23 Jul

“It was one particularly black moment in a generally black period…”

(For the present day CHURCH OF ENGLAND’S Society devoted to Mother Mary (protestant) please visit (external link). This article is from Crusader magazine, courtesy of AVE, The magazine of the Anglican Society of Mary.)

“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 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…

Three of the images on that bonfire had been dragged from their revered places in the great Marian shrines of Walsingham, Ipswich and 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 notable resident of Chelsea, St Thomas More, had been executed, the same More whose devotion to Our Lady took him regularly to the shrine of Willesden. Indeed, he made his last pilgrimage there (a journey through not entirely safe woodland in April 1534, only weeks before his arrest.)

The Shrine of our Lady of Willesden had in its heyday in the high days of late medieval pilgrimage piety. Although Willesden was a wild place to approach and travel through, it had the double advantage of being both a Black Madonna shrine and much more accessible to Londoners than Walsingham. It also had a holy well, as far as we can tell. 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.

After Cromwell’s depredations, 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. The incumbent was required to pay an annual fine for ‘superstition’ and ‘idolatry’; in perpetuity! Then in 1902, 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 [of London]). He also restored some element of Marian devotion, by installing a rather beautiful, if conventional statue.

This was, in its simple way, the first revival of the shrine… In particular a second and more robust revival of St Mary’s took place. There were pilgrimages and the commissioning of the single most memorable aspect of that revival: a new Black Madonna. It was carved in lime wood by the artist Catharine Stern. It would be 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. Still, she was installed on the Feast of Corpus Christi 1972, and dedicated by the Bishop of Willesden in the pilgrimage later that year.

The statue is now situated in the original location at the east wall of the side chapel, and has become a focus for prayer. 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.”
Details are on (external link).


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