Uniting England around Our Lady

One of the great treasures of the National Gallery is the Wilton Diptych. Completed in around 1395 as a portable altarpiece for King Richard III, it is amongst the earliest depictions of England being given as a gift to Our Lady.

The Diptych shows Richard III being presented to the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child by St John the Baptist, St Edward the Confessor, and St Edmund. Richard and the saints stand in an earthly landscape, while the Virgin and Child, who are surrounded by angels, are in a paradise meadow covered with flowers. Richard kneels in homage before the Virgin and Child. Nearby angels are carrying the Cross of St George, which is surmounted by an orb engraved with a minuscule map of England.

England has been known as Mary’s Dowry since Saxon times. Before the Reformation it was held that this dowry was a perpetual and inalienable gift whereby England was set apart for Our Lady. Many kings of England continued to promote and hand on this devotion, including Henry V who supposedly raised the battle cry at Agincourt “Our Lady for her dowry; St George and St Edward to our aid”.

But the Pynson Ballad (c1495), as it is known, goes on to state far more:

O Englonde, great cause thou haste glad for to be,

Compared to the londe of promys syon

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