The Marian Shrine of London
I've mentioned Our Lady of Willesden before on this blog but, as it's my last evening here, I feel I should pay tribute to her maternal patronage over the last five years. Here is a talk about the shrine which I normally give to pilgrims:
I’m sure that many of you have been to one of the great Marian shrines: Lourdes, Fatima, Loreto, Altoetting or Guadalupe. And even though many of you have probably been to Walsingham as well, it’s very easy to associate these great sanctuaries with other countries and to forget that England was once well known for it’s remarkable devotion to Our Lady, especially before the Reformation.
In the middle ages, Our Lady was considered one of the patrons of England, together with St Peter, St Edward and St George. From at least the fourteenth century, England was known as ‘Our Lady’s Dowry’ – a land given especially to her as a wedding gift for her protection. Indeed, at the Battle of Agincourt (1415) the English soldiers were supposed to have cried ‘Our Lady for her Dowry; St George and St Edward to our aid!’ Devotion to Our Blessed Lady saturated everyday life: even many of our common flowers were named after her: ‘Marigold’ (or ‘Mary’s Gold’), ‘Foxgloves’ were ‘Our Lady’s Gloves’ and the ‘Fuchsia’ was ‘Our Lady’s Eardrops’.
At the heart of this veneration of Our Lady were her shrines. This afternoon I’d like to introduce to you Our Lady of Willesden: a shrine particularly popular with Londoners of St Thomas More’s generation and a shrine that still thrives today, in the heart of suburban London.
Twenty-first century Willesden may seem a rather strange place for a Marian shrine – the grey, bustling streets; the endless shops selling exotic foods; the distant strains of reggae music. But once, not that long ago, these busy streets were quaint country paths lined with hedgerows and the parish of Willesden was a collection of sleepy hamlets (like Harlesden and Neasden) and acres of farmland and woodland.
At the heart of it all was the parish church – St Mary’s, Willesden, about 20 minutes walk from here. The church is first mentioned in 1181, though there was probably a wooden church from at least the tenth century. The church of St Mary’s has, of course, a special pertinence for our story since it was here that the shrine of Our Lady of Willesden was originally located before the Protestant Revolution. And that brings us to a rather difficult question: why Willesden?
Most Marian shrines are blessed with carefully handed-down traditions concerning their origins - normally involving a vision, miracle or vow. For example, the most famous English shrine - Walsingham - originated with a vision of Our Lady to a wealthy widow ordering the building at Walsingham of a replica of the Holy House of Nazareth. But the origins of the shrine at Willesden are more obscure – we know it existed, but we don’t know how it started.
It seems, from a study of the early sources, that pilgrims only started travelling to Willesden in the late fifteenth century, probably during the reign of Henry VII (the first Tudor King). Though there are plenty of references to the church of Our Lady at Willesden, the phrase ‘Our Lady of Willesden’ is only first mentioned in a will of 1500.
Our Lady must have answered the prayers of locals and word must have spread. Moreover there seems to have been an ancient holy well near the church which was supposed to cure blindness and other eye disorders – this isn’t mentioned in early sources but it exists to this day, having been restored a few years ago. Indeed the Anglican vicarage of St Mary’s must be one of the few in the Church of England that distributes bottle of water from a holy well! It’s interesting to note that Marian shrines often had “holy wells”: in Lancashire there’s a place called Ladyewell; the name “Walsingham” means the “village of wells”; and “Willesden” itself comes from the Anglo-Saxon Wiell-dun, meaning “hill of springs” or “spring at the foot of the hill”.
Willesden became a sanctuary beloved by Londoners. Situated in a charming setting on the Paddington-Harrow road, a pilgrimage to Willesden also meant an excursion into the country. Pilgrimages were not only seen as works of devotion and penance, but as a welcome change to the daily routine, an opportunity to visit far-flung places and perhaps indulge in a spot of sight-seeing, shopping and recreation. Indeed, several contemporaries noted the drunken behaviour of the pilgrims to Willesden!
Archaeologists have found pilgrim badges to Willesden in the London area. In 1502 Willesden was included by no less a person than the Queen, Elizabeth of York, in a list of Marian shrines to whom she was sending an offering.
Willesden’s most famous pilgrim must be St Thomas More, as can be seen on our painted sign outside the church. He was not only attracted to Willesden by the shrine but also by the nearby home of his step-daughter, Alice, and her husband, Sir Giles Alington. In early April 1534 the saint visited Willesden for the last time, aware, no doubt, of his imminent arrest and trial for treason, and we can imagine him praying for strength before the statue of Our Lady.
St Thomas More also mentioned Willesden in his writings against the Protestant reformers, who themselves cite Willesden as an example of idolatrous pilgrimage. It was clear that things were changing. July 1538 saw the removal of some of the most famous images of Our Lady from their shrines to Thomas Cromwell’s house in Chelsea. By the end of the month, the statues from Walsingham and Ipswich were awaiting their fate in London. According to the chronicler Edward Hall, “the ladie of Wilsdon” was one of those taken to London, where she perished on a great bonfire of “notable Images” arranged by Cromwell in the early autumn of 1538.
As time went on, Our Lady of Willesden was forgotten, though there is evidence of some secret Catholic activity in the area as late as the seventeenth century. But it is in 1885 that the next chapter begins, when Cardinal Manning sent a Catholic priest to Harlesden – Fr Bernard Nicholas Ward (who later became the first Bishop of Brentwood) – and Mass was said for the first time since the Reformation, in a house near Willesden Junction station.
Soon, the medieval shrine was revived. A piece of wood was obtained from an old oak which had overlooked the original shrine at St Mary’s and a new statue was carved and blessed by Cardinal Vaughan in 1892. Eleven years later, the open-air processions of the statue were begun. Public Catholic processions were fairly uncommon at the time and therefore attracted controversy. In 1905 protests were made to the Willesden Petty Sessions and it was even suggested that the priest should pay a fine of £50. On the day of the procession, banners appeared with the slogan: HARLESDEN PROTESTANTS PROTEST AGAINST THE ILLEGAL AND IDOLATROUS PROCESSIONS. Insults were thrown out from the more vocal Protestant spectators of the procession, who started to sing, “There is a Fountain filled with Blood” (calling to mind the Protestant martyrs under the Catholic Mary Tudor). The Catholics fought back with “God Save the Pope” and soon the full armoury of Celtic Catholicism was brought into action - a band of pipes and drums effectively silenced the hecklers!
In 1931, the present church was opened and pilgrimages continued. Perhaps Our Lady of Willesden’s finest hour came in 1954, when she crowned by Cardinal Griffin at Wembley Stadium during the Marian Year, before a crowd of over 90,000. In 1958 the shrine was visited by a holy priest who would later be canonised – St Josemaria Escriva, founder of Opus Dei, who took the opportunity of his pilgrimage to make his annual dedication of Opus Dei to Our Lady. He visited on at least two other occasions. Willesden is unique among English shrines in claiming two saints amongst its pilgrims – More and Escriva, a martyr and a confessor, both great devotees of the Sacrifice of the Mass, both great models in the living out of an authentic lay apostolate.
So Willesden has been given a new prominence - not only because of its links with our Catholic past but also because of its location on the edge of Central London, in the midst of one of the world’s largest and most ethnically diverse cities. Downtown Harlesden may lack the peaceful hedgerows of Walsingham or the rolling grounds of Aylesford but this shrine is unique in witnessing to the presence of Mary in the midst of our busy metropolis – a great capital, for sure, but also a city with many problems: poverty, marginalisation, prejudice, crimes against Life, crimes against our fellow men and crimes against God. And Mary is here in our midst, protecting us, interceding for us, channelling grace upon grace to us and comforting us. And because Mary is here, so is her Son. Mary is pointing to her Son in the statue – she holds Him up as He blesses the world. Ad Jesum per Mariam. To Jesus through Mary.
Shrines like this show us that our Faith is ‘incarnational.’ Ours is not a Faith that tries to escape from the world or to ignore human weakness. No, God fully involves Himself in His Creation. The Word became flesh in the womb of a Virgin, taking on the condition of a servant and even dying on the cross so as to raise us up to the life of the Blessed Trinity. Before He ascended to the Father, Christ promised that He would be always with us – in good times and bad times, in sickness and in health, in our successes and in our sorrows. That’s what a shrine like this in the midst of twenty-first century London proclaims to the world. God is with us! Through Mary, Our Lady of Willesden, Jesus is with us! We pray to her, especially, for the protection and evangelisation of London, of other cities and towns, indeed of our whole country! We pray that we will rediscover our roots and make England, the ‘Dowry of Mary’, a country where the Blessed Virgin is honoured, just as she was of old.
Our Lady of Willesden, pray for us!