GLASTONBURY in Somerset was a centre of Celtic Marian pilgrimage long before the Saxons connected it with the legendary visit of Joseph of Arimathea. To the simple shrine constructed of wattle and daub St David gave a great sapphire, which was confiscated by Henry VIII a thousand years later.
The Saxon Kings, encouraged by St Dunstan, Abbot of Glastonbury, and Archbishop of Canterbury, revived monasteries, including Glastonbury, devasted by Viking invaders, and in the twelfth century a complete rebuilding was begun. Although little conception of the grandeur of this, with its separate Lady Chapel, can be gathered from the present ruins, the devotion has survived, and in nearby Magdalene Street the Catholic church of Our Lady, built during the second world war, has a crowned statue by P Lindsey Clark, who used the medieval seal of the Abbey as his inspiration.
The Virgin, wearing a veil and mantle, carries on her left arm the Holy Child, who, holding an orb in his left hand, makes the sign of the blessing with his right. In her right hand is a sheaf of roses, reminiscent of a fourteenth century stained glass window in St Michael's Church, Bishop Eaton, Herefordshire.
At Winchester Cathedral whitewash has been removed from a wall in the Lady Chapel, revealing scenes from the life of the Blessed Virgin painted early in the sixteenth century, and between 1906 and 1912 the original brushwood foundations of the chapel, weakened by the nearby river Itchen, were replaced with bags of cement by a diver working in complete darkness.
Many medieval builders triumphed over the difficulties of setting out foundations near river banks. Salisbury Cathedral, formerly the Abbey Church of Our Lady of the Assumption, is close to the Avon, yet was completed, except for its famous spire, between 1220 and 1260, a short time for such a magnificent work.
A more ancient dedication was that of a convent at Romsey, which King Edward the Elder founded in honour of the Virgin about 907. He appointed as abbess his daughter Ethelfleda, who, from the date of her death, was accounted a saint. Today a lofty Norman-style church of St Mary and St Ethelfleda, built by the brother of King Stephen, Henry of Blois, Bishop of Winchester, stands on the site of the first convent.
In the thirteenth century another Bishop of Winchester, Peter de Roches, was authorised by Henry III, who was rebuilding the Abbey Church of St Peter at Westminster, to establish a Cistercian house, dedicated to the Virgin Mary and St Edward the Confessor, at Netley on the eastern shore of Southampton Water. Monks transferred to it from the nearby abbey of Beaulieu prospered greatly.
After the dissolution demolition was abandoned when a wall collapsed, killing a contractor, and the remaining structure, even in decay, has a haunting beauty.
The Sussex family of Caryll defied the Elizabethan penal laws by continuimg to celebrate Mass in their own house, West Grinstead Park, near Horsham, where they constructed a chapel in a garret and another in a cellar, and harboured priests, including the Franciscan martyr Fr Arthur Bell (to be beatified November 22 1987). In 1863 a French refugee, Fr Jean-Marie Denis, introduced local Catholics to the Turin devotion to Our Lady of Consolation. During the Franco
Prussian war he returned to France to plead for the lives of Mobiles Breton (guerillas) whom the Prussians had captured and intended to shoot.
In gratitude for his success French offerings to Our Lady of West Grinstead poured in, enabling a church to be built close to The Park, where a copy of the Turin Consolata was enshrined.
Another Continental devotion, that to Our Lady of Princenhoff, introduced by Franciscan nuns who fled from Princenhoff near Bruges in 1807, is observed in Taunton, where they were given refuge, and a Franciscan house began missionary work that still continues.
Premontre in the forest of Coucy in eastern France, Leffe near Dinant in Belgium, and the Sussex town of Storrington are historically connected through a monastic order whose Augustinian rule was affirmed in 1125 by Pope Honorius III. Its founder, St Norbert, confirmed that Our Lady, appearing in a vision, had shown him the place in the forest where she wished him to establish the first house of the order.
It attracted many recruits not only in France, but in Germany, where Norbert became Archbishop of Magdeburg, and England, where the extensive ruins of Bayham Abbey near Tunbridge Wells, one of over 30 English Premonstratensian houses, are evidence of great pre-Reformation influence. Some property in Sussex, owned by the Dukes of Norfolk before the Reformation, was returned to the family in 1879, and, three years later, they invited an expelled European community of Norbertine Canons to settle at Storrington, a part of the county with several noted Marian sites, including a holy well at Steyning, a chantry chapel at Bamber Bridge, and the ancient church of St Mary at Sompting with its many Saxon features and tower capped in Rhenish style.
Elizabeth and Stephen Usherwood