Marian Chivalry in Merry Ol’ England

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A friend of mine knows of my preoccupation with chivalry, just went to a used book store nearby. Well, I now have in my hot little hands a gem of a book. Its entitled: The Age of Chivalry, and it was written in 1963 by Sir Arthur Bryant. The author is a controversial British historian, who seems to have had some personal baggage; however, the passage from his work cited below is consistent with everything I have ever read on Marian devotion in Medieval England. It is also very much supportive of one of my basic contentions, namely, that the spirit of chivalry is in its origin essentially Marian.

Most loved of all who interceded for man was the Virgin. The Gabriel bell rang at evening to call Christians to recite Ave Maria, and the pilgrims flocked to see the replica of her house in the Augustinian priory at Walsingham, believing that the heavenly galaxy, the Milky Way, had been set to guide them there. The cult of supplicating Mary to intercede for human weaknesses which only a woman could be expected to forgive was then first reaching the height of its immense popularity. The great events of her life, the Annunciation, Purification, Visitation and Assumption, had taken their place among the feasts of the Christian year; at the Purification in February, known as Candlemas, everyone walked through the streets carrying candles blessed at the altar in her honour. She was thought of as the embodiment of every womanly virtue; tender, pure and loving and so pitiful that even the most abandoned could hope for forgiveness through her aid. “A woman clothed in the sun with the moon under her feet and upon her head a crown of twelve stars,” a preacher called her: “this great sign and token stretched down into the depths of Hell, for all the devils there dread the name of this glorious Virgin.”

In no land was Mary so honoured as in England—our Lady’s dowry, it was sometimes called. The number of churches and shrines dedicated to her was past counting; no other name figures so often in the lists of the royal oblations. When William of Wykeham founded his colleges at Winchester and Oxford he placed them under her protection, and at both the bishop still kneels in stone with outstretched hands before her to beg a blessing on his endowments. Nearly every church of importance possessed her image in silver, gold or alabaster given by some benefactor, and along the highroads and pilgrim ways were wayside chapels where travellers could tell their beads and say their Ave Marias to the Queen of Heaven.

Indeed, on this subject the English, usually less inclined to religious extremes than their neighbours, if anything outdid them. Sir Miles de Stapleton, a tough soldier who was sent to Normandy to stir up rebellion against the French king, was described as “a man of great integrity, much devoted to the Blessed Virgin and experienced in warlike affairs”; the valiant Sir John Chandos wore her figure embroidered on his surcoat. Her image with the child Christ in her arms was even set beside the cross on the king’s crown.

It was not only England’s fighting men who found inspiration in the Virgin. Much of the earliest English lyrical poetry that has come down to us from this time was written in her praise.

“I sing of a maiden
That is matchless;
King of all kings
To her son she ches …

He came all so stillë
To his mother’s bower
As dew in Aprillë
That falleth on the flower.”

No-one knows the author of this or of other poems in her honour -English counterparts of the Latin hymns composed for the Church’s services, often with a liturgical phrase breaking through the vernacular,

“Of one that is so fair and bright,
Velut maris stella,
Brighter than the day is light,
Parens et puella . . .”

The names on our parish maps, Ladygrove and Ladysmead, Mary’s Well and Maryfield, and the flowers that country folk called after her, marigold and ladysmantle, bear witness after four centuries of Protestantism to the homage paid by our Catholic ancestors to Christ’s mother.

Out of this worship of the Virgin sprang, in a harsh brutal age where force ruled and rape was a commonplace, the recognition that woman was entitled to respect and courtesy and that the test of civilisation was that she received it. “No man,” a preacher declared, “should have woman in despite, for it is no wisdom to despise that which God loveth.”

“Love a woman with heartë true,
She will change for noë new;
Women beth of wordës few;
Witness on Mary!

Women beth good without lesying;
From sorrow and care they will us bring;
Woman is flower of allë thing;
Witness on Mary!”

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