Catholics in Exile

Catholics in Exile

Author: Jenn Barone

Description: What happened to Catholics when they were no longer allowed to worship in England? My project looks to answer some questions about how Catholicism lived on in different countries at the time through convents and English Catholic 

Clearly We're Not Welcome Here, Now What?


This is an example of the anti-Catholic rhetoric of the time, toleration by the royalty would not be tolerated by the Protestant Church.

List of Convents

This is a list of some of the convents that were established for English women and nuns during exile (Bowden "Community" 386-387).


This is a layout for a convent, the actual structures for the convents were very important in maintaining proper isolation that was required (Bowden "Community" 378).

Continuing Catholicism in Exile

         During the Seventeenth Century, Catholics were no longer permitted to practice their Religion in England. These harsh laws forced Catholics to find new ways to practice their faith and educate their families in their traditions. With this in mind, convents began to take in the daughters of English families to train them in the Catholic tradition. Many convents had taken in English women to their existing convent.  The first convent made specifically for English Catholic women was made in Brussels in 1598 followed by many more in countries near England, especially Belgium and France (Bowden "Community" 1-3). . The exile of the Catholic religion lead to nearly 1,950 English Catholics in newly established convents by the year 1675 (Bowden "Community" 5). The money for the buildings came mostly from donations dowries on the women who would be coming to the convents. Because of the strict guidelines made in the Treaty of Ghent, the layout and construction of these buildings was particularly important. According to the treaty, the nuns should be strictly confined to the convent with little to no influence or connection to the outside world. They were not often granted contact with people outside of the convent unless approved by the abbess. Life in the convents varied depending on the order of the nuns, for example there were the Benedictines, Augustinians, Poor Clares, and Carmelites. These convents became a way for Catholics fleeing England to stay attached to their religion in the English tradition.

Who's Who Here?

Most convents had a set structure of people. There was a priest, often the only male, that would say mass and give confession. There usually would then be the Abbess or Prioress. There were also different types of nuns, mainly choir nuns and lay nuns. It was believed that they were both equal, however choir nuns definitely were more powerful in the convent. Choir nuns generally were able to vote in elections (which included picking the abbess), living a life of prayer, being in the Divine Office, and were eligible to become abbesses or prioresses Bowden "Community" 370). These nuns were also expected to bring a substantial dowry when they entered the convent. They were the elite group so to say in the convent. Then there were the lay nuns. The lay nuns took care of everything that needed to be done at the convent, they did not have the same rights as the choir nuns and even attended mass in different parts of the church and entered through different doors (Bowden "Community" 370). They were in charge of doing chores and some maintenance at the convents. Sometimes the lay nuns would be required to go out and make money for the convent in order to maintain funds and get supplies the convent needed to run since dowries alone did not sustain the convents (Bowden "Community" 370).

An Education

a religious house is a school in which the science of perfection is taught

        The above quote was from a Benedictine convent statutes on eduction (Bowden "Community" 379). A key to the life of the nun was STRICT obedience, this was one of the most stressed facts in becoming a nun. This also transferred to the education being given to the English Catholic women. In order for an effective education to be given, the nuns tried to maintain similar structure with their students as they had in their own lives. Depending on the order a choir nun or a lay nun may be a teacher. Most of the education in fact depended on the order of the nuns. Some convents allowed recreation days for the girls and taught various subjects (that is subject appropriate for women at the time) as well as religion. Girls and young women of all ages were coming into these convents, so the purpose of their teaching varied. In some convents the nuns wanted to teach young women to become good Catholic wives and mothers, while others thought the main focus was to bring up the next generation of nuns to follow the order (Bowden "Community" 381). Some convents decided to aim education for both purposes.

Infusion of Culture at the Convents

       Laws against Catholicism in England led to the displacement of many English Catholics, this included some of the painters, composers and writers who were Catholic . This displacement as anyone could imagine was not easy. There was a new culture to try to adapt to in these new places and unrecognized languages. While many were encouraged to adapt to their new surrounding,  it was important to the English that they not lose their culture while trying to hold onto their religion. Some convents became homes for different facets of English culture. One way this came through was in music. Some famous composers, such as Richard Dering, fled England and began composing elsewhere. In the case of Dering, he began playing the organ for a convent in Brussels and he was even allowed to teach the nuns how to play as well (Bowden "Patronage" 485). As anyone who has ever attended a Catholic mass or even seen one on television knows, music generally plays a large role in the mass so this helped a great deal to bring English Catholic music to these new surroundings.



This is a sample of music composed by Richard Dering who was invited into the Benedictine convent in Brussels.

Art was a very important aspect of the convent. The art could be enjoyed by the other members of the church but also those who donated money and assets to the church were publicly recognized making it a status symbol of sorts to be generous to the church. People donated a variety of things including paintings, windows, adornments for statues, statues and altar pieces were donated or the funds to get them were donated (Bowden "Patronage" 493). In some cases the artwork came as part of a dowry from a wealthy nuns family, such was the case of a choir nun in Louvain. Her uncle donated three paintings from Caspar de Crayer for the Louvain convent (Bowden "Patronage 492).

  • An example of a reprint to English A Rule of Good Life published in 1633
  • This was an example of a book translated from French by one of the Poor Clares in Aire


The Assumption by Caspar de Crayer, this piece was in Antwerp at the time.

A new location meant a new language and texts in this language. Luckily at the time many nuns and even English Catholics knew Latin because this is what the mass was conducted in and Latin texts were available locally. Unfortunately there were very few texts available in English in these other countries. This meant that English Catholics were not able to read other texts including religious materials and other texts to enrich the lives of the English. This made it necessary to get translations and prints bringing a lot of business to the local communities. As a matter of fact most of the prints coming from that time were translations of novels into English (Bowden "Patronage" 491). Some convents, especially in France, also tried to encourage those in the convent to learn local languages (Bowden "Patronage 490).

Cloistered Informants?

The role of nuns changed greatly during the seventeenth century exile. A life previously spent dedicating life to poverty and prayer now required more duties to keep the convents and English Catholicism alive. Mary Knatchbull, abbess of the Benedictine convent in Ghent knew this and took on a political role that would have most likely been seen as treason to England (Walker 1). Abbess Mary wrote back and forth to a man named Sir Edward Hyde. Why is this name important? Well, Sir Edward Hyde happened to be Price Charles lord chancellor (like a member of the royal cabinet) (Walker 1). Knatchbull kept up to date on news coming from England and France and Spain and helped to keep other loyalists she knew in the loop as well. She was not the only one reporting on what was going on though. Knatchbull's letters and such were also used as a front to smuggle other documents from royalists into the country using networks related to the convents (Walker 10). Knatchbull knew that she was being watched one of her letters even explained to Hyde that information had been removed from the packet so they would not know the current status of things in Europe (Walker 10).  Other nuns and English women took to pen and paper to document the goings on, any news they heard and the hardships they faced in exile. While there are not many records like Knatchbull's correspondence directly with the exiled royals it is true that cloistered women became important historians for the time since they were known for their honest accounts of the goings on (Walker 6). There is even an example of a jailed Benedictine nun, Elizabeth Sanders, who was imprisoned for 6 years in England (Walker 7). She wrote about the atrocities she faced imprisoned there. Stories like hers were important because all of the periodicals at the time were dominated by the royal family and protestants so there was major censorship and the Catholic strife was not being acknowledged.  


Abbot, Gerorge. "His Grace the Arch-Bishop of Canterbury's Address, to His Majesty, for the Suppression of Monasteries, Fryeries, Nunneries, and Other Popish Seminaries, or Allowing Any General Tolleration to the Roman Catholicks of England. for the Suppression of Monasteries, Fryeries, Nunneries, and Other Popish Seminaries, or Allowing Any General Tolleration to the Roman Catholicks of England." Letter to James I. 1623. N.p.: n.p., 1689. N. pag. EBBO. Web. 3 Dec. 2014.

Bernard, St. of Clairvaux. "A Rule of Good Life: Written by the Mellifluous Doctor S. Bernard (monke and Abbot of the Holie Order of S. Benet) Especiallie for Virgins, and Other Religious Woemen; and May Profitably Be Read Likewise by All Others, That Aspire to Christian Perfection. Faithfully Translated into English by the R. Father Antonie Batt, Monke of the Holie Order Afore-said, of the Congregation of England." EBBO. N.p., 1633. Web. 3 Dec. 2014

Bowden, Caroline. "Community Space And Cultural Transmission: Formation And Schooling In English Enclosed    Convents In The Seventeenth Century." History Of Education 34.4 (2005): 365-386. Academic Search Complete. Web. 20 Nov. 2014.

Bowden, Caroline. "Patronage And Practice: Assessing The Significance Of The English Convents As Cultural Centres In Flanders In The Seventeenth Century." English Studies 92.5 (2011): 483-495. Academic Search Complete. Web. 3 Dec. 2014

"English Cloister BRUGES Picture." Belgium View. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Dec. 2014.

Josephus, Petrus. "O Bone Jesu - Christian Hymns of Thanksgiving." YouTube. YouTube, 25 Nov. 2010. Web. 03 Dec. 2014.

Wadding, Luke. "The History of the Angelicall Virgin Glorious S. Clare." EBBO. N.p., 1653. Web. 2 Dec. 2014

Walker, Claire. "Crumbs Of News: Early Modern English Nuns And Royalist Intelligence Networks." Journal Of Medieval & Early Modern Studies 42.3 (2012): 635-655. Academic Search Complete. Web. 20 Nov. 2014.