Thursday, 26 March 2015

Of Virgins, Queens, and Making Announcements

It was a curious thing on opening my personal Kalendar of dates and anniversaries and such, to see just after we'd finished watching the final episode of the classic BBC production "Elizabeth R", that it was the very anniversary of the great queen's death in 1603. Glenda Jackson's performance as that most spellbinding of English heroines was utterly engaging. That she managed it over a period of several hours on the telly, and half a century of Elizabeth's own life, was all the more impressive.

Elizabeth is famous for having said she did not "desire windows into men's souls" - a phrase which found its way into the TV series - and this makes her, for me, an archetypal Anglican. She would pity a Church of England which at present agonises over windows into people's bedrooms, and seems to care little for its public worship and dignity.

When I was a schoolboy, in the sixth form, we read a theory that the idea of "Gloriana" was a psychological triumph for the English people who had lost their Virgin Mother (they say England was once referred to as "Mary's Dowry" but the reformers would not even allow her name in the Prayerbook collects for Christmas or the Annunciation, or even the Purification), and now, whether by chance or design, their ruler had offered them a Virgin Queen. I tend to believe that more happens in this world by accident and cock-up than planning, but there is a flavour in what one reads in the history books, and sees in the film portrayals, and in Elizabeth's own writings, that the myth might have worked, that Elizabeth, unable to marry and have children because of the upheaval that would cause for her people, made virtue of necessity and claimed them as her wedded half instead.

The timing is strange coincidence, as the day after the anniversary of Elizabeth's death is the Feast of the Annunciation, when Gabriel told Mary she was to have a son for God. And I also noticed that Elizabeth was born on the 7th of September, the eve of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin. I doubt she chose the date of her death, but the date of her birth she can't have failed to notice, in a superstitious age. The Incarnation is the central mystery of the Christian faith. There have been many other deaths and resurrections, but none involved the incarnate Son of God. Mary's role is essential in all this, and yet has been hijacked by the Romish anti-sex brigade. They call her "Blessed Mary, Ever Virgin". This, despite having given birth to at least seven children, according to the Gospel record. The Orthodox call her the Mother of God, the God-Bearer. It strikes me as a far greater accomplishment to co-operate in God's grand design of revelation and salvation, than merely to be a virgin.

The date has personal significance because it is the date of my late Nan's birth in 1914. She was my late father's mother. The fourth child, third surviving, and second daughter, of illiterate Italian immigrants in Battersea, of the sort that UKIP would wish to keep out. I wonder how the annunciation of her birth was taken?

Congratulations, it's a girl!
We've got one of those.
Well, it's healthy anyway.
We've got two of those, as well.

And yet, though she went on to have three more sisters and five more brothers they say our Nan was the favourite. I can't presume to say why - I can sing the virtues of all of her siblings that I knew (and three are still with us, and long may they thrive!).

Maybe it was because she was born on a holy day, and named Annunziata after it. By a mangling caused by her parents' illiteracy and the registrar's confusion, her birth certificate renders this lofty, gracious, and holy name "Noziate". I have searched the records and this makes her unique in this country - and maybe the world - though that would have been thin consolation. But she knew the meaning of her name, and much, much, later, after her death at 95, I discovered that there was a church with that name, whose tower is still standing, in her mother's village of Minori in Italy. Perhaps in the accident of the timing of her birth, there was the happy and comforting recollection of home, for this tiny, impoverished, migrant family in a strange land.

And maybe that's what Mary is about, reminding us (or those of us who enjoyed it) of the security and safety of childhood, reminding us that anyone born of a human mother will know gentleness and compassion, and deal with us accordingly. Maybe that's what Gloriana was about - the Virgin Queen reassuring her people that they were safe with her, that she would not betray them with foreign powers or ways.

Mother of God - Gloriana - Nan : all are totems of reassurance and comfort, but more, they shine with the light of the numinous in the mundane realities of the world. There is a hint of God here, in the ordinary.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
March 2015


  1. I'm always prepared to honour the BVM, despite my Catholic upbringing with the absurdity that it involved. As for an earthly mother. If you're deprived of one at age 4 and than go on to spend the next six years in the care of a Religious Order, in the days when beating was just of carpets, you will appreciate that I preserve the good things of the BVM as I lacked the good things of an earthly mother.

  2. An interesting article, Richard, on the day of the reburial of your namesake, Elizabeth I's great-great uncle.

  3. I thought after writing it that the Mary as mother serves just as much for those who were deprived of a mother, or had a lousy one.

    And yes, I suppose uncle he was, to the present Queen, albeit at many removes!

  4. Gosh yes, as a direct descendent of Richard III's niece, the white part of the Tudor Rose and after whom Elizabeth I was named, the present Queen Elizabeth II is also a many-times great-niece.
    I can believe it's true that many find in Mary a mother they can talk to.