Marriage, Love and the Cloister, Part Three: Entering Religion in the Wake of Thwarted Marriage Plans
Entering religion in the wake of thwarted marriage plans
Keeping in mind the idea of a safe haven, and the fact that marriage and the cloister were not necessarily as diametrically opposed as either camp represented them to be, I would like to look at the stories of a number of women who became nuns in the wake of failed marriage plans. English convents do not seem to have been used as discreet locations to place unmarried daughters, at least not as routinely as their Continental counterparts. Yet it would be naïve to believe that all the women who entered did so entirely out of a long-lasting and fervent vocation for contemplative life and that none of them had ever had any other plans but to wed their heavenly Bridegroom. Some vocations were revealed after unhappy experiences, some of which impacted these women’s positions regarding marriage. Unlike the clear-cut and resolute vocations extolled in hagiographical Lives, those intimate journeys took more winding and secret paths.
When Frances Stamford professed at Louvain in 1617, she did so ‘upon a discontent she took, being cross’d by her father in a marriage she desired, for the young gentleman who courted her, and on whom she had settled her affection, tho’ he was of fit quality for her, yet he had no means and therefore her father would not consent to the match’. In the aftermath of this unhappy conclusion, Stamford could have remained at home; perhaps other suitors would be equally as loveable, and more adequately funded. Yet we are told she ‘resolved never to marry any other man, but settled her mind to a religious state’. Did she do so to spite her family, effectively putting a stop to any marriage plans they might have envisaged and escaping their control? Perhaps. But maybe she saw a contemplative life as a salve to heal her wounds and a way to give her heart to a greater lover. The Chronicle explained that, from her first entering, she had expressed the wish to remain a scholar for an entire year, in order to test her aptitude at contemplative life. We can guess that her adaptation to cloistered discipline was, at least initially, a challenge. ‘[Y]et from the first she gave herself seriously to virtue, and regular observance and […] she took great pains to perfect herself’; the Chronicler’s choice of words, the use of ‘yet’, hints at the seeming tension between a religious vocation and entering the convent in the wake of a failed marriage proposal. In the end, however, Stamford proceeded to take the veil to become ‘ever a very regular religious, and a prudent discreet woman, very much beloved in her cloister’. The chronicler praised her for not being ‘over hasty in binding herself’ and turned those difficulties into examples of hardships which the nun overcame through God’s grace and her own constancy. She became an exemplary nun and after serving as Cellaress at Louvain, she too moved to Bruges in 1629 to establish the new house, of which she became Prioress (1629-1635). And so it was that an unhappy romantic fate furnished the Canonesses with one of their most loved foundresses.
This vignette can be read in different ways. The opponents of religious life would view them as examples of the cloister as a dumping ground for women without marriage prospects. On the contrary, those who extolled the virtues of contemplative life interpreted them as edifying examples of the miracle of Providence, when God chose these women for Himself. Frances Stamford did not choose the convent from the off; yet readers were told it was always a path she envisaged taking, and one which ultimately led her to fulfilment.
Unlike Elizabeth, Margaret or Frances, some young women refused to comply with their families’ dismissal of a beloved suitor and contracted a quick, secret marriage. This was Bridget Gifford’s somewhat rash decision when she was not yet twenty years old. In her late teens, she had promised herself to ‘a fine gentleman, although a younger son that had nothing’. Anticipating her father’s reaction, the young couple wed secretly, but allegedly did not consummate the marriage. Sometime later, when Gifford fell ill, her decision to marry against her father’s wishes weighted heavy upon her conscience. At death’s door, asking for God’s forgiveness, she ‘resolved to become a religious’ and she honoured that promise as soon as she was restored to health, as a sign of her gratitude to God. Thus, when she professed as a Canoness at Louvain in 1621, she had already been married for two years.
Such entries provide an interesting look at religious entries which happened in the wake of failed marriage plans. It seems clear that the convent was not initially these women’s dream life and that they had viewed marriage as a more desirable option, and one which would make them happier. But in the cases above, after the failure of a marriage of the heart, a marriage of spirit provided solace and contentment. Whether they entered to nurse a broken heart or to save face, these women found a haven, a new community of Sisters, and a different way to channel their love within the walls. Early modern women did not always have their say on the topic of marriage or cloister; yet we must be vigilant not to evacuate the notion of choice altogether; not all women who became nuns after a love disappointment were forever unhappy. In the oft-quoted phrase ‘Aut maritus, aut murus’, not being the first choice did not necessarily mean it was a dreaded alternative; on the contrary, such tales could serve to enhance the superiority of religious life over the trappings of an inconstant secular world. These women’s vocations may not have been immediately obvious, but in the end, they applied themselves became well-loved and exemplary nuns. Even taking into account the hagiographical tendencies of the Chronicles, it cannot be denied that, when writing about other nuns, the same chronicler was nowhere near as laudatory. An unhappy engagement did not seem to preclude a happy life as an enclosed religious.
Elizabeth Lovell, who grew up in exile in Louvain with Lady Cross, her grandmother, and became a professed nun there on in 1621. Earlier, she had been courted by ‘an English gentleman of quality’ and, with her family’s approval, things had proceeded to the point that her wedding gown was made. However, after what was rumoured to be a disagreement regarding her dowry, the suitor broke off the engagement. The Chronicles gloss over this event but acknowledge Lovell was ‘deeply discontented, having settled her affection’. Her decision to enter religion therefore derived from that disappointment. As can be expected from someone who took the veil in such circumstances, Elizabeth struggled during her novitiate, which had to be extended by six months; she came close to leaving several times. Even after she professed, she still experienced ‘great difficulties, and but smal content’ for some years. Yet, little by little, she found her place in the community. She was gifted with a beautiful voice, on account of which she was made Chantress when she moved to Bruges in 1629 to help found the new convent there. She also served as procuratrix and grate Sister, a position of ultimate trust where she oversaw the interactions between the community and the outside. She died in 1634, after devoting herself to the care of her plague-stricken Sisters in the infirmary and becoming infected. The chronicler wrote: ‘In her vocation to religion we may see the great providence of God’. We cannot know whether Elizabeth Lovell entered the convent to nurse her broken heart, or to allow her family to save face; we do not know whether she initiated that move, or if it was her family’s decision, which she then accepted. What is clear, however, is that the convent had not been her first choice; yet she persevered to become a dedicated nun, thereby providing the convent’s chroniclers with another type of exemplary life, one whose path was not as smooth as some, yet equally edifying.
Entertaining marriage prospects and a sincere religious vocation were not always antithetical. In fact, conventual Mss indicates that some religious vocations could reveal themselves through the very medium of a romantic encounter. Agnes Tasburgh professed at St Monica’s in 1622; at first glance, her story is familiar since she entered the convent after she fell in love with a French gentleman who lodged at her family house. Her father, Sir John Tasburgh of Flixton (Norfolk), described as ‘a hot Protestant’, had insisted his children be raised in the Church of England, although his wife continued to practise her Catholicism in private. The Chronicle indicates that Agnes was particularly attracted to this young man especially because he was a Roman Catholic and talked often of matters of religion in a way which resonated with her. When she ‘secretly reconciled to the Church’, this French gentleman’s discourses of the faith fanned the flames both of her newfound devotion and of her love for him. Her hopes were shattered when her father refused to envisage a match and sent his guest away; he ordered his daughter never to see him again. He demanded she return to her filial obedience and to the fold of conformity, and as she ardently defended the Catholic faith, we are told he threatened to cut out her tongue if she spoke another word. With that, he turned her away and she went to her grandmother’s; the elderly relative was more amenable to the old faith, and she managed to find her a place at Louvain, thanks to her acquaintance with Matthew Kellison, President of the English College. This case is interesting because it seems that Agnes’s feelings for the French gentleman stemmed partly from the fact that he could talk to her about spiritual matters and edify her on certain points. One could see her vocation in the making in this attraction and later she did not waver, deliberately preferring Louvain to an unnamed community at Douai which, according to the Chronicle, she declined on the grounds that it was unenclosed and too lax for her vocation.
This example shows that the love of God and the love of a suitor were not always mutually exclusive. Although ultimately the woman would have to choose to commit to one type of life or the other, falling in love did not preclude being devoutly Catholic and dedicated to the cause.
Some concluding thoughts …
Over the last three posts, it has been my goal to address the blanket assumptions that still remain in the popular psyche today. Like the Twitter users reacting to John McCafferty’s portrait of a young, fresh-faced nun, we often contribute to the perpetuation of that oft-quoted maxim, “Aut maritus, aut murus”, a husband or a cloister, as if those two polarities were so mutually-exclusive as to negate any possibility for overlap, or any other possibilities.
The vignettes included in the Augustinian Chronicles of Louvain and Bruges and the documents of other English congregations offer insight into the private lives of some of the women who went on to become nuns there. Allowing room for critical distance and caution, since the process of creating a narrative of course fashioned those memory documents to suit the purpose of edification, they show that the relationship between earthly love and the decision to enter the cloister was a complex, fluid one, which had as much to do with personal preference as it had with family strategies or societal expectations. Many nuns-to-be entered the convent after refusing one or several suitors. For some of those, the cloister was a shelter from a marriage prospect they did not want; for others, there was only ever one Bridegroom in their heart, and they married Him when they became Brides of Christ. And for those who entered less out of ardent religious zeal than out of more worldly motives, it was not impossible to develop a true and sincere love of contemplative life once in the convent.
Even in the convent, the dialectic between romantic love and religious life never stopped being a sensitive issue. Whilst some found perfect contentment in divine love, others met with forms of terrene passions which sometimes challenged their religious vocations.
 Laurence Lux-Sterritt, English Benedictine Nuns in Exile in the Seventeenth Century. Living Spirituality. Manchester University Press, 2017, pp. 68-69.
 Bowden (ed.), The Chronicles of Nazareth, pp. 11-12.
 Hamilton (ed.), The Chronicle of […] St Monica’s, vol. 2, p. 44.
 Ulrike Strasser, ‘Aut Murus Aut Maritus? Women’s Lives in Counter-Reformation Munich (1579-1651)’. University of Minnesota ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 1997.
 Caroline Bowden (ed.), The Chronicles of Nazareth (The English Convent), Bruges 1629-1763, CRS Records series, vol. 87, Boydell, 2017, p. 10.
 Hamilton (ed.) The Chronicle […] of St Monica’s, vol. 1, p. 255.