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Mother Mary More and the Exile of the Augustinian Canonesses of Bruges in England: 1794–1802

  • Francis Young

Mother Mary Augustina More was the ninth and last lineal descendant of St. Thomas More and the sister of Fr. John More, S.J., Provincial of the English Jesuits at his death in 1794. She was among the most important figures in eighteenth century English Catholic life, and has been somewhat neglected by historians of the period. Born at Barnborough (or Bamburg), Yorkshire, in 1732, she was the daughter of Thomas More and Catherine Giffard. In 1753 she made her first profession at the Priory of Nazareth, Bruges and, in 1766, succeeded Mother Olivia Darrell as seventh prioress of the community, a duty she fulfilled until her death, on 5th May 1807. These were some of the most difficult years that the community ever suffered, and it was largely because of Mother More’s resolute leadership that the community survived as the only English convent remaining in mainland Europe.

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1 The Canonesses Regular of St. John Lateran, of the Congregation of Windesheim, trace their descent from the house founded at Diepenveen near Deventer in 1400 by Gerard Groote. Before taking on the rule of St. Augustine they had been the ‘Sisters of the Common Life’ who lived in Gerard’s house in Deventer. In 1415 Diepenveen founded the Priory of St. Ursula in Louvain, which in turn founded St. Monica’s, the motherhouse of Bruges. The first Englishwoman to enter St. Ursula’s was Sr. Elizabeth Woodfood, a nun of Burnham abbey in Buckinghamshire, in 1548. The first English prioress was Mother Margaret Clement, daughter of the adopted son of St. Thomas More, who was elected in 1569. St. Monica’s was founded as an English house in 1609. A history of the order and extensive quotations from the annals are to be found in Durrant, C. S.. A Link Between Flemish Mystics and English Martyrs, London, 1925 .

2 A Daily Exercise and Prayers for the Pensioners at the Augustin Nunns at Bruges, Douai, 1712 .

3 MD, Friday 27th December 1782. Chaplains were appointed by the Presidents of the English College at Douai or by the English Provincials of the Society of Jesus.

4 MD, Friday 10th January 1783.

5 MD, Monday 19th May 1783. Places at the school were at a premium at this time; in 1781 the Convent had been obliged to refuse thirty pupils owing to a lack of space. See Guilday, P.. The English Catholic Refugees on the Continent 1558–1795, London, 1914, p. 388 .

6 MD, Tuesday 17th February 1790.

7 MD, Tuesday 12th January 1790. The problem of Catholics being unable to serve in the British army was one of the main motivating factors of the emancipation legislation of 1791–1826.

8 Andrew Oliver, a secular priest who was chaplain to the Augustinian Canonesses 1784–1812. Oliver was a convert who served as Prefect of Studies at the colleges of Scalan and Douai 1769–1782. See Gordon’s Ecclesiastical Chronicle for Scotland, IV, 604.

9 MD, Thursday 12th January 1786.

10 MD, Friday 17th February 1786.

11 See Appendix A.

12 The nuns and the abbess of this community, Mother Mary Magdalen Arden O. S. B., were later accommodated at Oxburgh Hall in Norfolk and are mentioned in Mother More’s letter to her cousin, Thomas Waterton (See Appendix B).

13 Sheppard, L. C., in The English Carmelites, ch. VIII, London, 1943 gives the number of refugees as seventy-five and the date of departure as 29th June. He also identifies the vessel as a collier rather than a merchant ship carrying corn. Guilday pp. 388–389 gives yet another date of 6th July. The dates I use are taken from the Convent Annals, as cited in Durrant.

14 Mrs. Franklin was the mother of one of the pensioners, Miss D’Eveline.

15 5th Baronet. The Rookwood-Gages combined the names of two great Catholic families, the Gages of Firle Place in Sussex and the Rookwoods of Coldham Hall in Suffolk. The Gages inherited Hengrave from its original builders, the Kystons, in the mid seventeenth century. A description of Sir Thomas and Lady Gage, made ten years earlier, is to be found in François de la Rochefoucauld, A Frenchman’s Year in Suffolk, 1784, ed. and trans. N. Scarfe, SRS, 1988, p. 27.

16 Presumably at Coldham Hall or at the Gages’s townhouse in Bury St. Edmunds, now No.’s 9, 10 and 11 Northgate Street.

17 See Appendix B.

18 The wearing of religious habits was at this time prohibited by law in England.

19 Bury St. Edmunds was one of the most Catholic towns in Suffolk in the eighteenth century. In the period 1786–91 the number of Easter communicants averaged at 104. See Rowe, J., The Story of Catholic Bury St. Edmunds, Coldham and the Surrounding District, Wymondham, 1980, p. 13 .

20 CUL MS Hengrave 93(1) 105. See Appendix C.

21 Charles Thompson, S. J., (alias Parker), 1746–1795, an American, served the mission in Bury St. Edmunds 1790–1794. He died in Bristol or Bath on 6th April 1795. See G. Holt, S. J., The English Jesuits 1650–1829: A Biographical Dictionary, CRS 70, 1984.

22 Gage, J., The History and Antiquities of Hengrave in Suffolk, London, 1822 , plate 11. Fortunately most of the ‘improvements’ were never carried out.

23 Fiske, J., ed., The Oakes Diaries; Business, Politics and the Family in Bury St. Edmunds 1778–1827, Vol. I, SRS, 1990. m. p. 320.

24 Since it was customary to use the apostrophe ‘Mrs’ for a professed nun, the use of ‘Miss’ indicates either a clergess (postulant) or pensioner.

25 The Bishop of Bruges, Mgr. Brenart, had died in exile at Anholt in Westphalia.

26 It was customary during later penal times for a Catholic priest to read the prayers over the corpse in private, while an Anglican clergyman officiated at the actual burial. None of the community attended the funeral of Sir Thomas Gage on 5th April 1796 because Mr. Carter was officiating.

27 The ‘Catholics of fashion,’ chiefly the members of the Cisalpine Club, were rumoured to support the bill. Many English Catholic aristocrats of the period sought a reputation for liberal views, to which the idea of monasteries seemed repugnant.

28 The annals have the questions as follows:

  • 1.

    1. What is the number of nuns in your house, including lay-sisters?

  • 2.

    2. How many of them have been professed since your arrival in England?

  • 3.

    3. Were any of those who have been professed since your arrival in England residents with you abroad, as Novices or otherwise?

  • 4.

    4. Are any of those who have been professed since your arrival in England born Protestants or born of Protestant parents?

  • 5.

    5. What is the number of your pensioners?

  • 6.

    6. Are any of them Protestants, or born of Protestant parents?

  • 7.

    7. Are any of them educated gratis?

  • 8.

    8. Are your Community and school regulated according to the provisions of the late Act in favour of Catholics?

29 With its cathedral having been demolished and its Bishop having died in exile, Bruges formed part of the Diocese of Ghent from 1801 to 1827.

30 See Appendix C.

31 The office of nun chaplain is an obscure and largely forgotten mediaeval institution. The nun chaplain had no liturgical function but assisted the prioress in various ways. She marked her office book with the plainchants to be sung for the day, took charge of the altars within the enclosure and helped the prioress to serve in the refectory. See Durrant, n. p. 180.

32 The English Convent, Bruges, late 20th Century, p. 27.

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British Catholic History
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