It is probably fair to say that the 500th anniversary of the Reformation – or to be particular, of Martin Luther’s nailing his ‘Ninety-five Theses’ to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg in 1517 – has not gripped the popular imagination in England as much as once it might.
It has not, for example, produced the sort of representation of iconoclasm seen in the new National Museum of Estonia, where a virtual image of Our Lady of Graces in a glass box shattered into pieces to be replaced by the word “Reformation” if the visitor kicked the plinth. (I know the country only because my godfather, a saintly Yorkshire vicar, wrote a single book, An Anglican in Estonia, SPCK, 1939.) The imaginative display did not please everyone, however, Archbishop Urmas Viilma of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church protesting that “The Virgin Mary for a huge number of believers is not some historical figure or event, gone into oblivion, but a reality today. The ridicule was an insult to the feelings of believers.”
True, the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM) is for many believers a reality, but so was the iconoclasm of the Reformation, not least in England, although even more destruction took place over a century later during the Civil War when Protestantism reached its anarchic zenith. Perhaps if the hologram of the BVM had shattered when the visitor pressed a button rather than kicked the plinth it would have been less offensive, yet a kick is more accurately symbolic of the brutalism of the destruction1.
When Henry VIII’s men ‘dissolved’ the monasteries, they did not do so gently, nor did the zealots with their whitewash brushes and hammers, obliterating the colour and statuary in country churches, much to the dismay of ‘the common people’ whose piety was more visually inspired than aurally. The vivid interiors of England’s churches before 1517 would surprise many people today – including many a post-Vatican II Catholic – as Eamon Duffy, Emeritus Professor of the History of Christianity at Cambridge, describes brilliantly in The Stripping of the Altars (Yale, 1992).
Catholic and reformed?
And yet England today (and perhaps even Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), despite increasing secularism, seems quite at home with the imagery that the Reformers swept away. You only need to look at the Royal Mail’s Christmas stamps: yes, there’s the snowman and some naive children’s art, but the religious images on both first and second-class stamps are of the Virgin and Child.
Are we in fact seeing a sort of post-Christian Counter-Reformation, or is it merely a Post Office Counters Reformation? Will 2045 – the 500th anniversary of the Council of Trent, summoned in response to ‘Lutheranism’, and seen as the starting point of the Counter-Reformation – prove a more popular anniversary than this year’s has been?
I don’t know, but one event, recently announced, may mark the beginning of the comeback. On the feast of the Annunciation (25 March) in 2020, the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales will re-dedicate England as the “Dowry of Mary”. There will also be a two-year preparation period including a “travelling statue” of Our Lady of Walsingham going from parish to parish.
Why Mary? Why Walsingham?
In the Middle Ages, English devotion to the BVM was particularly strong. There are indeed more churches dedicated to Mary than in any other country in Europe; and England had been known as the ‘Dowry of Mary’ since at least the 11th century. The Wilton Diptych, completed around 1395 and a favourite of many a charity Christmas card (see image at the top of this article), depicts Richard II kneeling before the Virgin and Child, with an angel carrying the Cross of St George on a staff surmounted by an orb with a map of England. An altarpiece from the same period destroyed in the fire in the Palace of Westminster in 1834 showed Richard handing the orb to Mary, with the inscription Dos tua Virgo pia haec est (“This is thy dowry, O Holy Virgin”).
Indeed, the premier shrine to the BVM in Europe was, until the depredations of Henry VIII, that of Walsingham in remotest Norfolk. Here in 1061 a noblewoman’s Marian apparitions led to the building of ‘The Holy House’, an imagined replica of the house in Nazareth where the Annunciation occurred. It became a place of kingly and common pilgrimage alike, and was richly endowed. The Dutch scholar Erasmus visited in 1513, writing: “When you look in you would say it is the abode of saints, so brilliantly does it shine with gems, gold and silver … Our Lady stands in the dark at the right side of the altar … a little image, remarkable neither for its size, material or workmanship.”
At the Dissolution, all traces of the shrine were eradicated and the great priory associated with it fell into ruin. However, early in the 20th century, inspired initially by the (Anglican) Vicar of Walsingham, the idea of pilgrimage was revived. Walsingham today has a thriving (Anglican) replica of the Holy House, and the Catholic national shrine, recently elevated by the Pope to the status of a minor basilica, sits next to the old ‘slipper chapel’ where medieval pilgrims left their shoes before walking barefoot the ‘holy mile’ to the original shrine.
In a fascinating essay five years ago Eamon Duffy argued that in modern multicultural England the inherited Protestant certainties were fading, and that it was time to look again at the Reformation story: “There was nothing inevitable about the Reformation. The heir to the throne [HRH Prince Charles] is uneasy about swearing to uphold the Protestant faith, and it seems less obvious than it once did that the religion which gave us the Wilton Diptych and Westminster Abbey, or the music of Tallis, Byrd and Elgar, is intrinsically un-English. The destruction of the monasteries and most of the libraries, music and art of medieval England now looks what it always was – not a religious breakthrough, but a cultural calamity.”
Perhaps a new Counter-Reformation will indeed enjoy popular support, from people of all faiths and none. There is surely, though, a certain irony that, Henry VIII having been the complaisant godfather of the Reformation in England, the Royal Mail with its Christmas stamps of the Virgin and Child may be leading the way.