Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Friday, 29 May 2020

Our Lady of the Oak at St Martins Norwich

Oak Apple Day seems an appropriate day for the virtual Marian Pilgrimage to be at the shrine of Our Lady of the Oak, in the churchyard of St Martin’s in Norwich.

Francis Blomefield (1705-52) in his collections on Norwich in his History of Norfolk vol IV, pt ii, in the 1806 edition, says of this pilgrimage place:

“In 1513, John Buxton, worsted weaver, was buried in the churchyard "before the image of our Lady in the Oke, and gave to our Lady in the Oke 6d. This was a famous image of the Virgin Mary, placed in the oak, which grew in the churchyard, so as it was seen by all that passed in the street; from whence the church took the name of St. Martin at the Oak, it being always before, called St. Martin in Coste-lane, or Coselany, the whole part of the city from Blackfriars-bridge, or New bridge, to St. Martin at the Oak-gates, being so called, because it lies on the coste of the river: now it seems this oak and image began to be of remark about the time of Edward II. for then I find it first called ate the Oke.........certain it is, she was much visited by the populace, who left many gifts in their wills, to dress, paint, and repair her; at the coming of Edw. VI. to the crown, she was dismounted, and I am apt to believe the poor oak, also cut down, least that should be visited for her ladyship's sake, for the present oak, which now grows in the place, hath not been planted a hundred years, as appears by the parish register in these words, "I John Tabor, constable and overseer, did bring the Oak from Rannerhall near Horning ferry, before me on my horse, and set it in the churchyard of St. Martin of Coselany, I set it March 9. 1656." Then also the rich vestments and plate, were sold, and the money laid out to fye the river. 1534, Will. Alleyn, worsted weaver, gave a pall of baudekyn.”
The church building was rebuilt in the fifteenth century - the chancel circa 1440, the south aisle with a huge apparently uncompleted porch initiated by a bequest from Alderman Thomas Wilkyns in 1491-2.

St Martin’s fate as a church building in the last eighty years is a rather sad story. It lies north of the river Wensum and away from the city centre and not in the tourist part of the city. In 1942 it was severely damaged in a bombing raid - looking into that I was struck by how much the city suffered from these, especially in that year. After the war it was not fully restored but what survived was repaired to act as a parish hall for neighbouring parishes. However with the closure of so many of the city’s churches in the 1960s - I recall thinking, as an inveterate church crawler, how depressing the results of that policy were in Norwich when I stayed there in 1970 - its new role as a hall never happened and it has been used for a variety of charitable uses in subsequent decades.

There is a modern, illustrated, account of the church and its fate from the Norfolk Churches website which can be viewed at Norfolk Churches

There is a more detailed account of the parish and church, its history, architecture and fragments of alabaster from it at St Martin at Oak (Coslany)

There are photographs of the church before the bombing and of all the medieval churches of Norwich in the collection by George Plunkett which can be accessed at Norwich Mediaeval City Churches

It has occurred to me before, and certainly whilst following this set of pilgrimage visits, that visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary often involve Our Lady standing in a tree. Most recently there is the cork oak at Fatima in 1917. On this virtual journey there were the shrines of Our Lady of the Oak at Islington and the apparitions at Evesham. At Lourdes it was not a tree but up on the rock above the spring that Our Lady was seen. That an elevated site might be suitable or convenient is clear, but the association with trees, especially oaks, looks interesting. I now find that there is an article about this by that learned twentieth century investigator of the history of Marian shrines Martin Gillett, whose 1948 article about ‘Our Lady of the Oak’ in Life of the Spirit vol ii can be found on Jstor. At the moment I do not have access to that beyond the first page but, after making the point about the not infrequent association of Our Lady with oak trees as at Norwich, Penrhys and possibly Willesden in England, Gillett turns to the shrine of Sta Maria della Quercia at Viterbo. There is a good account of the origins and development of that shrine, which originated in the fifteenth century, in another article from 1944 which can be seen in full at dominicanav29n3ourladytheoak

This may give an analogous example as to how such devotions may have developed in medieval England as well as in medieval Italy.

Our Lady of the Oak, pray for us

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