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English convent lives in exile, 1540-1800

By Victoria Van Hyning


In the two and a half centuries following the dissolution of the monasteries in England in the 1530s, women who wanted to become nuns first needed to become exiles. The practice of Catholicism in England was illegal, as was undertaking exile for the sake of religious freedom.

Despite the heavy penalties and risks, nearly 4,000 women joined monastic communities in continental Europe and North America between the years 1540 and 1800, known as the exile period. Until recently, their stories had been virtually unknown — absent from studies of literature, history, art history, music, and theology. But thanks to the recent work of scholars such as Caroline Bowden of the Who were the nuns? project, and its resulting publications, the English nuns in exile are now gaining scholarly attention, individually, as founders, leaders, and chroniclers, and collectively as members of a transnational religious community.

Margaret Clement, 16th century, Nostell Priory, Nr. Wakefield, West Yorkshire, England. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Margaret Clement, 16th century, Nostell Priory, Nr. Wakefield, West Yorkshire, England. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The majority of nuns in the exile period professed (that is, took their vows to enter a religious order) at convents that were founded expressly for English and Irish women. However, in the early decades of exile — in the mid to later-sixteenth century — women such as Margaret Clement (1539-1612), joined established continental houses. Clement, a descendant of Sir Thomas More, rose to prominence at the Flemish Augustinian convent of St. Ursula’s in Louvain, and was elected prioress at the age of thirty, despite being ten years too young to hold the post, and being one of only two English women in that community. She was fluent in Greek, Latin, English, and Flemish, and was renowned for her spiritual guidance and strict regulation at the convent.

The educational accomplishments of Margaret Clement are remarkable, but by no means unique. The majority of “choir nuns” — those responsible for singing the Latin office each day — were required to be Latinate: not merely to be able to sing the words, but to understand them. We find copious examples of well-read women who employed their time translating and composing original devotional works, governance documents, chronicles, and letters. Take, for example, Barbara Constable (1617-1684), the translator and author of spiritual guidance manuals written for nuns, monks, priests, and lay people. From her exile in Cambrai, Constable aspired through her writing to re-establish a sense of Catholic heritage and identity that the Reformation had suppressed. Others include Winefrid Thimelby (1618/19-1690), whose letters — written first as a choir nun at St. Monica’s, Louvain, and later as its prioress — offer insights on religious practice and convent management; and Joanne Berkeley (1555/6-1616), the first abbess of the Convent of the Assumption of Our Blessed Lady, Brussels, whose house statutes were used well into the nineteenth century. The learning and accomplishments of these women overturns long-held assumptions by scholars that Catholics were not as well read as their Protestant peers.

Nuns’ surviving literature reveals the difficulties and dangers of exile. Elizabeth Sander (d.1607), a Bridgettine nun and writer of the community of Syon Abbey, was imprisoned at Bridewell in Winchester in 1580 while on a return journey to England. Her crime: possession of Catholic books. Sander escaped several times, once by means of a “rope over the castle wall,” but returned to prison upon the advice of priests who urged her to obey English law. She escaped again, and travelled under a pseudonym to the continent, where she rejoined her community at Rouen, and later wrote about her experience of imprisonment and flight.

Nuns throughout the exile period faced similar perils to those narrated by Sander. The Catholic convert, Catherine Holland (1637-1720), defied her Protestant father and ran away from the family home in England in 1662, in order to join a convent in Bruges where she penned her lively autobiographical conversion narrative. Other nuns, such as the Carmelite Frances Dickinson (1755-1830), travelled to North America to establish new communities, in Dickinson’s case the Port Tobacco Carmel, Maryland. Dickinson’s narrative of her transatlantic journey, undertaken in 1790, is one of the few extant accounts of its kind written by a woman in the eighteenth century.

Mt Carmel Monestery and Chapel, Port Tobacco, Maryland, by Pubdog. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons.
Mt Carmel Monestery and Chapel, Port Tobacco, Maryland, by Pubdog. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons.

Once within their convents, life was often no less exciting for exiled nuns. These were years of political and military turmoil in much of continental Europe. Women religious frequently endured sieges, famine, plagues, and floods, and were sometimes forced to move on in the aftermath of religio-political violence, as in the case of the Irish Poor Clare abbess, Mary Browne (d.1694?), who professed in Rough Lee, before relocating to Galway in 1642 during the English Civil War and then to Madrid after 1653, the year the convent at Galway was dissolved by Cromwell’s forces. Browne’s history of the Poor Clare order offers a lively account of these events and is now the sole surviving chronicle of its kind relating to early modern Ireland.

Convents could also serve as safe-houses or stopping off points for English exiles on the continent. These included not just the friends and family of the nuns, but kings and their courts — including the future Charles II in the 1650s and the Jacobite king-in-waiting, James III — who relied on the generosity and hospitality of several English convents to sustain their time away from Britain. Many exiles bequeathed money, gifts, and relics to the convents, including embalmed hearts, as Geoffrey Scott reveals in his biography of Anne Throckmorton (1664-1734), prioress of the Convent of Our Blessed Lady of Syon, Paris. Throckmorton’s receipt of the hearts of Jacobite “martyrs” is indicative of her support for the Stuart cause, which also saw her petition the French government for penniless political exiles.

Prayer was, of course, central to the nuns’ vocation, but convent life was multifaceted. In the wake of the Reformation, convents in exile offered many opportunities for Catholic women. They could pursue their own education, usually in languages, medicine, and religious studies, and they could also teach, by taking on the roles of novice mistress and school mistress. A notable educationist is Christina Dennett (1730-1781) who, as prioress of the Holy Sepulchre, Liège, expanded the convent’s small school with the intention of providing Catholic girls with “the same advantages which they would have in the great schools in England.” The school’s registers for 1770-94 include the names of 350 pupils from six nationalities, studying a wide range of subjects. Many of the nuns who held teaching positions went on to become financial managers, abbesses, sub-prioresses, and prioresses. In these positions they controlled budgets, built new premises, and commissioned art works. They were integral members of their local communities in continental Europe and America, and to the post-Reformation English and Irish Catholic diaspora.

Of the nearly 4,000 English women religious who went into exile from the mid-sixteenth century, many are known to us only by name. But for some, such as those described here, it is possible to write full biographies thanks to their surviving papers, contemporary accounts and obituaries, and to the notable role they played in creating, defending, managing, and expanding their communities. In several instances their legacy to convent life continues in the survival of their houses, as in the case of Frances Dickinson’s Carmel of Port Tobacco (now located in Baltimore) or the English Augustinian Convent in Bruges, where Catherine Holland professed in 1664.

Other houses, founded in exile, came to England in the mid-1790s as they sought to escape fresh persecution following the French Revolution. Among these was the Benedictine Convent of Brussels (whose first prioress Joanne Berkeley had been installed in 1599) and Our Lady of Consolation, Cambrai, where Catherine Gascoigne had served as abbess for 44 years. The latter, and its 1651-2 Paris filiation, continue today as Stanbrook Abbey, Wass, North Yorkshire and St Mary’s Abbey, Colwich, Staffordshire — as does as Christina Dennett’s convent school at Liège, which is now the New Hall School, Chelmsford.

Dr Victoria Van Hyning is Digital Humanities Postdoctoral Fellow, at Zooniverse, based at the University of Oxford. In 2013-14 she was the advisory editor for the Oxford DNB’s research project on the women religious and convents in exile, and is an assistant editor for English Convents in Exile, 1550-1800, 6 vols. (Pickering & Chatto, 2012-13).

The 20 new biographies of early modern nuns appear as part of the May 2014 update of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is a collection of 59,102 life stories of noteworthy Britons, from the Romans to the 21st century. The Oxford DNB is freely available via public libraries across the UK, and many libraries worldwide. Libraries offer ‘remote access’ allowing members to gain access free, from home (or any other computer), 24 hours a day. You can also sample the ODNB with its changing selection of free content: in addition to the podcast; a topical Life of the Day, and historical people in the news via Twitter @odnb.

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