The English Canonesses of the Holy Sepulchre at Liege, or cuckoos in the Coquins’ nest?
The beginnings of the English Sepulchrine convent at Liege were rather tumultuous. Initially, the town was chosen because there was an English College of the Society of Jesus there, to whom the nuns could resort both for material help and spiritual comfort.
The very early steps of the foundation were actually carried out in near-secrecy, to avoid opposition to their design. Opposition from whom is not clearly stated, but likely from the local authorities. Four founding members were put up at a widow’s house, where they rented three rooms for about six weeks. They then found other rented accommodation and remained in that temporary state for roughly two years until, in 1644, they settled on the Hill of Pierreuse at the house that was originally used by Mary Ward’s English Ladies. There, the community grew and, by 1649, there were twenty-two religious; this was a healthy rate of recruitment, especially considering the difficulties that beset the Catholic community at home in the 1640s. However, in 1652, the city undertook some extensive works to build a citadel, which encroached upon their garden so badly that their house was rendered unsuitable for an enclosed religious community, which could not be in such close proximity with a garrison of soldiers.
They petitioned the Prince to find them replacement lodgings and were given a house which had been known as St Christopher’s hospital since the 13th century. It was run by a community of so-called Coquins– in the early modern sense of the word, meaning poor, or beggarly, rather than the modern naughty or mischievous. The vocation of the Brothers who lived there was to provide food and care for poor pilgrims; over the centuries, St Christopher’s lost much of its lustre to simply become known as the Coquins, a place of poor relief. There were only nine Brothers there, but despite this low number and some allegations of loose living, they enjoyed a solid foundation and strong local support. When the Pope dissolved the house and gave its buildings and revenue to the English Sepulchrines, both the monks and their supporters were incensed. The Coquins refused to leave the premises and the nuns met with opposition from what the narrative describes as ‘a considerable part of the chiefest men of the town and country, who were very unwilling that Strangers shou’d possess a foundation so many years enjoyed by those of the town.’ The monks’ rebellion took such proportions that the Pope actually excommunicated them for disobedience and the Prince sent armed forces. In the dead of night, between one and two in the morning of 1 April 1655, soldiers surrounded the house and removed the monks by force, to take them to the local prison. The English Sepulchrines were then free to move into their new house, but the atmosphere surrounding their settlement was far from positive.
As a placating gesture, they were ordered to pay half of their revenue to be divided amongst the nine Coquins; but the monks were not satisfied and petitioned to see their pensions increased. The final agreement came to the annual sum of 23 pounds, paid in quarterly instalments. This anecdote shows that, although nuns from various Orders sometimes were able to use their status as exiles who had fled the persecutions of their Protestant countries to their advantage —to emphasize their suffering and therefore, the holiness of their vocation and the necessity of their foundation — there was also a flip side to their foreignness. When it came to conflict between English female religious with few connexions and a long-established local house, even somewhat dissolute, local patrons often favoured their own. To gain support, being English could be both an advantage and drawback.
Source: Records of the English Canonesses of the Holy Sepulchre at Liège, now at New Hall, Essex, 1652-1793, CRS 17 (1915), pp. 102-105.