The Nuns of Caverswall Castle Part 1.

The facinating story of how Caverswall Castle became a convent for the first time in 1811.

This is the story of the English Community Of Benedictine Nuns who fled from the French Revolution and made their home at Caverswall Castle in 1811. Part 1 of the story covers the period from the foundation of the order in 1598 to when the Nuns arrived in England in 1794.

Introduction :

During the 16th Century the English Reformation gave rise to a period in history where people could be punished for their religious beliefs. The punishments included fines and loss of their rights and property. Many found themselves imprisoned or put to death. The English Community Of Benedictine Nuns Of Ghent was founded by a small group of English ladies who had left England during the 1500s to escape the religious persecution and penal laws that followed.

This devout group of ladies, who could not practice their catholic religion openly at home, initially founded a community in Brussels. Some 25 years later the community founded another monastery in Ghent. In 1794 they narrowly escaped from the turmoil of the French Revolution and fled to England. They founded a convent at Caverswall Castle in 1811.

It is also a story which touches upon the ancient families who had never lost the old faith. Here then are members of the Howards, Giffards, Peters, Bedingfelds, Carylls, Jerninghams, Tempests, Cliffords, Corbys, Poultons, Lawsons, and many more who nourished and kept up the old English Catholic traditions.

Benedictine Motto Pray and Work

The emblem and motto of the English Community Of Benedictine Nuns can be seen on the left. ‘Pax Ora Et Labora’ can be translated as Peace Pray and Work.

We are fortunate today that an account of this facinating history was published in 1894. Drawn from the diaries and other documents that had survived, the historical account is a story of faith, courage and persistence often in the face of great personal risk. As the the original book contains over 200 pages I have abridged some of the key events for this webpage.

Foundation Of The Order – 1598

Our Story begins with a member of one of the old noble Catholic families, Sir Thomas Percy the 7th Earl of Northumberland and 1st Baron Percy. In 1558 he married Anne Somerset the daughter of Henry Somerset, 2nd Earl of Worcester. Thomas was a key member of the so called ‘Nothern Rebellion’ in 1569. This was a plot to depose Queen Elizabeth 1st and replace her with Mary, Queen of Scots. The plot failed and Thomas was executed for treason in 1572.

Anne Percy was also implicated in the rebellion and to avoid punishment she went into exile in Flanders, taking her infant daughter Mary with her. They remained on the continent and Mary was educated in a succession of Belgian and French convents. In 1598 Mary Percy founded the ‘Monastery of Our Lady of The Assumption’ in Brussels. This was the third Continental foundation for English Catholics, in this case a religious house of Benedictine Nuns. Lady Mary Percy with 7 other ladies and 4 lay-sisters made their professions in 1599.

Benedictine Nuns Foundation Diagram

Due to the anti-catholic laws in England at that time some of the old catholic families sent their children abroad so that they could receive a catholic education and practice their faith without the risk of punishment. The membership of the monastery in Brussels grew continually. The diagram on the right dates from 1894. It shows the foundation structure as it existed at that time, the parent house at Brussels at the head. Our story now continues with the house that was founded in Ghent in 1624.

The Convent At Ghent 1624 – 1794 :

The community at Brussels continued to grow and eventually thoughts turned to the possibility of founding another house somewhere in the Low Countries. Initially a small house in the town of Ghent was taken on lease with a view to finding a more suitable building for a monastery in the future.

From the community at Brussels, approval had been given to 4 Dames who were to become the foundresses of the Monastery at Ghent :

  • Dame Lucy Elizabeth Knatchbull. She was the daughter of Reynold or Reginald Knatchbull Esq and his wife, Ann Crispe. Ann was the daughter of William Crispe Esq who had been held in high regard by both Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth.
  • Dame Eugenia Jane Poulton, the daughter of Ferdinand Poulton Esq of Desborough Hall in Northhamptonshire.
  • Dame Magdalene Elizabeth Digby, the daughter of Everard Digby Esq of Tilton in Leicestershire. She was the sister of Sir Everard Digby, Knight, who was executed in 1606 for his part in the Gunpowder Plot.
  • Dame Mary Roper, or Rooper (as it was then spelt), was the daughter of Lord Christopher Roper, 2nd Baron of Teynham and his wife Catherine Seborne.

On the 17th of January 1624, the 4 Dames accompanied by a novice, Sister Elizabeth Bradbury (a relative of Dame Euginia), and a lay-novice, Sister Lucy Bacon arrived at the little house in Ghent. The following day the Bishop of Ghent confirmed Dame Lucy in the office of superior. During the following years the number of young English ladies, attracted by the good reputation of the community, continued to grow.

The limitations created by the small size of their house were in themselves a serious problem, but there was also a strong desire to achive a principal aim of building a monastery. The annals record that Father Vincent and other friends set about the task of finding a suitable site. They found a plot of land near to St. Peter`s Abbey owned by a Monsuier Damass. The Lady Abbess had to obtain the Bishop`s leave to visit the site herself, but once she had seen it she was convinced it was the ideal location. The owner drove a hard bargain and Lady Lucy decided to trust to providence for the means. Fortunately there had been an influx of Postulents (new members) and with the assistance of their portions, the community was able to meet the price. A suitable building with a church was built on the site and the community moved into the new monastery in the autumn of 1628.

Benedictine Abbey at Ghent

As the years passed the community continued to raise funds until they were able to achieve their plan of building a monastery. In the above drawing the completed building is depicted on the right. The building on the left is St. Peter`s Abbey. The waterway in the foreground is the River Scheldt. The annals contain many facinating details about the lives of the individual members of the community interspersed with key moments in history. However for this webpage version of the story we will need to summarise some of the key events that would play a major part in the future of the community, They would lead eventually to the Nuns abandoning their monastery and fleeing to England.

  • 1642 / 1651 – The English Civil War created serious problems for the community and for other English persons in Ghent. Property investments were based in England but the confusion caused by the war meant that interest payments were not made. Friends in England were generally unable to help them. The old Catholic families tended to support the Royalist Cause and were heavily persecuted, many to the point of financial ruin.
  • 1650 – In March the exiled King Charles II passed through Ghent and called at the monastery. He was received by the Abbess, Lady Mary Roper. An old manuscript records that the Lady Abbess took the opportunity to speak plainly ‘in order to his eternall and temporall good’ Futhermore when Charles had left the monastery the Lady Abbess enjoined everyone to ‘pray hartily for his conversion.’
  • 1650 – Just a few weeks after the Kings visit Lady Mary Roper developed a sudden illness. King Charles sent his own physician to attend her but nothing could be done. She died on the 20th of April. The annals record that at that point the monastery had existed for over 25 years and that the original membership which had begun with 6 now stood at 54 members.
  • 1660 – At the end of May 1660 King Charles II was restored to the English throne. The annals provide an interesting insight – ‘The devotion of our convent to the cause of the Stuarts rendered it almost a matter of course that a letter of congratulation was sent by the Lady Abbess.’ The King sent an ackowledgment stating that he would ‘allways have a particular kindness for yu and yr community, and shall take all occasions to oblidge yu of wch yu may assure yr community. I have directed the Chancellor to send yu a little present of four hundred English pieces, for the supply of yr present necessities ……’
  • 1661 – The English Parliament enacted the first of a series of laws designed to ensure the supremacy of the Anglican Church. The 4 new laws became known as the Clarendon Code. Together will earlier legislation and the later Test Acts the ‘Penal Laws’ had a significant impact on Protestant nonconformists and Catholicism.
  • 1669 – The annals record the conversion of the Duke Of York who would later become King James II. It seems that he was reconciled with the Church in Ghent and developed a friendship with the convent from that time.
  • 1672 – As history moved on towards the end of the 17th Century, the number of professions at the convent fell dramatically. In previous years there had been two or three at at time, several times in the year. This reduced to just one or two per year and there were none in the final years of the century. The annals suggest several reasons for the changes : Fervour was on the wane amongst English Catholics and there were dissensions with each other. Apostasies were becoming more common and the state of the Low Countries was not inviting. Ghent became the property of France during the military campaign of King Louis XIV only to be returned to Spain in the treaty of 1678.
  • 1745 – Ghent was captured by the French during the War of the Austrian Succession. It was returned to the Empire of Austria in 1748.
  • 1753 – Running throughout the annals is the theme of poverty which affected the convent and the members. The account of one particular incident might raise a smile today.  It seems that a ‘Father Whetenall had requested that at the Conventual Mass the Credo should be sung entirely, and not merely the the alternate verses diversified with the organ, as our nuns, in common with the members of other religious houses in the town, had done up to that time. The Lady Abbess maintained that the religious had not strength for so much chanting as this would involve, and that she could not provide them with sufficient food to enable them to do so ! ‘
  • 1778 – Parliament enacted the Papists Act which eased some of the restrictions that had been previously placed on Catholics by the Penal Laws. However the civil disturbances which followed, known as the Gordon Riots, revealed the bitter anti-catholic feeling that still existed in some quarters.
  • 1782 – In July the community received another visit from the English royalty. The Duke and Duchess of Gloucester with their two children were making a tour on the continent. They were entertained by the Lady Abbess and her nuns and expressed the wish to visit again when next in Ghent.
  • 1789 – In November the town of Ghent became a battleground during the Brabant Revolution. The annals of the community include a copy of letter writen by Dame Anselm Tempest who was present at the time – ‘The first day there was a violent battle fought in out street, three cannon placed against our house, fourteen Souldgers were shot, and some remained there for three days …….. and the Bullets came fast at the windows, that we was obliged to spend the whole day in the cellar. At 5 o`clock in the evening they got drunk with brandy mixt with gunpowder to take of all sensibility of humanity (which was no way necessary). At that time they rung and shot most violently against our door, and swore they would have it down. I leave you to guess what we suffered in those dreadful moments. All their spite was against us, so it was happy that the Patriots came in on the 13th. Since that they have found all the Ropes ready prepared for our executions, it makes me tremble when I think of it, I should have found it very hard to conform myself to be martyred by souldgers.’
  • 1791 – The Catholic Relief Act made significant changes to the lives of Catholics. Together with the changes introduced by the Relief Act of 1778 it was now possible for Catholics to purchase land, to enjoy religious freedom, and other restrictions were also removed. This marked a major turning point in English Catholic history, and for the colleges and religious establishments abroad there was now a prospect of the possibility of returning to England. As it turned out, events in France, were about to provide the Benedictine community in Ghent with an opportunity to taste the new freedoms sooner than they had anticipted.

The French Revolution 1789 :

Fighting during the French Revolution

Beginning in 1789 the French Revolution created a turmoil that brought fundamental changes to the political and social fabric of France and beyond. By 1794 the churches and religious orders in France had been closed down. The monarchy was overthrown, leading eventually to the creation of a democratic and secular society enjoying the freedom of religion, the legalisation of divorce and other civil rights.

Measures were introduced to deny the authority of the Pope and the Church of Rome. This included the introduction of a 10 day week to make it difficult for catholics to remember Sundays and Saints days.

The annals of the Benedictine community in Ghent record that they were shocked by ‘the terrible news of the execution of the French King (1793). This was followed by a declaration of war between France and England ……’  ‘The community received news about several English religious houses in France that had been closed down. Some of the members had been declared to be prisoners and others had been more lucky and escaped back to England.

The news got steadily worse, the French Republic was extending its conquests, Flanders and the neighbouring provinces were clearly at risk. The community realised that it was only a matter of time before the French forces reached Ghent so they began to make plans to leave for England.

They closed their school and most of the the twenty or so pupils were sent home. Many of them were Belgians so it was a straightforward matter to return them to their parents. ‘Of the English children, at least four remained to share the fate of their mistresses. One of them being a little Miss Lucas from Warwickshire, who had early been left an orphan, and had been entrusted to our sisters by her uncle at the age of 8, she was now 14’.  The community arranged for some of the heavier and more valuable portion of their property to be sent to England. This included ‘the handsome altar-tabernacle, Dame Eugenia Pulton`s great clock, the old alarum, some of the Church-plate and vestments, a few of the records and papers and divers small articles….’.

The French forces reach the gates of the town.

All too soon the news that the nuns had been dreading reached the convent – the French forces were at the gates of the town. They were quickly engaged by the Austrian Troops and the Duke of York with the English soldiers under his command. The fighting spread into the streets and the nuns reacted to the danger by inscribing the words ‘Oh, Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to Thee.’ on every door and most of the windows. The annals record that ‘the battle could be plainly witnessed from the windows of the infirmary; and these being so near the scene of danger, no one dared approach them closely enough to put Our Lady`s device there, and these windows alone were broken by the cannon balls’.

As the fighting continued it began to look like the French forces would gain the upper hand. The nuns took the precaution of arranging for the marble altar to be removed from the church and taken to a place of safety under the cover of darkness. The removal work was undertaken by M. Portois, the sculptor who had carved it. A very timely and greatly appreciated offer of assistance came from an old English catholic family in west Lancashire. Mr Dicconson, of Wrightington Hall travelled to Flanders to act as chaperone to the nuns.

The Duke of York`s soldiers, recognising that the convent was the only English house of any importance in Ghent, requested the keys with a view to using the building for the storage of their military stores. The only remaining option now for the nuns was to leave the country. Mr Dicconson had arranged passage on a boat from Antwerp to London. The Duke of York gave orders for military waggons to be placed at the disposal of the nuns to convey their baggage to the port. A former pupil, Miss Ackerman offered to look after a few articles of furniture and her step-mother gave some money towards the cost of the travelling carriages.

One of the final acts was to hastily acquire some secular clothing as they felt it would be too dangerous to be seen outside in religious dress. On the 23rd of June 1794 the main party of ‘sisters left their beloved monastery’ leaving behind 2 or 3 lay-sisters to save whatever convent property they could. The main party, consisting of 23 persons, travelled to Antwerp. When they arrived they discovered that there was not enough room on the boat to accomodate everyone. The Lady Abbess decided that Dame Frances Hesketh should set sail with Mr Dicconson taking with them about half of the party and the 4 children. Dame Benedicta Bedingfeld, Dame Anselm Tempest, the Lady Abbess and a few others remained behind to wait for an opportuinity to catch another boat.

The first party arrived in London on the 26th of June 1794, and after a few days rest they travelled to Lancashire. The second party arrived at Dover shortly afterwards. They had received assistance from a former pupil in the monastery – Mrs Frances Henrietta Maire, who had returned to the house in Ghent as a boarder in later life. Having escorted the party safely to England Mrs Maire travelled to her family home, Lartington Hall in County Durham. The lay-sisters who had stayed behind in Ghent managed to hold on for a few more weeks. ‘But when, in a sanguinary struggle, the troops of the Duke of York were cut to pieces in the streets of Ghent, and when the Duke himself was forced to ride for his life without drawing bridle to Antwerp …….. did the last inmates make a hurried retreat, and bid a last farewell to the beloved roof, which for 170 years, had sheltered the innocent lives of generations of English women, nobler far by their religious virtues than even by their high decent and breeding’.

Part 2 will be published towards the end of 2019.

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