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Evidence for the Dowry of Mary at the Heart of the Nation

By Fr Peter Bristow

This year (1993) sees the centenary of a very remarkable and largely unknown
event. On the feast of Sts Peter and Paul, 1893, the bishops of England and Wales, in response to the wishes of the Pope, consecrated England to the Mother of God and St Peter in the Oratory Church in London
[1]. The action was a direct result of an audience with Pope Leo XIII in which he recalled that this country had long been known as Our Lady's Dowry, thereby giving papal approval to what had been a hallowed tradition and instigating an act not without significance for our own time.

The Pope spoke of
"the 'wonderful filial love which burnt within the hearts of your forefathers towards the get 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 as the principal patron of the country. He desired that this devotion to these "two patrons of the faith" and 'guardians of all virtue" be revived and a new consecration made by a solemn rite. He foresaw it bringing great benefit on the people at that time which marked a new beginning for the Catholic Faith in England.

While history doesn't repeat itself, at least in a literal fashion, it is foolish to ignore
its lessons. At a time of moral and social upheaval, such as the present, who would deny that we require the protection and blessing of the Virgin Mary just as much as in the Middle Ages, or the nineteenth century and probably more so. Our forefathers turned to her in time of need. It is commonly believed, for example, that Richard II prayed in the chapel of Our Lady of the Pew before confronting and conquering Wat Tyler and the Peasants' Revolt of 1381. This was no small success because, while the people had just grievances against the government and the nobles, they were guilty of massacres and destruction of property on a wide scale and of murdering the Archbishop of Canterbury, Simon of Sudbury. It is clear the throne itself was in danger.

At a time of practical atheism, we do well to look back to the ages of Faith. They
were characterised, for all their faults, by a transcendent view of life. We see this, for example, in the way that Shakespeare presents Henry V as attributing success at Agincourt to God and requesting that a "Te Deum" and a "Non Nobis Domine" be sung in thanksgiving. Indeed, the battle cry on that occasion was
"Our Lady for her Dowry; St George and St Edward to our aid!" Clearly, in learning from the zeal and devotion of our ancestors, we should be careful not to imitate their deficiencies. There does seem to be a certain warlike ambition and national pride at the expense of others' misfortune in this slogan and in the policy of the time, which is not altogether befitting of a Christian nation. Perhaps, indeed, this is why the victories of the fourteenth century are followed by the humiliations of the fifteenth. But we should commend our ancestors insofar as they did well, namely for the piety and reverence they showed to Almighty God and the Blessed Virgin.


Dowry of Mary

While the phrase "Dowry of Mary" is well known, the meaning and origin of it are
less so owing to the fact that the signs of it in modern times are very scarce. The reason for this is that Henry VIII enacted a law requiring all statues, places of pilgrimage and signs of devotion to be destroyed. This activity was carried on by successive kings and queens until the Commonwealth, which put paid to any remaining traces. Some evidence, slim though it is, has remained, as we shall
see, and indeed some of it is directly due to the repressive measures which were aimed at wiping it out.

There is a general belief that the title of "Dowry of Mary" came to be applied to England as a result of the widespread devotion practised to her. But there is more
to it than that. The word "dowry" means a marriage gift or endowment given to spouses by the parents, or to the wife, or the part of a man's property which is inherited by the widow. Fr Bridgett writes:

"The very word then implies an endowment or donation of England to Our Lady, and that it was made by someone who had the power to make it, either by the nation as a body or by its representatives in Church or State [2]."


Evidence is available that such a gift or consecration fulfilling these conditions was made despite the explicit intention to suppress what was referred to as "superstition". We know from the writings of a contemporary monk named Thomas Elmham that Henry V, the victor of Agincourt, consecrated England to the Mother of God. He says as follows:

"O Virgin sweet, England is made thy dower
By royal Henry, keep it by thy power."


However, the well-known statement of Thomas Arundel, Archbishop of Canterbury, made in 1400, at the beginning of the reign of Henry V's father, Henry IV, shows that the former was not the first king to consecrate England to Our Lady. He says in a letter addressed to his suffragan bishops,

"The contemplation of the great mystery of the Incarnation, in which the Eternal Word chose the holy and immaculate Virgin, that from her womb He should clothe Himself with flesh, has drawn all Christian nations to venerate her from whom come the first beginnings of our redemption... and 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 praise and devotion."


It is clear from this that the words "Dowry",' of Mary" were already commonly known and used throughout the Kingdom, and therefore, we have to go back still further to discover their origin. By an extraordinary double irony, the source of the expression is to be found in the very seat of the government of the Realm and the reason the evidence has been preserved is directly due to the efforts of Henry VIII and his successors to abolish all trace of Catholic worship.

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 chapel called Our Lady of the Pew. These chapels were converted into the Parliament by Edward VI and the paintings on the wall were covered over with oaken panels. In 1800, when the Act of Union united the English and Irish Parliaments, some alterations had to be made to the chamber. When the panelling was taken off the wall, paintings were revealed in the interstices, which were as fresh and clear as the day they had been covered up, owing to their being protected from the air. 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, and King Edward III and his Queen and his sons and daughters making an offering to Our Lady.

What are we to make of this picture? Fr Bridgett answers,

"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 [3]".


We may assume that this information was widely known among the population in pre-Reformation England and indeed on the Continent. Nevertheless, the
allocution of Leo XIII to the English bishops in 1893 is the first reference by a Pope to the Dowry of Mary. H is speech not only gives papal authority to the tradition, but it encourages the English to continue the tradition and make it a living one. This the bishops endeavoured to do. Apart from responding to the Pope's desire for a solemn rite of dedication, they further requested that:

a) the consecration be repeated in every church in the country on July 2nd, then the feast of Our Lady's Visitation;

b) that it be repeated every year, to Our Lady on Rosary Sunday and to St Peter on the Sunday within the octave of his feast. Flowers as a tribute from Our Lady's Dowry should adorn the altar or statue of the Blessed Virgin. It was, moreover, suggested that to promote devotion to St Peter, an altar or picture be erected in all churches, or a facsimile of the statue in St Peter's Basilica, which we see in the Oratory and other churches to this day.


Faced with the increasing secularisation and deChristianisation of the world and the many difficulties associated with it for mankind, the present Pope has
repeatedly urged a policy of re-evangelisation. A part of that process in Europe is the re-tracing of its Christian roots, customs and traditions. But Pope John Paul II, like his predecessor, does not intend it to be a purely historical exercise. History is not a simple recording of the past but a teacher for the present. It is in the nature of any worthwhile dedication, devotion or tradition that it be kept alive and up to date. The present Holy Father himself has made many Acts of Entrusting to Our Lady throughout the world.

The malaise that the country is at present undergoing, and which has been much commented on recently as a result of the alleged criminal activity of very young children, the effects of terrorism, etc., is, at root, a spiritual malady. Only by reaching back to the timeless spiritual remedies of the Christian era can we expect to be able to tackle them fully. The hope of the bishops expressed a hundred years ago remains valid:

"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."


Notes


1. This article is a summary of material which is taken from "
England's Title: Our Lady's Dowry: its history"' and meaning" by Rev TB Bridgett. CSS.R, collected in "The Church of Old England" vol. lll, C.T.S., London 1894.

2. Bridgett, Op. Cit. p. 5

3. Bridgett, Op. Cit. Pp. 15-16


Copyright ©; Fr Peter Bristow 2000

This version: 18th February 2010

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