MEDIEVAL: THE VIRGIN MARY

In the Middle Ages, the Parish Church of St Michael had an unusual shrine: a statue of the Virgin Mary located in a niche in one of the buttresses. This attracted many pilgrims, many of them on their way to the shrine of Thomas Becket at Canterbury. Although the statue of the Virgin disappeared in Henry VIII’s Reformation, the niche still remains. At that time, a little stream ran in front of the church and it has been claimed by some writers that Sittingbourne took its name from this ‘seething bourne’.

 

Our Lady of the Buttress, that’s what they called me, the pilgrims travelling to Canterbury who stopped and prayed at my shrine: wealthy merchants with rings on their gloved fingers; fat monks on ponies; penitents with the scallop shell of Santiago pinned to their caps; adventurers who, waking up one spring morning, smelt the freshening air and left home on a whim; the poor and ill-prepared who with rumbling bellies begged alms from their fellows; the holy beggars who slept under hedges, their clothes in rags, their feet bleeding and black with filth.

From my niche, I looked down on them, listened to their stories, their prayers and confessions, gave what comfort I could, watching over them as they rested and rubbed their weary limbs then, silently, bade farewell and blessed them as they waded the brook, the seething bourne that gave our town its name.

Too sick to travel, some died at my feet and were buried there, keeping me company through the ages until, in Henry’s Reformation, I was torn from my post, dismissed after 300 years of service.

Yet my niche remains, despite religious conflict and the negligence of builders who, leaving a brazier unattended, set fire to the church. I am still here in spirit, high up in the buttress, hidden by the branches of an overgrown laurel: no longer a target of hatred but the victim of neglect.

 

Photograph: Parish Church of St Michael, High Street, Sittingbourne