Nuns of the Peerage

Nuns of the Peerage

About This Exhibit


Corina Hendren


This is an exploration of nuns who were of the English Peerage in the 17th and 18th Centuries. This exhibit will examine the life and family of Mary Constable, who was named Magdalen in religion. The exhibit will explore the lives of Magdalen and her ancestors in order to determine how their religion and social standing shaped their lives in England.

Mary Constable, Magdalen in religion, was born in Yorkshire circa 1640 and died on August 24, 1702 in Louvain, Belgium at the age of 61. She originally went to the priory as a scholar, but  professed on July 2, 1658 and eventually became a Sub-Prioress. Mary was the daughter of Lord John Constable 2nd Viscount Dunbar and Lady Mary Brudenell who was the daughter of Thomas Brudenell, Earl of Cardigan. Mary was the youngest of six children and the only nun in her immediate family. 

 Magdalen was apart of the Augustinian Order and was a choir nun. The Augustinian convent in Louvain was called St. Monica's. According to Who were the nuns, St. Monica's was founded by English members of St. Ursula's, a Flemish Augustinian convent in 1609. There were ongoing tensions between the English and Flemish nuns at St. Ursula's, which prompted the creation of a new convent for the English nuns.

  • Possible portrait of Thomas Constable, father of Mary. Done in the style of Cornelis Janssens van Ceulen. circa 1638.
  • Possible portrait of Lady Mary Brudenell, mother of Mary. Done in the style of Cornelis Janssens van Ceulen. circa 1638.
  • Robert Constable 3rd Viscount Dunbar circa. 1690. Brother of Mary.

When the English community took up residence in St. Monica's, vocations and money began to flow in, and in less than twenty years, the house was so crowded by their numbers, that they were looking for another place to build an establishment.

(Guilday 382) 


In his book about English refugees, Guilday discusses how a lot of the Catholic nobility had daughters in the St. Monica Convent, one being the Constables. Many Catholic families of the peerage sent their daughters to convents in order to protect them from the anti-Catholic attitudes in England. Magdalen had four nieces who were at St. Monica's. The names of the girls were: Anne (Pulcheria), Catherine (Cecily), Mary (Mary Genoveva), and Cecily, (Cecilia Monica) Tunstall. 

The picture on the right, which is of the four nieces of Mary Constable, was taken from The Chronicle of the English Augustinian Canonesses Regular at the Lateran: 1548-1625 by Adam Hamilton.

Dorothy Lawson was the cousin of Magdalen's father. She professed in 1618 at St. Monica's and died in Louvain in 1628.  Two of her sisters were apart of the Benedictine Order in Ghent (Hamilton 176).

The Constable Line

We have good authority to affirm, that no surname or family in England can boast a more noble decent than that of the Constables. A learned and judicious antiquary by good vouchers, deduces their pedigree from the Saxon Kings of England, the kings of Scotland, dukes of Normandy, &c.

Sir Robert Douglas, 1764


Sans mauvaise desire

Motto of the Constable Family (Douglas 206)


     As made evident by the quote above, the Constables are an extremely prominent family in English history. The Constable line can be traced back to ----- Constable, whose Christian name was not recorded, who came to England with William the Conqueror in 1066. According to Sir Robert Douglas, Constable and William the Conqueror were "nearly related" (Douglas 203). The Constables then had a long line of heirs who donated a lot of money to different priories and monasteries (Douglas 203-206). Sir Robert Constable of Halsham, a knight, died in 1181  while fighting the Holy Wars under William de Mandeville earl of Albemarle. 

     The prominence of the Constable line continued through Sir John Constable (1526-1587). He was knighted by Queen Mary I in 1555 and was commissioned to strengthen the boarders with Scotland. Even though he was not a staunch Catholic, he was omitted from commissions in 1562, during the reign of the anti-Catholic, Queen Elizabeth I for being a Catholic sympathizer (Virgoe). In the 1560's he built Burton Constable Hall, a large country house in Yorkshire, which is still standing to this day. 

  • Sir John Constable (c. 1526-1587) Painter unknown; Part of the Burton Constable Collection
  • Lady Catherine Constable: Second wife of Sir John Constable; Painted by Roger Peake; Part of the Burton Constable Collection
  • Henry Constable, lord of Burton (1557-1607); Painter unknown; Part of the Burton Constable Collection
  • Lady Margaret Constable (formerly Dormer); Wife of Henry Constable (1557-1607); Painted by Marcus Gheeraerts the younger; Part of the Burton Constable Collection
  • Lady Jane Dormer, Duchess of Feria; Sister of Margaret Dormer; Painted by Alonso Sanchez Coello; Part of Burton Constable Collection
  • Burton Constable as seen from a lake. Painted by George Barret the Elder (1777) and apart of the Burton Constable Collection
  • The West Front of Burton Constable; Painted in 1777 by George Barret the Elder; Part of the Burton Constable Collection
  • Prospect of Burton Constable from the East

His son, Henry, born in 1559, also held office in Yorkshire. Like his father, Henry was not a exuberant Catholic. Sometimes he conformed as a Protestant, but he also paid some recusancy fines. His wife, Margaret Dormer, was a strong Catholic. Her family held a very long and strong Catholic tradition throughout English history. The sister of Margaret Dormer, Jane Dormer, Duchess of Feria, was one of Queen Mary's closest confidants. Jane Dormer married the Duke of Feria and left England to live with him in Spain (Healy). According to a biography on her husband, Margaret allowed seminary priests to hide out on her husband's property and remained Catholic until she passed away despite attempts from her husband to convert to Protestantism.  In 1606 a priest was captured fleeing from a house belonging to the Constable's and Henry, who for a period of time was in fact the Sheriff of Yorkshire, was arrested for his Catholic leanings in 1608. He was released based on his conformity to Protestantism. He died in 1608.

Sir Henry Constable of Burton, Viscount Dunbar (1588-1645); Painter unknown; Part of Burton Constable Collection

Sir Henry Constable of Burton, Viscount Dunbar (1588-1645); Painter unknown; Part of Burton Constable Collection

His heir, who was also named Henry (1588-1645), is described below and is pictured on the left.

"Sir Henry Constable of Burton, Halsham, &c. who, being a man of great parts and learning was highly esteemed by King James VI, who created him a peer of Scotland by the title of Lord Viscount of Dunbar." -Sir Robert Douglas, 206

His heir, Lord John Constable, Second Viscount Dunbar was the father of our nun, Mary. He had six children: John (who died before the death of his father), Robert, William, Cecily, Catherine and Mary. His sons, Robert and William both failed to produce an heir for the title, so the peerage became extinct. The estate, however, went to the son of his daughter Cecily and her husband, Francis Tunstall of Wycliffe. The son, Cuthbert Tunstall, took the last name of Constable when he received the estate. Cecily and Francis had seven children. As mentioned previously, four of the seven children were girls and they all became nuns. Their names are Anne (Pulcheria), Catherine (Cecily), Mary (Mary Genoveva), and Cecily, (Cecilia Monica). All of the girls were in a convent in Louvain, like their aunt. According to the BBC, the header image is a portrait of one of the four girls. Pictured below is Cuthbert Tunstall (Constable son of Francis Tunstall and Cecily Constable) with his second wife, Elizabeth Heneage; Painted by Richard Van Bleek in 1735; Part of Burton Constable Collections as well as a map of the United Kingdom which shows the location of Burton Constable Hall, which is currently a tourist attraction and museum, courtesy of Google Maps. 





The button on the left is a link to the BBC website which displays the art at Burton Constable. While it is not all of the art at the house, there are about 175 paintings that were uploaded onto the site. One of the paintings, interestingly enough, is of Alexander Pope. 


The Brudenell Line


This appears to be an English family of long standing. William Brudenell was possessed of lands in Oxon, Bucks, and Burks in the time of Edward I. 

Joseph Edmonson 28



Sir Robert Brudenell (1461-1531) taken from Deene Park Website

Sir Robert Brudenell (1461-1531) taken from Deene Park Website

Although there is not as much record of the early Brudenell's as compared to the Constables, the Brudenell line is still a very important part of English history.  Sir Robert Brudenell was born in 1461 in Northamptonshire, England. He married Margaret Entwistle in 1485. He was initially a barrister and looked after the affairs of Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of King Henry VII. After a few years, he was summoned to the first parliament of Henry VIII in 1510 and in 1514 , he purchased an estate called Deene, which remains in the Brudenell family to this day. In 1517, Sir Robert Brudenell was knighted and made Privy Counselor. In 1521 he was named Lord Chief Justice of the Peace (Deene Park Website). 

Thomas Brudenell was born in the late 1500's. He inherited the Deene Park estate from his Uncle, John Brudenell. In June 1611, Thomas was given the title of baronet by James I. On 26 February 1627, Thomas was knighted at Whitehall and given the title Baron Brudenell of Stonton, Co. Leicester by Charles I. He then fought as a loyalist in the English Civil War, and was imprisoned at the Tower of London for some time. After the restoration, Brudenell purchased the title of Earl of Cardigan on 10 April 1661 from Charles II. Sir Thomas Brudenell was the father of Mary Brudenell, wife of John Constable and mother of Mary Magdalen Constable. The heir to the title of Earl of Cardigan was Robert Brudenell, son of Sir Thomas and brother of Mary Brudenell. Robert Brudenell converted to Catholicism (Edmonson).

Robert Brudenell (1607-1703), 2nd Earl of Cardigan; Painted by Joshua Reynolds.

Robert Brudenell (1607-1703), 2nd Earl of Cardigan; Painted by Joshua Reynolds.


Below is a quote regarding the death of the 2nd Earl of Cardigan:

About the middle of July died Robert Brudenell, Earl of Cardigan, in a venerable old Age of near a Hundred Years. He is succeeded in Honour by his Grandson, for whom he left his Estate in Trust, by reason of an Act of Parliament that requires Persons to conform to the Church of England, at the Age of Eighteen Years.  

(Edmonson 28)




George Brudenell, 3rd Earl of Cardigan; Taken from Deene Park Website.

George Brudenell, 3rd Earl of Cardigan; Taken from Deene Park Website.

George Brudenell (1685-1732), 3rd Earl of Cardigan was the grandson of Robert Brudenell. His father, Francis Lord Brudenell, who died before the death Robert Brudenell, was an avid Jacobite. He was imprisoned for four years on the charge of high treason and died in 1698. In order for George to take a seat in parliament, he had to renounce his Catholicism. After renouncing, he took a seat in the House of Lords (Deene Park Website).   




Map of the United Kingdom, which shows the location of Deene Park, the house of the Brudenell family. While the house does have tours, the Brudenell family still resides there.

Map of the United Kingdom, which shows the location of Deene Park, the house of the Brudenell family. While the house does have tours, the Brudenell family still resides there. Courtesy of Google Maps.


The button on the left is a link to the Deene Park website. The website is useful to find any information on the estate, grounds, and church as well as for booking the estate for parties and other gatherings. It also gives a brief history of the estate as well as the people who lived there. 



Cokayne, George E, et al. The Complete Peerage of England, Scotland, Ireland, Great Britain, and the United Kingdom: extant, extinct or dormant. London: The St. Catherine Press Ltd., 1910. Print.
Deene Park. Deene Park, 2014. Web. 14 November 2014. 
Douglas, Sir Robert. The Peerage of Scotland, containing an historical and geneological account of the nobility of that kingdom, from their origin to the present Generation. Edinburgh: R. Fleming, 1764. Print. 
Edmondson, Joseph. The Present Peerages: with plates of arms and introduction to heraldry. London: Printed for J. Dodsley in Pall-Mall, 1785. Print
Hamilton, Dom Adam. The Chronicle of the English Augustinian Canonesses Regular of the Lateran, at St. Monica's in Louvain (Now St. Augustine's Priory, Newton Abbot, Devon: 1548-1625. London: Sands & Co., 1904. Print.
Healy, Simon. "Constable, Sir Henry (1556-1607), of Burton Constable and Upsall Castle, Yorks." History of Parliament Online. Crown Copyright and The History of Parliament Trust 1964-2014. Web. 20 Nov. 2014. 
The Public Catalogue Foundation. "Burton Constable Hall." BBC News. BBC, 2014. Web. 04 Dec. 2014.
Virgoe, Roger. "Constable, Sir John (1526-1579), of Burton Constable and Halsham, Yorks." History of Parliament Online. Crown Copyright and The History of Parliament Trust 1964-2014. Web. 20 Nov. 2014. 
Who Were the Nuns. Queen Mary University of London and the Arts and Humanities Research Council, N.d. Web. 12 Nov 2014.