Marian Shrines and Pilgrimage

The Chapel of our Lady of the Crag is one of many shrines of Mary in Britain or, more correctly, of Madonna and Child, as medieval depictions of Mary rarely omit the child Jesus on her knee. A shrine is a sacred place dedicated to a particular person or religious object. Many medieval shrines had reliquaries containing the relics of a saint. All this was suppressed at the Reformation, but surviving reliquaries in Britain include the shrines of: St Edward the Confessor in Westminster Abbey; St Frideswide in Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford; St Wite in Whitchurch Canicorum, Dorset, St Melangell in Pennant Melangell, Powys, Wales.

Shrines of Mary existed everywhere in medieval Britain. Catholic and Anglican churches today still have a lady chapel, which is that part of the church dedicated to Mary. In large cathedrals they can often be found at the east end, behind the high altar, and in parish churches, to one side of the nave. The picture is Our Lady of Westminster, in Westminster Cathedral. Sometimes these were sites of important medieval statues known for their miraculous power for which people prayed and made donations. Such statues common in abbeys, cathedrals and parish churches: apart from the Lady Chapel, they were to be found above the high altar, or on one side of the nave or choir, or in the transepts. 

The towns most noted for medieval devotion to Mary in Britain were: (England) Walsingham in Norfolk, the primary British shrine of Mary and known across Europe; Coventry; Doncaster (in the picture - it has been restored); Ely; Evesham; Glastonbury; Ipswich; Lincoln; Pontefract; Willesden; Worcester; (Scotland) Aberdeen; Haddington; Musselburgh; (Wales) Cardigan. Many abbeys and priories were dedicated to Mary, especially the Cistercian and Carmelite. Yet, actually, very many more places could be added to the list as devotion to Mary was common; most people could not travel far and needed a local place to visit. 

Holy wells were often dedicated to Mary too, and were places of devotion and pilgrimage. There were important Marian holy wells at Penrhys, Wales, and Fernyhalgh, near Preston (in the picture). 

Among all these shrine towns, Knaresborough took its place from 1408; the Chapel is not the most famous but probably one of the most striking for its unusual construction and natural beauty. Like many others, it had a story to explain and establish its miraculous origin, a story that will have attracted pilgrims keen for similar wonders to be repeated for them. But it is quite rare: unlike so many others it is not in a church building or by a holy well. It is a chapel carved into the rock and as such, it is impossible to destroy. It is likely to represent an unbroken tradition of Catholic belief, in an area known for resistance to the established church (from both recusant Catholics and free church Protestants).

The Chapel does not belong just to the Catholic community, but is part of the heritage of Knaresborough for everyone; it does not just testify to a religious past, but also to present and future in which spirituality is not dying, even in a secularised world. Our Lady of the Crag continues to have a life as a pilgrim shrine in the 21st-century, as a place of gentle strength, peace, and spiritual energy that refresh the soul, represented by its three main figures:

The Madonna

The Child

The Knight who guards their home in the rock.


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