Presentation given on the National Consecration of England to the Blessed Virgin – March 29th 2020, by Fr Henry Whisenant, Assistant Priest at St Mary’s Shrine, Warrington, England
What a blessing that because of the LiveMass facilities in this church, those of you watching at home can join us in these devotions for the national consecration of England to Our Lady, even if we cannot be united in person.
This consecration, taking place across our country today, is to renew the offering of England to the Blessed Virgin under its privileged title of Dos Mariae, the Dowry of Mary.
It’s difficult to know when such a title was first in use – perhaps by the time of St Edward the Confessor – but there are at least clear, indisputable references to it by the 14th century. Already in 1350, one preacher was able to state: “it is commonly said that the land of England is the Virgin’s Dowry”. And on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt, priests in England prayed to Our Lady under the title, “Protectress of her dower”.
What does the term mean: Our Lady’s Dowry or Our Lady’s Dower? It refers to the custom in marriages of old, that when a woman was married, the bride’s family provided certain possessions or property to be given with her to her husband. This property, this “dowry”, could not simply be liquidated by the husband – rather it was a conditional gift that was still in some way attached to the bride, so that if the husband were to die, the widow would have some financial security for herself and her children. It was also customary in certain cultures for the husband himself to provide a “dower”, a gift of wealth of property to his bride upon their wedding, for this same purpose.
England then was seen to be Our Lady’s Dowry, or Our Lady’s Dower, in this sense: that the Lord God, the Divine Spouse of her immaculate soul, entrusted to her this small island country to be her portion, to be under her custody and at her disposal. Throughout the centuries, from its evangelisation until the wanton destruction of the country’s faith under the Protestant revolution, the people of this land felt a great affection for the Mother of Christ as their mistress and protector, and they had a devotion to her that was famed in Europe.
At the height of this devotion, in 1381, around the Feast of Corpus Christi, King Richard II took the step of formally consecrating the country to Our Lady, in front of her image in Westminster Abbey, an event which is famously commemorated in the Wilton Diptych, which you can go see (but not right now, alas!) in the National Gallery in London.
On this Passion Sunday, in 2020, we gather, if not in body then in spirit, to renew this same consecration to Our Lady once again.
We might be forgiven for regretting the timing of this renewal, with all this happening around us. We might be forgiven for hankering after the solemn ceremony of 1381, and for thinking that – with the current virus doing the rounds, and everything cancelled and everyone in lockdown – we are, by contrast, in the very worst possible circumstances – the most dispiriting, the most underwhelming – for a renewal of that national consecration today!
But I suggest we look again at that first consecration of 1381… For we will find that, in reality, even more than ours today, that historic event took place in the midst of terrible pestilence and disease, social disruption and national anxiety.
To see this, we must go back 33 years before that consecration to the Black Death. The Black Death, the Plague, was a disease that also began in China, and was carried to Europe in 1348 by infected rats along prominent trade routes from East to West.
Between 1348 to 1349, the Black Death swept through England, and wiped out as much as 40-60% of the population. To get a sense of the magnitude of this, compare it to the coronavirus today. To this date, roughly 20,000 people in the UK are said to have tested positive with the virus: that’s 0.3% of the population. And just over 1,000 deaths have been attributed to the virus: that’s less than 0.002% of the current population… And now imagine a disease that claimed 40-60% of the populace! Not only this, but the plague returned every dozen years or so until the end of the century… For example, from autumn 1379 to 1380, it carried off up to another20% of England’s population!
The country, in terror, came to a standstill. Parliament was postponed. The King’s court was dismissed from Easter until midsummer. The London Guildhall was closed.
Keep in mind that this was less than a year before King Richard’s consecration of the country to Our Lady. The consecration took place in a country that was struggling to function normally after such a great atrocity – a plague significantly more crippling than anything we are yet facing today.
And not only this…
Because of the dramatic and sudden loss of life, England under Richard II was also experiencing profound social unrest. With the drastic shortage of labourers, those who were left to do the work demanded a greater salary for the increased work that was left to them. But the landowners, the employers, were reluctant to do this, and the ongoing tension led finally to the Peasants’ Revolt in June of 1381, when thousands of workers marched on London, killed anyone they found connected to the Royal Court (including the chancellor and the treasurer), and forced King Richard to meet with them and accede to their demands. It wasn’t until the end of June that this riot was largely quelled, and the rebels killed or dispersed.
Now bear in mind that this was the very same month when the Dowry Consecration took place. In other words, the King was not consecrating England to Our Lady simply as a nice and pleasant thing to do…! He was consecrating it to her, as her Dowry, as a way of saying: “Help! I don’t know what to do about all this! I don’t know how to manage all this chaos in my country! Come and be the mistress and protector and ruler of this land, your possession.” The consecration of 1381 was a plea to Our Lady in a time of great confusion and need.
It is in that same spirit that we present England to Our Lady on this day. “Mary, come to the aid of this country! Protect us from calamity, but protect us also from fear!” Let us not be paralysed by the daily media updates of new cases and hypothetical outcomes calculated to keep us in constant suspense and anxiety. Let us not have that fickle spirit of the world, that one day appears so confident and secure, even invincible, in its emancipation from God and in its freedom to sin, and then when the first threat comes along is paralysed by a terror mixed with morbid fascination. Such is not the spirit of the followers of Jesus Christ, who are called, rather, to live by the words of the Psalmist: “Those who put their trust in the Lord are like Mount Sion – they shall never be moved”.
We ask Mary, the mistress of her Dowry, to protect us also in these times from a spirit of bitterness and frustration…
Perhaps many of you watching these ceremonies today are frustrated that you cannot be here in the church. You might think, “What kind of consecration is it if I have to do it in the obscurity of my own home?” You may have had plans to be here, to be in your local cathedral, to be in the national shrine in Walsingham, before the lockdown made that impossible.
But let’s remember what the message of that particular shrine is about. Let’s move our focus for the last part of this reflection from the Richard II’s consecration in Westminster Abbey in 1381, to the vision of Richeldis de Faverche in Walsingham in 1061. When Our Lady appeared to Richeldis, what did she ask? She asked for a copy of the Holy House of Nazareth to be built in that place – the house where the angel announced to Our Lady herself the Incarnation of the Lord, and her vocation as the Virginal Mother of God.
Recall that event as it happened in the Scriptures. Recall that in the first chapter of St Luke’s Gospel that mystery of the Annunciation is paralleled with another announcement: to Zechariah, the father of St John the Baptist. Zechariah, a priest of Israel, was in the sanctuary of the Temple, offering incense to the Lord, and the Angel Gabriel appeared to him to tell him that his wife Elisabeth would, in her old age, conceive a son. Zechariah doubted the angel’s message, and as punishment for his doubt was struck dumb, until the birth of the Baptist…
Notice this… Zechariah is a priest… he is in the Temple… but he is not by virtue of these things alone at one with God. Rather, he is found wanting.
Then St Luke recounts the angel’s announcement to Mary. She is called full of grace, she is told that the Lord is with her, and that she will conceive the Son of the Most High by the overshadowing of the Holy Ghost! And all this took place, where? Not the Temple in Jerusalem, where Our Lady had spent her girlhood, but in the obscurity of her parents’ home, in the unremarkable, unimportant town of Nazareth. It was in the isolation of her own home that Our Lady, by her Fiat, consecrated herself to the service of Jesus Christ as His mother.
At the same time, it was in in her womb, under the roof of that ordinary house, and not in a great stone temple, that Christ was consecrated High Priest of the Human Race. For at His conception in the womb, the Eternal Son of God took to Himself a human soul, and flesh and blood, and thereby the priestly power to offer sacrifice.
Again, it was not in a Temple, but on a hill of execution, outside the city walls, that the Lord offered that most sublime priestly sacrifice of Himself to save us from our sins – not on a richly carved altar, but on a rough wooden cross – a wonder that we are preparing in this Passiontide soon to commemorate.
And you too, in whatever place you are, are not hindered from acting under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, and performing a supernatural and meritorious act, in consecrating England to Our Lady today. Because, by virtue of our Baptism, each one of us has become a Temple of the Holy Ghost. Whatever we do, whatever action we perform and wherever we are, if we are in a state of grace, and perform our actions for the love of God… then everything we do has a supernatural character, and becomes a pleasing offering in God’s sight. St Paul says, “Whether you eat of drink, or whatever you do, do all for the glory of God”. So within the walls of your home today you can offer to God a prayer for this country that will pierce through to the sanctuary of Heaven itself, and that will increase, in a sense, the glory of God in this land.
So let’s be undaunted and encouraged as we make this collective consecration of our nation today. Let’s put England squarely in the hands of Our Lady, and ask her in the midst of these trying times to be the protectress of her Dowry…
May she protect England’s people from fear and anxiety, by leading them to place their security not in temporal prosperity and health, but in the saving sacrifice of her Son Jesus Christ, and in the eternal life He won for us.
And may she, the Virgin of the Annunciation, speak to us the words that echo still in her heart from the announcement of the angel: …the words, “Do not be afraid!”… and the angel’s greeting: Kaire! Which we translate as Ave, “Hail”, but which means – more than this – Rejoice! Be happy! Rejoice… for we are giving England back to her who is the Cause of our Joy, and whose Son ever harries and destroys the sadness of the Fall.
Our Lady of Walsingham: Pray for us!
Cause of Our Joy: Pray for us!