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Our Lady's Dowry

Walsingham Anglican Shrine

The rededication of England as the Dowry of Mary will take place on Sunday 29 March 2020. Sarah Jane Boss, who is the founder of the Centre for Marian Studies, provides an overview of the historical background in the following article.

Sarah Jane Boss

(extracted from Mary [Continuum, 2004])

In 1399, the year of the death of Richard II, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Arundel, wrote the following words:

The contemplation of the great mystery of the Incarnation has drawn all Christian nations to venerate her from whom come 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.

From this it seems likely that 'Our Lady's Dowry' was in use as a title for England in the late Middle Ages, and after the Reformation it became very popular amongst English Roman Catholics, who have continued to use it down to the present day. Yet what does this title mean? And what is its origin?

A dowry is the possession that a bride takes into her marriage. But although Mary had a human husband, Joseph, the reference to her dowry certainly does not relate to this marriage: the Western church had no marked devotion to St Joseph until the fifteenth century, and Mary had had bridal language and imagery applied to her for many centuries before this time. The earliest reference to Mary as a bride may be from the great fourth-century poet, Ephraem of Syria. In a flurry of symbols of kinship and affinity, Ephraem says that Christ gave birth to Mary (since she is reborn as all Christians are in baptism), that she is also his sister (since both Mary and Christ are descendents of their father David), that she is his mother (since she bore him in her womb), and also his bride, because Christ is chaste. By the beginning of the Middle Ages, the doctrine that Mary was perpetually a virgin was in effect the Church's official teaching, but even from earliest centuries, the poetic image of Mary as a bride indicated that she was engaging in a symbolically marital union with a spouse who was supernatural, not human.

To understand this, it is helpful to refer to the teaching from St Paul's letter to the Christians at Ephesus (Ephesians 5.21-33). He quotes words from the story of Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis: "'a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh."' And he continues: This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the Church' (vv.31-2). Addressing the church at Corinth, Paul says, 'I feel a divine jealousy for you, for I betrothed you to Christ to present you as a virgin bride to her one husband. But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led away from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ' (2 Corinthians 11.2-3). The Church is the community of Christians to whom Christ's mission is entrusted now that Christ is no longer present on earth as a man. As well as being a social and political institution, the Church has a mystical character, and one aspect of that mystical character is its unique union with the Lord, Jesus Christ. This union is often expressed in terms of the union between husband and wife. Now, the Virgin Mary is very closely associated with the Church, not least insofar as she is the Church's 'type', or image, so that those things which are said about Mary - such as that she is a virgin or a mother - are symbolically true of the Church as well. And this symbolism can work in reverse: as the Church is the bride of Christ, Mary also may be seen as a bride. She is the 'virgin bride' who is not led away from 'pure devotion to Christ'. Indeed, her overshadowing by the Holy Spirit and her giving birth to God incarnate mean that she does have a uniquely close union with the Lord. So Mary's nuptial celebration, in some mysterious way, is with God himself, and it is to this divine marriage that she takes her dowry.

How England acquired the title 'Our Lady's Dowry' is not truly known. In the seventeenth century, some writers said that it derived from the English people's great devotion to the Virgin. A painted panel, in the possession of English people in Rome in the early part of the seventeenth century, depicted a king presenting 'the globe or patterne of England' to the Blessed Virgin, saying, 'This is your dowry, Holy Virgin; therefore rule it, Mary.' It is not certain who the king was, but the most common interpretation is that it was Richard II (1367-1400), and that he may have formally consecrated England to be 'Our Lady's Dowry'.

The story which holds that Richard made such a consecration runs as follows. In Westminster Abbey, the seat of sacred authority in England, where Richard was himself crowned king, there used to be a shrine of the Virgin Mary at which she was invoked by the now obscure title, 'Our Lady of Pew'. In 1381, at the time of the Peasants' Revolt, Richard went personally to confront Wat Tyler, the peasants' leader, in the hope of subduing his rebellious subjects; and before he set out for the encounter, which took place at Smithfield, Richard went to Westminster to pray at the shrine of St Edward the Confessor and also to Our Lady of Pew. He vowed that if the revolt were quelled, then he would dedicate England as the Virgin's dowry. In the event, Richard's endeavour was successful, and England thus became Our Lady's Dowry as an ex voto offering from a grateful king.

This story, however, raises as many questions as it answers. For where would such a title have come from in the first place? Is it just the romantic whim of a young king who wanted to do something noble for his heavenly queen? Or was he appealing to a tradition that was already well established, and to a title that would have resonance with his fellow countrymen and women? I suggest the latter, and that traces of that tradition may be found elsewhere in medieval literature, and point us to a spiritual significance to this title which might still be fruitful today.

The spirit of the land

Although the government and jurisdiction of Britain has always been divided amongst different groups and rulers - between Scots and English, for example - it is probable that British people, whatever their ancestry or language, have normally had a sense of belonging to the island as such. As the spiritual author, Caitlin Matthews, writes: 'For every separate kingdom which forms the United Kingdom, there is an inner home into which its people yearn longingly to enter.' There is a kind of cultural identity that comes from living in the place, an identity generated by features of the land itself, and constituted by traditions such as the legends of King Arthur, who, it is said, will finally return from the dead to re-establish sacred rule in Britain. In the later Middle Ages, English monarchs often wanted to extend their control over Wales, and could use the ideology of the island's unity to try to legitimate their domination of the whole of southern Britain. Thus, for example, King Henry VII, of Welsh descent, named his eldest son Arthur, as though pointing to the day when the king desired by all Britons would rule again. Yet there are also medieval stories about Britain, written in Welsh, which are not so obviously concerned with political domination, and which perhaps embody part of the tradition to which the English kings were appealing, since they retain a memory – or vision – of a more united island. Some of these stories are contained in the Mabinogion; they portray the island of Britain as sacred, and suggest the mythical background to the title 'Our Lady's Dowry'.

One such story is The Dream of Macsen Wledig, or 'Macsen the Ruler'. According to the legend, Macsen was the Roman Emperor. One day he went out hunting with his vassals, and after they had rested for lunch, he fell asleep and had a dream. In his dream, he was transported over mountains and plains, and eventually across sea, until he came to the fairest island in the world. He then crossed the island, until he came again to sea, with mountains and a plain extending to the mouth of a river, where there was a castle on a coastline facing an island. On entering the castle, Macsen found two lads and an old man, together with a maiden whose beauty was as dazzling as the sun, so that it was impossible to look upon her. She wore white silk with gold clasps, and a surcoat and mantle of gold brocade. They embraced one another and sat together in her golden chair. Then Macsen awoke from his sleep, and was so in love with the maiden that he could think of nothing but trying to find her in order to seek her hand in marriage.

After a year of fruitless searching, Macsen sent out thirteen messengers to follow exactly the journey on which he had been taken in his dream. Everything turned out to be as he had seen it in his sleep, but now they discovered the identities of the places they were visiting. Across the sea, the beautiful island was Britain, the mountains were Eryri (Snowdonia) from where they could see Mon (Anglesey), and the castle was at Aber Seint (Caernarvon). And inside the castle, they found the fair maid, Elen. Macsen's marriage suit was successful, and he came to Britain to marry Elen, who was a virgin and thus could command a maiden fee from her new husband. The fee she named included Tor her father the Island of Britain from the North Sea to the Irish Sea, and the three adjacent islands, to be held under the Empress of Rome'.

Seven years later, Macsen was deposed as Emperor of Rome, so he returned to reclaim his dominion, and while Elen looked on, her brothers and a small group of Britons recaptured the city for her sake.

This story has generated much scholarly debate – for example, concerning which historical emperor underlies the character of Macsen. He seems to be a composite figure, made up of historical and legendary characters, his name deriving from Magnus Maximus (r. 383-88). The figure of Elen has likewise been the subject of such discussion, and it seems likely that there are strong connections between Elen and St Helen, who, by tradition, was the British mother of the emperor Constantine, and who went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, where she found the relic of the 'true cross' on which Christ had been crucified. One theory, however, suggests that, whatever else she may signify, Elen of the Hosts (as she is titled) is a personification of the sovereignty of the island of Britain, whom the emperor must marry if he is to gain authority in the land. Thus, it is only because of Elen's acceptance that the emperor gains the right to govern. Matthews writes, 'the monarch holds the land by right of his union with her, by his championship of her freedoms and privileges which he lawfully assumes'. The king of Britain acquires his throne by being symbolically married to the island, in the person of Elen, and he then has a sacred duty to defend and promote the welfare of both the land and its people. This theory of Elen's identity treats the story as the remnant of a pagan myth which may once have been tied to some ritual wedding between the king and the land; but even without such an earlier myth or ritual, it provides a coherent interpretation of the story as it stands.

The Wilton Diptych

If we allow that the theory that Elen is the sovereignty of the island may be correct, then it is perhaps not too extravagant to suggest that a notion of just this kind underlies the Christian tradition that England is Our Lady's Dowry. The land is not now the habitation or incarnation of Elen, but the treasured possession of the Virgin Mary, and the king is not himself married to the land, but makes the country the Virgin's gift to a divine marriage, thereby rendering himself, as England's ruler, the custodian of a holy, and even heavenly, realm. This suggestion is reinforced by a consideration of a well-known painting which represents both Richard II and the Blessed Virgin Mary: namely, the double panel known as the Wilton Diptych, housed in the National Gallery in London. The painting shows Richard II kneeling before the Virgin and Child, and may have been commissioned by the king himself. The image is modelled on representations of the Adoration of the Magi, or the visit of the three kings. Behind Richard there are two other kings of England, both of them canonized saints: St Edmund the Martyr (841-69), the East Anglian king who was killed by the Danes, and St Edward the Confessor (1003-66). At his coronation, Richard wore items of clothing that were reputed to have belonged to each of these saints. The third figure presenting Richard to the Virgin is St John the Baptist, a cousin of the Lord and the most important saint after his mother Mary. Richard's birthday was 6 January, which is the feast of the Epiphany, when the Church celebrates the coming of the magi.

These four figures are situated in the left-hand panel, on barren ground which represents earth. On the right, the Virgin and Child with angels are congregated on a carpet of flowers, and are evidently in Heaven. One of the angels holds a banner bearing the cross which signifies the Resurrection, but which is also the cross of St George, the patron saint of England. The angels all wear a brooch in the form of a hart, which was Richard's own emblem. Symbols of England are thus present in the heavenly realm. The mantle which Richard is wearing resembles those which he wore to receive his second wife, Isabelle of France, in 1396, and those worn by a procession of ladies and armed men on the occasion of Isabelle's coronation. The robe thus bears an association with both marriage and accession to a throne.

It is possible that the Wilton Diptych is another representation of Richard dedicating England to be Our Lady's Dowry. If so, then the painting's strong association of earthly kings with the heavenly state may evoke the paradisical qualities of Elen's land as described in The Dream of Macsen. It is interesting to observe that the description of Elen – with her brilliant gold and her beauty that is sunlike in its dazzling splendour – suggests solar attributes, as if she has some particular personal connection with the sun. In Christian tradition, both the Church and the Virgin Mary were, from early centuries, identified with the Woman of the Apocalypse, who appears in the biblical book of the Apocalypse (or Revelation). This woman is described as 'clothed with the sun, with the moon beneath her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars' (Apocalypse 12.1), and she appears at the inauguration of God's heavenly kingdom on earth. Medieval manuscripts show Mary as the woman clothed with the sun, and anyone familiar with this tradition is likely to be reminded of it in reading the description of Elen.

One obvious difference between the story of Macsen and the tradition concerning Our Lady's Dowry is that, whereas the Mabinogion story is concerned with the island of Britain, the later tradition is concerned only with England. Yet by looking more closely at the Wilton Diptych, and again making a comparison with stories from the Mabinogioncollection, we can see that one only has to scratch the surface of words which name the political entity of England to find beneath them the natural formation of the island of Britain.

The White Tower

In the story of Branwen Daughter of Llyr, Bendigeidfran is crowned king of Britain, 'the island of the mighty', in London. To form an alliance between the two countries, Bendigeidfran's sister Branwen marries the King of Ireland. This marriage leads, by a complicated route, to war between the British and the Irish, which culminates in the men of Britain being defeated in battle in Ireland. Branwen is said to be one of the Three Matriarchs of Britain, and Bendigeidfran, who has been the Britons' main hope of success in battle, is a giant, a figure of supernatural proportions and powers. Branwen's name means 'white crow' or 'white raven', and that of her brother also means 'blessed crow' or 'blessed raven'. After the defeat by the Irish – more truly described as a slaughter in which neither side has the victory – only seven British men escape, and on Bendigeidfran's own orders, they cut off his head and take it back to Britain, accompanied also by Branwen. The head continues speaking, and remains the living presence of Bendigeidfran amongst them. Eventually, again in fulfilment of the King's instructions, they take the head to London, where they bury it in the White Mount; and 'no plague would ever come across the sea to this Island so long as the head was in that concealment'.

We are not told the location of the White Mount, but the city of London is built on a gravel mound which includes the elevation on which the Tower of London is constructed. Everyone who has visited the Tower knows that there are ravens living there, and that for as long as they remain there, Britain will be protected from invasion. Ravens, evidently, are sacred to Bendigeidfran – or perhaps are even his incarnation – and many commentators believe that the White Mount is the place where the White Tower, which is the oldest part of the Tower of London, was built. The White Tower was built in the eleventh century; but at the turn of the third century, the Romans had enclosed the White Tower mound within the walls of the city of London, and, curiously, at this point the Roman wall made a detour: a building stood in the way, on the site where the chapel of the White Tower now stands, and instead of knocking the building down (as was done elsewhere) so that the wall could continue in a straight line, the Romans skirted around the older building and left it standing within the city wall. We have no way of knowing what was the use or significance of this building, but evidently, the Tower mound already housed a place of importance by the end of the second century.

By the time of the reign of Richard II, the Tower of London had become associated in the minds of the English with the sovereignty of England, rather than the island of Britain, and the Virgin's protection was considered to fall especially upon English monarchs. A medieval legend held that the oil for the anointing of the kings of England had been given by the Blessed Virgin herself to St Thomas Becket, the martyred Archbishop of Canterbury, together with a prophecy that the fifth subsequent king of England would re-conquer the Holy Land. It was said that the oil was lost (a rather extraordinary act of carelessness!), and that the phial containing it was re-discovered in the Tower in 1399. If we turn back to the Wilton Diptych, we find that it contains a hidden image which seems to indicate the folklore of the Tower. When the painting was cleaned in 1991, it was found that the orb of the banner contained a tiny painting, only half an inch in diameter. This mysteriously small image shows a green island with a white castle or tower upon it, and a ship sailing towards it across sea that was originally silvered. Now although the seventeenth-century accounts of the painting in Rome report that it depicted the king holding 'the globe or patterne of England', the orb of the Wilton Diptych shows an island, which therefore cannot be only England, but which might signify Britain as a whole. In Shakespeare's play Richard II (Act II, Scene 1), John of Gaunt speaks of England as 'this precious stone set in the silver sea', an expression which almost seems to be a description of the miniature in the Diptych. And even if the speech expresses sixteenth-century English ambitions to conquer the whole of Britain, it surely depends for its effect upon the summoning up of an already existing sense of the island's integrity – a sense which, I suggest, underlies all the mythology that I have been considering here. In the light of the traditions concerning the Tower of London, and – if the foregoing speculation is accurate – the White Tower in particular, the presence of a white tower in the Diptych seems to offer further circumstantial evidence in support of the idea that this painting is intended to evoke associations with a tradition about the sanctity of the island. John of Gaunt also refers to his native land as 'this other Eden, demi-paradise ... this blessed plot', and thereby calls to mind heavenly qualities of the island such as those described in The Dream of Macsen Wledig, or suggested by the incorporation of English emblems in Heaven in the Wilton Diptych. It is as though these texts and images contain allusions to a whole world of popular mythology which has been lost, but some of whose elements, I suggest, we may do well to recover.

Sacred duty

In the mythology of the king's marriage to the country, a central element is the responsibility of the ruler to defend and promote the welfare of the land and its people. As in the notion of kingship as it is applied to Israel in the Old Testament, the ruler is not entitled to act on his own whim or for his own convenience: he has a sacred duty to husband the land in the interests of its welfare, to enable it to flourish. This means that if the land or its inhabitants suffer – for example, from famine, drought or military defeat – then it is likely to be the king who will be held to account for the misfortune because of his implied misrule. Conversely, a king who is seen to be a bad ruler will fall under divine censure.

The historian Sheridan Gilley sees an obligation of this kind to be implied in Richard II’s consecration of England as Our Lady's Dowry, and in the corresponding iconography of the Wilton Diptych. In medieval political theory, a distinction was drawn between the king's office and his person. His office was a sacred one, incurring sacred duties, and whilst those actions which counted as 'personal' would have no bearing on his performance of his office, unworthy actions which were deemed to relate to his official status could constitute a violation of sacred trust and effectively disinherit the monarch. Richard II was an unpopular ruler who was eventually deposed because, according to his accusers, he had violated his coronation oath by acting 'in great prejudice of the people and in dishersion of the crown of England'. In the Wilton Diptych, we see Richard kneeling before the Queen of Heaven, making 'that most binding of all forms of social cement, the vow, in which overlord and vassal exchange promises, promises as binding on the one as on the other'. But Richard 'forgot the meaning of his symbols', and so the diptych implies 'that Richard was forsworn, that he had simply not kept his part of the promise'. Unlike Macsen, the emperor who makes Britain flourish and thus is faithful to Elen, by whose authority he rules, Richard does not honour his commitment to England and the Blessed Virgin, and in his misrule, Mary's authority does not hold sway. Richard was eventually imprisoned and murdered.

Macsen is a character from British mythology, and Richard II from English history, yet each can serve as a representative figure for a different way of living in the land on which God has placed us. That land is a heavenly treasure, and in much Catholic writing, Mary is seen as the treasurer of God's graces. Since she is the mother of Christ himself, she is the bearer and carer of God's highest blessing, and may thus be seen as entrusted with the protection and distribution of every precious gift that God bestows. The earth, air, heat and water which sustain us are among the first and greatest of God's gifts, and all men and women, in greater or smaller measure, hold the sacred trust of a regent in ensuring their welfare. We may be like Macsen in respecting our land, or like Richard in disregarding it. We may honour the sacred flame of Our Lady of the Taper (the ancient shrine of Our Lady in Cardigan), or we may act with dishonour and extinguish it for ever. If England and this island is Our Lady's Dowry, then it is the Mother of God who is honoured when we care for it, or scorned when we abuse it; and if we disinherit ourselves by creating a wasteland in place of Paradise, then it will be God who will finally call us to account for our actions, when we have completed our pursuit of a destiny far worse than that imposed upon Richard II by his fellow countrymen.

Images of the Diptych can be found at:

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