Liesbeth Corens and Emilie Murphy in Aix-en-Provence


On Monday 8 April 2019, the early modern seminar of the LERMA (Aix-Marseille Université) held a session on ‘The Lived Religion of English Catholics’. Our guests were Liesbeth Corens and Emilie Murphy, who spoke to faculty and postgraduate and doctoral students about the various ways of living one’s Catholic religion in the context of early modern England.

Liesbeth Corens (Queen Mary University of London), ‘Confessional Mobility and English Catholics in Counter-Reformation Europe.’

Emilie Murphy (University of York), ‘Making Memories in Post-Reformation English Catholic Musical Miscellanies’.

Discussant: Laurence Lux-Sterritt

Caroline Bowden’s recent editions of MSS

Caroline Bowden, pioneer of the study of early modern English convents in Exile, has always been most productive. You will find here an article posted in the news of Queen Mary University of London on 11 October 2017; it contains a few words on her edition of the manuscripts of the Nazareth convent in Bruges, and two interesting vignettes about individual nuns, which bring the early modern cloister to life before our eyes.   This could whet your appetite for the impressive edition of The Chronicles of Nazareth (The English Convent). Bruges, 1629-1773 (Catholic Record Society, 2017)

More recently, on 7 May 2019, Caroline has made her edition of the Death Register of the Rouen Poor Clares available online. This brand new, original version of the register, taken from the manuscripts delivers this fantastic primary material in open access for the first time.

Topcliffe, his horse, and Wiseman’s holy water miracle

A story from # nuntastic archives, and a hilarious miracle

From the notice on Mother Mary Wiseman’s parentage, we learn that her mother, Jane Wiseman (née Vaughan), had been active in relieving priests, and was taken into custody by the dreaded Richard Topcliffe in 1598. Since she refused to plead and would not be tried by a jury, she was therefore sentenced to death by the peine forte et dure, or, being pressed to death. This was the same sentence that was passed upon Margaret Clitherow in York in 1586. She was to be laid down on the ground, a sharp wedge placed beneath her back, and her arms in the shape of a cross. A great door would then be placed on top of her body and great weights put upon her, one by one, breaking her ribs and crushing her to death slowly. Jane Wiseman was apparently not frightened at the prospect of such a slow and painful death, but is reported to have ‘exulted with joy’ and exclaimed: ‘Now, blessed be God, that I shall die with my arms a cross as my Lord Jesus’.

However, her son and friends did manage to obtain Elizabeth I’s grace, and the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment and the forfeiture of all her estates. During her long months in prison, Topcliffe repeatedly found ways to harass her. For a while, she was to share a cell with an old witch, and the chronicler notes that the necromancer never managed to practise her ‘art of magic ‘ in the presence of Jane Wiseman, but had to take herself to another place in order to perform her rituals (it appears her services were in great demand even inside the jail). But Jane Wiseman was soon to be called a witch herself, and by none other than Topcliffe.

Here is a lovely tale of ‘a miraculous thing … a wonderful thing to see’: one day, as Jane Wiseman saw the infamous torturer riding his horse just under her window on his way to the Queen, she thought ‘it would not be amiss to wash him with holy water’. She therefore grabbed her personal bottle and threw its content upon him and his horse as he passed. The next passage is delicious: ‘no sooner had the holy water touched the horse, but presently it seems he could not endure his rider’. Oddly enough, upon being drenched in water without any warning, the horse began to kick and rear until his rider was flung to the ground. Looking up, Richard Topcliffe spotted Wiseman at her window, and called her an old witch, who had charmed his horse into dismounting him. Wiseman simply laughed ‘to see that holy water had given him so fine a fall’. Miracles come in all sorts of guises.

From Hamilton, Adam (ed.), The Chronicle of the English Augustinian Canonesses Regular of the Lateran at St. Monica’s in Louvain. Now at St. Augustine’s Priory, Newton Abbot, Devon, 1548 to 1625, 2 vols., Edinburgh and London: Sands & Co., 1904. Vol. 1, pp. 82-84.

The monstrance, the thief and the Dominican nuns of Brussels


Stories from the archives of the English convents in exile

The English Dominican nuns of the second Order were founded by Cardinal Philip Howard at Vilvorde (near Brussel) in 1661; in 1669, they settled in what was to be their long-term house, locally known as the Spellikens, in Brussels. On 7 April 1705, the nuns were horrified to find that their monstrance, containing the Blessed Sacrament, had been stolen. For six weeks altogether, they prayed continually and sang the Great Litanies and the Litanies of Our Blessed Lady. Nine Masses were said in honour of St Joseph, and prayers addressed to St Antony of Padua, know to help recover lost objects. This is a poignant testimony of their profound belief in the effectiveness of prayer as a mode of action. The Bishop even ordered three prayer days throughout the entire town of Brussels, with an exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. At the convent church, which was dressed in mourning purple from Easter to the Ascension, the Blessed Sacrament was exposed for six days. Moreover, the nuns fasted on bread and water for two Fridays, and sat on the ground, regardless of age and infirmity, during the time normally dedicated to meals. This was done so ‘that God would be pleased to manifest to us the sacriledgous thiefe’.

On 16 May 1705, John Jacobs, Master and Deacon of his trade as a mason, was ceased and imprisoned in Steenport. The nuns were all the more put out because they had employed him, and his father before him, for thirty-six years as a mason; he even served their Mass, and they ‘confided in him like a Domestick.’ After three days in the gaol, he confessed to the theft. He indicated he had broken the monstrance, melted the silver and gold and sold a large part to various goldsmiths. What remained, he had buried in his garden; he was promptly taken out of prison in order to show the Amtpman and the judges the exact locations of these caches, which contained the rest of the monstrance and its foot.  The search revealed he had planted trees over the holes, for better concealment. The scandal was such that ‘a multitude of people’ came to view the garden, and ‘the streets were covered with men, women & children, from four o clocke in the morning till nine at night’, looking through the hedges or even trespassing into the garden, so that soldiers had to keep guard against intruders. Some tried to bribe the soldiers to let them in, and this public curiosity lasted for ten days altogether – lapsing only with the thief’s execution. Yet John Jacobs did not confess to what he had done with the Blessed Sacrament, despite being racked for that information.

On 26 May 1705, John Jacobs was found guilty of sacrilege and sentenced to death. On that day, he wrote a letter (in Flemish) to the Dominican community and another to their confessor, Ambrose Grymes, then Provincial of England, begging their forgiveness. On 27 May 1705, the day after his sentence, John Jacobs was taken to the place of his execution in a cart. He was bareheaded and accompanied by a Jesuit, under the protection of armed soldiers who surrounded them on horseback. In front of the convent church which he had robbed, he climbed down from the cart, was stripped to his waist, tied to a post and whipped with three rods. Then he was placed in a pitch coat and put back in the cart, down to the market square where the scaffold had been erected. He asked the crowd’s forgiveness for his crime, and finally confessed to what he had done with the Blessed Sacrament, declaring: ‘Look or search no more for the holy Host which I stole, for I tooke it in my sinful mouth, for which I am sorry.’ At that point, his right hand was cut off, in punishment of the crime of theft; he was then strangled before being put to the fire. His burnt body was recovered from the ashes and taken to the Three Towers in the city, there ‘to be exposed to the view of all the world.’

John Jacobs’s sacrilegious theft and subsequent execution brought much public attention to the English Dominican nuns. Soon, benefactors abounded to help with the fashioning of a new monstrance; once complete, this was carried to the great church of St Gudule where it received the Blessed Sacrament. From there, ‘all the Orders met together’ and in a great procession of religious men and women, it was carried back to the Dominican nuns’ church. Throughout the entire procession, the nuns sang the Te Deum, the Cannons sang Tantum Ergo, and music was played with drums and trumpets and ‘Commers (wich resound as loud as Cannons). The church bell rang freely to welcome the return of the Blessed Sacrament. For such an exceptional occasion, convent and city were brought together in a common celebration; the great procession was the first of its kind in that street, which ‘was hung with Tapestrie & devout Picturs from the street’ all the way to the church doors; the church itself was ‘richly adorn’d, and severall new things made for the Alter express for this Solemnity.’ Later, the Pope granted a plenary indulgence for all the faithful who would come to the church on Easter Monday, where the Sacrament would be exposed all day. Those indulgences were to be renewed for seven years, thereby ensuring great public affluence on those days for the little English convent of Dominican nuns in exile.

For more details on the English Dominican nuns of the second Order at Brussels, see The Prioress and community of Carisbrooke, Isle of Wight (ed.), ‘Records of the Dominican nuns of the second order’, Catholic Record Society, Dominicana, vol. 25 (1925), pp.176–241.  

BBC 3 Free Thinking with Caroline Bowden

Listen to this fabulous programme on Religious Divisions, Puppet Shows and Politics, featuring Lucy Underwood, Caroline Bowden and Alison Shell on early modern English Catholicism. 

The section starts at 15’14. Thank you to these wonderful academics for getting this scholarship out to the wider public. (And Caroline has the perfect voice for the radio; such warmth and depth!)

Upcoming conference (Durham)

Durham Early Modern Studies Conference, 22 –24 July 2019

Durham University, Institute of Medieval and Early Modern Studies

An interdisciplinary conference on the early modern period is well established at Durham, first as a biennial conference on The Seventeenth-Century, and more recently as a broader Early Modern event. The 2019 Durham Early Modern Studies Conference aims to build on this tradition, establishing an annual conference which will offer a broad and inclusive interdisciplinary forum for the discussion of the period c.1450 to c.1800. We therefore welcome proposals for panels, strands and seminars from scholars interested in any aspect of the early modern period.

Call for Panel Proposals

We welcome proposals both for Panels comprising three or four 20-minute papers.

Panel proposals should comprise:

A cover sheet, detailing the title of the panel, a short summary of its scope and purpose (no more than 200 words), the names of the participants, and the name and e-mail address of the panel organizer (who will be the contact with the conference committee)

A 200 word synopsis of each of the three/four papers

Short cvs (one page) of the 3/4 presenters, the panel chair and the commentator (the chair and commentator may be the same person)

The conference committee encourages panels which include papers from participants at a range of career stages.

We are open to the submission of panel proposals including papers not in English, but encourage organisers to contact the Conference Committee first. Panel discussions will be in English.

Call for Strand Proposals

The Conference Committee encourages the submission of proposals of ‘strands’ of between three and six panels, which would then be scheduled to run through the conference. Strand proposals should include a short rationale for the ‘strand’ and the name and contact details of the organiser, together with the panel proposals as detailed above.

Call for ‘Seminar’ Proposals

Seminars will be two-hour sessions, including anything from six to twelve ‘participants’. Each ‘participant’ will write a paper (3,000–3,500 words, excluding references), which will be circulated in advance. ‘Participants’ will be expected to read all the papers in advance. The first 1–1.5 hours of the seminar will then consist of a moderated discussion by the ‘participants’. The seminars will also be open to ‘auditors’ from the conference delegates, who will be able to ask questions and join in the discussion for the latter part of the seminar.

Outline Seminar proposals should comprise:

The names and brief cvs (one page) of the seminar organisers. There may be up to three organisers, one of whom should be identified as the point of contact for correspondence 

The rationale for the seminar (maximum 300 words)

Titles, 200-word synopses and brief author cvs for a minimum of three papers to be presented at the seminar (conference organisers may present papers, but do not have to do so)

The chair and details of further papers/participants (a minimum of six and a maximum of twelve) can by supplied following notification of the acceptance of the seminar for the Conference Programme. The deadline for the submission of the full list of papers and participants will be 30 November. Between 30 September and 30 November details of all seminars accepted for the Conference will be posted on the Conference website, with an invitation to submit proposals for papers to the seminar organiser(s).


Proposals for panels, strands and seminars should be submitted by

Sunday 30 September 2018 to

Replies to all submissions will be circulated by the middle of October 2018. Details of the process for the submission of full seminar proposals will be circulated at the same time.

Upcoming conference (London)

Medieval and Early Modern Spaces and Places: Experiencing the Court, 3 — 4 April 2019

… This year the Open University’s Spaces & Places conference will address the theme of ‘Experiencing the Court’ by exploring the senses and the lived experiences of courtly life, whether based in a particular residence or defined by the travels of an itinerant ruler. This annual conference is fundamentally interdisciplinary: literary, musical, architectural, artistic and religious spaces will be the subjects of enquiry, not as discrete or separate entities, but ones which overlapped, came into contact with one another, and at times were in conflict.

The conference will examine life at court and will consider the following questions:

–       How can approaching the court in terms of the senses provide new methodologies for understanding each institution?

–       How were medieval and early modern courtly spaces adapted and transformed through the movement of material and immaterial things?

–       Which particular aspects of political, social and economic infrastructures enabled the exchange of objects and ideas?

Papers that address new methodologies, the digital humanities, object-centred enquiries, cross-cultural comparisons, or new theoretical perspectives are particularly welcome.  Please send a 150 word abstract along with a short biography to Leah Clark ( and Helen Coffey ( 15 November 2018. The conference will take place at the Open University’s partner institution Trinity Laban Conservatoire on 3 and 4 April 2019.  As Trinity Laban’s King Charles Court was once the site of Greenwich Palace, it is a fitting venue for a conference exploring court life. For updated information visit

The Biographical Register of English Nuns in Exile

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The Who Were the Nuns? database has now been complemented by a fabulous volume: English Catholic Nuns in Exile, 1600– 1800. A Biographical Register, edited by K. S. B. Keats-Rohan, Prosopographia & Genealogica Occasional Publications volume 15, 2017. This includes 93 pages of introductory material, before providing a detailed biographical registry of all the nuns accounted for (included Mary Ward’s followers), adding extra material drawn from the painstaking study of wills and inter-family relations. The volume comes with a DVD which will reveal the vast amounts of research undertaken for that publication, and throwing light on the genealogy and prosopography of English nuns in exile.

Emilie Murphy on nuns, language, authorship and formal complaints




Emilie Murphy wrote several splendid pieces for the RECIRC, using the Benedictine convent at Brussels as an enlightening case study to examine issues of authority in English convent in exile. 

In a log dated 19 February 2016, Emilie Murphy discussed ‘How to be understood in an English convent abroad’. The case study is based in her work in the Archive of the Archdiocese of Mechelen. In this piece, she studies a letter written by Ursula Hewicke to Archbishop Jacobus Boonen on 7 April 1623, at the very beginning of the Brussels troubles (and she shares with us a few pictures of Hewicke’s lovely handwriting). For the onset, this letter testifies to the nuns’ difficulties with foreign languages and with the procuring of the correct interpreter to plead their cause. Click here to read.

In a related blog dated 19 April 2016, Emilie explored ‘How to wield authority in an English convent abroad”; here, she studied the tactics involved in the wielding of authority in a fractious and divided community, and particularly in the dispute which opposed Abbesse Mary Percy to the convent’s confessor, Robert Chambers. The piece highlights to importance of the roles played by translators, without whom many of the dissenting nuns would have been doomed to silence, for lack of the necessary linguistic skills to formulate their complaints. Click here to view the blog. 

Emilie went on to retrace the etiquette of conventual complaining in the seventeenth-century Benedictine convent of Brussels in “‘How to complain in an English convent abroad’, dated 15 June 2016. When a convent was in turmoil, when some nuns were in conflict with others, and even questioned the authority of their Abbess, were they within their right to complain to clerical authorities? How should one proceed, according to protocol, for an appeal to be perceived as legitimate? Read Emilie Murphy’s piece on complaining here.

Her last post, dated 12 August 2016, discussed ‘English Catholic nuns: neglected female authors and their reception and circulation’. In this piece, E. Murphy shared her thoughts on the project she carried out in the archives of nine out of twenty-two English convents in exile. She showed how female religious writers have been left out of the literary canon, if not entirely silenced. As she began work, she was aware of roughly forty convent authors; her research has enabled her to discover another 150 women writers, most of whom were religious. This raises the question of individual and collective authorship, and of the circulation of those writings. See this piece here

Launching the blog

Until quite recently, the history of early modern English nuns remained the niche of Catholic scholars and Catholic presses. But although post-Reformation English nuns were left out of the national historical construct for a long time, it is now being revealed that they did take an active part in the construction of English history. In the 2000s, the tide truly turned for the study of early modern English nuns, thanks to the ambitious AHRC and Leverhulme project Who were the nuns?  A prosopographical study of the English convents in exile, 1600-1800, based at Queen Mary University of London, and carried by Caroline Bowden. The project website and database have now become the go-to place for anyone interested in early modern English nuns.

These initial insights have since provided invaluable stepping-stones for other studies to explore the links between the exiled convents and their local environments, as well as their attachment to a decidedly English cultural tradition. In addition, a growing number of literary studies have shed light upon the writing activities of the monasteries. Thanks to these recent studies across a range of disciplines, we know more than ever before about English religious women in exile. Their real lives had little to do with the stereotypes found in English anti-Catholic pamphlets which contributed to robbing these communities of their resolve and their diligence in popular imagination.  Yet there is much that remains to be explored.

The purpose of this blog is quite simply to give the growing number of scholars working on English nuns a convenient one-stop-shop where, hopefully, they can find useful information. Who is currently working on what? Are there any recent publications? Any relevant conferences? Where are the primary sources that we have identified? Basically, this is the place where I will endeavour to gather all the information I have on all things related to #nuntastic research. All contributions are welcome.  All opinions and all mistakes my own.