Remembering Revolution: Migration Narratives and the Canonesses of the Holy Sepulchre

Today, our blog is honoured to host a post by Dr Cormac Begadon, Assistant Professor and Sepulchrine Fellow in the History of Catholicism in the Department of Theology and Religion of Durham University. Cormac is currently editing the Mother Joseph Smith migration narrative, which will be published later this year.

Narratives recalling the experiences of English communities of female religious during the years of the French Revolution and their subsequent migrations to England are reasonably common. No doubt many readers will be familiar with these migration accounts, which played such an important part in the collective memories of generations of religious and their supporters. One of the better known examples is the account of the Cambrai Benedictines, who were imprisoned for well over a year in 179394, alongside the would-be Carmelite Martyrs of Compiègne, which is perhaps the most poignant, and indicative of the very real dangers that the English nuns faced during this most perilous period of their histories.[1] Yet the purpose of these accounts (many of which were written some years after the events discussed) extended beyond simply the retelling of events though, offering a much-needed cathartic element to communities who had endured trauma, not only during the Revolution and the migrations, but also during the often-long period of itinerancy in England, before permanent homes were eventually secured. Some of these have been published in English Convents in Exile, 1600–1800, Part II, vol. 6 (2013), some as part of the Catholic Record Society series, and others individually.

These accounts were undoubtedly written with the intention of being consumed by members of the respective houses, and therefore have an unsurprising particular flavour that reflects their intended readership. Yet in spite of this bent they are especially useful but under-utilised sources to historians whose own interests are not limited by congregational loyalties or restricted to the cloister. Communities such as the Bruges Augustinians compiled lengthy and revealing accounts, whilst the Antwerp Carmelites, the Paris Augustinians and the Rouen Poor Clares left their own shorter versions. The English Canonesses of the Holy Sepulchre at Liège (more familiar to many of us as the Sepulchrines) have their own such account too. Or to be more accurate, they have in fact three accounts.[2] The earliest account was written by Mother Joseph Smith[3] entitled ‘A Short Account of some Particulars which happen’d during the Revolutions at Liege and of our Journey from thence to England’, which was subsequently revised and amended in 1817 by Mother Aloysia Austin Clifford.[4] There later appeared a shortened account by Mother Agatha Laurenson,[5] whose brother, Rev John Laurenson, SJ, wrote yet another account for the English Jesuit Province. The Sepulchrines’ story is vivid and moving, and at points even comical, illustrating in great detail the perils that this group of women faced as they abandoned their home of almost 150 years and embarked on an arduous and protracted journey to their native land. The story of the migration is one of continuous struggles and disappointments, the community beginning their journey from Liège to Maastricht by what the account calls a ‘filthy coal boat covered with a few boards’.[6] From there they departed for the town of Roermond, where they had intended to stay only for a few nights. Arriving at the house that had been rented for them, they found that they were ‘soon swarmed with Fleas’, the quantity which they caught they said was ‘hardly credible.’[7] At Dordrecht, their next stopping point, they became a source of curiosity for the Protestant townspeople, who were said not to have seen nuns in habits for ‘200 years’. In fact, the narrative says such was ‘the Curiosity of the People of the Town’ that ‘numbers of them came out in pleasure boats, and sailed several times round us to stare at us’.[8] And so their journey continued in this vein, seemingly one mishap or tribulation following another before their eventual landing in Greenwich on 18 August 1794.



Elizabeth (Mary Regis) Gerard 1771-1843, who became prioress of the Sepulchrines from 1816 to 1843 but had lived through the Revolution at Liège and had been part of the community’s migration. 



Having fled Liège in May 1794, the community spent almost five years on the move, before finally finding a permanent home at New Hall, on the outskirts of Chelmsford in 1799. And while the Canonesses’ accounts say much about the arduous migration and lengthy itinerancy, like the other narratives they also shed a great deal of light on the experiences of the community before their departure from Liège, and the ways in which they interacted with often hostile secular, military and even Church bodies. The account begins in August 1789, when a French-inspired revolt, known as the Liège Revolution, broke out, which lead to the declaration of the Republic of Liège in that same month. For the nuns this began a four-year long period of engaging in delicate negotiation and accommodation with revolutionary and counter-revolutionary groups alike.

The short-lived Liège Republic existed from August 1789 until January 1791, when the prince-bishopric was restored thanks to the military successes of the combined Austrian-Prussian armies. During this period the Canonesses were forced to negotiate, and at times accommodate the demands of the new regime. The convent was not exempt from physical incursions too, which came quick and fast following the August Revolution. Upon its outbreak, we are told that a patrol was billeted in the convent’s speakhouse for two or three nights, but was thereafter ordered to leave. Subsequently, more material demands were placed upon the community. For example, they were asked to supply ‘12 Quarts of Beer, a pound and a half of Butter, a Loaf and a half or 2 loaves of Bread and a bottle of Gin, so that we were at above 30 pounds expense.’[9] The community complied without too much regret, we are told, ‘to keep them quiet, and prevent them from being troublesome to us’.[10] Here the account echoes the experiences and sentiments of many other English communities during this period. Even at this relatively early stage of the Revolution, many religious communities viewed events unfolding as a real threat to their future liberty, the chronicler suggesting that the revolutionaries’ ‘chief aim seemed to be against Ecclesiastics and Religious persons.’[11]

In recent years there has been a welcome re-appraisal by historians into the history of female religious during the Revolution. Carmen Mangion’s essay, ‘Avoiding “Rash and Imprudent Measures”: English Nuns in Revolutionary Paris, 1789–1801’, threw much-needed light on the experiences of English nuns in Paris (Augustinians, Benedictines and Conceptionists) during the Revolution, and the tactics they employed to safeguard their future existence.[12] Carmen called these actions ‘selective compromise’, a process of accommodation and engagement in the political act of petitioning.[13] Similarly, Olwen Hufton, Mita Choudhury and more recently Gemma Betros’ work has re-examined the complex and often misrepresented and much simplified history of female religious during this period.[14] The Sepulchrines’ own account illustrates that they too were willing and combative opponents in this game of cat and mouse for much of this four-year-long hiatus.

Ironically, just as it had played such a symbolic role in events in France, it was the matter of bread that forced the nuns to cut their teeth in the art of petitioning. The account mentions that in 1791 the community was in fear ‘as we had heard that the Poor meant to attack us about the Bread which we were obliged to give them every week.’[15] We read that the deputies of the parish of St Christopher (to which the convent belonged) examined the convent’s foundation documents, which stated an obligation on behalf of the nuns to provide the poor with rye or bread on a weekly basis. The deputies argued that this obligation was to the poor of St Christopher’s parish; the nuns disagreed, arguing that whilst they accepted this obligation, and had faithfully continued to distribute alms, they were in fact free to choose the recipients, and were not constrained by parish boundaries. Thereafter the issue was referred to the Magistrates, who obliged the community to send their foundation papers and registers to be examined. Yet as was the case with the Parisian convents, the Canonesses proved to be worthy adversaries, counteracting by composing their own supplique ‘to petition them to appoint one or more of their Council to come to our Convent and examine them, which they very graciously granted.’[16] The account describes the delegation’s visit: a lawyer, the parish deputies, along with a scribe, whom the report says ‘tried to be as troublesome as he could, and made several efforts to do us mischief, and to bring us into Difficulties’.[17] Evidently well-organised and familiar with their foundation documents and obligations, the nuns in return presented a copy of the bull of dissolution of the Coquins (the male religious community which had inhabited the Canonesses’ convent on rue Saint-Gilles up to 1655), along with their own foundation documents and ‘a Copy of the Prince’s permission for leaving off serving the Hospital, dated in the year 1711.’[18] The discussion of the provenance and inherited charitable obligations is in fact one of the surprising gems of the account. Readers get the sense that all sides were well-informed, and their arguments and defences were grounded in a familiarity with the sources and obligations.

Yet whilst the party were satisfied with the nuns’ defence, the ‘Poor of the Parish’ were, if we are to believe the account, left much disappointed, and the community’s lawyer, M. Pacquo suggested  ‘to satisfy the Poor of the Parish who were much disposed to Riots’ they ‘had better in future give the Charity to them, either in Bread or Corn’.[19] There then followed what appears to have been a long drawn-out battle between both sides, which never seems to have been definitively settled, and which was only brought to a halt by the victory of the Austrian-Prussian alliance over the Republic in January 1791. Unsurprisingly, the account paints a mostly positive picture of the liberating Imperial troops, who stemmed, it says, an ever-growing torrent of rioting and pillaging. Nonetheless, this so-called liberation did not mean an end to incursions on the convent space, but in actual fact, meant increased intrusions, albeit under a different guise. Upon their arrival in the city, an officer and man and maid servants arrived at the convent, and were lodged in the out quarters. Displeased by the arrival of these uninvited visitors, the account states that the nuns ‘had immediate recourse to one of the Chief officers to get them removed,’ and accordingly they were ordered away the next day.[20] The following week, the much-displeased officer was said to have sent twenty soldiers to be lodged at the convent. Once again, the nuns were forced to have recourse to the Magistrates, who this time sided with the captain, and the soldiers were permitted to remain at the convent, but for one night only though. The account tells us that thereafter the community met with the Bourg Master and the Council to discuss the matter of billeted soldiers, securing a dispensation, ‘on account of our being Strangers and rendering great service to the Town and Country’.[21]

As well as frequent mentions of the cat-and-mouse games that the community was forced to engage in, the account also details more joyous events, such as liturgical feasts and anniversaries. One of these relates to the return of the prince-bishop to Liège in February 1791 after a period of exile in German lands. Unsurprisingly his return was greeted with joy by the community, and the event was duly marked. Adopting wonderfully descriptive and evocative language, we are told about the public rejoicings, which took place in the city for three days, and that the convent prepared its own illuminations to mark the event, which ‘consisted of 17 Pyramids, each of which contained 50 little tin Lamps’.[22] The lamps ‘were fixed against the Wall, between the Windows, from the first Church Window, to the end of the School, and 50 more were nailed round the Image of our Bd. Lady over the grate Portal Door.’[23] The following October, however, an event of even greater significance to the community was marked, with the celebration of the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the community’s foundation in Liège. We are told that they ‘borrowed a great deal of Church plate’ and that the ‘Church was most handsomely dressed. We had a Salut on the eve, and a very fine Music Mass and Salut upon the Day, which our singing Master, Mr. Le Clerq made us a present of. We had the Recreation and a very handsome treat in the Refectory.’[24]

In November 1792, the political realities shifted in Liège once again; at the Battle of Jemappes, French forces under the command of General Dumouriez defeated the Austrian Army. The account says that this was the nuns’ ‘first serious cause of alarm’, the victory being ‘so decisive that it was before any effectual resistance was again made to the progress of the French.’[25] As the French approached Liège, troops loyal to the Imperial Army were mustered for a final stand, with the nuns watching events unfold from the convent windows. ‘About noon a Cannon from the Citadel was fired as a signal to the Imperial troops still in the town to join their Companions in arms’, the account says, and they ‘saw with awe these troops defiling along the ramparts near our College in order and silence, and not long after a tremendous Cannonade announced that the battle had begun’.[26] Heightening the sense of drama, the writer comments that the nuns ‘could see from the windows of our Dormitories, the reflected flash of every gun that was fired; but we were screened from danger by the high grounds which lay between us and the enemy’.[27]

The following day the victorious French entered the city, and soon a delegation had made its way to the convent: ‘60 of them came with an order to be lodged at our Convent; their Captain was furious, and insisted upon a Lodging immediately given them, saying otherwise they would force open the Convent Doors.’[28] Once again the nuns lodged a petition to have the troops withdrawn, this time with General Dumouriez. The troops remained three nights before being withdrawn, only to be replaced by a ‘Sauve Garde’ of ‘4 Men and a Corporal’.[29] These men remained in the convent on rotating shifts for nearly a month, yet the writer conceded that their behaviour was exemplary: ‘none of them ever took to the value of a Farthing out of our Quarter, and they all behaved very civilly to us.’[30]

From November 1792 until May 1794, life continued with relative normality: private and communal spiritual observances continued, and so did teaching in the school, whilst new members were accepted into the community. Yet as the political reality became ever bleaker, like many of the English houses in exile, the community was forced to prepare for evacuation. This eventually took place on 29 May 1794, after Mass for the feast of the Ascension had been celebrated in the convent’s chapel. The very large group – made up of thirty-five choir nuns, fourteen lay sisters, two priests, three boarders, two servants and ten pensioners – must have made quite a sight as they made their way through the city, their destination being a number of coal barges which would take them to Maastricht, their first stopping point on what would be an eventful and protracted journey to England.

A substantial document, the Mother Smith edition extends to just under 150 hand-written pages and chronicles the history of the Sepulchrines from the beginning of the revolution in Liège in August 1789 up to 1800, with the community settling in at their new home at New Hall. As mentioned in the introduction, these narratives were written by religious (often some years later), with the intention of being consumed by religious, a fact that should always be borne in mind. Yet by employing the proper exegesis, migration narratives, when used in tandem with other sources, are a most useful tool for historians, not just offering insights into the history of religious themselves during this period, but also presenting a wonderfully rare perspective on the history of the Revolution from a foreign and female perspective.

[1] See Scholastica Jacob (ed.), A Brief Narrative of the Seizure of the Benedictine Dames of Cambray (Stanbrook, 2016).

[2] Joseph Smith’s account is housed in the archives of the Canonesses of the Holy Sepulchre, Colchester. The Clifford and Laurenson accounts are housed in Palace Green Library, Durham University.

[3] Who Were the Nuns database, ID LS205( [hereafter WWTN].

[4] WWTN, ID LS041

[5] WWTN, ID LS131.

[6] History of the New Hall Community of Canonesses Regular of the Holy Sepulchre (Brugge, 1997), p. 99.

[7] Ibid., p. 102.

[8] Ibid., p. 104.

[9] Ibid., p. 86.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Carmen Mangion, ‘Avoiding “Rash and Imprudent Measures”: English Nuns in Revolutionary Paris, 1789–1801’, in Caroline Bowden and James E. Kelly (eds), The English Convents in Exile,1600–1800 (Farnham, 2013), pp. 247–263.

[13] Ibid., p. 247.

[14] Olwen Hufton, Women and the Limits of Citizenship in the French Revolution (Toronto, 1992); Mita Choudhury, Convents and Nuns in Eighteenth-Century French Politics and Culture (Ithaca, 2004); Gemma Betros, ‘Liberty, Citizenship and the Suppression of Female Religious Communities in France, 1789–90’, Women’s History Review, 18 (2009), pp. 311–36.

[15] History of the New Hall Community of Canonesses Regular of the Holy Sepulchre, p. 87.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid. For further reading on the Coquins, see Laurence-Lux Sterritt, ‘The English Canonesses of the Holy Sepulchre at Liege, or cuckoos in the Coquins’ nest?’ (

[19] History of the New Hall Community of Canonesses Regular of the Holy Sepulchre, p. 88.

[20] Ibid., p. 89.

[21] Ibid., p. 90.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid. The ‘Salut’ mentioned here is probably the O salutaris hostia, a Eucharistic hymn, often associated with the feast of Corpus Christi.

[25] Ibid., p. 91.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid., p. 92.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

Cite this blog post
Laurence Lux-Sterritt (2021, May 17). Remembering Revolution: Migration Narratives and the Canonesses of the Holy Sepulchre. Early Modern Exiled Nuns. Retrieved May 30, 2024, from

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