We are creating a unified UKRI website that brings together the existing research council, Innovate UK and Research England websites.
If you would like to be involved in its development let us know.

Who Were The Nuns?

In theory, nuns in exile from England for religious reasons from 1600 to 1800 were isolated from the outside world, dedicated solely to a life of prayer and contemplation. In practice, they really weren’t - and their identities, their families and their lives were often complex and their relationships with wider political developments important and revealing. Those lives are also the subject of an AHRC-funded project at Queen Mary University of London.

Since September 2008, the team has been using convent and local archives on both sides of the Channel to study the English nuns in exile: from the opening of the first English convent in Brussels, circa 1600, to the nuns' return to England as a result of the French Revolution and the ensuing violence.

“It took some time, I think, for women to work out how they could come together to lead the religious life,” says project leader Caroline Bowden. “Being an angry female wouldn’t take you very far with establishing a convent.”

In 1598, a small group of expatriate women living in Brussels gradually grew their network of contacts to get together the necessary permits and legal paperwork to open a convent. “That was very important,” says Bowden. “It needed to be done properly so that the convents then would be able to own their own property and be respectable places; so that girls from good families would think that this was a sound religious basis, not an institution that could disappear; so that it had firm foundations. Only one of the new convents closed in that period, so it shows how well they were established, and how well recognised they were.”

Although Bowden estimates there were around seven nuns entering the convent at the start, they were joined very quickly by others; with other English convents soon opening up and attracting more Englishwomen in exile.

“It was a flood in that early period of enthusiastic members,” says Bowden.

And though the convents were supposed to be enclosed and isolated, it didn’t necessarily work out that way.

“When Mary Ward gathered a community together wanting to educate girls and wanting to carry out missionary activity amongst women, that was raising questions and problems,” explains Bowden. “It was a Jesuit style of life that she wanted to lead [focused on evangelism], it was controversial, and it was actually against the regulations that were laid down by the Council of Trent [a church committee that met across 18 years to issue proclamations on issues of doctrine].

“In spite of being controversial she attracted members, but because of the difficulties that she faced, her institute was closed down in 1631. Yet her group survived because of the quality of the education they were providing: they are still around, the convent that they opened in York in 1686 - illegally - is still there, and you can visit it.

“But the others were enclosed, because the Council of Trent said they must be. Their work was prayer and contemplation, and their contact with the outside world came as senior members of the convent liaised with new important people in their localities. Because they were dependent on dowry, they invested their money; they used local craftsmen to do their building; they commissioned artists to paint wonderful adornments for their chapels; they had people writing music for the convent, which they performed, and that was a semi-public occasion, because outsiders could come to the convent chapels to hear Mass, when they would hear the singing. Their contacts are supporting them and connecting them in a rather quiet but still influential way.”

It sounds like a complicated balance to strike. These women had little power as individuals, and had limited recourse to cash resources; and yet they were managing their own communities and carrying out negotiations. One such woman was Mary Knatchbull, an abbess in Ghent, who ran her convent well while also working for the Royalist cause during the civil war, communicating in code with the man who became Charles II.

“There is one letter surviving from Mary Knatchbull to the King - he’s always called Mrs Brown in this correspondence - and she tells him off, and suggests that he should be behaving in a rather more moral way if he’s going to be King. That’s quite brave!” says Bowden.

“She also lends money to the Royalists when they’re in exile and very short of cash, and she finds it quite difficult to get that back after Charles II was restored, and in fact she didn’t manage to get all of it returned to the convent. She strikes a very good balance between looking at the role of abbess on the one hand, involved in the outside world and keeping the profile of the convent high, but at the same time looking after the members internally. She is remarkable - and there are others like her. The convents did provide management opportunities for women that didn’t exist elsewhere.”

The intent is to produce a resource bank on the history of the convents, including essays and eventually a fully searchable and downloadable database of members, already available in a basic form on the project website. The project’s second tranche of AHRC funding is covering some further website development, intending to make the database more user-friendly and providing some additional features including statistical analysis.

“You will be able to see where the nuns and their families are connected in England and in areas where we have enough data,” says Bowden, “and there will be some illustrations as well about the properties that they come from.

“We have also been embarking on a series of public engagement activities at different levels and we’ve got our second study day coming up with a third one planned. We are definitely taking the project out and about.”

Victoria Van Hyning, a doctoral candidate at the University of Sheffield, is one of the first users of the database, which has been crucial in her research on early modern literature.

“My research wouldn’t have been possible without access to the original documents,” she says. “Yes, it would be great if you’re actually in the convent, or if you can take a photograph of each of the records you’re looking at, but for people scattered around the globe, or people who don’t have time to run over to the archive, it’s invaluable.”

For further information, please go to the project website.

Article by Dr Carrie Dunn

Return to features