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1. Reconstructing early-modern religious lives: the exemplary and the mundane
IV/ Charity, work and care

Lived Religion in English Convents in Exile, 1600 - 1800: Accommodating the Ordinary and the Exceptional within the Rule

Caroline BOWDEN

Résumés

La vie des couvents anglais en exil à la période moderne est dictée par la règle et par les constitutions qui régissent chaque communauté. Ces documents décrivent en détail la façon dont chaque moment de la journée doit être employé, et indiquent également l’esprit même avec lequel les religieuses, qu’elles soient Sœurs de chœur ou Sœurs converses, doivent aborder leurs tâches : leur temps doit être dédié à Dieu dans un esprit d’humilité. Les obituaires louent de nombreuses religieuses qui, au cours de vies souvent très longues, ont su se conformer à ces restrictions. Néanmoins, une certaine individualité reste possible, si elle s’exprime comme il se doit. Cet article examine quelques exemples de la façon dont l’inhabituel coexiste avec le quotidien dans la vie religieuse des couvents.

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1The precise direction given here in an undated manuscript for Novice Mistresses at the English Poor Clares demonstrates the intense regulation of daily life in the post-Reformation English cloisters established in exile from the beginning of the seventeenth century. It shows how individual awareness of every moment of every day was considered essential in order to dedicate a religious life fully to God: every task, however humble or menial, was important and meaningful. In this article, lived religion has been understood as every-day religion: that is the life of the community as experienced by the members, focusing on daily life outside Divine Office with the associated prayer and devotional life of the nuns. The article will first consider evidence in documents such as obituaries and community chronicles as well as prescriptive texts such as the Rule and Constitutions. When studying post-Tridentine monastic life it is important to include prescriptive texts, including instructional manuals, because of the close adherence of the English convents to these fundamental texts. Secondly, it will look at two areas of domestic work based on “how to” manuals. Here I have chosen cleaning and the preparation of food: daily tasks essential to the orderly existence of the convent and generally overlooked when considering life in a convent setting. Finally, it will explore areas of work which do not appear in prescriptive texts, when individual members appear to have used their skills within the spirit of the Rule, but for activities where they used their own initiative while carrying out their daily tasks, including looking after young children living in the convent as boarders or schoolgirls, and artistic endeavours.

1. Conventual instruction

2As well as focusing attention on the task in hand, close management of time was a way of unifying a community. It contributed to a sense of common purpose, for instance, as required by the Augustinian Rule which underlay the regulations of a number of convents: “Before all else, live together in harmony, being of one mind and one heart on the way to God” (The Rule of St Augustine 25). Prioress Lucy Herbert in her last letter to her Augustinian community in Bruges before her death in 1649 illustrates how this might work in practice:

I heartily recommend to you to keep your selves united to gether loving one a nother with a Cordiall Love, & that you be faithfull in all observances, & God will never abandon you, seek allways his honour & glory […]. (Kelly, Convent Management 331‑332)

  • 2 Constitutions were drawn up by the early members for each convent giving detailed instructions on h (...)

3She went on to advise them to follow the Rule exactly and to take care of the common good rather than their own comfort.2 After a lengthy period of expensive building at Bruges under her direction, she counselled a period of retrenchment: all necessary works had been completed so now they could look after the needs of their poorer neighbours. The English convents had a reputation on both sides of the Channel as well-managed institutions which attempted to follow the Rule exactly. It is important to understand the degree of commitment to following, memorising, and internalising the Rule in order to appreciate what the daily reality of living the religious life meant to the members of the English convents in exile.

  • 3 Data taken from the Who Were the Nuns? Project, https://wwtn.history.qmul.ac.uk accessed 16 March 2 (...)
  • 4 Cecilie Price professed in Brussels 1604 and died in Ghent in 1630. See her entry in the Who Were t (...)

4Candidates arrived at the convent at all ages, bringing many different life and educational experiences. Some of them were young girls, others young or even middle-aged women with a range of educational experiences. Some had learned artistic or musical skills which might be beneficial to the community.3 Among many descriptions of piety and obedience, brief glimpses of gifted individuals in convent documents show how their talents were recognised and used in ways that served the interests of the whole community. They seem to have been particularly admired when they combined modesty and a reluctance for their skills. Benedictine Cecilie Price is an extreme example of a Sister who embraced holy poverty and obedience. Although very well-educated and from a gentry family, she professed as a Lay Sister rather than as a Choir Nun with the Benedictines at Brussels. Abbess Anne Neville said of her: “I […] do deservedly venerate her for a saynt”4.

5It was not that convents sought out timid conformists as members: they also needed those members who could contribute a range of skills, such as singing or playing music, penmanship or embroidery to develop a flourishing community. However, they needed to ensure that they trained all newcomers in the right way, so that ultimately they embraced a highly regulated life of their own free will. The task of the Novice Mistress was to ensure that her beginners so thoroughly internalised the regulations through learning and practising that they became second nature. The first formative years under the direction of the Novice Mistress set up the systems and practices that would tame the unruly and curb extravagant behaviour, so that even the most wilful would come to see the error of their ways and conform through their own choice, becoming obedient and following the expectations of the founder as set out in the Rule and Constitutions. (Lux-Sterritt, English Benedictine Nuns 136‑59) This can clearly be seen in the Instructions to the Novice Mistress from the Poor Clares at the opening of the article. Obituaries of Sisters read out at mealtimes or in Chapter, reinforced by their predecessors’ lived example the ideals expected of the current generations. The reputation of a community was built on the quality of the religious life of the members under the leadership of respected superiors and it was a means of attracting others. It depended on having members who followed the Rule meticulously, as well as those who impressed by individual talents such as the quality of their singing, or painting or translations or even practical skills such as managing convent funds and property. Recent research has shown in some detail how nuns actually spent their time in the enclosure, emphasising the importance of the daily Office at the core of the structure of daily life. (Kelly, English Convents 129‑39) Around this pattern came individual prayer, devotions, meditation, reading, work and a short period of recreation with feast days, retreats, visitations, jubilees and other celebrations breaking up the daily routine. All activities were carefully described in the manuals, with instructions for preparing for them and carrying them out.

6Among the most important of surviving manuals from the convents are those for the Novice Mistress, herself one of the key figures in the convent: one Carmelite manual claimed the good instruction of novices, “as a thing of the highest consequence in Relligion” (Kelly, Convent Management 393). It was essential that all members of the convent learned to subjugate their will to God, in the search for perfection. (Goodrich) We can see the significance of a Novice Mistress in the obituary of Chrysogona Wakeman (1635-52) of the Antwerp Carmelites who

knew perfectly well how to withdraw from the [world] and atach her Novices to the esteem and practice of true & solid Religous vertues frequently exercising them to prove their Spirit and vertue particularly in humility [,] blind Obedience and mortification […]. (Daemen-de Gelder 142‑3)

7She trained fourteen novices in her time as Novice Mistress either at Antwerp or in her earlier career with the Mary Ward sisters. All novices whatever their talents had to complete their formation under the Novice Mistress in order to be accepted in a Chapter meeting of the Choir Nuns and to complete their examination by the convent Visitor to swear that they entered of their own free will. For many, entering the convent appears to have been a straightforward process, but there were candidates who found adjusting to monastic life in an enclosed community challenging or who faced doubts about their vocation. It was important for the smooth running of a community that those with doubts or serious health problems should be advised at an early stage that it might be better for the community if they left (Bowden, “Missing members”). Senior members of the convent needed skill and good judgement to evaluate individuals in order to separate out and advise those whose future lay outside the convent walls from those whose doubts could be resolved. An example of a candidate with serious doubts at an early stage was Gertrude More at the Benedictines Cambrai in 1627. She went through intense spiritual struggles before she settled, under the guidance of Augustine Baker, and professed, becoming a significant member of her community and through the posthumous publication of her writings a highly influential author before her early death in 1633 (Wekking). On the other hand, an occasion where the community reached the opposite conclusion was at the Blue Nuns in Paris in 1765, where Mistress Murphy was discharged “in the most charitable manner they could” as ultimately unsuited to the religious life (Bowden, “Missing members” 53).

  • 5 Examples of these texts are included in English Convents in Exile 2012-13, Vols. 2, 3, 5 and 6.
  • 6 MS. Obituaries, Benedictines Pontoise, Archives départementales du Val d’Oise, Cergy Pontoise, Seri (...)

8Prescriptive texts which demonstrate the attention paid to instilling conformity and uniformity of practice centred on the divine survive across the convents: they include advice for Superiors, instructions for Novice Mistresses, advice to novices, Constitutions and “How to” manuals.5 These texts show the structure of daily life and how it should be performed, with manuals to provide further instructions relating to specific tasks such as serving food, washing and caring for the sick. The Poor Clares, like the Carmelites, practised austerity in their daily lives with more restrictions in their diet, poorer forms of habit and less comfort in sleeping arrangements than the Canonesses or Benedictines. Using these texts Novice Mistresses introduced candidates to religious life while at the same time acclimatizing them to the levels of obedience they must embrace as part of their commitment to serve God in the right way every hour of every day. This, they were told, was at the heart of their purpose in becoming a religious. We can see the emphasis on obedience repeated in numerous obituaries even in the more moderate regimes of Benedictine communities. At the Pontoise convent, four choir nuns illustrate desirable traits achieved after a lifetime of discipline, obedience and humility. Dame Mary Catherina Maurin, who was “much addicted to silence and obedience”: Dame Catherine Haggerston who was “adicted to the love of retirement prayer & mortification & never relenting from her first fervour & exact observance of religious discipline [...] [and] a great esteem of holy poverty & always choosing the worst of every thing that was for her own use, her humility renderd her the lowest in her own eyes”: Dame Mary Magdalene Belasyse d. 1786 aged 66, “who was ever fervent in observance of our holy rule [...] and most zealous to assist at choir; even when infirmities might justly have dispensd her [...] she was a true comfort to superiours by her ready obedience at the least hint or sign always ready to take in herself what was hard or disagreeable”: Dame Mary Frances Elliot who died in 1698 aged 65 continued to practise the lessons learnt in her novitiate to the end of her life: “She was most exemplar in comon disiplin. The 1st at all obervances performing all her religious dutys with the same fervour as the first day she enter'd”. 6

9A similar life of obedience and hardship occurred at Rouen, a Poor Clare community where Elizabeth Throckmorton who died in 1724 aged 51

left us great examples of vertue, she having been from her first entrance till the last breath of her life, a true mirrour & pattern of humility, mortification & pennance, all her study was to humble & mortify her nature & all her delight to be with the lay sisters, & to share in their labours, not regarding what she was, nor what she had brought to religion. (Poor Clares MS, “Death Register” 54)

10Elizabeth Throckmorton was from a Warwickshire gentry family owning substantial property, yet her care was to spend time with the lay sisters, generally poorer and less well-educated women who carried out the majority of the manual work of the convent (Scott 171‑212). There is little here about her talents or her education: her admirable qualities lay in self-denial. By contrast, in the same period, Cecily Cornwallis (1688-1737) left a significant mark on the history of the same convent through her talent for writing, acting as a scribe for over fifty years leaving more than a thousand pages in her impeccable hand. She also had “a most charming voice for singing which drew a vast concource of people into our Church upon great feastes”. Her obituary takes pains to point out she had a special gift of piety and prayer in which she spent all her spare moments and in church sought to animate others to make devotions. (Poor Clares MS “Death Register” 85‑7) Throughout the period covered by the Rouen obituaries (1647-1779), commentary on the lives of both Choir Nuns and lay Sisters centres on two main elements; their ability to conform exactly to the rule with humility, internalising the Rule through constant study and as a result choosing holy poverty for themselves and secondly detailing their last illnesses and deaths, observing how they faced suffering.

2. The daily round

11Although it is true to say that most heavy manual work including housework in convents was carried out by lay Sisters, Choir Nuns were also expected to contribute to domestic tasks as part of the work they undertook. Patterns of the distribution of labour did vary across the convents, however more research is yet needed to clarify the situation on this subject. Every aspect of life in a convent was linked to the service of God: most activities were carefully defined and much attention given to learning by heart or at least becoming thoroughly familiar with the normative texts such as the Constitutions. A closer reading of regulations governing housekeeping illustrates the care taken not only over the tasks themselves but the spirit in which they should be undertaken. Frances Dolan illustrates this from François de Sales’s Introduction to the Devout Life, a work widely read in the period: “The chief point of […] humility consists not only in willingly admitting our abject state but in loving and delighting in it” (Dolan 338). By constantly practising humility, new entrants to the convent will be led to achieve harmony within the aims of their order. She later explains that ritualistic repetition of housework “grants work its significance as a form of self-mortification and even martyrdom, [and] as a devotional practice” (Dolan 345). Conventual texts show just how important domestic work was to enclosed convent communities as well as lay women. For instance, a Poor Clare manuscript entitled “The Duties of the House” demonstrates the close relationship between all work in the community and serving God as a religious. For instance, the cook was advised that in her office she

must with devotion & humility offer it to Almighty God, beging his grace for the discharging of it presenting all that shall occur therin, as well little as great unto his honour & glory united to the Labours paines and Sufferances of our Blessed Saviour. (Poor Clares MS, “Duties of the House” 189)

12In instructions given for the conduct of the Dispenser, who was responsible for the provision of food in the convent, we can see how different communities approached the task. For instance, at the Poor Clares, the Dispenser was advised that “she must be harty & cordiall towards the community, so also for respect to holy Poverty. She must not be wasteful [because] a little with the benediction of Poverty & Religious care avayleth more then a great quantity with neglect of eyther” (Poor Clares MS, “Duties of the House” 174). Similar words were used in a text from the Carmelites at Hoogstraten which required the Dispenser to “be verie carefull in the exercise of holie povertie, and that nothing be spoiled for want of diligent looking into” (Carmelite MS, “Ceremonial” 67‑8). Food should be carefully prepared and presented, but the religious spirit of the Order must run through every aspect of its provision to the community, observing fasts, restricted diets at Lent and Advent as well as feasts. The Carmelites abstained from eating meat at all times unless age, sickness or weakness required it. The Poor Clares appear to have been even stricter about forbidding meat to the community in any circumstances. One of their recipe books from 1727 gives us detailed knowledge about practice relating to diet at different times of the year, as well as how weaker members of the community are to be cared for (Poor Clares MS, “Receipt book”).

13The provision of food was handled rather differently by the Benedictines who followed a less austere mode of life than the Poor Clares and Carmelites. According to the Constitutions from Cambrai, a male servant employed by the community prepared the food and kept the accounts (Benedictine MS, “Cambrai Constitutions” 86‑7). He was to be a single man, expected to behave properly and take the sacrament regularly. As cook he would need to liaise with the sub-cellarer who was responsible for ensuring the monastery was fully supplied with all it needed and that proper records were kept. Unsurprisingly the Benedictine allowance of food including meat was more substantial than the diets we have seen at the Poor Clares and Carmelites.

14The regulation of food supplies demonstrates the attention to detail found throughout the management of daily life in the convents. The Constitutions drawn up separately by most of the communities clearly demonstrate how the spirit of the religious life permeated every aspect of every day from the performance of the Office to the preparation of vegetables and making beer. To some extent domestic work was part of the routine of Choir Nuns as well as Lay Sisters. For instance, the Blue Nuns in Paris required Choir Novices to learn humility through sweeping, washing the dishes and other such tasks. (Gillow, 19‑20) However at the Augustinian Canonesses in Paris, Lay Sisters were required to work long hours with little time set aside for prayer or the Office (S. Austin’s Rule, 510‑11). It is worth noting that complexities arose in the execution of many daily chores from the need to accommodate the number of regulations to be observed in the convent. These regulations required nuns to lock doors and cupboards at all times and to seek permission from superiors before acting; they dictated differentiated behaviour towards different categories of people such as tradesmen and servants; they imposed the strict application and interpretation of enclosure and the use of the turn, and regulated contact with outsiders at the grate. Overall, they complicated the receiving of supplies in daily use such as foodstuffs.

  • 7 See, for example extracts from benefactors’ books in English Convents in Exile, Vol. 5, “Convent Ma (...)
  • 8 The Sacristan was responsible for supplying the church with candles, altar furniture and everything (...)

15In his recent book James Kelly discussed the significance of the building and decorating of convent churches in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as part Catholic renewal following the decrees of the Council of Trent and changes to the liturgy. Artworks and objects were both donated to convent churches and commissioned by communities, “to augment their spiritual experience […] and increase the level of esteem in which the nuns were held” (English Convents 78‑89). Benefactors’ books and other sources list quantities of silver, paintings, embroidered fabrics and vestments, relics and reliquaries intended for the churches and liturgical use.7 Convent churches were liminal spaces intended to accommodate the laity at Mass as well as monastic communities: places where benefactors could see their gifts on display to spectacular effect with silver, candles, music and rich vestments on feast days. Gifts to the rest of the buildings tended to be rather more practical such as windows, floors and ceilings. It is not intended here to consider the objects themselves, but rather the housework required to keep them as the donors intended, polished and in good repair and on display on appropriate occasions such as feasts and festivals (Bowden, “English convents and their neighbours” 232, 236‑8). The work and skill required to manage the displays were considerable. A manuscript from the Augustinians at Bruges sets out the work of those who took care of the items needed for the church and who prepared for key occasions supporting the regular work of the Sacristan.8 The intense labour needed on high feasts brought in additional help from male servants and necessitated special dispensations from liturgical obligations for the Sisters the Custresses involved at those times. The manuscript explains how the altar was to be cleaned once a year which involved scaffolding, how all vestments and altar linen should be washed and the numbers of candlesticks and candles needed at different times. This is only one small part of instructions of how the process of looking after the material collections for display in the church and those who were responsible for arranging it. We can see here how the custresses have to be excused from reading in the daily Office or at mealtimes and have their meals separately.

The reading and serving is supplied for the upper custress at supper on the Epiphany, Easter Tuesday, Ascension, Pentecost Tuesday, Corpus Christi, Assumption

For clothings and Professions of Nuns and Professions of Lay Sisters the custress sleeps, the under custress goes from Compline. They both take a cup of tea after dinner for Clothings & Professions of Nuns.

The custress[es] are served on the eves of all 12 candlestick feasts, excepting the eves of our Holy Father & Christmas; they are served on the night they undress the Church, and for any church ceremony – on the starching, rincing, ironing & plaiting days the two days of the great sweep, the days they cleanse the plate and Wednesday, Friday & Saturday in holy week. They are not served on Maundy Thursday.

8th chapter In the Easter wash everything must be mended, collars & gloves tacked, amice strings tied up, corporals high feast albs & [illeg.] communicating cloths looked over, & mended before Easter Tuesday. At the wash with the surplices all must be ready for our Lady’s Nativity. The Dame of the Wash carries all down. (Augustinian Canonesses Bruges MS 19‑20)

16A comparison between the items listed here with the gifts of silver, special fabrics for dressing the altar and making vestments for special occasions recorded in many of the Benefactors’ books perhaps explains why visitors were so impressed with the services they attended on feast days in the churches of the English convents. (Bowden, Chronicles 221‑7 and Records of the English Canonesses … at Liège 38, 43, 57, 67, 85) It is perhaps only by reading the detail of preparation given in documents like these that we can begin to understand how much housework was connected with the church alone. Cleaning and polishing the rest of the convent was a large part of the daily work of the convents.

3. The unusual in everyday life

17Although strict obedience to the Rule in all its written minutiae might attempt to iron out innumerable individual differences between the members of each community, it is clear from surviving texts, such as the advice to Superiors and from obituary notices, that special skills were recognised, accommodated and even welcomed in some circumstances. We know both from comments of visitors to the convents and benefactors to the communities how much they were influenced by the quality of singing at Mass when outsiders were able to attend. The Augustinians in Paris claimed that they received substantial donations because of their singing. (Allison 464) The Bruges Chronicles describes how musical talents among the nuns could be displayed on occasions such as Jubilees and other special occasions attended by outsiders as well as for the liturgy. Overseeing the performance of the liturgy to ensure the best possible results was the duty of the Chantress, but she could only work with the voices of the community at the time. Obituaries record the value gained by the community when nuns with good voices sang out in the Office. For instance, after a long period when obituaries primarily focused on last illnesses, the Blue Nuns reported on Catherine Chapman who died in 1738 as having “an exceeding good voice”. She combined the offices of Infirmarian and Mistress of the Quire. (Gillow 261). At the Franciscans in Bruges, Elizabeth Mary Walton who died in 1676 was described as a very talented musician especially as an organist and Mistress of the Music for many years. After her, the obituaries recorded nineteen Choir Nuns with a range of musical talents including Gregorian chant and plain song, viol players, organists, and choir singers. Several convents noted special arrangements to accommodate nuns with musical talents: for instance, in 1725 the Augustinian Canonesses at Bruges sent back postulant Miss Willis to London for singing lessons because she had such a good singing voice (Bowden, Chronicles 203). Cecily Bracy’s “perfect” musical talent as a singer and organist meant that she was taken on in 1739 with a low dowry of £100 (Bowden, Chronicles 288‑9). Unusually, Anne Francis Wollascott (1727-51) at the Augustinians in Paris was allowed by her superiors to build time to practice the organ into her day (Kelly, Convent Management 385) Performances if executed in the right spirit were for God: convent discipline was to ensure that all musicians understood the purpose of their contribution to the liturgy.

18Although convent Constitutions do not specifically mention the care of young children as an appropriate conventual activity, several English convents housed young girls generally for schooling (Walker, “Exiled children”). Some of them arrived following the death of a parent, most likely the mother, when Catholic families were reluctant for their children to be taken in charge by the Protestant authorities in England. For instance William Stafford-Howard placed his very young daughters in the care of three different convents following the death of his wife, Anne, in 1725. They went first to the Mary Ward Sisters who had a school in Hammersmith and, two years later, with the youngest still only three, to the Poor Clares at Rouen, before finally being moved to the Blue Nuns Paris where two of them (Anastasia and Anne) entered as nuns (Bowden, “Convent schooling” 192). None of the surviving instruction manuals gives advice on taking care of young children, yet there were a sprinkling of them boarding in a number of convents. A few names of boarders from the Augustinian Canonesses at Louvain have survived, and the existence of a school on a plan shows that there were children on convent premises.

Fig. 1 Section of plan of Louvain

Fig. 1 Section of plan of Louvain

Douai Abbey Archives, A/WML St Monica’s Louvain, uncatalogued: modern copy of original made for reproduction in Adam Hamilton, (ed.), The Chronicle of the English Augustinian Canonesses Regular of the Lateran, at St. Monica’s in Louvain 1548–1644, 2 vols. (Edinburgh, 1904-06)

Reproduced with permission of the Canonesses

19Currently the only other tangible survival of the school is a small collection of home-made paper cut-out dolls probably from the late eighteenth century. Two dolls have secular dresses in the Empire style with high waistlines and figures wearing loose caps. The others are a largely complete set of Prioresses covering the exile period at St Monica’s from Mother Wiseman, Prioress in 1609 holding a book, Mother Plowden Prioress 1690-1715 with discipline in hand to Mother Stonor (Prioress 1784-1812) standing on a small rug holding some music. The early period at St Ursula’s is represented by Elizabeth Woodford, depicted as a rather substantial figure holding the Rule of St Augustine.

Fig. 2 Prioresses

Fig. 2 Prioresses

Prioresses in Douai Abbey Archives, A/WML St Monica’s Louvain, uncatalogued

Reproduced with permission of the Canonesses

Fig. 3 Dolls’ house

Fig. 3 Dolls’ house

Dolls’ house in Douai Abbey Archives, A/WML St Monica’s Louvain, uncatalogued

Reproduced with permission of the Canonesses

20There are fragments of a small cardboard dolls house with bricks in the English style with sash windows. A few other images survive from convent schools from a similar period. An image drawn in a Louvain music manuscript showing girls being taught by masters is one of a number of delightful pencil drawings showing how parts of the convent were used.

Fig. 4 Image of school room

Fig. 4 Image of school room

Image of school room taken from undated eighteenth-century MS Mass book from St Monica’s Louvain, in Douai Abbey Archives, A/WML St Monica’s Louvain, uncatalogued

Reproduced with permission of the Canonesses

  • 9 Image reproduced in Egerton Castle, (ed.) The Jerningham Letters (1780-1843), 2 vols., (London, 189 (...)

21A drawing from the hand of Charlotte Jerningham kept with her letter collection shows a lesson taking place at the French Ursuline school in Paris that she attended in the 1780s.9 The models of nuns that have now become collectors’ items were probably created to send home to parents of candidates in order to show what their daughters were wearing: several of these have survived from the Sepulchrines at Liège.

Fig. 5 Doll from Liège

Fig. 5 Doll from Liège

Doll from Liège: Archives of the Canonesses of the Holy Sepulchre

Reproduced with permission of the Canonesses

22A late eighteenth-century watercolour from the Augustinians in Paris shows nuns in the garden with a young girl playing with a hoop. These are tantalisingly small remnants indicating the presence of children in the English convents. The level of skills on display here is comparable with that of many young girls in the period who were taught drawing as part of their schooling. However, occasionally, members of the convents acquired skills to a professional level which were useful to their community.

23One Sister whose artistic talent was recognised from an early age by her community was Mary Sykes (1717-1773) (Bowden, Chronicles xxxiii, 155, 166, 174, 218, 287, 404-5). who joined the Augustinian Canonesses at Bruges. She was the elder of two daughters of artist and prominent picture dealer in Holborn (London), William Sykes (1660-d. 1725 in Bruges) and his wife Mary Dovery. Details of her life can be pieced together through the convent chronicles and the survival of a number of her plans. Mary appears to have inherited artistic talents from her father: she arrived in the convent as a “convictress”, that is as one who has not yet formally committed themselves to religious life, but wishes to try it out. With the agreement of the convent after a year she returned to London for training, remaining there for two years and returned with the intention of entering in 1716. She was accepted on a reduced dowry because of her skills and professed in November 1717. Her convent career as outlined in her obituary demonstrates two very different elements of “lived religion”: that is, on the one hand, the contribution made by unusually talented members who were permitted by the Superiors to exercise those talents in the service of God and the community and on the other, the lived experience of the daily routine to be exactly followed in tandem. Even those with the special talents were expected to know how the latter should be performed and to be able to participate in it themselves when required: it was part of following the Rule.

24In the extract from Mary Sykes’ obituary, the early focus is on her artistic and organisational skills which were vital to the last major building works under the direction of Prioress Lucy Herbert in the mid-eighteenth century. The chronicler criticised her for not following the daily routine for the choir office sufficiently carefully in her early years but commended her for changing her ways and eventually for her resignation and even cheerfulness in facing old age and its accompanying physical decline.

She possessed Talents not usual to Persons of our Sex, understood Painting & drew several Pictures for our Refectory & other places: She had an insight in Architecture & had a great hand in the Plan & in the direction of the Building of our Church: She had likewise a pritty turn for Poetry if she had been in the occasion of improving it: She was in general very ingenious & of a lively active disposition, She had read a good deal, & was agreeable in conversation, but having a peculiar kind of humour she was not much liked in Employment. For some time after her Profession, she did not seem to have a right notion of Religious Duties, but for several years before her death she applied herself to the practise of them, & was very zealous of Regular Observance, especially the Choir […]. (Bowden, Chronicles 404)

25Mary Sykes left behind a series of plans of the development of the convent at Bruges, several with copious annotations. Not only are the floor plans ingeniously laid out, making it easy to see the different floors and how the changes were made to the buildings and grounds, but they are artistic and attractive.

Fig. 6 Mary Sykes: Plan and drawing of the convent and grounds at the end of the first century, 1729

Fig. 6 Mary Sykes: Plan and drawing of the convent and grounds at the end of the first century, 1729

Mary Sykes: Plan and drawing of the convent and grounds at the end of the first century, 1729. Archives of the English Convent, Bruges

Reproduced with permission from the Prioress and Community at Bruges

Fig. 7 Mary Sykes: Plan and drawing of the convent and grounds at the end of the first century, 1729

Fig. 7 Mary Sykes: Plan and drawing of the convent and grounds at the end of the first century, 1729

Mary Sykes: Plan and drawing of the convent and grounds at the end of the first century, 1729. Archives of the English Convent, Bruges

Reproduced with permission from the Prioress and Community at Bruges

26Such was her understanding of building work that she was asked to supervise the great rebuilding of the convent church completed in 1739 and became Procuratrix managing the convent’s funds in 1749. Although she was credited with other artistic works including a japanned antependium for the altar, these do not appear to have survived. Her sister Ann Austin also died in 1773, but after a very different convent life. She is described as “not of an easy temper, & of infirm health” spending the last fifteen years of her life confined to the infirmary with illnesses which she “bore with remarkable patience” (Bowden, Chronicles 401).

  • 10 The images are reproduced with Elizabeth Perry’s chapter: see bibliography.

27The plans and drawings from Bruges are unusual in that they can be attributed to their creator: much surviving artistic work from the convents is anonymous. Many of the small pocket books of personal devotions surviving from the Bridgettine convent at Lisbon fall into this category. At the other end of the spectrum is the beautiful illustrated manuscript of the Wanderings of Zion made in the early seventeenth century.10 Elizabeth Perry credits one of the community with the illuminations originally intended for presentation to royalty (Perry). The monastic day left little time for either Choir Nuns or Lay sisters to spend on crafts unless it was carried out in the right spirit and sanctioned by convent superiors: as this article has emphasised, discipline underpinned convent life and observance was key to the reputation of the community to outsiders.

28For most of the time, and indeed for most members, the lived reality of monastic life in the English convents in exile was structured round the daily Office in a spirit of obedience to God and their Rule. The expectation of high standards of reading and singing in a church which displayed not only their devotion but their identity as English exiles to their countrymen and their neighbours led them to value members with particular skills and talents which needed practice if they were to be maintained. Over the exile period it is possible to find examples of highly skilled written and artistic work produced by talented members of the English convents. On the other hand, many of the obituaries give weight to the lives of members, both Choir Nuns and Lay Sisters whose offerings to God were less distinctive, focused on a daily round carried out willingly and quietly with obedience. These lives remain encapsulated in community documents read out on anniversaries, collectively building the reputation of their convent in a different way.

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Bibliographie

Manuscript sources

Augustinian Canonesses MS. “Of the Custry and recreating there,” English Convent, Bruges.

Benedictine MS. “Cambrai Constitutions”, 1686, at Stanbrook Abbey, Yorkshire.

Benedictine MS. Obituaries, Benedictines of Pontoise, Archives départementales du Val d’Oise, Cergy Pontoise, Série H, 68H4.

Carmelite MS. “Ceremonial”, Microfilm at Special Collections, Maryland State Archives, MSA SC 5366-3-2, pp. 67-8.

Poor Clare MS. “Death Register of the Rouen Poor Clares 1647-1779”, https://www.qmul.ac.uk/sed/religionandliterature/media/centre-for-religion-and-literature-in-english/Caroline-Bowden-ed.-Death-Register-of-the-Rouen-Poor-Clares-2019.pdf accessed 16 March 2020.

Poor Clare MS. “Duties of the House”, Much Birch Monastery, Herefordshire, uncatalogued.

Poor Clare MS. “Receipt book”, 1727, Much Birch Monastery, uncatalogued.

Printed sources

Allison, A. F., “The English Augustinian Convent of Our Lady of Syon at Paris: Its Foundation and Struggle for Survival during the First Eighty Years, 1634-1713”, Recusant History, vol. 21, 1992-3, pp. 451‑496.

Bowden, Caroline (gen. ed.), English Convents in Exile, 1600 ‑ 1800, 6 vols, London: Pickering & Chatto, 2012‑13.

Bowden, Caroline, “Missing Members: Selection and Governance in the English Convents in Exile”, in The English Convents in Exile, 1600-1800: Communities, Culture and Identity, edited by Caroline Bowden and James Kelly, Farnham: Ashgate, 2013, pp. 53‑70.

Bowden, Caroline, “The English convents and their neighbours: Extended networks, patrons and benefactors,” in Early Modern Exchanges: Dialogues Between Nations and Cultures, 1550-1750, edited by Helen Hackett, Farnham: Ashgate, 2015, pp. 223‑242.

Bowden, Caroline (ed.) Chronicles of Nazareth (English Convent, Bruges) 1629-­1793, Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2017.

Bowden, Caroline, “Convent Schooling for English Girls in the ‘Exile’ Period 1600-1800,” in Studies in Church History, vol. 55, Cambridge: Ecclesiastical History Society and Boydell, 2019, pp. 177‑204.

Daemen-de Gelder, Katrien (ed.), vol. 4, Life Writing II, in Bowden, Caroline (gen. ed.), English Convents in Exile, 1600 ‑ 1800, 6 vols, London: Pickering & Chatto, 2012‑13.

Dolan, Frances, “Reading, Work, and Catholic Women’s Biographies”, English Literary Renaissance, vol. 33, no. 3, 2003, pp. 328‑357.

The Rule of St Augustine, translated by Raymond Canning, London: Dartman, Longman & Todd, 1996.

Gillow, Joseph and R. Trappes-Lomax (eds.), “The Diary of the Blue Nuns, 1658 ‑ 1810”, Catholic Record Society, vol. 8, 1910.

Goodrich, Jaime, “Authority, gender, and monastic piety: controversies at the English Benedictine convent in Brussels, 1620-1623”, British Catholic History, vol. 33, no 1, 2016, pp. 91‑114.

Kelly, James (ed.), vol. 5, Convent Management, in Bowden, Caroline (gen. ed.), English Convents in Exile, 1600 ‑ 1800, 6 vols, London: Pickering & Chatto, 2012‑13.

Kelly, James, English Convents in Catholic Europe, c.1600-1800, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020.

Lux-Sterritt, Laurence, (ed), vol. 2, Spirituality, in Bowden, Caroline (gen. ed.), English Convents in Exile, 1600 ‑ 1800, 6 vols, London: Pickering & Chatto, 2012‑13.

Lux-Sterritt, Laurence, English Benedictine Nuns in Exile in the Seventeenth Century: Living Spirituality, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2017.

Perry, Elizabeth, “Petitioning for Patronage: An Illuminated Tale of Exile from Syon Abbey, Lisbon”, in The English Convents in Exile, 1600-1800: Communities, Culture and Identity, Caroline Bowden and James Kelly, (eds.), Farnham: Ashgate, 2013, pp. 159‑174.

S. Austin’s Rule together with the Constitutions, Paris: 1636, reprinted Scholar Press, 1971.

Scott, Geoffrey, “The Throckmortons at Home and Abroad, 1680‒1800”, in Catholic Gentry in English Society: The Throckmortons of Coughton from Reformation to Emancipation, Peter Marshall and Geoffrey Scott, (eds.), Farnham: Ashgate, 2009, pp. 171‑212.

The Mother Prioress of New Hall, Records of the English Canonesses of the Holy Sepulchre at Liège, R. Trappes-Lomax, (ed.) Catholic Record Society, misc. X, vol. 17, 1915, pp. 1‑247.

The Lady Abbess of Teignmouth and the Archivist (eds.), “Registers of the English Benedictine Nuns of Pontoise OSB”, Catholic Record Society, misc. X, vol. 17, 1915, pp. 248‑326.

The Reverend Mother Prioress of Colwich and J. S. Hansom (eds.), “The English Benedictines of the Convent of our Blessed Lady of Good Hope in Paris, now St. Benedict’s Priory, Colwich, Staffordshire”, Catholic Record Society, misc. VII, vol. 9, 1911, pp. 334‑413.

Walker, Claire, “Exiled children: Care in English Convents in the 17th and 18th Centuries”, Children Australia, vol. 41, no. 3, 2016, pp. 168‑177.

Wekking, Ben, “Augustine Baker OSB: The Life and Death of Dame Gertrude More edited from all the known manuscripts”, Analecta Cartusiana, vol. 119, no. 19, Salzburg: Universität Salzburg, 2002.

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Notes

2 Constitutions were drawn up by the early members for each convent giving detailed instructions on how the Rule was to be carried out in each community. They were often translated into English and printed in order to make them widely available in the convent.

3 Data taken from the Who Were the Nuns? Project, https://wwtn.history.qmul.ac.uk accessed 16 March 2020.

4 Cecilie Price professed in Brussels 1604 and died in Ghent in 1630. See her entry in the Who Were the Nuns? Database. See also Mother Clementia Cary, (1640 Cambrai-1671 Paris); “Notes and Obituaries of the English Benedictines of the convent of our Blessed Lady of Good Hope in Paris”, Catholic Record Society, Misc. VII, Vol. 9, 1911, pp. 339-46.

5 Examples of these texts are included in English Convents in Exile 2012-13, Vols. 2, 3, 5 and 6.

6 MS. Obituaries, Benedictines Pontoise, Archives départementales du Val d’Oise, Cergy Pontoise, Serie H, 68H4, Mary Catharine Maurin, d. 1752, p. 173; Catherine Haggerston d. 1756, p. 184; Mary Magdalene Belasyse d. 1786, p. 193; Mary Frances Elliot, d. 1698, p. 61. For other obituaries, see also, “Registers of the English Benedictine Nuns of Pontoise”, in Catholic Record Society, Misc. X, Vol. 17, 1915, pp. 268-326.

7 See, for example extracts from benefactors’ books in English Convents in Exile, Vol. 5, “Convent Management”, Carmelites, pp. 141-170; Augustinians, Louvain pp. 23-29: Sepulchrines, in “Records of the English Canonesses of the Holy Sepulchre at Liège… 1652-1793”, in Catholic Record Society, Misc. X, 1915, pp. 31-87.

8 The Sacristan was responsible for supplying the church with candles, altar furniture and everything needed by the priest and see that all was cleaned and mended. The Custresses were brought in for additional work such as special feasts.

9 Image reproduced in Egerton Castle, (ed.) The Jerningham Letters (1780-1843), 2 vols., (London, 1896), vol. 1, facing p. 33.

10 The images are reproduced with Elizabeth Perry’s chapter: see bibliography.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1 Section of plan of Louvain
Légende Douai Abbey Archives, A/WML St Monica’s Louvain, uncatalogued: modern copy of original made for reproduction in Adam Hamilton, (ed.), The Chronicle of the English Augustinian Canonesses Regular of the Lateran, at St. Monica’s in Louvain 1548–1644, 2 vols. (Edinburgh, 1904-06)
URL http://journals.openedition.org/erea/docannexe/image/11123/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 586k
Titre Fig. 2 Prioresses
Légende Prioresses in Douai Abbey Archives, A/WML St Monica’s Louvain, uncatalogued
Crédits Reproduced with permission of the Canonesses
URL http://journals.openedition.org/erea/docannexe/image/11123/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 215k
Titre Fig. 3 Dolls’ house
Légende Dolls’ house in Douai Abbey Archives, A/WML St Monica’s Louvain, uncatalogued
Crédits Reproduced with permission of the Canonesses
URL http://journals.openedition.org/erea/docannexe/image/11123/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 559k
Titre Fig. 4 Image of school room
Légende Image of school room taken from undated eighteenth-century MS Mass book from St Monica’s Louvain, in Douai Abbey Archives, A/WML St Monica’s Louvain, uncatalogued
Crédits Reproduced with permission of the Canonesses
URL http://journals.openedition.org/erea/docannexe/image/11123/img-4.png
Fichier image/png, 359k
Titre Fig. 5 Doll from Liège
Légende Doll from Liège: Archives of the Canonesses of the Holy Sepulchre
Crédits Reproduced with permission of the Canonesses
URL http://journals.openedition.org/erea/docannexe/image/11123/img-5.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 137k
Titre Fig. 6 Mary Sykes: Plan and drawing of the convent and grounds at the end of the first century, 1729
Légende Mary Sykes: Plan and drawing of the convent and grounds at the end of the first century, 1729. Archives of the English Convent, Bruges
Crédits Reproduced with permission from the Prioress and Community at Bruges
URL http://journals.openedition.org/erea/docannexe/image/11123/img-6.png
Fichier image/png, 1,3M
Titre Fig. 7 Mary Sykes: Plan and drawing of the convent and grounds at the end of the first century, 1729
Légende Mary Sykes: Plan and drawing of the convent and grounds at the end of the first century, 1729. Archives of the English Convent, Bruges
Crédits Reproduced with permission from the Prioress and Community at Bruges
URL http://journals.openedition.org/erea/docannexe/image/11123/img-7.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 532k
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Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Caroline BOWDEN, « Lived Religion in English Convents in Exile, 1600 - 1800: Accommodating the Ordinary and the Exceptional within the Rule », E-rea [En ligne], 18.1 | 2020, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2020, consulté le 26 janvier 2021. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/erea/11123 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/erea.11123

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Auteur

Caroline BOWDEN

Queen Mary University of London
c.bowden@qmul.ac.uk
Caroline Bowden is a Senior Research Fellow at Queen Mary University of London, having completed five years leading the AHRC-funded Who were the Nuns? project at Queen Mary. More recently she has been focusing on research into the book collections and schooling in the English convents in exile in the early modern period.

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