Honouring Our Lady is a central part of the Christian tradition. She is the Virgin Mary, Mother of God, the God bearer and Queen of Heaven. Born into this world as a simple peasant girl of a different people, she now reigns as Queen of Heaven. Christians have traditionally looked to her for protection, for wisdom, for healing and as an intermediary with her Son Our Lord.
Mary is traditionally painted by the Church as the pure mother and represents the maternal, nurturing side of femininity. She is often looked to as a patroness, or a symbolism of some important part of our devotion. She is said to have appeared to countless devoted Christians down the ages, many of these events creating powerful centres of Marian cults such as Walsingham or Lourdes.
Historically, Christian England was very devoted to her, so much so that medieval England was known as Mary’s dowry. This devotion waned somewhat under the influence of Protestantism, but has resurfaced over the last hundred years or so with the advent of the Anglo-Catholic movement and the growth of Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. No where more is this witnessed in the re-opening of the Shrine of ‘Our Lady of Walsingham’ in Norfolk.
Our Lady as Folk Mothers
We know from the Roman historian Tacitus and from the Venerable Bede that the English and related Germanic tribes honoured their tribal 'Mothers'. Bede tells us that the early English celebrated a festival called Mothers' Night (Modranecht). The Anglo Saxon English celebrated two ‘mothers’ in particular; Hretha (probably Eartha) in March and Eostre (Ostara) in April.
A recurring aspect of our ancient mythology is that of the Earth Mother, who is symbolically impregnated each year by Sky Father (or sometimes Sea Father) to produce the New Life. This mythology points us to profound truths about the dynamic nature of God and is reflected in the Christian story of Mary being with child by the Holy Spirit and giving birth to the New Life of Christ. This pre-Christian view of ‘Our Lady’ as Earth Mother has never really gone away. It was a central part of our ancestor’s religion and has remained stuck in our collective subconscious.
The Mothers were more than just a representation of Mother Earth. They were the spiritual manifestation of a tribe's homeland, indeed of the tribe itself and helped to guard and guide it. They were also seen as important in bestowing fertility on the land and on the people themselves. Children were blessed on Mothers' Night, marriages drawn up. There was a clear link between the mystical and spiritual energies that ran through a people's tribal territory and through the people of the tribe itself. These attributes of the Folk Mothers strongly resemble the religious cults that have grown up around Our Lady.
Statue of Our Lady of Walsingham Statue of Our Lady of Walsingham Icon of Our Lady of Glastonbury
Collectively, we see the Madonnas of England in terms of Our Lady as she relates to us as the Anglo Saxon English people, a modern manifestation of our old folk Mothers. We give her the collective name of Freyo Angelcynnes, which means ‘Our Lady of the Angelcynn’ or Our Lady of the English People. She embodies something that is uniquely attached to us as a people and to our native land of England. Whether we address her as ‘Our Lady of Walsingham’, ‘Our Lady of Glastonbury’ or any other of our Madonnas, we are in reality addressing ‘Our Lady of the Angelcynn’, our mother and our protector.
We can honour and petition Our Lady at any time and in any place we like, especially on the traditional Marian feasts throughout the Church’s calendar. But we observe two days in particular as her feast. The first is 25 March, the Feast of the Assumption or Lady Day, which is the traditional feast of Our Lady of Walsingham. 25 March is one of the traditional Quarter Days and, as the celebration of Mary becoming pregnant by the Spirit of God, has strong associations with our ancient myth of Sky Father uniting with Earth Mother to create the new life. The other feast of Our Lady we give particular weight to is that of Christmas Eve, the Mothers’ Night. Here we remember not just Our Lady giving birth to Jesus, but also all the Mothers of our Englisc Þeod (Theod).
The Cult of the Black Madonna
Black Madonnas are associated with stories of being found near trees or springs – areas that are likely to have been holy places in ancient times. Some scholars argue that they have black skin colour out of recognition that the Holy Family would have been dark skinned people. Others take this further to argue that the cult began as a cult of Mary Magdalene in southern France and is associated with the Templars and the Cathars. Some argue that the dark skin colour represents the Egyptian goddess Isis (see picture), whose statues bear an uncanny resemblance to the traditional Madonna.
Begg identifies a number of Black Madonnas in England, including:
Our Lady of Walsingham, Norfolk. This is England’s national shrine to Our Lady and Walsingham itself is referred to as England’s Nazareth. In 1061, just a few years before the Norman invasion, Dame Richeldis de Faverches, Lady of the Manor, had a vision whilst her husband was on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. She was taken three times in the spirit to the house of the Annunciation in Nazareth by the Virgin and told to carefully note down its dimensions and make an exact reproduction of it in England. This she did and the shrine became one of the holiest places in all Christendom. Boarded up and damaged during the Reformation, the shrine has been repaired and reopened and is today the main place of pilgrimage in England. Although the modern statue is not black, Our Lady of Walsingham is the first and foremost Madonna of England and the Anglo Saxon English and as such is a powerful connection back to our ancient Mothers.
Our Lady of Glastonbury, Somerset. The original statue, believed to have been carved by St Joseph of Arimathea himself, was one of the few objects to survive the fire that destroyed most of the abbey in 1184. Unfortunately it no longer survives, probably destroyed during the Reformation. Glastonbury, with its powerful legend of being the site of the first Christian Church in Britain and resting place of the Holy Grael, is also the mythical Avalon – the island of the dead.
Convent of the Holy Child, Mayfield in Sussex. This contains two Black Madonnas and is recognised as one of the most famous sites for Black Madonnas in the world.
Downside Abbey, Stratton-on-the-Fosse in Somerset. Called simply the ‘Black Madonna, this was acquired by the Abbey at the turn of the 20th century and carved around 1470 in Strasburg.
Church of Our Lady of Hal, London. Originally from Belgium, this appropriately named statue of Our Lady resonates with our ancient goddess Hel and of healing.
Roman Catholic Church of St Aldhelm’s in Malmesbury, Wiltshire – the only statue in England of Our Lady of Guadeloupe, strongly associated with earth goddesses in the Americas.
Buckler’s Hard in Hampshire. This statue, dating from 1886, is located in the Chapel of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is of French origin.
Roman Catholic Church of Our Lady and the English Martyrs, Cambridge. This is a dark oak statue from the former Dominican Priory of Emmanuel College, Cambridge.
Aylesbury Priory, Kent. This is a modern Black Madonna, carved in the 1950’s.
Hael Our Folk Mother, Our Lady of the Angelcyn, patron of our land and of our folk
Grant unto us Holy Mother
That we may Prosper
And Grow in Strength and Wisdom
A People of Eternal Spring
To the Glory of Almighty God
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