Daffodils – I defy anyone not to think of Wordsworth’s lonely wanderings! Or Wales where it translates as St Peter’s leek. Or the Marie Curie Cancer charity – so having established that daffodils play an important part in modern symbolism or romantic ramblings what about the past, setting aside Greek myth?
They have many common names including bell rose, faerie bells and ladies ruffles. More tellingly, thanks to the time they flower, they are also known as lent lilies and lenty cups. Christian lore states that the daffodil first made its appearance in the garden of Gethsemane and to add to my growing picture of a Mary Garden, daffodils are also known as ‘Mary’s star’. It has been suggested that the occurance of daffodils in the wild in England and Wales can be an indicator that there was once a monastic house on the site- in London, Abbey Wood is the home of wild daffodils and the location of Lesnes Abbey (Phillips, An Encyclopedia of Plants).
In all there are more than one hundred flowering plants associated with Mary. Incluing lavender which also goes by the name of Mary’s drying plant and lily of the valley which are sometimes called Mary’s tears. The frequency of the names is an aid to demonstrating that in medieval England that Mary was deeply revered. There’s even a mystery play about her childhood and betrothal to Joseph. The Wilton Diptych that belonged to Richard II shows him kneeling before her and the angles surrounding her all helpfully wearing the king’s badge of a white heart.
And then of course, we arrive at the Reformation in Tudor England which saw the vibrant colours and stories of the past white washed away. In the Seventeenth Century, Oliver Cromwell and his Roundheads destroyed even more of the iconography that they believed to be idolatrous.
Even so, when Charles II sat upon the throne about 5% of the population, in some parts of the country, was still Catholic. While devotional pieces of the kind owned by Elizabeth Stuart (she married into the Howard family) are rare, as indeed are liturgical clothing. The work of Helena Wintour was born in 1600 is an exceptional collection. Her father Robert and uncle Thomas were executed for their part in the Gunpowder Plot in 1605. Helena remained a Catholic throughout her life and set up a secret Catholic School in Worcestershire where she lived so that catholic children could be educated in England rather than having to go abroad. She designed and embroidered vestments for the Jesuits who visited her home.
There seems to have been little written about secular Catholic embroidery that I can find (if anyone can recommend any reading I’d love to hear from you) but it would be logical that if people were planting gardens to link them to their beliefs; hiding priests in holes behind fire places; educating their children in secret and paying huge fines rather than attend the local protestant parish church – it does not seem unreasonable that they were embroidering their faith into the clothes that they wore.
Father Henry Hawkins, a Jesuit, published a text in 1633 about the symbolism of flowers associated with the Virgin Mary called Sacred Virginity (Partheneia Sacra) which was smuggled into Catholic households enabling them to use the flowers described as a symbol of their faith.