Catholicism in England

“This is your dowry, O Holy Virgin, wherefore, O Mary, may you rule over it.”

One of my first daytrips in London was to Tyburn Convent. This was still at the height of lockdown when travel was restricted. As is the case with many daytrips, the visit spurred my interest in the history of the convent and its link to the Sacred Heart of Jesus of Montmartre (in Paris) and the Tyburn Tree.

The visit also led me to the Gordon Riots and Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens. Although I didn’t find that book, serendipity lead me to The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400–1580 by Eamon Duffy. This was a scholarly work and for months my posts were wholesale quotes from this tome.

I also bought Book in the Cathedral via book-store roulette and this wonderful little gem was the impetus behind my first trip to Canterbury in search of Thomas Becket. Although COVID restrictions made touring impossible, I did manage to pray in the nave. I also visited St Augustine’s Abbey. St Augustine was instrumental in introducing Catholicism to England in the 6th century.

I eventually made it back to Canterbury for a proper tour and to visit the place where Thomas Becket was murdered. I also read Murder in the Cathedral by T.S. Eliot on the train to Canterbury.

The Thomas Becket exhibit at the British Musuem was another moment of serendipity. The exhibit included stained-glass from Canterbury and the supposed book from the aforementioned Book in the Cathedral. It was the fountainhead for a planned pilgrimage to France across the English Channel to retrace the steps of Becket’s exile. My attempt at pilgrimage to France failed twice but was greatly supplanted by one to Walsingham.

Before the Reformation, Walsingham was visited by kings. The Wilton Tryptic, on display at the British Musuem, portrays a young King Richard II. His father was the Black Prince, buried in Canterbury Cathedral, and his grandfather was Edward III. Richard II was deposed during some internecine fighting, and some attribute that event to the troubles that what would befall the nation and monarchy in WAR OF THR ROSES. The Wilton Tryptic features Edward the Confessor¹ (holding the ring he gave John the Evangelist), Edmund the Martyr, and St John the Baptist. The significance of The Wilton Tryptic cannot be understated since it symbolizes Richard II “giving his kingdom into the hands of the Holy Virgin, thereby continuing a long tradition by which England was known as ‘Our Lady’s Dowry'”.

My pilgrimage to Walsingham was momentous NOT because it was the ONLY time I rented and drove a car in England, but because it is arguably the place of Catholic birth and rebirth in England. A pilgrimage to Walsingham includes prayers to reconsecrate England to Our Lady.

The bookend to my time in England was reading the Faith of our Fathers by Joseph Pearce. I was introduced to Pearce whilst doing some research on the history of Walsingham. He mentioned the idea for this book in a video on Walsingham. The book helped me understand the skittishness of English Catholics given the grisly history of martyrs and the still recency of emancipation via the Catholic Relief Act of 1829.

There were three other pilgrimage related trips. The first was to Plymouth where pilgrims often left for Camino de Santiago. The second was touring the northern cathedrals and the shrines of Hugh of Lincoln, Saint William of York, and St Cuthbert. The third was a daytrip to Ely in search of St Edmund who was felled by the Danes in defense of the faith.

In London I visited The Chapel of St George and the English Martyrs at Westminster Cathedral which commemorates so many of those martyrs. I was also starting to understand WHY so many Catholics in England appeared to worship so awkwardly, apologetically, and accidentally. There was more than one occasion when I thought clergy and parishioners had one eye over their shoulder half expecting the monarch (or a Lollard) to strip the altar.

What I witnessed was the bravery of Catholics in almost every generation. The Church of England cathedrals are just museums now and many parish churches are shuttered or are coffee / community centers. There is a coldness and desperation in those once holy places now devoid of consecrated altars. What has been left is man trying to fill that vacuum with his own holy objects (usually hideous art that tries in vain to lift man to God-like status) or substitutes like earth worship. The faith though is very much alive in those Catholic parishes I visited every Sunday on those weekend trips.

Related
The Catholic Heart of England
Some of My Best Friends Are Paintings (The Imaginative Conservative)
2 Mc 7:1-2, 9-14

¹Edward the Confessor will have his own post.

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