A devotion to Our Lady with its origins in the Middle Ages
The origins of devotion to Our Lady of Willesden are lost in depths of history; but there is evidence by the fifteenth century of a considerable pilgrimage tradition. Pilgrimage medals even now are occasionally found. St Thomas More visited only two weeks before his arrest. It would have been quite an undertaking to visit, as Willesden was just woodland, and bandit country too. But for those living in and around London, it was the perfect way to make a day pilgrimage to an acknowledged Marian shrine without taking the much more arduous route to Walsingham, 120 miles to the north.
In 1538 the axe fell. Along with images from Walsingham and Ipswich, the Willesden image was dragged to Chelsea and burnt in a bonfire: a classic case of Reformation vandalism. The Vicar of St Mary's had an enormous fine imposed upon him in perpetuity, for idolatry and superstition.
Then at the beginning of the 20th century a new Vicar (Fr James Dixon) decided to throw off this antiquated shackle (and was not punished); and he set about reviving the Shrine. He acquired an image, which was gilded, and made much of the tradition of holy water, which is captured as it rises from beneath the ground here.
70 years later, after somewhat variable interest in the life of the Shrine, the then Bishop of Willesden, Graham Leonard, gave new impetus to it. Very well attended annual pilgrimages took place, and a new image was commissioned.
We are now in the latest phase of this development of the Shrine, hoping to restore it finally to the place it had in the affections of the faithful in London: as the Marian shrine of the capital city.
In the medieval life of the Shrine, one of the attractions was that the image of Our Lady of Willesden was a black madonna, a very particular genre. And so when it came to creating the new image, this was the most important element of the commission.
With the powerful encouragement of the Bishop of Willesden at the time, an image was commissioned from the artist Catharini Stern (b. 1925). It was installed in 1972 in what has become the Shrine Chapel. The medieval image was on the north wall of the chancel, where the gold image acquired by Fr Dixon a century ago now sits. The Shrine Chapel, at the head of the south aisle, was once a chantry chapel dedicated to St Catherine.
The modern image is austere, almost forbidding. She is also extremely difficult to photograph or draw at all well or convincingly - this photograph by John Salmon is the most successful to date. But familiarity and the opportunity to touch the image each day has a powerful effect. We say the Daily Office in the Shrine Chapel; and on Sundays especially, members of the congregation pray before her and light a candle. She is much beloved, and much prayed with.
An article written by Fr Andrew Hammond for the magazine ' New Directions', June 2013:
The Shrine of Our Lady of Willesden: reviving the cult
In 1538 there was a great bonfire in Chelsea. Many statues were burned. For the perpetrators, agents of the new religious regime under Henry VIII, this was a bonfire of the vanities, if ever there was one. To those whose devotion to the subject of many of the statues – the Blessed Virgin Mary – had been intense and heartfelt, it was a bonfire of profanity, profoundly distressing. But Thomas Cromwell’s 1538 Injunctions were uncompromising:
…[the people should] not repose their trust and affiance in any other works devised by men’s phantasies beside Scripture; as in wandering to pilgrimages, offering of money, candles or tapers to images or relics, or kissing or licking the same, saying over a number of beads, not understood or minded on.
Three of the images on that bonfire had been dragged from their revered places in the great Marian shrines of Walsingham, Ipswich and Willesden. Traditions have grown up since, as some readers will know, about the Ipswich image, and even (I think less emphatically) about Walsingham’s. One story goes that the Shrine at Ipswich substituted a processing image, and the genuine article was spirited away – fetching up in Nettuno, Italy, where devotion to Our Lady in that image continues to this day. There are other versions of the story, but the outcome is the same.
For Willesden it was one particularly black moment in a generally black period. It was also a moment of cruel geographic irony. Only three years earlier that renowned resident of Chelsea, St Thomas More, had been executed, the same More whose devotion to Our Lady took him regularly to the shrine at Willesden. Indeed, he made his last pilgrimage there (a journey through not entirely safe woodland) in April 1534, only weeks before his arrest on charges of treason.
The Shrine of Our Lady of Willesden, had had its heyday in the high days of late medieval pilgrimage piety. Although Willesden was a wild place to approach and travel through, indeed was bandit country, it had the double advantage of being both a Black Madonna shrine and much more accessible to Londoners than Walsingham. There were pilgrimage medals; indeed, one cropped up on Ebay only last month.
It also said to have had a holy well. Willesden (the ‘Will’ bit of the name is probably etymologically the same as ‘well’) was awash with springs, and the water at the shrine was thought to have healing properties. It is actually very hard to pin this tradition down, and it became much more focused from the early twentieth century, in the two revivals which then took place. I won’t venture much more on this here, as the evidence is patchy, but the modern-day devotion is sincere. Suffice it to say that water which has risen from beneath the ground in the immediate vicinity of the church is frequently sought after (and we dispense it). Traditionally it has especially helped those with ailments of the eyes.
Not surprisingly, after Cromwell’s depradations, the church went through a long period of neglect, even though it remained – as it does still – a prebendal parish of St Paul’s Cathedral. For one thing the incumbent was required to pay an annual fine for superstition and idolatry, in perpetuity… Then in 1902, Fr James Dixon arrived as the new Vicar. In some ways he was another Hope Patten. For one thing he simply stopped paying the ancient fine (and was not taken to the Tower). He also restored some element of Marian devotion, by installing a rather beautiful, if conventional, gilded statue. It is on the north wall of the chancel, where the original medieval image would have been.
Fr Dixon’s work, in its relatively simple way, was the first revival of the shrine. As I look at the row of photographs of Fr Dixon’s successors, however, the semiotics of clerical dress suggest that there may have been a very English humming and hawing about ‘all this Marian business’, until the early 70s, and the energetic involvement of the Bishop of Willesden, Graham Leonard. (If any reader remembers those days, I would very much like to hear your accounts of what happened, I should say). It was a second and, I think, more robust revival.
St Mary’s is, apart from anything else, the Bishop of Willesden’s pro-cathedral, which may have added further to Bishop Graham’s enthusiasm. There were pilgrimages, and the commissioning of the single most memorable aspect of that revival: a new Black Madonna. It was carved in limewood by the artist Catharini Stern. She was installed on the Feast of Corpus Christi 1972, and dedicated by the Bishop of Willesden in the pilgrimage later that year.
It is fair to say that this image is not wholly uncontroversial. The idiom of the early 1970s is not thought by all to have stood the test of time. She cannot really be dressed, for example, not least because her attire is already part of the carving. But a crown or cope would look anachronistic, I fear. The only as-it-were adornment I have ventured was a simple purple veil for her head during Lent.
The image is extremely hard to photograph too, although we are very fortunate that John Salmon has now taken the most effective I have seen. But even the best photograph does her few favours. In fact, however, the reality of praying before her every day simply changes one’s relationship to her. And the wood of the image is very tactile.
I inherited a very odd positioning of the image, which was the latest in a series of moves she had made round the church. I restored her to her original place at the east wall of the side chapel, and this has immediately become a focus for prayer, especially before our Sunday Parish Mass. This side chapel is a much later addition to the medieval south aisle, and in effect recreates a chantry chapel which was lost in some earlier re-organisation: presumably part of the post-Reformation allergy to such liturgical practice. My hope is that in the fullness of time our architect will design a new structure for what is in fact a rather small space, incorporating an ad orientem altar at the feet of the image. And, thanks to the perfidious removal of lead from the roof and the consequent water damage 18 months ago, redecoration is needed too.
So what of this ‘third revival’? Before I came to Willesden I was Succentor of St Paul’s, where the Bishop of London’s valedictory words to me were ‘I want to see a revival of the cult!’ One doesn’t ignore such clarion calls, especially when their content is actually rather appealing. And so that is what we are beginning to work on.
A providential advantage this year is that it is our 1,075th Anniversary: the parish was founded by King Athelstan in 938. That then is the springboard for reviving the life of the Shrine, and it will be marked with a Festival Pilgrimage on Saturday July 6th. This will begin with a Procession, in which some of the local children will take a prominent and flamboyant part, thanks to the involvement of the legendary carnival experts, Mahogany (who are based conveniently nearby in Harlesden).
There will then be a concelebrated Mass at midday in church, at which the Bishop of Edmonton will be Principal Concelebrant, and the preacher Fr Nicholas Wheeler, visiting from his extraordinary work in Rio. After Mass there will be a Summer Fair, with foodstalls. The afternoon will end with Benediction and Sprinkling at 3.30.
And then, what more? I think it is important that we build up the life of the shrine by (re-)creating a society of pilgrim supporters, both lay and ordained. And so we will also be launching the Companions of the Shrine. A vital part of this will be that priests will be able to join as Priests Companion of the Shrine, and bring their folk to Willesden to celebrate Mass here.
We must be ambitious for a place where devotion to Our Lady has such a formidable and beautiful heritage. Please pray for us, as we daily ask Mary to do.