17th-century nuns on the run

James Kelly shows how a surprisingly large number of Catholic women fled Protestant England to join European convents in the 17th and 18th centuries

Painting depicting medieval nuns. (Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

This article was first published in the March 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine

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Following the 1649 execution of Charles I, Catherine Holland, a young Protestant, moved abroad with her family. Her father, Sir John Holland MP, chose Bruges as their new home. During this time, Catherine recorded how she became aware of a convent of English religious women in the town. Her initial reaction was that she “thought it a miserable life always to be locked up in a prison; that manner of life did not then please me at all, and I little thought I was to be one of those. I thought them so unhappy.”

The English nuns Catherine encountered were not a rare phenomenon. Since September 2008, I have been part of a project team at Queen Mary, University of London that, with funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, has been making a comprehensive study of the membership of English convents in exile from 1600 to 1800. It was always previously estimated that the total numbers entering these convents stood at around 1,500. However, the project has identified just under 4,000.

Following the accession of Elizabeth I in 1558, all forms of Catholic religious life were forbidden. As her lengthy reign unfurled, families seeking a Catholic devotional outlet for their sons made use of the seminaries and schools at places such as Douai in north-east France and the English College in Rome.

It was not until 1598 that the first English convent was established in Brussels and it was followed by a further 21 establishments across Flanders and France. Most were enclosed convents, in theory cut off from the outside world. However, in practice the nuns were not isolated and their contacts and networks spread widely.

Here, these substantial communities of women found outlets for female expression often unavailable to their secular counterparts – until the French revolution and its associated violence forced the convents back to England.

By 1660, Catherine Holland’s family had returned to England, Sir John serving on the new Council of State that arranged the restoration of the monarchy. However, only two years later, Catherine felt drawn to the Catholic religion, much to her father’s displeasure. Having made contact with the Bruges convent, secret plans were made for her to cross the sea and enter religious life. She wrote two letters – one to her father and one to her mother, laying them upon a table in her room – and then left the house in London. “As soon as the coast was clear, I slipped out at the back gate to meet my conductress at an appointed place hard by.”

They travelled to Dover, where she observed the channel, recording, “I thought if there had been no ship to convey me over the sea, I durst have ventured to have gone over in a pair of oars or a cock-boat.” Aware of the illegality of what she was doing and “for fear of being discovered” she gave a false name to the port officials. She then sailed away, never to return home, to remain part of the Bruges Augustinian community for the next 57 years.

Private prayers

What kind of lives did nuns like Catherine live? Unsurprisingly, their day was dominated by prayer. In 1694, the Dominican nuns at Brussels recorded how one of their community had spent her days. From eight o’clock in the evening to midnight she would sleep before rising for two hours to join community prayer. From two to three in the morning she had the opportunity to pray privately in her cell, a bare room consisting of little decoration. There would then be the chance for another two hours’ sleep before rising at five for more private and communal prayer before Mass at eight o’clock in the morning. The rest of the day was similarly punctuated by this gruelling programme.

Markedly, the nuns spent time praying for the return of England to the Catholic faith. In an England where the divine and the secular were entwined in a state church, this act alone was overtly political. Yet the nuns also had physical links to the sometimes bloody persecution of their co-religionists ‘back home’. For example, Anne Clitherow joined the English Augustinians at Louvain. Her mother was Margaret Clitherow, executed in York in 1586 following her arrest for sheltering Catholic priests.

Equally, the convents took a keen interest in the trials and tribulations of the Stuarts. During the English Civil War, Mary Knatchbull, abbess of the English Benedictines at Ghent, offered valuable assistance to Charles II in his efforts to regain the crown during his exile.

Following the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when William of Orange seized the crown from the Catholic Stuart, James II and VII, the nuns sometimes played an active role in Jacobite life. In 1692, the English Poor Clares at Rouen recorded how Charles II’s widow, Catherine of Braganza, visited them on her way from England to Portugal: “The community went to the gate to receive her, and mother abbess kneeling down to her majesty, and offering to kiss her hand, the queen also knelt, and saluted mother abbess.”

Convent schools, such as those of the Paris-based English Conceptionists, provided education for the children of exiles. For some of the convents, the Catholic cause merged with that of the Jacobites. The Paris Augustinians cherished as a relic of a martyr the heart of James Radcliffe, 3rd Earl of Derwentwater, who had been executed following his leading role in the 1715 Jacobite rebellion.

With the Jacobites’ final defeat following the 1745 rebellion, the only real chance of reclaiming the country for Catholicism dissipated in England. Like their fellow nationals back home, the convents felt the squeeze of entrenched Protestantism through declines in income and numbers. Nevertheless, a steady trickle of recruits began to arrive from America, particularly to the Sepulchrines at Liege and the Carmelites at Hoogstraten. Several sisters from this latter convent returned to their homeland in 1790 to found an English convent there.

Being English did not prevent the convents from experiencing the violent wrath of the French revolutionaries at the end of the 18th century. Like their French counterparts, they were visited, their belongings catalogued and their homes seized before they were imprisoned. The Cambrai Benedictines recorded that they were ejected from their house so suddenly that “many of the nuns went away with only the clothes they had on”. They also feared execution – particularly as they were imprisoned with the 16 Carmelite nuns from Compiègne who were guillotined by the revolutionaries in 1794.

In the face of this violence, some communities fled, rescuing what possessions they could. Only one convent remains abroad to this day. The Bruges Augustinians escaped to Suffolk in 1794 but voted to return to Bruges in 1803. Their chapel in the historic Belgian city chapel can still be visited today and bears witness to the artistic and architectural patronage of the English nuns in exile.

A number of the communities still exist, such as the Sepulchrines from Liege who brought back with them the pioneering education of girls that the convents provided abroad. They settled in Chelmsford, Essex and established the well-known independent school of New Hall.

When I visited the Carmelites in Darlington, founded in Lierre, Belgium in 1648, one of the sisters showed me the profession book, which records the religious vow of every woman who had entered the convent since its foundation, and pointed to her own entry in its latter pages. That they were still using the very same book reveals something of the historical identity of these establishments.

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James Kelly is the post-doctoral researcher on the Who Were the Nuns? project at Queen Mary, University of London