Although the origins of St. Mary's Church and the Shrine of Our Lady of Willesden are shrouded in the mists of antiquity, it is almost probable that in ancient times Willesden was a small Anglo-Saxon community ruled by Druids in a warring pagan country, the tribes battling with each other for domination. The Romans ruled Palestine, and, eager for world domination, spread their invasion forces as far as England, finally conquering this country and drawing it into the Christian orbit.
In both East and West, Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, is pre-eminent among all the saints. The unique privilege of being the mother of one who was both God and Man is at the heart of the special honour paid to her. Of Mary's early life Scripture tells us nothing, but in the Gospels Mary figures most prominently in Jesus' infancy narratives (Matthew 1-2, Luke 1-2). In both, the virginal conception of Christ is clearly stated. During Christ's public life Mary occasionally appears (e.g. at the marriage feast of Cana), but remains habitually in the background. She reappears in John's gospel at the foot of the cross where the disciple receives Jesus' plea to treat her as his mother. In the early chapters of the Acts of the Apostles Mary was with the Apostles and received the Holy Spirit with them on Whitsunday. It is not known when or where she died.
In the 3rd Century St Alban links England with the Roman Church, and in 596 the Pope chose Augustine of Canterbury to head a mission of 30 monks to evangelise the Anglo-Saxons and it was he who established a see at London. One of the first bishops of London was Erkenwald who established the monastery which owned the land on which St Mary's church now stands.
Erkenwald was reputed to be holy, and in the Venerable Bede's time miracles were reported as caused by the couch in which Erkenwald used to be carried in his declining years. He died in 693 and his relics were enshrined in St. Paul's Cathedral.
Christianity did nothing to change the basic economics and demography of Saxon England and never dispelled belief in "magic" as practised by the Druids; it could even lend it new dimensions. Magical wells became Christian shrines and old oaths were taken on holy relics or the Bible, and by the end of the 8th century 20 English churches are known to have been dedicated to Mary.
Willesden derives from "Wilsdon" or "Wellesden", possibly meaning a spring or well at the foot of a hill, and it is likely that in Anglo-Saxon times there was a wooden church on or near the site of the present church.
The London Diocese Book gives the date of the foundation of the Parish Church of St Mary as 938 during the reign of King Athelstan, who was a zealous collector of relics giving lavish gifts to churches. From the earliest times the church had a patronal statue of St Mary, and throughout the Middle Ages Willesden was one of the best known villages in the vicinity of London, the reason being that St Mary's church possessed the famous shrine of Our Lady of Willesden - "The Black Virgin of Willesden" - to which miraculous powers were ascribed.
In 1249 the Chapter or clergy of St Paul's Cathedral (to whom St Mary's Church and the lands of Willesden then belonged) came here on a Visitation or inspection, noting two statues of Our Lady, the shrine statue and another, and a scarlet banner with St Mary in gold on it for use in processions. The statues are mentioned again in another Visitation of 1297.
By 1475 the shrine was amazingly popular, perhaps as a result of healings during the plague of the "Black Death", thought by many to be a scourge of God. A source of pure, clear water was much valued in medieval times for drinking and for "cures". Pilgrims would come to pray, to be blessed with the water from the well and take some water away in a small flask to annoint the sick and repeat the act of blessing. Spring water still rises under the church today.
Pilgrimages to Our Lady of Willesden became somewhat of a problem, some pilgrims earning the pilgrimage a bad name by misbehaving - gambling, drunkenness and noisy mirth - and causing a dour Scots Friar, Father Donald, preaching at St Paul's Cross circa 1350, to declaim against discontented wives, declaring himself no lover of shrines and pilgrimages: "Ye men of London, gangen [go] yourselves with your wives to Wilsdon in the devil's name, or else keep them at home with you in sorrow." One pilgrim, Elizabeth Simpson, upon seeing the blackened statue - maybe scorched by a candle - declared that if the statue could not even take care of itself it was not of much use to those who sought its aid. Mrs Simpson was not permitted to get away with such an outrage of public opinion and she was made to do public penance at the shrine. And in 1530, one Doctor Crome, charged with heresy, told his accusers: "On the Day of Judgement God will not say to thee 'Why wentest thou not to Wilsdon on pilgrimage?'"