The Statue of Our Lady of Glastonbury
Although not featured on the Tapestry itself, both halves of the Tapestry are so designed that the Saints and Martyrs are looking up toward the Statue of Our Lady. Indeed, the little Wattle Church dedicated to Our Lady takes us back to the very beginning of Christian Glastonbury.
Well over 1,000 years ago Glastonbury was in its glory. When the Saxons reached Glastonbury in A.D.658 during their progress across the West of England, the “old church”, as it was known, was already standing. It was dedicated to Our Lady.
King Ina's Charter issued in A.D.725 refers to the Wattle Church as the “Ecclesia Vetusta Beatissimae Virginis” - the old Church of the most Blessed Virgin - and describes it as the “foremost Church in Britain, the fount and source of all religion”.
One of St. Dunstan's biographers writing about the year A.D.1000 has this to say about the arrival in Glastonbury of the Saxons converted to Christianity : “they found a Church, not built by art of man, but prepared by God Himself for the salvation of mankind, which Church the Heavenly Builder declared by many miracles and many mysteries of healing, He had consecrated to Himself and to Holy Mary Mother of God.”
On 25th May 1184 the “old church” came to a tragic end - Abbey and Church were burned to the ground in the “Great Fire”. Nothing was saved but the old wooden statue of Our Lady, so long the object of veneration in the little Wattle Church.
William of Malmesbury, the historian, also makes mention of the image of Our Lady of Glastonbury in the Wattle Church. “Here,” he says, “is an image of the Blessed Virgin Mary. When the Great Fire consumed all the Altar cloths and ornaments, it touched neither the statue nor the veil which was on its head. Nevertheless the fire caused several blisters to rise on its face, as if on a living person, which long remained there, a proof to beholders of the Divine power.” 1 But as William died in 1143, forty years before the fire, this part of the description must have been added later.
With remarkable speed the wreckage was cleared away, and on the same holy ground a stone church of the same dimensions was built, a beautiful example of late Norman architecture. Consecrated in A.D.1186, it was dedicated to Our Lady, the ancient Shrine was continued, the old statue was again set up for veneration. It is clear that then, as ever, the Church of Our Lady was regarded as the most sacred spot within the enclosure, the true raison d'être of the Abbey. It lasted almost 400 years, and even today one can appreciate the skill and labour that went to give it such graceful proportions.
Glastonbury was an outstanding centre of pilgrimage during the middle ages. The great annual pilgrimage was on 8th September, Our Lady's birthday. Its vastness and immense sanctity, its memories of saints from all over the British Isles combined to make it a national shrine. Edward I, and Edward III paid state visits, and Edward III's Queen, Philippa presented a silver rosary with Pater Noster beads of purest gold to the statue of Our Lady.
All this was ended when Henry VIII dissolved the Abbey in 1539. What happened to the statue of Our Lady no one knows. There is no record of its destruction or preservation. From this date the memory of the ancient Shrine of Our Lady of Glastonbury seemed to have gone for ever from England.
But 400 years later, in 1939, the foundations of a new Church were laid. It would be dedicated to Our Lady, and would be a successor to the ancient Shrine of Our Lady of Glastonbury. Consecrated two years later by Bishop Lee of Clifton, it stands just across the road from the old Abbey on land which formerly formed part of the Abbot's park of Wirral.
In July 1955 a statue bearing the ancient title, Our Lady St. Mary of Glastonbury, was blessed by the Apostolic Delegate, Most Rev. Gerald O'Hara, in the presence of Bishop Rudderham of Clifton and no less than 18,000 Catholics. And so, in the name of the Holy See the Shrine of Our Lady of Glastonbury was canonically restored.
In 1965 this statue of Our Lady was solemnly Crowned by the Apostolic Delegate, Most Rev. Igino Cardinale, in the presence of an enormous gathering which included the Bishop of Bath and Wells, and Mass was said by Bishop Rudderham in the Abbey ruins. It was an historic moment; and the influence of Our Lady drawing all Christians to worship her Son together marks an epoch in the story of Glastonbury.
The statue was designed by Mr. Philip Lindsey Clark, F.R.B.S., from the representation of Our Lady in a 14th century metal seal of the Abbey; it is medieval in appearance, but it is a work of art in its own right. Our Lady is shown crowned, with a veil and mantle, bearing the Holy Child on her left forearm, and a flowering bush on the other. This is probably nothing to do with the Glastonbury Thorn, which is not heard of until much later, but doubtless is meant to signify the Virgin Motherhood.2
Sacred art founded on the principles of Christianity has, since the Council of Ephesus A.D.431, been depicting Mary as Queen wearing a crown and royal regalia, and it has even depicted Our Divine Saviour in the act of placing a shining crown on His Mother's head. The oldest fresco of Our Lady crowned dates from the 5th century in Rome. St. Stephen, King of Hungary, A.D.1038, placed his crown at Our Lady's feet, and declared her to be the Sovereign of his realm.
From the 17th century the privilege of crowning statues of Our Lady has been reserved to the chapter of St. Peter's, Rome; they appoint a delegate and prescribe the ceremonial. Few such ceremonies have taken place in England, among them have been-Our Lady of Consolation, West Grinstead, which was the first in 1893-since then Our Lady of Walsingham (1954), Willesden & Warwick have been crowned, and Our Lady of Knock in Ireland (1954).3
Our Lady on her pedestal, surrounded by Saints and Martyrs of Glastonbury, looks towards the ruins of the Abbey; and St. Mary's Church now takes its place in the Story of Glastonbury which was begun with the “Wattle Church” more than 1,500 years ago.
1 Quoted from De Antiq. Glas. Eccl. 305.
2 The Story of Glastonbury, Dom Aelred Watkin, O.S.B., p.15.
3 Shrines of Our Lady in England and Wales H. M. Gillett, p.397.