhaps these things can combine to help us understand the choice of Willesden as a pilgrimage site.

Location is doubtless a factor for another reason. Although the Middle Ages was the heyday of pilgrimage, as Chaucer so vividly evokes, not everyone had the time or the money to travel great distances to Canterbury or Walsingham. Far easier was the short journey to Willesden.

The pilgrimage is referred to in a play called ‘The Four Ps’ written in c.1520–1522 by John Heywood:At Crome, at Wilsdon, and at Muswell, at Saint Richard and Saint Roke, and at Our Lady that standeth in the Oak. To these with other many one devoutly have I prayed and gone praying to them to pray for me unto the Blessed Trinity.’

Also, by the late fifteenth century many wills were written in English and we find references to ‘Our Lady of Willesden’—in 1500 the will of one William Page refers to ‘the parish of our Blessed Lady of Willesden,’ which shows pilgrimage must have been well established by then. However, as with the relative mystery about the foundation of the church itself, there is no other earlier documentary evidence for it.

Indeed, a letter in the Vatican Archives from my predecessor in 1474, William Helperby, records that he pleaded poverty to the Pope and received permission to live away from his vicarage. This seems to suggest there cannot have been a pilgrim trade to profit from at that time, but perhaps this period of hardship contributed to the genesis of the pilgrimage?

In 1486, the year after the Battle of Bosworth, Henry VII married Elizabeth of York, uniting the houses of York and Lancaster and ending the Wars of the Roses. Elizabeth was deeply devoted to Our Lady and gave regular disbursements from her private purse to shrines across England. There is no evidence to suggest that she was herself a pilgrim, but her account book of 1502–3 shows that she sent an emissary around some 15 shrines of Our Lady around Lady Day 1502. Willesden received 30 pence, which ranked it joint fourth in terms of her generosity. Perhaps she was feeling especially generous because she was pregnant with her seventh child (sadly she and the child died shortly after the birth on Candlemas Day 1503).

We have a letter discovered in the nineteenth century, dating from the eve of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, which describes the shrine itself at the high-point of the pilgrimage. There was ‘an iron screen, with hangings, a canopy besides cloths and sticks for candles… the image being of wood in colour like Ebon of ancient workmanship save that the upper part is plated with silver.’

The Dyers’ Company presumably had a good trade relationship with Willesden, as one of their number gave a sum of money to improve the road between Kilburn and Willesden. William Lychfield, Vicar of Willesden as well as Magister Scholarum at St Paul’s, was buried in the chancel when he died in 1517. This suggests the importance of the shrine at that time given that he could easily have merited burial in the cathedral.

Notable pilgrims in the early sixteenth century include Erasmus, who made quite a cynical report of his experience: he argued that among the people faith had been replaced by superstition and devotion had become idolatry. St Thomas More also came on pilgrimage and was known to have been moved by his experience (Willesden is referred to in his Dialogue Concerning Heresies). The popularity of the cult by this time is attested to by the number of pilgrim badges which have been found in the mud of the Thames. One can imagine, then, the desire of the reformers to stamp out the cult at Willesden.

In the summer of 1538, the image was taken away by the King’s commissioners, and it is more than likely to have been burned in the great conflagration that took place in the courtyard of Thomas Cromwell’s house in Chelsea in September that year, in which images from Walsingham, Ipswich, Worcester and many others were destroyed. The pilgrimage was suppressed and a fine was imposed in perpetuity on the Vicar of Willesden, which he only stopped paying when Fr Dixon became vicar in the early twentieth century. Naturally I am very grateful to him for that!

By the time of the composition of the Second Book of Homilies (1562), a companion to the Book of Common Prayer designed to ensure that parochial clergy preached what was considered sound doctrine, the landscape of religious life in England had changed dramatically. Yet Willesden had clearly not been erased from the memory of the faithful, as it is mentioned in one part of a homily Against the Peril of Idolatry, in which devotion to Our Lady of Walsingham and Our Lady of Willesden is compared to pagan worship.

In the nineteenth century, with the lifting of much of the anti-Catholic laws and the restoration of the Roman hierarchy in England, a Roman Catholic shrine was established in nearby Harlesden.

Today, St Mary’s is very much a parish church, with all the governance and community life that entails. Yet the charism of the shrine remains much-loved and central to the ethos of the church. There is an annual summer pilgrimage (this year on 21 July, at which the preacher will be Fr Philip Barnes). Mission and outreach to what is a deprived inner-city area blighted by gang violence and drugs is at the centre of our sense of parish vocation. St Mary’s is seen as a beacon of peace, calm and hope in what can sometimes be a troubled part of the city. Yet for all its difficulties, there is a good community spirit. People frequently have large, close-knit families here, and there is a lot of friendliness and generosity. Pilgrims, whether as individuals or parishes, are assured of a warm welcome.

Fr Chris Phillips is the parish priest at St Mary’s Willesden. This talk was given to the Ecumenical Society of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Chichester, 5 May 2018.