Marriage, Love and the Cloister, Part One : The unwilling nun: an indictment of Roman Catholic practice?

Some months back, John McCafferty posted on Twitter a portrait of A Young Nun, by French artist Claude Mellan (1598-1688).  This drawing attracted interesting reactions as viewers assumed, perhaps from her slightly flushed complexion, that such a charming young sitter must be either an unwilling nun, or a naughty one, bending the rules by wearing rouge in a small act of rebellion. Such interpretations may be those of the majority of people today, and they echo some of the questions posed by Frances Dolan in her 2007 article, ‘Why are Nuns Funny?’.[1] The cloister is, and ever was, a fertile locus for the imagination of those on the outside.[2] Between convents and marriage, modern society has all but abandoned the former in favour of the latter, and the ‘otherness’ of conventual life makes it into an object of curiosity, one we cannot comprehend easily.


Fountains Abbey

But let us not forget that nuns were equally as mysterious in 17th-century England, where religious houses had been dismantled since dissolution of the monasteries (1536-1540). Over time, the establishment of the Church of England had outlawed Roman Catholic practice and, as a result, those who felt a vocation for Catholic religious life had to leave their homeland to enter religion abroad. Today, I invite you to travel with me through time and space, to meet some of the Religious who lived in English convents in exile, mostly in the Southern Netherland and Northern France. Between 1598 and 1678, 22 of those convents provided for the religious vocations of English Catholic women. Back in England, they were the object of much curiosity, often depicted as places where English girls were entombed alive, cut off from the rest of the world and enslaved in blind obedience, often to satisfy the base urges of clergymen who were more concerned with lust and power than spirituality.

Like most effective hate speech, that type of discourse latched on to some factual elements around which to weave its rhetoric of alienation. Since the decrees of the Council of Trent, contemplative nuns were indeed to observe strict enclosure. The hagiographies of saints, and the edifying texts read in religious communities all praised the virtues of exemplary nuns who embodied the vows of chastity, poverty, obedience and enclosure. Those heroic models lived for Christ only; they shunned the company of other creatures, and especially the distractions and entrapments of romantic love. Somewhere between those two extreme representations, very few sources reveal anything about the women who became nuns and their attitudes to romantic love or marriage, and this is what I would like to focus ontoday. Deliberately leaving aside both the sensationalized sexuality found in anti-Catholic publications [1], and the saintly chastity conveyed in edifying texts, this talk will question the tension between the patriarchal injunctions of the secular world (marriage, motherhood) and the demands of Religious life. How did enclosed nuns experience that famous dichotomy: ‘Aut maritus, aut murus’?

Part One:
The unwilling nun: an indictment of Roman Catholic practice?

In anticlerical publications such as Robinson’s Anatomy of the English Nunnery at Lisbon, convents were painted astombs in which unwilling women were dumped by their families. They were places of enslavement in which nuns werereduced to the service of their male Superior, and much of the narrative focused on moral – and often sexual- misbehaviour, through bawdy anecdotes. The unveiling of those sexcapades was meant to be entertaining, but served open anticatholic propaganda, debunking convents as dens of inequity, sin, and hypocrisy. Those were unnatural places, where women were deprived of their true, natural vocations as wives and mothers. But nature was bound to find a way, and some of those women, readers were told, went to extraordinary lengths to escape that world of lies and embrace a woman’s true vocation: marriage (and motherhood). This is the kind of rhetoric one would expect in an anticatholic publication, but can echoes of this be found in the documents of the English convents themselves?

There are a few rare cases of runaway nuns, but they appear to be extremely rare. For instance, Christina Charlton (AD015) had entered the Augustianian Canonesses as a postulant with what was described as ‘a full resolution to be religious’. Yet, on 8 April 1677, the enclosed nun walked briskly through the wet streets of Bruges, braving the cold to get to the house of an English Colonel who was stationed there. Once at her destination, she met Captain John Talbot of Carrington, Northumberland, with whom she had contracted a secret engagement. The pair eloped, much to the bewilderment of Charlton’s family and friends. On the morning of her wedding barely one week later, the bride wrote to her Prioress to tell her the news, plunging the community in great turmoil. She explained she had feared being judged as ‘inconstant’ if she returned home to her parents before profession, and cited that dread as a reason for such a hasty marriage. (69) However, it does not seem that Christina Charlton’s decision to run away meant she now hated the religious life she had once felt attracted to. She was a spiritual person, and her daughter Catherine, the fruit of her marriage with Mr Talbot, actually became a nun herself, first entering the Benedictines at Ghent (BA050) before joining the Hoogstraten Carmelites in 1719.[1]

The Canonesses of Bruges were to know a similar, although more public episode 19 years later, with another Northumberland member, Dorothy Errington.[2] By 1696, Errington had been a choir nun for 15 years. She was described as a somewhat too frequent user of the parlour, where she would entertain kith and kin but also talk to English visitors curious to see a nun with their own eyes. That was how she met a certain John Grant, a Protestant, and lieutenant of the army of King William. It is believed that her conversations with Grant began with good intentions; speaking with him at the grate, she eventually effected his conversion to Catholicism. Converting an officer of the ‘usurper’s’ army would have earned her much praise, had it not led to her own apostasy. The chronicler recorded that Grant’s conversion seemed sincere and true ‘at first’ but soon, the pair began their ‘wicked contrivance’. A short time later, Errington would run away with Grant and be excommunicated.

On the night of 27 October, she was seen going through the dormitory in her nightgown, probably with her secular clothes underneath, and ‘she stole secretly out of the enclosure’. Her escape was only discovered the next day. The shock her departure was soon compounded by Errington’s utter lack of discretion, which preempted any attempts by the bishop, the confessor and the nuns themselves to keep the scandal buried. The Annals report that, after her marriage, Errington-Grant lived ‘in very poor condition, yet in appearance better satisfied with that miserable base poverty, than she was here with the engagement of her religious poverty which abundantly supply’d her necessary wants’. All the community’s efforts to entice her to repent her ‘Shameful and scandalous life’ (100) fell on deaf ears, despite enrolling the help of her sister and brother-in-law and having special masses said in the convent church by the neighbouring Carmelite friars for 30 days. It was no good: worse still, Errington and her beau ran away to Sluis, in Holland, where she publicized her plight to the local Protestant and publicly recanted her faith, thereby adding apostacy to elopement on the list of her scandalous behaviour. The Annals report that she ‘was much encouraged by the neighbouring people of that unhappy place, who applauded her crimes so much that they even threaten’d to fall upon [her brother-in-law] if he persisted to disturb her’. Her conversion allowed her to receive alms from the local church and support from her Protestant neighbours. As she traveled North to Scotland, also a Protestant land where her status as a runaway nun would make her popular, she declared she had never had a religious vocation but had made her vows under duress.
Interestingly, the Chronicle noted that her very entry into religion had been conditioned by another romantic entanglement: ‘upon her father’s crossing her in the designe she had to cast herself away by marrying one of his servants’. (101) It seems that Errington felt her vocation was for the married state of life, although she exercised little caution when choosing husband. Being prevented from entering one ill-advised engagement, she ran headlong into another. This, of course, fitted nicely with the anti-Catholic cliché of the oppressed female held captive within the walls, everyday a living death, in a community which stifled her womanly desire and purpose: to marry and bear children.

Yet Errington’s actions beg many questions: did she deny her faith out of conviction? Or did she feel her precarious situation could be better justified if she denigrated the convent? Was she being opportunistic, the better to fund her new marriage? There is no way of being sure. What we do know is that, in 1707, when she became widowed after 11 years of marriage and apostasy, Errington traveled back from Scotland to her brother’s house in Northumberland, and from there (with his help), she obtained the lifting of her excommunication and the right to return to her convent in Bruges. (299-300) Astonishingly, she was even restored to her rank. She died 32 years later, on 14 December 1739, aged 81.
The Chronicle presented the fact that she had returned to her original community instead of seeking another ­— where her sin might not have been so well-known — as a sign of her repentance and humility: ‘[…] she came in the spirit of pennence with a desire of repairing the fault where she had commit’d it.’ Despite those efforts to paint this story of redemption in a positive light, the fact remained that Errington returned only because Grant had drowned 18 months previously, and we can imagine she had been left destitute. The convent may have been her only recourse; in fact, the chronicler could not contain harsh words about her temperament, describing her as ever difficult, ‘disagreeable’ and of ‘a violent temper’.[3]
But alongside those comments about her unruly nature, the Chronicle also highlighted the sincerity of Errington’s personal spirituality in later life. She frequented the sacraments with great regularity — perhaps one of the only aspects of convent life for which she was willingly regular. She had a ‘tender devotion to the passion of our saviour’, as well as ‘great Confidence in our Ladys protection & intercession’. Although she was ill-suited to the rules and regulations of conventual life, the sincerity of her piety was apparently not in question.

From such vignettes, it seems that the Protestant debunking of convents as stifling, imprisoning spaces did indeed have a grounding in reality for some women in the English convents. However, they appear to have been extremely rare events. Such publications latched on to the stories of runaway nuns to serve their discourse by depicting the very structures of the Catholic Church as against nature. They did not seek to represent the lived experience of religious women, but rather to instrumentalize them to serve a political purpose. Despite the fact that they portrayed a nun’s life as antithetical with a woman’s nature and intended purpose in creation, they also failed to reveal that often, the sensational stories of runaway nuns were complex and nuanced. The examples above show women who did not forever reject Catholic piety and practice; rather, they show women who struggled to discern their vocation, the married state arguably being a vocation also, one to which you would commit for life and where you would vow to obey your husband.

[1] Bowden, The Chronicles of Nazareth, 68-69
[2] had been sent back to Northumberland on 28 April 1674 to claim her annuity from her father, who ‘took no care of her’. On that occasion she had returned to the convent, but
[3] Bowden, The Chronicles of Nazareth, 97-101




Cite this blog post
Laurence Lux-Sterritt (2022, December 2). Marriage, Love and the Cloister, Part One : The unwilling nun: an indictment of Roman Catholic practice? Early Modern Exiled Nuns. Retrieved April 16, 2024, from

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