The Queen-Mother and Chesterton
Man has correctly assumed that woman has been destined, by a particular Fiat, to be exalted. But the pedestal is no such means of elevation. A man might put a woman on a pedestal, as the Victorian Man did, when he did not know where else to put her. The Victorian Woman, like Persephone romping about the halls of Hell, had been exiled from her place of grandeur in her world. Some maids were in the garden, some maids were in the kitchen, some maids were in the parlor. The Woman of the House had displaced Woman of the Home. And yet, the Man of the House did not know where the Woman of the House should be; the Woman of the House herself did not know where she ought to be. The only empty place was the pedestal. At least a high-chair for babies keeps the child from slipping away from the kitchen table and lifts the child to the level of the family. The pedestal took the woman from the kitchen and the table and left her alone, sitting pretty in the parlor. While the Victorians rightly believed in the elevation of woman, the Moderns rightly disbelieve in the use of the pedestal. And yet, they made the mistake of chopping down the woman with the pedestal.
The proper place for the woman is not a perch, not a pedestal, but a throne. If the man is the king of his own castle, whether that castle be of brick or wood or thatch, every woman is the queen of her husband’s castle. For G. K. Chesterton, this is common sense. The woman is not to be pedestaled; woman is to be enthroned, to be elevated to a seat of honor where she might reign, and not merely sit like a plant or stand like the marble Galatea. And so came his vision of the Blessed Virgin, a vision that became flesh in his poetry. She was to him the Blessed Virgin and Our Lady, but most especially a mother and the queen.
It might seem obvious why Chesterton should love the Blessed Virgin as queen. For he has been accused of being a medievalist. But he was no medievalist. He loved the Queenship of Mary because he was a medieval. Amidst the shadows of paganism and sin that lingered in the medieval world, he caught a glimpse of Heaven that was eternally bound with the Catholic spirit that exhilarated the medieval hearts. And central to that world was the Queen of Heaven, whose subject-children included the Church Militant. She is found in the Anglo-Saxon writings, she is found in the Old French poems, she is found in Latin hymns. Her name as queen enlivens medieval songs. She would have no pedestal but a throne, thereby revealing the practical-ideal woman.
The Mystery of the Queen
The mystery of a queen, of the Queen, is the mystery of motherhood, her Motherhood, “Mother of Man; the Mother of the Maker.”1 St. Thomas Aquinas, speaking of the king, compares the monarch, in a certain fashion, to the father, calling him the father of his people.2 If the king is to be a father, the queen must be a mother. And the source to a queen’s motherhood, as also to a mother’s queenship, is her heart; and her fairest and most comforting attribute, mercy. “In the Son they venerate the greatness of divinity,” says Venerable Louis of Granada, “but in the Mother they recognize that she is a woman and that tenderness and mercy are characteristics of women, for grace does not destroy but perfects nature.”3 Chesterton, in The Everlasting Man, echoes these words: “There will always be some savour of religion about the mere picture of a mother and a baby; some hint of mercy and softening about the mere mention of the dread name of God.”4 Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, also speaking of Mary’s Mercy as being an extension of her Queenship and Motherhood, writes, “Not that Mary pardons—for she cannot—but she intercedes as a mother does in the face of the justice of the father. Without justice, mercy would be indifference to wrong; without mercy, justice would be vindictive. Mothers obtain pardon and forgiveness for their sons without ever giving them the feeling of ‘being let off.’”5
It is this vision of Mary, the Queen of Mercy, the Mother of Mercy, that captures the imagination of poets—and dare I say—the jealousy even of Protestants. “Lady most perfect,” writes Mary Lamb, “when thy sinless face / Men look upon, they wish to be / A Catholic, Madonna fair, to worship thee.” To have such a woman standing between the sinner and the terrible throne of Justice, to have such an advocate, whose tenderness and compassion might sway the aweful might of God, to have such a Mother-Queen that “beneath her gracious weight inclined / That Sceptre drooped.”6 Or in the words of Nathaniel Hawthorne, “I have always envied the Catholics that sweet, sacred, Virgin Mother who stands between them and the Deity, intercepting somewhat His awful splendor but permitting His love to stream on the worshipper more intelligibly to human comprehension through the medium of a woman’s tenderness.”7
The most renowned appearance of Mary in Chesterton’s work lies primarily in The Ballad of the White Horse. “Queen” and “Mother of God” are the first words used to identify her. But the depth of her queenship and motherhood is to be discovered in Chesterton’s description of her as the advocate for men, as man’s patroness. She, appearing to Alfred the King at the last battle with the Danes, re-ignites the hopes and the hearts of her children when all seems bleak and desperate.
And when the last arrow
Was fitted and was flown,
When the broken shield hung on the breast,
And the hopeless lance was laid to rest,
And the hopeless horn blown,
The King looked up, and what he saw
Was a great light like death,
For Our Lady stood on the standards rent,
As lonely and as innocent
As when between white walls she went
And the lilies of Nazareth.
One instant in a still light
He saw Our Lady then,
Her dress was soft as western sky,
And she was a queen most womanly—
But she was a queen of men.
Over the iron forest
He saw Our Lady stand,
Her eyes were sad withouten art,
And seven swords were in her heart—
But one was in her hand.8
Those seven swords within her heart are the seven keys to her mercy. They reveal her tenderness for her Son, for the very pains of her Child become her own particular pains, the suffering of children becomes her own self-same suffering. “As every woman begets a child,” writes Bishop Sheen, “so every child begets a mother. The helplessness of the infant, in language stronger than words, solicits the mother, saying: ‘Be sweet, be self-sacrificing, be merciful.’ A thousand temptations of a mother are crushed in that one radiating though: ‘What of my child?’”9 Chesterton’s use of the seven swords is simply that—the anguish of the Mother-Queen at the anguish her children-subjects.
In Chesterton’s “The Queen of Seven Swords,” seven knights—Sts. James, Denys, Anthony, Patrick, Andrew, David, and George (all representatives of the great kingdoms of Christendom)—have lost their swords. Dejected, they approach the Queen of Mercy, announcing their failure to win their battles.
We have lost out swords in battle; we have broken our hearts in the world
Since first we went forth from thy face with the gonfalon’s gold unfurled;
Disarmed and distraught and dissundered, thy paladins come
From the lands where the gods sit silent. Art thou too dumb?
But the Blessed Virgin’s response is not the response of a “cold Queen...looking in the glass.”10 Her reply is that of her “whose names are Seven Sorrows and the Cause of All Our Joys”11 and of her who is “Our Lady of the Victories, / The Mother of the Master of the Masterers of the World” and “Queen of Death and Life undying.” It is the sweet rebuke of a mother towards her child:
“Knew ye not, ye that see, where I have hid all things?
Strewn far as the last lost battle; your swords have met in my heart.”
And it seemed that the swords fell down with a shock as of thunderbolts falling,
And the strange knights bent to gather and gird them again for the fight:
All blackened; a bugle blew; but all in that flash of blackness,
With the clang of the fallen swords, I awoke; and the sun was bright.12
1 G. K. Chesterton, “A Party Question,” The Queen of Seven Swords (London: Sheed and Ward, 1926).
2 St. Thomas Aquinas, On Kingship, To the King of Cyprus, trans. Gerald Phelan (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1949).
3 Venerable Louis of Granada, The Summa of the Christian Life, trans. Jordan Aumann (Rockford, Il.: TAN, 1979), III, 177.
4 G. K. Chesterton, Everlasting Man (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1953), 170.
5 Fulton J. Sheen, The World’s First Love (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1952), 235.
6 Aubrey Thomas de Vere, “Advocata.”
7 Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Blithedale Romance.
8 G. K. Chesterton, The Ballad of the White Horse, ill. Robert Austin (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1993), 184-204.
9 Sheen, World’s First Love, 243-44.
10 Chesterton, “Lepanto.”
11 Chesterton, “The Arena.”
12 Chesterton, “The Queen of Seven Swords.”