From Exile to Exile?

From Exile to Exile? An examination of the personal correspondence and narratives of five communities of English Benedictine nuns who sought refuge in England 1794–5

Today, EMEN is glad to present a blog post by Scholastica Jacob (PhD candidate in Theology and Religion at Durham University). In this, Scholastica examines the personal correspondence and narratives of the English Benedictine communities which left the Continent in the wake of the French Revolution to ‘return’ to a homeland they had, in fact, never known, and in which, she argues, the topos of exile remained very much relevant. 

This blog follows on from a recent post by Cormac Begadon on Migration Narratives and the Canonesses of the Holy Sepulchre. He discusses the engagement of various orders of English nuns with the French Revolution and their articulation of this experience – most especially through the ‘migration narratives’ they wrote. Cormac has highlighted the importance of these narratives to historians of the Revolutionary period. But they can also be used as a starting point for the study of post-Revolutionary religious life. My current PhD research takes the story forward from the moment of the nuns’ arrival in England, 1794–5, and examines the re-establishment of contemplative life through the lens of exile and identity. My thesis is built on the argument that the sense of exile the English religious felt did not end with their expulsion from the Continent. In fact, it was exacerbated by the experience of being considered aliens in their native country and refugees from the wider transnational Church.
The contemporary personal accounts and correspondence from the five Benedictine communities who made the journey as refugees from France and the Low Countries support this argument: they all express the experience in terms of loss, exile and even martyrdom, and reveal that they viewed their relocation not as a triumphant home-coming but as a second exile.
Heritage preservation is an important part of the exile experience and the Benedictines engaged fully in this process; both as a cathartic exercise and as a memorial for future generations of their community.
There were five convents of English Benedictines founded on the Continent, at Brussels, Cambrai, Ghent, Paris and Dunkirk, and they all left some narrative of their collective experience.
The nuns From Cambrai – who were imprisoned for eighteen months in a ‘common gaol’ during which time four of their number died – left two first-hand sources. The most extensive is that of Dame Ann Teresa Partington who wrote her Brief Narrative of the Seizure of the Benedictine Dames of Cambray immediately on arrival in England.[1]



The archives at Stanbrook Abbey also contain a collection of family letters: ‘The Knight Letters’ which span the years 1761 to 1802, and again give first-hand experience of the period.
Letter Ann(e) Joseph(a) Knight to Alexander Knight, May 1795. Stanbrook Abbey, Wass, North Yorkshire.


In addition, petitions prepared by the community to retrieve property in France describe life before and during the Revolution in some detail.First page of Dame Lucy Blyde’s ‘Memorial and Statement of Property’ Stanbrook Abbey, Wass, North Yorkshire.
Two survivor accounts were written by the nuns from Paris: by M Theresa Joseph Johnson and Mother Teresa Catherine Macdonald.[2] These provide factual accounts intermingled with personal responses and have the benefit for historians of confirming each other’s memory.[3] The nuns were placed under house arrest in 1793 and transferred to prison until 1795. One died and all experienced near starvation. The Ghent Nuns’ account comes mostly from their annals which were compiled from a mixture of memory, contemporary letters and documents which survived from Ghent. They were edited and privately published in 1894 and contain full, first-hand details of the expulsion and migration.[4] Copies of letters, ‘The Tempest Letters’, are preserved at Douai Abbey and give an account of the last days in Ghent and arrival in England.[5]  The manuscript annals from the nuns of Dunkirk relied heavily on first-hand accounts culled largely from the memory of lay-sister Winifred Tobin.[6] They too suffered imprisonment between 1793–5, with four sisters dying during the period. The Benedictines from Brussels provide the least detailed personal records: no single voice speaks directly of the experience. The primary source is the Annals which were written up from memories of the survivors.[7] The community escaped to England in 1794 in face of the arriving Revolutionary forces.
These accounts tell us, not only about the experiences in the Revolution but also of the long-term impact of it on the nuns after re-settlement in England. Firstly, they provide an interweaving of personal suffering and recording of factual events. While largely maintaining an objective tone in the official records, personal voices resound through all accounts: a note to the Tempest letters records that Dame Mary Anselm Tempest ‘escaped to England […] with hardly a rag to her tail’.[8]


Postscript to The Tempest Letters, Douai Abbey Archives (BO IV A Box 7)

They interweave national events with personal touches: the Ghent nuns describe how, as the French advanced into the city, they viewed the battle from their windows: Canon balls flow over their roof and one landed in the garden narrowly missing the portress.[9]  The Dunkirk nuns also experienced fighting outside their church, and shots penetrated through the windows.[10] In October 1793 they witnessed the Siege of Dunkirk, their monastery was occupied and property sequestered. The community was taken to Gravelines and describe the journey by canal during which they overheard their captors discuss whether to sink the barge in order to be ‘saved all further trouble’. In prison the nuns were taken by their jailors to view the guillotine and believed: ‘Their chance of escaping that terrible death was at one time slight indeed; for after the death of Robespierre it was discovered that he had done them the honour of inscribing all their names in his pocketbook.’[11]
The Paris accounts too, dwell on the constant fear of death: ‘It is impossible to convey the Idea to those who have not Experienced it [the imprisonment], the Victims we saw carried to death and the uncertainty we were in of our own lot made things indifferent to us which in other circumstances would have been more sensible…’[12]
Dame Ann Teresa Partington in her description of the journey in open carts from Cambrai to Compiègne, writes ‘They thought Death would soon have followed and expected every moment to see the fatal guillotine.’ [13]


Dame Ann Teresa Partington’s Brief Narrative page 22. Stanbrook Abbey, Wass, North Yorkshire

Throughout the accounts the Tropes of desecration and religious fortitude are held in counter-point. The Dunkirk account of their capture is graphic: ‘… a terrible trail [came] to our community. Their church, the home of the Most Blessed Sacrament, where they had made their vows to God, […] was taken from them to be used by the Jacobins for their meetings. […] here was destruction, exile and death […] and there seemed no side on which to turn for comfort […] neither insult, the want of the necessaries of life, nor even the sight of the ghastly guillotine, still reeking with the blood of its last victims, could shake the courage and confidence in God of the faithful little band. The nuns bore all, not only with unmurmuring serenity, but with greatest fortitude, cheerfulness and resignation.’[14]
This faith upheld them in the early years of their new exile in England as did the qualities of resistance and self-agency which the narratives reveal. Teresa Joseph Johnson’s recollections speak of the resistance the nuns put up against their oppressors and the steps they took to preserve what was most precious.[15] The church silver was walled up and breviaries hidden so they could continue to say the Daily Office. Maintaining normal routine was a big part of resistance: recreations went on as usual in prison for the Dunkirk nuns and ‘Dame Benedict Sheldon would even play the violin’. This determination to maintain a monastic routine underpinned the challenges in England too.
Negotiation and the ability to engage with ‘Persons of all Classes from the highest to the lowest Rank, men, women and children’ was to help their survival too and this can be seen most clearly in the Paris accounts. The nuns retained empowerment as far as possible – even in the reluctant decision to seek refuge in England they show determination to retain their own agency: ‘Seeing no prospect of an end to the miseries of the unhappy country in which we were confined […] we at last resolved to apply to Paris for passports to return to our native country.[16]
These accounts reveal how the nuns struggled with migration to England, questioning their identity as English women and Catholics and their allegiance to Crown and Church. Most significantly they hold in contradistinction ideas of both exile and return.
The language of new exile pervades all the narratives. Writing in the Chronicles the anonymous author from Brussels muses: ‘Two centuries had elapsed, since driven by persecution and penal laws, the first mothers […] sought refuge and protection in Catholic Flanders. After having enjoyed during these two hundred years a peaceful home and asylum in Brussels, their successors now found themselves obliged to fly, and seek in their own country the protection and liberty which they could no longer expect on the continent.’[17]
While recognising the hand of ‘Providence in this return of monastic life to England’ they used the rhetoric of exile to describe the process: ‘If this task was a glorious one, it was only to be accomplished by the Cross, and the passing through a Red Sea of suffering and combat.  As long as it was possible our nuns held back, hoping and praying for peace, and dreading to leave the dear enclosure of the Monastery, which had so long sheltered and protected them.’[18]
The Ghent nuns articulated a similar response: ‘They soon realised that the breaking up of their old home was only a question of time […] and determined them once more to seek their native country, as soon as they should be expelled from the home which had sheltered them for 170 years.’[19]


Dame Ann Teresa Partington’s Brief Narrative page 60. Stanbrook Abbey, Wass, North Yorkshire.

The nuns expressed the humiliation of arriving as refugees in their native land, describing their appearance as ludicrous in the extreme, and clothed in garments of various shapes, textures and hue, bed curtains forming the principal feature in the material of which they were made. The prospects for picking up life in England were not good. And after outlining the grim future awaiting them in England Ann Josepha Knight concluded: ‘at least our heads are safe, but I really think it has ruined our Constitutions or at least hurt them very much and I for my part am an old woman[20]
The traumatic events the accounts chronicle inevitably took their toll on the survivors’ mental and physical health which were to have long-lasting effects. In England they were greeted with some sympathy but also suspicion in a country where nuns had never been seen. They arrived in poverty without immediate access to suitable accommodation, with much anti-Catholic legislation and prejudice still in force, and with little religious infrastructure in place. These conditions were to shape the next thirty years of their history making repatriation and resettlement of monastic life in England a second exile for the Benedictine nuns.
For too long historiography has viewed the arrival of the nuns in England from 1794 as a long-awaited home-coming; a considered reading of the migration narratives written by the English nuns forced to repatriate reveals a different story. The re-establishment of the convents on English soil must be viewed through the lens of rupture and understood in the context of a renewed exile experience. The migration narratives, read as refugee-migration accounts, are essential to an understanding of the rebuilding of the monastic life in nineteenth-century England.

[1] Scholastica Jacob (ed.), A Brief Narrative of the Seizure of the Benedictine Dames of Cambray and Two Hairs and a Dish of Tortoise, from the writings of Dame Ann Teresa Partington (Stanbrook, 2016).

[2] See Caroline Bowden (general ed.), Convents in Exile, volume 6 (London, 2012), pp. 297–349.

[3] See also Robert Eaton, The Benedictines of Colwich 1829–1929 (London, 1929).

[4] Anon, Annals of the English Benedictines of Ghent (Oulton, 1894).

[5] Douai Abbey Archives, BO Box IV, pp 70–90.

[6] Anon, History of the Benedictine Nuns of Dunkirk (London, 1957).

[7] Anon, Chronicle of the First Monastery Founded at Brussels for English Benedictine Nuns (Bergholt, 1898).

[8] Douai Abbey Archives, BO IV A Box 7.

[9] Anon, History of the Benedictine Nuns of Dunkirk, p. 80.

[10] Ibid p. 112.

[11] Ibid p. 126.

[12] Bowden (ed.) Convents in Exile, 6, p. 313.

[13] Scholastica Jacob (ed.), A Brief Narrative of the Seizure of the Benedictine Dames of Cambray and Two Hairs and a Dish of Tortoise, from the writings of Dame Ann Teresa Partington (Stanbrook, 2016), p.22.

[14] Anon, History, pp. 118, 124–7.

[15] See Carmen Mangion, ‘Avoiding “Rash and Imprudent Measures”: English Nuns in Revolutionary France 1789–1801’, in Caroline Bowden and James E Kelly (eds), English Convents in Exile, 1600­–1800 (Farnham, 2013), pp. 247–63.

[16] Bowden (ed.), Convents in Exile, 6, p. 329.

[17] Chronicles, p. 229.

[18] Ibid p. 229–30.

[19] Annals p. 79.

[20] Stanbrook Abbey, Knight letters, Ann(e) Joseph(a) Knight to her cousin, Mary Knight in London 20 August 1795

Cite this blog post
Laurence Lux-Sterritt (2021, August 9). From Exile to Exile? Early Modern Exiled Nuns. Retrieved April 16, 2024, from

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