The Shrine of Our Lady of Caversham

In 2003 the pilgrimage to this Marian shrine from the Island was one of the first to be organised by our society. The origins of the Shrine of Our Lady in Caversham are a mystery. We know that by the time of the Norman Conquest there was a shrine chapel beside the River Thames, containing a statue of Our Blessed Lady, and that pilgrims came there to pray. However the reasons why the shrine was there, and why people came on pilgrimage is unknown. The first definite historical record is from the year 1106, when Duke Robert of Normandy presented to the shrine a relic of Christ’s Passion which he had brought back from the first Crusade. In 1162 the care of the shrine was entrusted to the Augustinian Canons of Nutley Abbey, near Aylesbury, one of whom was always resident at Caversham as the Warden of the Shrine. Although the great Reading Abbey was only a mile away across the Thames it never owned or controlled the shrine. However the Abbey did help build the first bridge over the river, with a chapel to the Holy Spirit on the Reading side and another dedicated to St. Anne on the Caversham side; there was also a holy well, known as St. Anne’s Well, still to be seen today at the top of Priest Hill, Caversham.

Throughout the Middle Ages the fame of Our Lady’s of Caversham spread throughout the country and pilgrims came not only to pray, but also to present votive offerings to the shrine, so that by the 15th century the statue was plated in silver, and in 1439 Isabella, Beauchamp, Countess of Warwick left 20lbs of gold to be made into a crown for the statue. Kings and Queens of England travelled up river from Windsor to visit the shrine, the last being Queen Catherine of Aragon who came on July 17th 1532 to pray to Our Blessed Lady while Henry VIII pressured her for a divorce. Children appeared to have played aprominent part in the story of this shrine as they selected a girl from among them each year to crown the statue of Our Lady and the others picked flowers to place at the statue.

Henry’s break with Rome meant the destruction of all religious houses and shrines, so on 14th September, 1538 Dr. John London, the government agent, arrived at Caversham and in a single day closed down the shrine, stripped it bare of all its religious property, even stripped the roof from the chapel and ended over five hundred years of religious devotion. The statue was sent up to Thomas Cromwell in London, where it was burnt, Henry VIII pocketed the wealth of the shrine.

So completely were the traces of the Old Religion obliterated that by the 18th century even the exact site of the shrine had been lost to memory.

Revival of devotion to Our Lady of Caversham began in 1897, the year following the foundation of the parish of Our Lady and St. Anne and the same year as the restoration of the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. Fr. Haskew, the parish priest, wrote the first account of the shrine in modern times, but mistook the shrine chapel for the chapel of St. Anne on Caversham Bridge. When a new bridge was built in the 1920s stones from the foundations of the original bridge chapel were given to the parish to be incorporated into a restored shrine. At that time there was a fine white marble statue of Our Lady and Child given to the church to encourage devotion to Our Lady; it is now in he Cenacle. For the Marian Year of 1958 the then parish priest, Fr. William O’Malley, decided that a suitable shrine should be built. A stone chapel, in the Norman style was built, and a large oak statue of Our Lady and child, about 500 years old, from Northern Europe, was purchased, (reputedly found in an antique shop in London). This lovely statue shows Mary nursing the infant Christ; her cloak is gilded, her dress, originally blue and silver, and her face are now dark with age, but her look of tender and dignified love is truly beautiful, inspiring and prayerful. The renewed shrine of Our Lady of Caversham was solemnly blessed and dedicated by Archbishop Francis Grimshaw of Birmingham in 1958. The stone floor of the chapel is below the level of the church to allow for better viewing of the statue from the body of the church, and also so that passers by may kneel at an angled window outside the church, to see the statue without entering. To complete the link with the Medieval shrine, in 1996, to celebrate the centenary of the parish, a gold and silver crown was made for the statue, and blessed by Pope John Paul II during a parish pilgrimage to Rome. The statue was solemnly crowned by the Papal Nuncio, Archbishop Barbarito on 20th July 1996.

Today groups and individuals come regularly to pray to Our Blessed Mother at her shrine. During the Millennium Year the shrine was one of the recognised places to obtain the Holy Year Indulgence.