Cult and Image of St. Anne in Late Medieval England

Tracey Silvester
The Ranworth Antiphoner, c. 1460 

Anne was a created saint who grew to function symbolically for a wide range of different social groups in their cultural practices, with considerable powers as mother of Mary and grandmother of Christ. By the late Middle Ages in England, the cult had manifested itself in horaevitae, plays and feast day celebrations, and wide-ranging devotion to her is seen from guilds, bourgeois families, male and female religious, and the elite. Literary evidence points to Anne being used as a model for godly wedlock; an example of endurance and humility in the face of infertility; and a potent fertility symbol. 

Lineage and Dynasty

The family tree of Christ, reconstructed through Mary, placed Anne in a crucial position, as the root of the matrilineal genealogy of Christ. As matriarch of a Holy family, she represented the dynastic ambitions of rulers, the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie, who were all concerned with establishing their own lineage, and providing male heirs to continue their family dynasties. Within English manuscripts there is a clear progression from early images of the Holy Kinship, often placed opposite a Jesse Tree, to adapted images clearly designed for the purpose of expressing dynastic themes. 

London, British Library Add. MS 18850, folios 257v. ‘Bedford Hours’. c.1423.

Educating children: St. Anne and the Education of the Virgin image

Anne as mother and educator of the Virgin demonstrated appropriate devotional behaviour. The prominence of women as patrons and recipients of these images stressed the importance of literacy in deepening piety, and reflected female, lay contemporary concerns with the education of their children. Anne is often found making physical contact with her daughter, establishing an intimate context within which to teach the Virgin to read and pray. 

Oxford, Bodleian Douce 231, folio 3r. ‘Sarum Book of Hours’. c.1325-30.

As part of the story of Salvation we can see this image’s typological use, pointing the way to the Annunciation. On the Cluny altar frontal panel, Anne supervises Mary’s reading of an adaptation of Psalm 44:11-12: a passage prophetic of the Annunciation. Anne is pointing to the word ‘rex’, highlighting Mary’s choice to be the bride of Christ, thus fulfilling God’s redemptive plan. Anne’s role is crucial, as this image represents the beginning of the Virgin’s journey towards salvation and offers an exemplar of the importance of reading as part of a mother and daughter’s own redemptive journey. 

Cluny altar frontal panel. Cluny no.7726. Made for Thetford Priory, Suffolk. c.1350

Procreation and Protection during Childbirth

More holy and healing wells appear to be dedicated to St. Anne than to any other female saint except Helen. It is possible that many of these were ancient healing and holy sites, connected to fertility and procreation.  Buxton, would be familiar to many, but others survive in more obscure sites such as Llanfihangel y Bont-faen, Vale of Glamorgan, which contains a stone carving of a bare-breasted St. Anne, water flowing through holes in the statue’s breasts. 

Anne’s power over fertility is seen in devotional practice across England and Wales, and there is strong evidence linking her to childbirth practices and fertility prayers, such as in the Latin medieval ‘peperit’ charm.This devotion is not restricted to the uneducated but is found across the social classes and seen in manuscript evidence too, in the form of the prayers and images found in a variety of English horae and texts like John Lydgate’s ‘Life of the Virgin’, which opens with a full-page miniature of St. Anne in childbirth.

BL Harley 629, folio 1v. John Lydgate, Life of the Virgin. 15th century.

In Osbern Bokenham’s ‘Life of St. Anne’, we find a prayer on behalf of Katherine Denston, his female patron. It asks  for safe delivery of a son and reveals the primary purpose of her commission: to invoke grace and protection during childbirth from St. Anne: 

Provide, Lady, eek that Jon Denstone

And Kateryne his wyf, if it plese the grace

Of God above, thorgh thi merytes a sone

Of her body mow have or they hens pace…” (lines 692-695).

Gifts to local parish churches from women suggest less structured acts of piety. In the 1502 will of Dame Joan Chamberlayn of York, she offers her ‘weddynge ring of golde, a gyrdill the tushoye of gold of Vynes harnest with sylver and gylt, and a payr of corall baydes gaudiett wt sylver’ to ‘ye bessid ymage of Saynt Anne’. 

In England, St. Anne was not restricted to any one social class. She was the holy mother: a role model for literate, pious, wealthy women; and a protector for all women, in the quest for fertility and through the many dangers of childbirth.

Tracey Silvester has recently completed her Masters at Reading University within the Graduate Centre for Medieval Studies as a distance learner. She is hoping to start a doctorate in September at Reading studying the cult of St. Michael in England and Wales.

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