Not even the Reformation could destroy devotion to Our Lady, says
Sally Bowler. And now Britain’s Marian shrines are thriving again It is as if the Reformation never happened. Marian devotion, the hallmark of English Catholicism in the Middle Ages, is alive and thriving, despite the iconoclasm of 16th-century “reformers” and the disapproval of generations of purse-lipped Protestants.
This month, thousands of pilgrims will be preparing to retrace the footsteps of Our Lady’s trail, just like their medieval predecessors. Walsingham in Norfolk and Penrhys in South Wales are just a few of the British shrines to Mary that have sprung back to life.
The shrine of Our Lady of Penrhys reminds us that Welsh culture owes a great deal to the traditions of the Catholic Church. The aris tocracy have been Anglicised under the Tudors, but for a long time the heart of the countryside remained Catholic.
Penrhys, nestling in the middle of the Welsh mountains, was once a famous centre of Marian devotion, Today, a statue of Our Lady of Penrhys dominates the mountain skyline, marking the site of an ancient chapel long since demolished.
No written records have survived giving the authentic history of the origin of the shrine. What is known is that in 1179 the Cistercian monks founded an abbey at Llantarnum, a short distance north of Newport in South Wales. Penrhys came within its territorial boundary – but the distance of 25 miles was too great for the monks to travel regularly, and so the monks founded a grange there. This enabled them to take care of the sheep and their outlying property.
According to a local legend, Our Lady came down from heaven and appeared at an oak tree near the well of Penrhys. Afterwards, the spring water from the well developed miraculous powers. To mark this, a statue was put up of Our Lady with the child Jesus in her arms.
Pilgrims came from across the Welsh valleys and beyond to see the statue. It was widely believed that the statue could never be removed: villagers said that even eight oxen would not be able to shift it.
Sadly, this turned out to be untrue. During a tour of the North Country, King Henry VIII instructed Archbishop Lee of York to destroy all those shrines in the ancient devotion.
The striking oak statue, which now marks the site of the original shrine, was carved according to details of the original. Four centuries after the destruction, the revival had begun.
In the 1950s, many parishes made regular pilgrimages to the hillside shrine. Here, on the mountain top, parishioners of all ages would kneel in devotion before the statue of Our Blessed Lady. Choir singers, altar boys and “children of Mary” – school children dressed in blue – were led in prayer and song by the parish priest.
Then the Mass would begin and the voices would resound across the valley: Oh Mary we crown you with blossom today.
Queen of the Angels and Queen of the May again the case – but Catholics cannot take all the credit for its extraordinary revival.
According to legend, in 1061 Richeldis de Faverches, the widow of a Norman landowner, was inspired by Our Lady to build a replica of the Holy House in Nazareth where the Annunciation took place.
The great 16th-century Catholic theologian Erasmus has left us a description of the Walsingham shrine just before the disaster of the Reformation struck.
He records that the statue of Our Lady stood “within a small chapel, made of wainscot, admitting devotees on each side by a narrow little door. There is little light, indeed scarcely any but from the candles. A delicious fragrance greets the nostrils.” The shrine was destroyed in 1538; the statue that Erasmus admired was taken to Thomas Cromwell’s house in Chelsea and burnt. The memory of Our Lady of Walsingham was allowed to fade for three and a half centuries.
In 1897 there was a Catholic pilgrimage to the Slipper Chapel, the place where medieval pilgrims would leave their footwear and then prove their devotion to Our Lady by walking the last mile – the holy mile – to the shrine barefooted. The building was bought and restored and is now the Catholic shrine.
But it was the local Anglican vicar, Fr Alfred Hope Patten, who really brought “England’s Nazareth” back to national prominence.
It was his idea to set up a new statue of Our Lady of Walsingham, based on the depiction of the original statue on the seal of the medieval priory. As soon as this was set up in 1922, worshippers started gathering around it, praying to Mary and asking for her powerful intercession. A trickle of pilgrims became a flood, and in 1931 a new Holy House encased in a small pilgrimage church was dedicated. This is now the Anglican shrine.
Today, Walsingham is such a popular shrine with pilgrims that on great feast days there is hardly enough to hold them all. Roman Catholic and AngloCatholic worshippers hold splendid processions in honour of Mary, the gold vestments of the clergy glinting in the sunlight as the smoke rises from the thuribles.
Cromwell would have been horrified.