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Convent Schooling for English Girls in the ‘Exile’ Period, 1600–1800

  • Caroline Bowden (a1)


Following the Reformation, Catholic families seeking to educate both sons and daughters in their faith faced many challenges. The penal laws proscribed the creation of Catholic schools in England and forbade parents to send children abroad for education. However, such was the determination to provide Catholic schooling that families were prepared to break the laws and meet the expense of fees and travel. The convents established schools for several reasons. For some orders it was part of their religious purpose to educate girls, others saw it as a means of educating future members, and all needed to secure their convents financially and be self-sufficient. Schooling provided varied significantly. This article, drawing mainly on manuscript sources from convents and some of the families with daughters attending convent schools, considers the scope of the provision of girls' education in the ‘exile’ period and offers some preliminary insights into the experience of pupils.

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1 London, Westminster Diocesan Archives (hereafter: WDA), A Series, vol. 39 (1700–1734), no. 134, ‘Some Account of Hammersmith School from 1669’, (c.1715), 3–4; for the Hammersmith context, see Evinson, Denis, Pope's Corner (London, 1980). Mrs Cornwallis: Cecily Cornwallis, entered Hammersmith 1669, d. York 1723, superior at Hammersmith c.1685–1715: ‘Who were the Nuns? A Prosopographical Study of the English Convents in Exile 1600–1800’, online database, at: <>, UID MW055. Mary Austen: d. Hammersmith 1687: ‘Who were the Nuns?’, MW008. Where identities are given from this database, the first date given, unless otherwise specified, is for profession. F. Prasset was Jeremiah or John Pracid SJ (1639–86), chaplain at Hammersmith 1675–8; he died in York: Holt, Geoffrey, ed., The English Jesuits, 1650–1829: A Biographical Dictionary, CRS 70 (London, 1984), 205. Spelling in all quotations in this article follows the original.

2 WDA, A Series 39, no. 138, ‘The Rules to be observed by the Mistress of the School’, [c.1703].

3 In 1581, statute 23 Eliz. cap. 1 instituted a fine for keeping a non-churchgoing or unlicensed schoolmaster; in 1585, statute 27 Eliz cap. 2 fined parents for sending children abroad for education or to join a religious house. These were confirmed by James I in 1604. Further laws increased the number of offences for which fines had to be paid: for instance, in 1662 the penalty for being or keeping an unlicensed schoolmaster could be up to three months’ imprisonment. In 1700, the penalty for being an unlicensed schoolteacher was raised to imprisonment for life: see Beales, A. C. F., Education under Penalty: English Catholic Education from the Reformation to the Fall of James II (London, 1963), 172–3. Frances Bedingfield (1616–1704): superior at Hammersmith 1669–85, at York 1686–99 and then at Munich until her death: ‘Who were the nuns?’, MW017.

4 Names taken from list of Hammersmith pupils held at York, Bar Convent Archives, MS C44.

5 The buildings at York appear on the cover of my copy of Sister Gregory Kirkus's pamphlet history, Five Houses of the Mary Ward Institute not to be forgotten (York, n.d.).

6 The penal laws remained in force, although they were not always rigorously enforced; indeed, by the mid-eighteenth century they were rarely enforced at all. But anxiety remained and anti-Catholic sentiment continued to flare up from time to time, for example during the Gordon Riots of 1780.

7 Charlton, Kenneth, Women, Religion and Education in Early Modern England (London, 1999), particularly 126–53; idem, Women and Education’, in Pacheco, Anita, ed., Companion to Early Modern Women's Writing (Oxford, 2002), 321.

8 Caroline Bowden, ‘Girls’ Education in the Late Sixteenth and Early Seventeenth Centuries in England and Wales: A Study of Attitudes and Practice’ (PhD thesis, University of London, 1996); eadem, Community Space and Cultural Transmission: Formation and Schooling in English Enclosed Convents in the Seventeenth Century’, HE 34 (2005), 365–86; eadem, “For the glory of God”: A Study of the Education of English Catholic Women in Convents in Flanders and France in the First Half of the Seventeenth Century’, PH 35 supplement 1 (1999), 7795. An early pioneer researching Catholic education who included girls was William F. Hastings, ‘The Education of English Catholics 1559–1800’ (MA thesis, London University, 1923). My thanks go to Fr Peter Harris for drawing my attention to this thesis and permitting me to read his copy.

9 See Havran, Martin J., The Catholics in Caroline England (Stanford, CA, 1962), 117, ‘The Letter of the Law’.

10 All the letters are included in the microfilm, Aristocratic Women: The Social, Political and Cultural History of Rich and Powerful Women, Part 2: The Correspondence and Diaries of Charlotte Georgiana, Lady Bedingfield (formerly Jerningham), c.1779–1833 … from Birmingham University Library (Marlborough, 1998), reels 1–14.

11 See, for instance, Walker, Claire, Gender and Politics in Early Modern Europe: English Convents in France and the Low Countries (Basingstoke, 2002); Bowden, Caroline, ‘Introduction’ to eadem, gen. ed., English Convents in Exile 1600–1800, 6 vols (London, 2012–13), 1: xixxvii.

12 Other names by which the order was known during this period included the Jesuitesses and (by the end of the eighteenth century) the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

13 For an account of this period, see Wright, Mary, Mary Ward's Institute: The Struggle for Identity, Sydney, 1997), 113; Littlehales, Margaret Mary, Mary Ward: Pilgrim and Mystic (London, 1998), 61, 116–18, 157–8.

14 This is discussed at greater length by Peters, Henriette, Mary Ward: A World in Contemplation (Leominster, 1994); Oliver, Mary, Mary Ward 1585–1645 (New York, 1959), 225–9 (Appendix II). The school in Munich survives, still known locally as the school of the ‘Englische Fräulein’.

15 For an overview of Tridentine Catholicism, see, for instance, Hsia, Ronnie Po-Chia, The World of Catholic Renewal, 1540–1770, 2nd edn (Cambridge, 2005).

16 The area of curriculum studies in convent schools still needs considerable research before definitive conclusions can be drawn; very little has survived in convent archives. For research on the schools at the Bar Convent, see M. Gregory Kirkus, Education in the Bar Convent in the 18th Century (York, n.d.); O'Brien, Susan, ‘Women of the “English Catholic Community”: Nuns and Pupils at the Bar Convent, York, 1680–1790’, in Loades, Judith, ed., Monastic Studies 1 (Bangor, 1990), 267–82; Kathy J. Wilson, ‘Catholic Female Education and British National Identity, 1760–1870’ (MA thesis, University of York, 2004); Jack Kitching, ‘The History and Development of Catholic Education in the North and East Ridings of Yorkshire and the City of York from 1571 to 1870’ (MEd thesis, University of Durham, 1956).

17 The work of the Ursulines and Mary Ward Sisters is further discussed by Lux-Sterritt, Laurence, Redefining Female Religious Life: French Ursulines and English Ladies in Seventeenth-Century Catholicism (Aldershot, 2005), especially 75–102.

18 Printed in Bellenger, Aidan and Black, Jeremy, ‘The Foreign Education of British Catholics in the Eighteenth Century’, Downside Review 105 (1987), 310–16. They suggest that the school at Calais used by English parents was probably the French Benedictine convent of Our Lady of Pity: ibid. 315.

19 Ibid. 310.

20 Ibid. 311. James, son of James II, died in exile in Rome in January 1766.

21 I am indebted to the communities who granted me generous access to their archives, and to archivists and librarians who are the present custodians of manuscripts and books from convents which have recently closed or downsized.

22 Letter collections providing evidence of parental interest in girls’ education include the papers of the Blundell, Throckmorton and Thimelby families: see Baker, Geoff, Reading and Politics in Early Modern England: The Mental World of a Seventeenth-Century Catholic Gentleman (Manchester, 2010); Hollinshead, Janet E., Women of the Catholic Community: The Blundells of South Lancashire during the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (Wigan, 2010); Scott, Geoffrey, ‘The Throckmortons at home and abroad, 1680–1800’, in Marshall, Peter and Scott, Geoffrey, eds, Catholic Gentry in English Society: The Throckmortons of Coughton from Reformation to Emancipation (Farnham, 2009), 171211; Gibson, Kate, ‘Marriage Choice and Kinship among the English Catholic Elite, 1680–1730’, JFH 42 (2016), 144–64. For the Thimelby family, see Walker, Claire, ‘Exiled Children: Care in English Convents in the 17th and 18th Centuries’, Children Australia 41 (2016), 168–77, at 174.

23 I developed this argument in ‘Women in Educational Spaces’, in Knoppers, Laura, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Early Modern Women's Writing (Cambridge, 2009), 8596.

24 Sir Thomas Strickland of Sizergh Castle to his son Walter, 1692: Hornyold, Henry, Genealogical Memoirs of the Family of Strickland of Sizergh (Kendal, 1928), 136–8 (quotation at 137). Thomas's wife, Winifred Trentham, died in 1725 at the Poor Clares, Rouen.

25 William J. Sheils, ‘“Getting On” and “Getting Along” in Parish and Town: Catholics and their Neighbours in England’, in Benjamin Kaplan et al., eds, Catholic Communities in Protestant States: Britain and the Netherlands, c.1570–1720, Studies in Early Modern European History, Britain and the Netherlands 16 (Manchester, 2009), 67–83. See also the ‘Introduction’ to the updated edition of the ‘Who were the Nuns?’ database, Keats-Rohan, Katharine S. B., ed., English Catholic Nuns in Exile 1600–1800: A Biographical Register, Prosopographica et Genealogica 15 (Oxford, 2017), xliii. In response to his bishop's enquiries in 1738, the rector of Somerton reported: ‘The Protestants and papists by long living together in ye same Parrish are so blended and united together, having for several years married one among another’: ‘Catholicism in Somerton’, online at: <>, accessed 21 July 2018.

26 Evinson, Denis, ‘The Catholic Revival in Hammersmith’, London Recusant 7 (1977), 1945, at 22.

27 Susan O'Brien, ‘Women of the “English Catholic Community”’, 270; Wilson, ‘Catholic Female Education’, A1–A31; Chambers, Mary C. E., The Life of Mary Ward, ed. Coleridge, H. J., 2 vols (London, 1882–5), 1: 389416. The list for York covers the period 1710–1886.

28 A version of the register is held in Bar Convent Archives, MS C44; see also Faulkner, Thomas, The History and Antiquities of the Parish of Hammersmith (London, 1839), 251–3.

29 Colchester, Archives of the Canonesses of the Holy Sepulchre (hereafter: ACHS), cupboard 5, box D, MS 7 (n.d. but in nineteenth-century hand).

30 Bruges, Archives of the Priory of Nazareth of the Augustinian Canonesses Regular of St John Lateran, ‘The Names of the young Ladies and Gentlewomen Pensioners at the Monastery of the English Canonesses Regular of the Holy Order of St Augustine at Bruges, from the Year 1629 to 1908’, typescript transcription of original list.

31 See Hamilton, Adam, ed., The Chronicle of the English Augustinian Canonesses Regular of the Lateran, at St Monica's in Louvain, 1548–1644, 2 vols (Edinburgh, 1904–6), 2: facing p. 13.

32 London, WDA, Augustinian Convent, Paris, Notebook 32, ‘List of Pupils received into the School 1633 till 1881’ (many missing); Antony Allison, ‘The English Augustinian Convent of Our Lady of Syon: Its Foundation and Struggle for Survival during the First Eighty Years, 1634–1713’, RH 21 (1992–3), 451–96, at 485–7 (Appendix I, ‘The School’).

33 Blom, Frans et al. , eds, The Correspondence of James Peter Coghlan (1731–1800), CRS 80 (Woodbridge, 2007), 78, 95, 121.

34 Forster, Ann M. C., ‘The Chronicles of the English Poor Clares of Rouen II’, RH 18 (1986), 149–91, at 182–5.

35 Bowden, ed., English Convents in Exile, 1: 217, 219, 222–5, 228 (the volume is an edition of the ‘Rouen Chronicles’).

36 See p. 199–201 below.

37 S[ister] M[ary] F[rances], Hidden Wheat: The Story of an Enclosed Franciscan Community, 1621–1971 (, [1971]), 75–8, at 77.

38 A History of the Benedictine Nuns of Dunkirk (London, 1957), 136, 70.

39 Chronicle of the first Monastery founded at Brussels (East Bergholt, 1898), 73–5, plan between pp. 40 and 41.

40 The school and a few pupils are mentioned in Annals of the English Benedictines of Ghent (East Bergholt, 1898).

41 Heywood, Cecilia and Gillow, Joseph, eds, ‘Records of the Abbey of Our Lady of Consolation Nuns at Cambrai 1620–1793’, in Miscellanea 8, CRS 13 (1913), 181.

42 Grimbert, Jacques, ‘Histoire du clos des Anglaises à Pontoise’, Mémoires de la Société Historique et Archeologique de Pontoise, du Val-d'Oise et du Vexin 81 (1998), 267388.

43 Castle, Egerton, ed., The Jerningham Letters (1780–1843), 2 vols (London, 1896), 2: 404–8.

44 Aristocratic Women, Part 2, reels 1–14.

45 Whelan, Basil, Historic English Convents of Today (London, 1936), 257, 259.

46 Cergy-Pontoise, Archives départementales Val-d'Oise, 68H10, Bénédictines anglaises de Pontoise, ‘Promesse d'obediences d'abbesses, liste de religieuses, registre de vêtures, 1652–1779’ (1674).

47 Their presence in Hammersmith is confirmed by the pupil lists. For Rouen, see Bowden, ed., English Convents in Exile, 1: 99–101, 102, 115–16. For the Blue Nuns, see Gillow, Joseph and Trappes-Lomax, Richard, eds, Diary of the ‘Blue Nuns’, or, Order of the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady, at Paris, 1658–1810, CRS 8 (1910), 96, 97, 98.

48 See Havran, Catholics in Caroline England, 1–17; for the text of the 1606 ‘Act for the better discovering and repressing of Popish Recusants’ particularly relevant here, see Tanner, J. R., ed., Constitutional Documents of the Reign of James I, 1603–1625 (Cambridge, 1930), 100, 102.

49 See Bowden, Caroline and Kelly, James, eds, The English Convents in Exile, 1600–1800: Communities, Culture and Identity (Farnham, 2013), plate 27, ‘Blue Nun Teaching’.

50 Colchester, ACHS, MS M1, ‘Young Ladies who entered as Pensioners 1785–1807, including Recommendations given by Parents’, unpaginated.

51 Caroline M. K. Bowden, ‘Dennett, Mary [name in religion Christina] (1730–1781)’, ODNB; A History of the New Hall Community of Canonesses Regular of the Holy Sepulchre (Roehampton, 1899), particularly 80.

52 See the material in the new (2017) Bar Convent museum, showing the origins of the schools at the Bar Convent.

53 Hastings, ‘Education of English Catholics’, 252–3, 257, 260; New Hall Community, 58.

54 For instance, Bar Convent Archives, MS E4, ‘Copies of the Young Ladies’ Bills’, August 1770.

55 Gueudré, Marie Chantal, Histoire de l'ordre des Ursulines en France, 3 vols (Paris, 1957–63), 2: 229, 234, 235, 237, 241, 244, 253, 257, 259. For further discussion of teaching at the Ursuline schools, see Lux-Sterritt, Redefining Female Religious Life, particularly 75–102.

56 For examples of letters home, see Arundel Castle, Howard Letters 1687–1735, Letters 42, 43, 53, Ann Howard to her father Bernard, 1733–5; letters from the Throckmorton girls are discussed in Walker, ‘Exiled Children’.

57 Names of pupils taken from lists in convent archives. The incomplete nature of the lists makes any detailed observations or analysis unsatisfactory at present.

58 London, WDA, A Series 40, no. 159, n.d., 19–21. For other examples of school days, see Whelan, Historic Convents, 256, 258; Allison, ‘English Augustinian Convent’, 485–7.

59 According to the OED, in 1713 ‘marking’ was listed as part of the curriculum of a girls’ school in Lambeth, and involved marking either clothing or linen with initials.

60 London, WDA, A Series 39, no. 135*, 27.

61 Ibid. 28–9.

62 Ibid. 29–32.

63 Names from the typescript list in Bruges, Archives of the Priory of Nazareth; Cambridge, Cambridgeshire Archives, Huddleston Papers (hereafter: CA, HP), Correspondence, MS 488/C1; five of these letters edited by Victoria Van Hyning appear in Bowden, ed., English Convents in Exile, 3: 295–306. For the nuns, see ‘Who were the Nuns?’

64 For Justina Huddleston, see ‘Who were the Nuns?’, BA113.

65 Cambridge, CA, HP, MS 488/C1/MH18, postscript to letter of Mary Bostock, 3 March 1784.

66 Polly's name appears in the register of pupils for 1778.

67 Forty pounds (if it is sterling) was considerably more than the cost of attending other convent schools at that time, which was typically £20–25.

68 Frances Louisa Lancaster (1750–1808), superior at the Augustinian Convent, Paris, professed 1765: ‘Who were the Nuns?’, PA100.

69 Cambridge, CA, HP, MS 488/C1/MH19, Mary Bostock to her sister, 8 July 1784. The nuns were all too aware of Joseph II's policies towards contemplative convents, which he ordered to be closed on the ground that they were not useful. The prioress took in more Flemish pupils (called here ‘dowdys’) partly to demonstrate the importance of the service they provided to local people.

70 Ibid., MS 488/C1/MH68, Mary Huddleston to her mother, 29 October 1785.

71 I am indebted to Mark Goldie for introducing me to this important document and for allowing me to read his personal copy and make extensive notes; he is currently editing the memoir for publication. No page references are given because of the document's internal pagination complications.

72 For the Strickland family, see also p. 185–6 above.

73 Mary Cecilia (1766–1817), daughter of Charles Strickland and Cecilia Townley: Hornyold, Genealogical Memoirs, 171–2.

74 New Hall Community, 58, 121, 122.

75 Colchester, ACHS, MS M1, ‘Young Ladies who entered as Pensioners’.

76 Mary Agatha Laurenson (1774–1834): ‘Who were the Nuns?’, LS131.

77 Published anonymously as A General History of Modern Europe, being from the Beginning of the Sixteenth Century to the Year 1854, 4th edn (London, 1854).

78 See, for example, accounts of parental visits in Frank Tyrer, ed., The Great Diurnal of Nicholas Blundell, 2: 1712–1719, Record Society of Lancashire and Cheshire 112 (Chester, 1970), 172–205, July 1716–August 1717.


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