My Journey to Our Lady of the Oak, Islington
My Journey to Our Lady of the Oak, Islington
Fiona Campbell Hicks tells the story of a campaign to revive Islington’s ancient pilgrimage site
Driving in Islington one day I was suddenly overcome by a very vivid imaginative experience of the Virgin Mary’s garden. It was an enclosed garden; centred around a large tree, completely filled with flowers and nature and suffused with sunlight, peace and happiness. Suddenly aware that I needed to concentrate on the road, I looked up and saw a van in front of me with the words, ‘Signature Gardens – design it, build it, maintain it!’ The song ‘They paved paradise, put up a parking lot’ ran through my mind.
As an Islington resident, I had long wondered whether there might be a shrine somewhere here. I had recently developed a fascination with the lost medieval art of England that was destroyed after 1532. In order to understand Medieval English art, I looked at the Virgin Mary in a garden in stained glass. I started to piece together the hundred or so examples of Mary in stained glass that survive around the country and discovered that this was an important theme: Our Lady was almost always depicted in some form of garden or hortus conclusus in English art. The English were passionate about the Virgin Mary before the Reformation. If you look at these examples of stained glass you can indeed gain an idea of what our Medieval artistic heritage was; vivid, sweet, opulent and utterly beautiful.
The garden aspect intrigued me. I did some googling and stumbled across the vast tradition of Mary gardens. Further research revealed that ‘Mary gardens’ were a major feature of English spirituality before the Reformation and since then the movement has been enthusiastically adopted across the world. There are around 600 plants with Marian associations, lilies, roses and marigolds being prime examples.
A Mary Garden?
It seemed only natural to begin a Mary garden at that point. We have a derelict, knotweed filled garden at the back of our property. It’s hardly a promising site; my neighbours smoke marijuana out of the window, giving it a strong stench, whilst an enormous bay tree takes all the light. I started gardening in pots and despite the extreme shade, the plants did well. The garden became a refuge and inspiration for my spiritual life. Various ‘Mary plants’ self-seeded, including an oak sapling, even though there is no parent oak tree within a quarter of a mile.
Islington’s Forgotten Holy Site: Our Lady of the Oak
Life in Islington can be stressful. It is the densest borough in the UK in terms of population, and yet has the least green space. There are some powerful gangs who intimidate the locals and suck young people into their clutches. A retired policeman warned me that my neighbour opposite was a violent gang leader who had gouged the eye out of a man in a pub. Shrines pop up all over Islington as tributes to innocent and not so innocent victims of gangs.
Islington also boasts some very affluent and influential people – the so called ‘liberal metropolitan elite’. They are generally affable but an alarming number of these will boast about how they are on drinking terms with local gang leaders, as if this was somehow a good thing. The borough is also full of artists, writers, thespians and politicians (not least Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn). In a way, the conversion of Islington would have a knock-on effect throughout the whole of English culture.
On a walk around Islington someone alerted me to the existence of an ancient shrine to ‘Our Lady of the Oak, Islington,’ that is now commemorated at Walsingham. I did some research, and sure enough, for 408 years Islington was a significant pilgrimage site. The archivists at Walsingham believe that it was one of the first eight shrines in England, founded in 1130 AD. The University of the Third Age point out that a church was founded in honour of the Virgin Mary in 628AD, so the shrine may in fact go back even further. Suddenly the self-seeded oak tree in my Mary garden, just a block to the north west of the ancient shrine, took on more significance. Even today the interior of St Mary’s, now an open evangelical church, is largely clad in guess what? Oak.
An original proclamation of Henry VIII:
“A proclamation yt no pson interrupt the king’s game of partridge or pheasaunt. Rex majori et viccomitibus London. \vobis mandamus, etc. forasmuch as the King’s most royal matie is much desirous to have the games of hare, partridge, pheasaunt, and heron pserved in and about his honor at his palace of Westm, for his own disporte and pastime; That is to say from his said palace of westm. to St Gyles in the Fields, and from thence to Islington to Or Ladye of the Oke, to Highgate. etc.”
I have not been able to find any explanation of the Oak tree’s significance. Did someone have a vision of the Virgin Mary in an oak tree? Certainly google reveals a plethora of instances where the Virgin Mary is associated with the oak, most significantly at Fatima where she appeared in a holm oak. But if there was an apparition in Islington I have found no record of it yet.
Most historians now agree that the Reformation was supported by an extremist minority. In 1532 most people would have been more or less contented with their Catholic faith. As a result of this extremist minority, 95% of English artistic heritage was destroyed. The shrine of ‘Our Lady of Islington’ was famously burnt in 1538 at Chelsea. It is mentioned in several documents
which suggests that it was an important and prominent shrine. Hopefully we have now moved on from such extreme positions and are ready to bring back our holy places and traditions.
“Latimer, Bishop of Worcester, in his oft quoted letter to Cromwell, Lord Privy Seal, named in particular five of the more celebrated English statues of Our Lady; Worcester, Walsingham, Islington, Ipswich and Doncaster; and that of Pen Rhys in Wales… the statues were taken to Chelsea, where… they were burned, together with many others whose titles remain for the most part unrecorded. “ (Shrines of Our Lady in England and Wales - M Gillett and others, 1957)
Symbolism of Oak trees:
A shrine would have been an important landmark and a ’safe space’ for Medieval English people, where they could travel safely. Practising their faith there would have been a very ordinary and comforting matter, and they would have visited the shrine as often as they went to market. Major shrines often had many stories of miracles granted. It’s important to remember that they are aids to faith, rather than talismanic magical places.
Oak trees have great significance for England especially. They were holy trees for the druids. They were also important landmarks. They represent endurance, constancy and faithfulness. Some legends have it that the cross was made partly of oak, which perhaps explains why they are struck by lightning more than any other tree. The Virgin Mary has appeared in an oak tree many times across.
‘Hortus conclusus’; or enclosed gardens dedicated to Mary were important to Medieval Christians. From about the thirteenth century onwards the Virgin Mary is often depicted in a ‘hortus conclusus’ or enclosed garden. St Bernard of Clairvaux wrote that the Virgin Mary is the lover in the Song of Solomon, ‘A garden enclosed is my sister, my spouse, a garden enclosed, a fountain sealed up.’ In a way, a hortus conclusus is the ultimate ‘safe space’. This tradition was embraced heartily by the English and on the eve of the Reformation Mary gardens were fairly common in England. This tradition of Mary gardens ties in rather well with the idea of “Our Lady of the Oak”.
The New Shrine at St Mary’s:
At first I thought a discreet shrine on a quiet side street might work rather well. But in prayer I was rather dismayed
to learn that Our Lady appeared to be saying that she wanted to be commemorated with an enclosed garden of flourishing, unclipped box and flowers, right outside St Mary’s, on Upper Street, in the heart of Islington! However, the most important shrine to Our Lady of Islington is ultimately a spiritual state; a sacred place of sanity in our hearts. The physical wayside shrine provides a plumbline, a beacon of hope in our crazy, chaotic world.
When I spoke to my parish priest, Monsignore Seamus O’Boyle, he suggested that the shrine be a traffic island, like the ancient site of Tyburn at Marble Arch. Upon closer inspection of St Mary’s I realised that it is in a natural piazza, at the top of a gentle hill. It has a rather special atmosphere and beautiful quality of light. A line of plane trees have been planted along the road with no regard for the positioning of the beautiful classical Church and a bus stop dumped right in front. Lorries thunder through this major artery out of London. Someone has put up a large amount of parking that is barely used. You might say that someone has literally paved paradise and put up a parking lot!
My vision is for there to be an enclosed mandorla garden in honour of ‘Our Lady of the Oak, Islington,’ right in the centre between Islington Square and St Mary’s. It could even be in the shape of a mandorla, as the Virgin Mary was often depicted in a mandorla as a symbol of her femininity. It will commemorate this extraordinary aspect of Islington’s history and bring us back to better ways. It will call for the ecological conversion that Pope Francis has called for.
I believe the parking and buses could be shifted relatively easily to give this area the piazza feel that it originally had without undue disruption to traffic flow.
To me, it seems important that this shrine be re-established physically. It offers a sacred space amidst what can be a very threatening urban environment. But most important is the devotion to Our Lady of Islington in our hearts, which will enable us to hold to goodness and prevail against evil.
Monsignore Seamus O’Boyle at St John’s Church on Duncan Terrace in Islington has given his full support to the campaign for an ecumenical shrine to the Virgin. A small group of Catholic friends in Islington is gradually forming around ‘Our Lady of the Oak, Islington.’ We meet on Marian feast days to eat, share our faith, pray and witness in Islington.
The Anglicans at St Mary’s Church are so far cautiously supportive. They had never heard of the tradition of Mary gardens and are now thinking of establishing a Mary garden within their parkland. The developers of the large development of Islington Square just opposite the Church have also expressed interest in supporting the initiative.
The people of Islington clearly love shrines. By commemorating criminals and ignoring our heritage, what kind of message are we sending our children? My goal is to have a beautiful shrine to the Virgin Mary visible from Upper street that lifts people’s spirits as they drive by. We need this shrine reinstated. Please pray for the shrine, and for Islington. I am hoping to relocate the oak sapling to St Mary’s, as a symbol of Islington’s spiritual life. At the moment it has leaf mould, perhaps because of Islington’s pollution. There is much work to do before Islington can once more be a place of holy healing!
Our Lady of the Oak of Islington Prayer
Dear Heavenly Father
Praise you that Your Love is steadfast and constant
And that your Son, Jesus, defeated death by dying on a tree,
Grant us streams of living water
roots deeply planted in Your Love
Help us to stand firm as the oak in all seasons
A faithful symbol of your Love and your Truth
And an enclosed garden of innocence
Grant that we may revive the holy shrine to Our Lady of the Oak, Islington
In our hearts, in Islington and in the world
And lead us to life everlasting
Holy Mary of the Oak of Islington
Mother of God and of the Church
The new Eden;
a sacred enclosed garden of love, peace and holiness
Pray for us
Drive out all evil from our lives
Bring us alive to love
In our hearts and minds
And in the world
If you want to be involved, you can email [email protected] or follow @hortus_conclusus2018 on instagram or @OurLadyoftheOakIslington on Facebook