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Female pioneer: Mary Ward and some of the first seven Companions set sail for Flanders in 1609 (taken from the "Painted Life of Mary Ward")

The announcement that a Catholic convent is to close raises few eyebrows these days. In the West, such an event is not a rarity. Yet the closure of the convent of Our Lady of Syon in South Brent, Devon, is particularly poignant.

Home to a community of Bridgettine nuns, the convent holds a unique claim in English history: it is the only English community of religious to have remained in continuous existence from before the Reformation. All other Catholic religious communities, both male and female, had to be started afresh after the English Church's break with Rome.

Founded in 1415 by Henry V, Syon Abbey was initially based at Twickenham but soon moved to huge premises, rivalling Westminster Abbey, at Isleworth. There it stood until Henry VIII's order of dispersal. The community secretly lived on in private houses, re-forming under Mary I, before going into exile upon Elizabeth I's accession to the throne. After a spell in Rouen, the community's itinerant life on the continent ended when it eventually settled at Lisbon. In 1861, the community returned to these shores, settling at its current location. With the number of sisters dwindling to three and poor health affecting them, the decision has been taken to dissolve the nearly 600-year-old religious community.

That this has warranted little attention, even within Britain's Catholic community, is not that surprising. Whereas people have a passing knowledge of the activities of Catholic male religious following the Reformation — such as the Jesuit Edmund Campion, dubbed the flower of England by Elizabeth I before his conversion to Catholicism and subsequent execution — little attention has been paid to the activities of Catholic women religious at this time. Men could head to the likes of the English College in Rome, the oldest English institution abroad, but what about women who wished to lead a religious life denied to them in England? What if families desired that, as well as their sons, their daughters too should be educated within the Catholic faith? 

In 1598, the first English convent was established in Brussels and was to be followed by a further 21 establishments across Flanders and France with more than 4,000 women entering them over 200 years. Most were enclosed convents, in theory cut off from the outside world. However, in practice the nuns were not isolated and their contacts and networks spread widely. Here, these substantial communities of women found outlets for female expression often unavailable to their secular counterparts, until the French Revolution and its associated violence forced the convents back to England.

Since September 2008, an Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project team at Queen Mary, University of London, of which I am a member, has been making a comprehensive study of the membership of these English convents in exile, discovering much about these women's activities. For example, it was always previously estimated that the total numbers entering these convents stood at around 1,500 rather than the 4,000 identified by the project.

Whereas the Bridgettines settled in Portugal, the other English female establishments were founded in northern France and Flanders. From 1600 to the start of the English Civil War, the women approached their enterprise with verve. They believed themselves to be playing an active part in winning back England for the Catholic faith, for which their male counterparts were suffering via the fabled "rack and rope". Since Elizabeth I's time, to be ordained a Catholic priest in a foreign country — the only place where this was possible due to the State's official Protestantism — and then to return to England was deemed an act of treason. Equally, to go abroad for education was deemed an illicit act so these women were taking grave risks by forming and joining these convents. Equally, as enclosed female orders, meaning that they remained within the convent's confines, they were forsaking family and friends. Yet, through their prayers for England's conversion, they felt united to the English evangelising mission.

They also had more tangible reminders. For example, Anne Clitherow joined the English Augustinians at Louvain. Her mother was Margaret Clitherow, executed in York in 1586 for refusing to plead for fear of forcing her children to testify against her when charged with sheltering priests. In order to aid devotion, as well as for safe-keeping, the nuns acquired relics of these executed Catholics from their homeland, such as the English Carmelites at Lierre who possessed some of the rope from which Edmund Campion had been hanged. They amassed impressive libraries, the recent deposition of that of the Lisbon-based Bridgettines at Exeter University Library being marked by a volume of essays. Not only did the convents house women writers, translators and dedicatees, but they were also hives of artistic patronage, with work commissioned to decorate the public chapels attached to the convent buildings.

Nor were they cut off from political events at home. Two granddaughters of the Gunpowder plotter Ambrose Rookwood became abbesses of Poor Clare convents, one at Gravelines, the other at Dunkirk. The family of Richard Weston, 1st Earl of Portland and Charles I's lord treasurer, had dealings with the convents, acting as patrons and some entering the English Poor Clare convent at Rouen and the Sepulchrine establishment at Liège. The exiled women religious were not immune from the internal Catholic political arguments of their homeland, such as over the best way to proceed when dealing with a state that indulged in periodic bursts of bloody oppression. Indeed, the Benedictine establishment at Brussels nearly fell apart as these external disagreements coloured other issues festering inside the convent's walls.

The advent of the English Civil War in the middle of the 17th century brought a new dimension to the convents' existence as the Stuarts fled into exile with their surrounding court. Kent-born Mary Knatchbull was a formidable figure. Abbess of the English Benedictines at Ghent, she founded three daughter houses from that one convent — at Ypres, Dunkirk and Boulogne (which later moved to Pontoise and was the only convent to fail in exile, a testament to the general level of the nuns' financial acumen). During the 1650s, she developed close relations with Charles II's court in exile. She provided hospitality for the royal entourage and used the convent as a "clearing house" for the mail of key royal advisers. She possessed a wide network of contacts both at home and abroad and she shared information with the royalist campaigners. Knatchbull also lent substantial sums of convent money to the cause and even offered the king advice on the best way to proceed once the Restoration was announced. On his way "home" in 1660, Charles called at the convent to say goodbye and repay a little of the money. The rest was never forthcoming, despite Mary Knatchbull undertaking several trips to London in an effort to recover the remainder.

When the Stuarts once more headed into exile following William of Orange's  arrival during the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688, the convents had a role to play in Jacobite affairs. Their schools, such as those of the Paris-based English Augustinians and Conceptionists, provided education for the children of exiles. They also allowed the Stuart court to act in a manner befitting a Catholic monarch on the continent, members of the household paying visits to the convents and even attending clothing ceremonies, when young women would receive the habit. For some of the convents, the Catholic cause merged with that of the Jacobites. The Paris Augustinians cherished as a relic of a martyr the heart of James Radcliffe, 3rd Earl of Derwentwater, who had been executed following his leading role in the 1715 Jacobite rebellion.

With the Jacobites' final defeat following the 1745 rebellion, the real chance of reclaiming the country for Catholicism dissipated in England. Like their fellow nationals back home, the convents felt the squeeze of entrenched Protestantism through declines in income and numbers. Though convent membership was not the sole preserve of the elites, there appears to have been a shift in the later 18th century towards more "common" Catholics.

Nevertheless, this did not save the convents from the wrath of the French revolutionaries. Like their French counterparts, the English nuns were visited, their belongings catalogued and their homes seized before they were imprisoned. The Cambrai Benedictines even spent time sharing a prison with the 16 Carmelite nuns from Compiègne, who would be guillotined by the revolutionaries in 1794 and become the subject of Francis Poulenc's opera Dialogues of the Carmelites.

In the face of this violence, some communities fled, rescuing what possessions they could. Those in prison presented a problem for the authorities: despite residing abroad, they were English nationals. Not wishing to provoke the British Empire at this early stage of revolution, the French authorities thus exiled the nuns from their adopted homeland.

Of course, Catholicism remained illegal in the England to which they returned, the raft of penal laws against Catholics still present on the statute books. Yet the "ordered" English government could not be seen to be doing the French revolutionaries' work, so the nuns returned and continued their community existence, receiving property from members of the Catholic landed classes. As such, their very presence would become a tool for necessitating the emancipation of Catholics, finally granted in 1829.

A number of the communities still exist. For example, the Cambrai Benedictines eventually settled at Stanbrook Abbey in Worcestershire, with Edward Welby Pugin helping in its design. The community has recently moved to a new home on the Yorkshire moors. The Sepulchrines from Liège brought back with them the pioneering education of girls which the convents provided abroad; they settled in Chelmsford, Essex, and established the well-known independent school New Hall.

Only one convent remains abroad to this day. The Bruges Augustinians fled to Suffolk in 1794 but voted to return to Bruges in 1803. The convent remains in the historic Belgian city and its chapel bears witness to the artistic and architectural patronage of the English nuns in exile.

They are examples of that much-trumpeted phenomenon: living history. When visiting the Carmelite convent in Darlington, founded in Lierre in 1648, I was shown the profession book by one of the sisters. In this book was the religious vow of every woman who had entered the convent since its foundation and my guide pointed to her own testament in its latter pages. That the order was still using the same profession book reveals something of the historical identity of these establishments.

Yet, last year, that convent also closed, partly due to excessive running costs and a community growing in age rather than members. With the curtain coming down on the Bridgettines, who even sat out the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, a chapter of English history is ending. With the closure of these communities of English women religious, it appears that where persecution, exile, civil war and violent revolution failed, aggressive secularism and religious indifference is now succeeding.

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