By Edmund Matyjaszek, who argues that England was an ecclesial reality before it was a political realm.
The Feast of the Assumption, which we celebrate today, marks the taking of Mary body and soul into heaven at the end of her earthly life. The feast reassures us that, as Mary is entirely human, we too can entertain that hope for our eternal destiny.
There are many shrines and places where Mary has since made her presence known – in visions and apparitions – and opened a gateway between Heaven and Earth. But there is only one country that entirely, as a country, is considered hers alone: England, the “Dowry” of Mary.
The “Dowry of Mary” devotion is still widespread, summarised in the following prayer: “Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God and our most gracious Queen and Mother, look down in mercy on England thy Dowry.” On this feast of the Assumption it may be right to ask: where does this devotion come from and what is its meaning today?
The first thing is to dispel any uncertainty about the use of the word “dowry”. It does not mean the dowry of a bride; it comes from the Latin word dos, meaning gift or donation. The original legal meaning is “that part of a husband’s estate, which, on his marriage, he set apart for his wife’s maintenance should he leave her a widow”. The land assigned for this purpose was considered a perpetual and inalienable gift. The term “dower house” is from the same root. England as Our Lady’s Dowry is therefore the place set apart in perpetuity for her use alone.
But what is the origin of this devotion? Its formal recognition was as early as 1381, in an attested ceremony in Westminster Abbey by King Richard II, that dedicated England as Mary’s dos or dowry. But the devotion had entered common parlance even then. There is a tradition that it dates back to Edward the Confessor, in whose reign Westminster Abbey was founded, and, in 1061, the Shrine of Walsingham. The devotion was given papal approval in 1893 by Leo XIII, who requested that the English bishops re-consecrate their country to Our Lady.
Our Lady’s presence pervades English life and history. “Our Lady for her Dowry” was a battle cry at Agincourt; numerous flowers, including marigold and Ladysmock, bear her name; pubs called the Salutation refer to the Annunciation; and of course Walsingham itself – ranked with Jerusalem, Rome and Compostela as one of the four great medieval pilgrimage shrines, but the only one dedicated to Our Lady – supremely attests to this devotion. Each September there is still the Dowry Pilgrimage to Walsingham, at times led by the Cardinal.
But where did the devotion come from? What purpose does it serve? And why England? To answer these questions we need to look at the origin of England itself. We also need to ask if, by origin or by analogy to Mary or to her own life, there is something particularly apt in our country being her Dowry.
The “English” began to come to this country with the Anglo-Saxon invasions of the fifth and sixth centuries after the Roman legions withdrew. By the late seventh century there were emerging seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms: Kent, Wessex, Northumbria, East Anglia, Essex, Sussex and Mercia. By the late 700s there are references to Offa of Mercia as Rex Anglorum, or King of the English. But by common consent the country took its shape as a unified kingdom under the descendants of Alfred the Great of Wessex in the 10th and 11th centuries. It was then too that the word “England” as a country came into regular use in Church and legal documents. But that is only half the story – and the lesser half. For England had already been in full administrative existence during these centuries, but as a purely ecclesial entity.
As early as 672 or 673, at the Synod of Hertford, the then Archbishop of Canterbury had convened the bishops of all these various Anglo-Saxon kingdoms (excepting Sussex, which was still to be converted). They met under his overall authority and agreed to unite as one spiritual and ecclesiastical realm. I can find no other country existing as an ecclesial realm fully three centuries before the same borders her bishops observed became united under a single ruler. Quite simply, England was an ecclesial reality before it was ever a physical kingdom. Its spiritual existence pre-dated its political reality. It was conceived in the womb of the Church before it became a realm in law.
Where else do we find this pattern where the spiritual precedes the physical, where something is conceived in the heart and the mind before it is made full in the flesh? In the life of Mary, as the Catechism proclaims, quoting the Second Vatican Council’s Lumen Gentium:_”The Father of Mercies willed that the Incarnation should be preceded by consent on the part of the predestined Mother.” And the Catechism later adds, quoting St Augustine: “Mary is more blessed because she embraces faith in Christ than because she conceives the flesh of Christ.”
Is this, by analogy with Mary’s own life and based on the clear historical evidence of England’s emergence, the “reason” for the devotion? Furthermore, it was Mary’s free assent that opened for us the doors of salvation. Has it not also been this same human freedom to choose, this liberty which is so precious to every man and woman, that her Dowry, England, has upheld down the centuries? It has done so not just in ancient times with Alfred and the Danes, but in 1588, in 1805, in 1914 and of course, supremely, in 1940.
Is Mary’s Dowry then the place where the pattern of her life is to be mirrored and nurtured, in liberty and in free compliance with the law, not by fear or compulsion but only by an unforced consent, as hers was? Is this the key to England?
A poet asked at the time of the First World War:
Who stands if Freedom fall? Who dies if England live?
And as Winston Churchill said in his first broadcast as Prime Minister in May 1940: “I speak to you in a solemn hour for the life of our country… and, above all, of the cause of freedom.”
Were the poet and the Prime Minister illuminating the heart of England’s mission, what it means to be the Dowry of Mary? Is England’s role as the Dowry of Mary to be found in being that particular place on earth where the truths of Mary’s life and of her Son’s, of the spiritual realm, are to be forever upheld?
That is one reason, perhaps the reason, why England is Mary’s Dowry. Our task may well be to understand this, to love our country as her Dowry and to uphold the values it stands for with all the strength that God and his good Mother can give us, especially on this, the great feast of her glory.
Edmund Matyjaszek is a poet, playwright and parishioner of St. Mary’s, Ryde.
This talk was given on the Feast of the Assumption, 2008.