Marriage, Love and the Cloister, Part Two: God the Only Bridegroom

God the Only Bridegroom

From what we saw in Part One, it seems clear that not all vocations were clear-cut, and inspirational literature was meant to convince, to select a few cases to construct an edifying body of evidence. At the other end of the ideological spectrum, some equally extreme representations were found in Catholic publications which used the same rhetorical techniques, but to argue the opposite. In those publications, contemplative life was portrayed as an ideal of perfection, and a religious vocation was seen as far superior to a vocation for the secular married state. Marriage to Christ and service in the Church were deemed altogether more worthy.
Early modern nuns were taught that their Divine Bridegroom was a jealous lover. The Cambrai Benedictines were instructed to defect from any relationships they may have had before entering the cloister and to remain vigilant not to form new ones. God must be their only focus:

[She] who pretends to advance in this cariere of divine love, must first purge [her] affections from all carnality, & terrene appetite […] as soon as the world is cast forth & the heart is cleansed from all longation of sinn & affection to creatures, presently the entire satiating & ravishing Love of the eternal spouse Jesus Christ Crucified enters and takes full possession thereof.[1]

Each nun was encouraged to ‘give [her] whole heart to be possessed by God alone, rejecting all other creatures as unworthy to have a share in that gift with which thou present thy God’.[2] To prepare themselves to become worthy, they embarked upon a long process of prayer and devotion. In that context, it is no surprise that the Lives of exemplary nuns often emphasized their rejection of male suitors from the earliest stages of their secular lives.
Romantic pursuits were construed not only as a distraction but as an obstruction on the path to spiritual perfection. The narratives documenting influential nuns took special care to highlight the indifference of these virtuous women towards their suitors. For instance, it is known that Mary Ward, founder of the English Poor Clares at Gravelines and later, of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, rejected three suitors as teenager living in Yorkshire. When recalling these episodes of her life in her autobiography, Ward indicated that she turned down her suitors not ‘fourth of anie desirs to be a religious, nor other reason, but because I could not affect them’. She further explained that her shy and bashful nature made any commerce with men so uncomfortable for her that she found it easy to remain virtuous even when she ‘was several times solicited to falle’.[3] With hindsight, she saw those moments as narrow escapes, and thanked God for preserving her from these matches, so she would be able to become Religious once she had discerned her vocation.

Over time however, the later biographies written by her companions expanded her narrative to frame her refusals of marriage within the discourse of holy chastity and dedication to God. First, the English Vita (c. 1650) expressed Ward’s virtue through inspirational tropes; about the engagement made for her when she was ten years old, the author redeemed the frailty of Ward’s yet immature heart through God’s intervention: ‘The Devine Providence having designed this selected Soule for a higher State, would not let this Love though so innocent have longer place in her Hart reserved to himselfe’. But about the second engagement, which Ward turned down at thirteen, it is said that ‘her mind was so much an other Way, as the very greefe had like to have putt her into mortall Sickeness’.[4] Where Ward explicitly claimed she did not reject her suitor for the love of religious life but out of dislike of him, the vague wording of the Vita let readers interpret the episode differently.

Later still, the Painted Life (c. 1680 – 1717) gave Mary Ward agency on all three occasions, recounting that, on the first, ‘sheprayed fervently, imploring God to prevent this marriage’; on the second, ‘she insisted on turning down this proposal, claiming that in God alone would she place her love.’ Finally, by her third proposal, ‘her heart was so caught up in divine love that she could not consent to any earthly love’.[5] In those materials, specifically designed for edification, Ward was shown as fully dedicated to the religious life from the start: she would not entertain the love of a man when she craved the love of Christ.

In a similar vein, Mary Windsor, who professed at Louvain as an Augustinian Canoness in 1616, had reportedly shunned many occasions to be married, despite the fact that ‘oftentimes men were like to kill one another about her’.[6] This was seen as a sign of her wisdom and of her spiritual discernment: she kept her heart pure, for God only.

For some nuns, those precepts were so deeply absorbed that any possibility of a romantic relationship seemed a grievous offence against God’s will. The idea of a love affair became so odious as to take on the appearance of an evil to be fought at all costs. In their youth, Margaret and Ursula Mostyn, both (in)famous Carmelites who went on to become Prioresses at Lierre, had remained steadfast when their mother had presented them with suitable matches. But unlike the examples given above, both Margaret and Ursula confessed to having been in love with at least one of their respective suitors. Margaret recalled that she had felt an ‘inordinate affection’ for a particular person. Unsettled by these feelings, she experienced visions in which she saw a jealous Christ ‘pictured like a spouse’, demanding to know what this mere mortal man had more than He did.[7] This, in itself, was a common trope. But the Mostyns related to such feelings in very intense ways. At the time of witnessing in their autobiographical documents, they presented it not as a temporary weakness which they recovered from, but as the result of witchcraft. It was the devil’s work. Ursula recalled experiencing visions of the man who ‘had caused her for to fall in love with him previously, by reason of his witchcraft’; the unnamed love interest was then referred to as ‘the devil’, precipitating ‘the beginning of all her temptations’.[8]

Ursula’s and Margaret’s spiritual path was not to be an easy one; they were so tormented that, in 1651, their confessor Edmund Bedingfield found them to be possessed and embarked upon a painful process of exorcism. The Mostyn case is the only documented example of exorcisms being carried out on English nuns, and it is unique in many respects.[9] When the sisters were finally delivered of their demons, Margaret was able to identify 22 who had tormented her with amorous and carnal desires.[10] The Mostyn case can be construed as the extreme expression of an internalized discourse. To desire a person meant that one’s heart was not entirely filled with God; it was therefore reprehensible in a contemplative nun.
The fact that suitors could be demonized as spell-casters indicates that, for some women, the appeal of romance was strong although it went hand in hand with deep feelings of guilt and fear. In those instances, conventual texts often insist that the women’s vocations predated their entry in the convent and took precedence over worldly interests: they refused marriage because their hearts were already set on God. That was the narrative around Margaret Mostyn, who is said to have discerned her religious vocation despite her grandmother’s and her mother’s reluctance, and who viewed marriage as a betrayal of her godly purpose. However, not everyone adopted such a drastic stance regarding marriage.
The passage of time and the nature of the documents make it impossible to evaluate the role played by strong spiritual vocations in instances of rejected suitors. Some women may indeed have had an ardent wish to become a nun, as others yearned to become wives. Some may have been culturally and socially conditioned into cloistered life or into marriage.[11] Others yet may have entered without a solid initial vocation, keen to avoid becoming a wife. With each case, one would likely find all the nuances of spiritual engagement and a variety of dispositions towards marriage.

The story of Mary Morgan (prof 1651) can illustrate this point: she was a wealthy heiress who turned down the proposal of ‘the greatest Earl of the kingdom’; not taking no for an answer, the unnamed Earl then appealed to the royal couple themselves as mediators. When Morgan persevered in her decision, the Earl turned to more violent devices and lay siege to her house. The situation resulted in Morgan leaving the country in disguise to enter the Antwerp Carmel to avoid his unrequited pursuits. Although it would be tempting to join Hamilton in his conclusion that this was a ‘noble young lady, whom our Lord had designed for Himself’, the factors leading Morgan to her decision would, no doubt, have been complex.[12] Some women shunned their admirers, perhaps less out of the love of God than out of a dislike for their prospective husbands, or because the prospect of conforming to the expectations from an obedient wife and mother did not appeal to them. After all, marriage was as binding as conventual life. It implied a life-long contract, a vow of obedience and faithfulness, the loss of personal property, and restrictions on physical mobility outside the home, only this time, to a man of flesh and blood. Despite anticlerical publications insisting that they were a woman’s natural vocation, some marriages may not have been all that tempting. In such cases, the convent represented a safe haven, a shelter from a life of domestic unhappiness.

[1] ADN, Ms 20H-17, ‘A short treatise on the three principall vertues and vows of religious persons’, fos 122-3.
[2] ADN, Ms 20H– 37, ‘Of the love of God’, fo. 144.
[3] Christina Kenworthy-Browne, Mary Ward, 1585-1645. A Briefe Relation with Autobiographical Fragments an a Selection of Letters, Catholic Records Society, Records Series vol. 81, Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2008, pp. 108-109; 113-114; 117-118.
[4] Also known as the Briefe Relation, this is believed to have been written by Mary Poyntz, perhaps in collaboration with Winefred Wigmore, Ibid. pp. 4 and 6.
[5] See The Painted Life, paintings 2, 5 and 8.
[6] Hamilton (ed.) Augustinian Canonesses of St Monica’s … Louvain, vol. 1, 158.
[7] Hallett, Witchcraft, 54.
[8] Hallett, Witchcraft, 67
[9] See Francis Young, English Catholics and the Supernatural, 1553-1829, Farnham: Ashgate, 2013, pp. 209-217.
[10] Hallett, Witchcraft, 92 – 106; altogether she names 300 demons.
[11] Elizabeth Rapley … and Caroline Bowden …
[12] Hamilton (ed.), Augustinian Canonesses … Louvain v2, 4


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