Mary Knatchbull, an Early English Businesswoman?

Mary Knatchbull, an Early English Businesswoman?

MA students Agnès Guery and Clémentine Raoux looked into the life and most salient traits of Abbess Mary Knatchbull. Their work shows how this extraordinary woman has been a figure of great interest to scholars for her activities in support of the exiled king, Charles II, but it also points out a crucial and all-pervasive truth about her: she was, first and foremost, a contemplative nun who, through her dealings with the outside world, sought to further to cause of English monasticism. 


Who was Mary Knatchbull?

‘Despite the monastic ideal of dying to the world, nuns were neither ignorant of politics, nor cut off from the networks of power’,[1] and that was very true of Mary Knatchbull, who was the abbess of the Convent of the Immaculate Conception, in Ghent for many years.

Mary Knatchbull (1610-1696), Abbess of the Ghent Benedictines, by John Michael Wright, n.d.

Mary Knatchbull (1610-1696) was from a Catholic gentry family in Kent, who sent six of its female relatives to the Ghent Benedictines in the 17th century. She was one of the first novices of the Ghent convent established in 1624, and her aunt, Lucy Knatchbull was the first abbess. Mary Knatchbull was professed in 1628 and occupied several official positions such as novice mistress and prioress before becoming an abbess. Because she ‘had proven herself a capable administrator under the two preceding superiors’,[2] she was elected abbess at 40 years-old, in 1650, had her golden jubilee by 1678, and remained in office until her death.

When she was elected, she ‘inherited a serious debt of some £6000 resulting from a building program undertaken by her predecessors, but also an otherwise flourishing community of eighty members.’[3] Despite this, she was respected and admired by the nuns of her convent: ‘she was much venerated within the order, being described by its chronicler, Abbess Anne Neville, as having great virtue and wisdom and being widely renowned for the eloquence of her pen’.[4] She managed to open three other convents.

Yet, Mary Knatchbull was not only a respected and successful spiritual leader; she was involved in politics as well, especially during the exile of Charles II, and she played an important role in his Restoration, which ‘reveal[s] a woman operating with significant influence in two discrete spheres: the enclosed cloister and the royalist court in exile’.[5]

An Abbess Undercover

After the Civil Wars leading to a break of the monarchy in the three kingdoms with the appointment of Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland, Charles II had to leave England and flee to the continent in 1651. He returned in 1660 for the restoration of monarchy. During this particular period for England, many Catholics, among whom Mary Knatchbull, sought the opportunity to be noticed by the exiled monarch and decided to help Charles II in his Restoration to the crown, in the hope of obtaining a toleration of their religion.

Prior to these events, the convents of English nuns in exile on the Continent had cultivated networks of contacts at home. They were already working to keep the practice of Catholicism alive on and off the English soil. They had ways of communicating with recusants, to get information about the situation in their homeland, but also to recruit more apprentices and future nuns. While many nuns prayed for the Restoration of Charles II, Mary Knatchbull decided to do more for it, using the network she already had, while keeping her actions within the ‘established traditions of female recusant activism against the English Protestant state’.[6]

The Ghent convent thus became ‘one of several mail networks used by the royalists’.[7] Mary Knatchbull received letters for or from Charles II or his close advisors, which she hid in her own mail to send to and from England. This network was seen as quite a reliable one, if not the most. This was probably due to the views men had on women at the time: letters addressed to women and written by other women were not seen as dangerous and, hence, were not as tightly controlled by the government’s intelligence services.[8]

 In addition, her contacts in England kept her informed on the political situation there, and she could then send this crucial information to Sir Edward Hyde, a member of the exiled court. Mary Knatchbull was thus not only offering a safe route for their letters, she also maintained an important correspondence with some members of the exiled court, such as Hyde or Ormonde, the king’s closest advisors. In 1659, she exchanged weekly letters with Edward Hyde about ‘English affairs, in conjunction with news about the situation in Dunkirk, and details of Charles’s ongoing negotiations with the Spanish and French kings to garner their military support.’[9]

Not only did she work as a messenger, she also ‘placed her convent’s resources at their [Charles II and his ministers] disposal’,[10] she offered them hospitality and helped Charles II and his court financially when they needed it: ‘With the permission of her nuns, the abbess arranged loans through her merchant ‘frindes’ for the royalists, using the convent as security’,[11] and all this despite her convent’s own financial issues. We do not know how much Mary Knatchbull lent to Charles II, but we can imagine it represented a large sum of money since it was one of the reasons that led the Ghent convent to struggle economically even more.

If Mary Knatchbull never explicitly said that she expected Charles II to pay her back or do anything for her in exchange for her generosity, ‘she was sufficiently experienced to understand the concept of reciprocity in the exchange of favors’,[12]  and was doing all of this hoping mostly for more toleration towards Catholics.

Working for her own cause too

Mary Knatchbull’s participation in Restoration efforts had put the convent and herself in a difficult position financially. After 1660, her main goals were to retrieve the money lent to Charles II by securing funding for the community, and to extend that said community by creating new daughter houses.

Firstly, the abbess saw financing the royalists as a good investment, since she hoped the Ghent community would therefore be rewarded somehow. However, it seems that 1660 and Charles II’s Restoration to the English throne marked a turning point in the abbess’s ability to influence the court. Indeed, the king had priorities other than the toleration of Catholicism. But Mary Knatchbull was not one to wait for things to happen on their own. In 1661, she decided to take a trip to London to ensure the promised money would be paid. She was successful in obtaining a £1000 payment, and the promise of £2000 more to come. However, by 1663, they still had not received the money. They finally secured an annual pension of £500, which was better than nothing.[13] Their hopes of gaining favour and pioneering the return of English convents on English soil had come to nothing.

The Benedictine nuns at Ghent had one last hope for Catholic toleration with the new king James II’s in 1685. However, their dreams were shattered with William of Orange’s Glorious Revolution and the Toleration Act of 1689, which still restricted the religious liberty of Roman-Catholics in England.

The Ghent Monastery, in the Annals of the Ghent Benedictines, n.d.

After the Restoration, Mary Knatchbull realised Catholic toleration was not on the way. To avoid financial precariousness, she maintained an epistolary relation with her existing contacts and new ones, such as ‘the English royal family and significant courtiers’,[14] to maintain a high profile for her community as well as get funding. She consequently decided to withdraw from politics and to focus on other projects, such as the creation of new daughter houses, which she had already started in the 1640s.

First page of the Annals of the Ghent Benedictines, n.d.

Indeed, at that time, the Ghent monastery suffered from overcrowding. Mary Knatchbull obtained in 1651 the authorisation from Anne of Austria, Queen Regent of France, to start a new foundation in Boulogne in 1653.[15]

In the early 1660s, she wanted to build a new convent in Dunkirk this time. It is not clear if Charles II gave his written approval for such a design, as the proofs mentioned by the Ghent nuns have not been discovered yet. With the advice of the Jesuits, Mary decided to proceed with the foundation, in the hope of winning the king’s written approval later.[16] In September 1662, the king denied giving his approval, but at the same time, Dunkirk was sold to the French crown. The monastery then received the royal consent of Louis XIV and everything was settled.

The last house Knatchbull founded was the one in Ypres in 1665, although her role in the foundation is difficult to ascertain due to little evidence.[17] This house was not successful as it suffered from recruitment difficulties and was not financially stable. However, their situation was not isolated: other communities faced similar issues, in the second half of the seventeenth centuries. In her annals, Anne Neville argues that ‘Perhaps the sisters did not listen carefully enough to advise and adapt sufficiently to circumstances.’[18] The convent became an Irish Benedictines house in 1682.


Mary Knatchbull was held in high esteem by her fellow nuns, as well as being admired for her social and financial skills. In 1682, Mary Joseph Lawson, a nun of the Ghent community, wrote in the preface of an antiphonal for the abbess that she was, ‘soe constant a comfortable support to us in all Quire dutyes.’[19] Her career as an altruistic person showed the influence of a woman both in the spiritual and political spheres, at the highest levels. Throughout her life, she was a confident woman who knew what she wanted and used all that was in her power in order to achieve her aims.


[1] Laurence Lux Sterritt, English Benedictine Nuns in Exile in the Seventeenth Century (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2017), 124.

[2] Claire Walker, “Prayer, Patronage, and Political Conspiracy: English Nuns and the Restoration,” The Historical Journal 43, no. 1 (March 2000): 4,

[3] Caroline M.K. Bowden, “Knatchbull, Mary (1610–1696),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (September 2004), 1,

[4] Bowden, “Knatchbull, Mary,” 2.

[5] Caroline M.K. Bowden, “The Abbess and Mrs. Brown: Lady Mary Knatchbull and Royalist Politics in Flanders in the Late 1650s,” Recusant History 24, no. 3 (1999): 288,

[6] Claire Walker, “Crumbs of News: Early Modern English Nuns and Royalist Intelligence Networks,” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 42, no. 3 (Fall 2012): 648,

[7] Walker, “Prayer,” 8.

[8] Bowden, “The Abbess,” p297.

[9]  Walker, “Crumbs of News,” p645.

[10] Ibid, p634.

[11] Walker, “Prayer,” 6.

[12] Bowden, “The Role of Mary Knatchbull,” 5.

[13] Walker, “Prayer,” 17.

[14] Bowden, “The Role of Mary Knatchbull,” 6.

[15] Ibid, 2.

[16] Ibid, 5.

[17] Ibid, 7.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid, 8.

Cite this blog post
Laurence Lux-Sterritt (2022, April 20). Mary Knatchbull, an Early English Businesswoman? Early Modern Exiled Nuns. Retrieved April 16, 2024, from

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