Since October I have been working on material held in the Archive of the Archdiocese of Mechelen (AAM) from the English Benedictine Convent of the Glorious Assumption, which was founded in Brussels in 1599 by Lady Mary Percy.
In this archive are several hundred letters written over the course of the seventeenth century by various members of the Brussels Benedictine community to the Archbishops of Mechelen. These documents have survived remarkably well over the last four centuries; they were sent from the convent to the Archbishops and their secretaries, who stored the letters carefully (many have contemporary archival marks on the pages) before they were moved to the attic of the Archbishop’s palace, where they remained until the twentieth century. Their current home is in the former library of the rather striking Groot Seminarie of the Archbishopric (today the Diocesan Pastoral Centre).
For anyone reading this that follows me on Twitter (@emilieKMmurphy), you may have seen some snippets from these letters over the last few months. For example the image of this lovely seal that Ursula Hewicke used in her correspondence:
Ursula Hewicke [in Brussels] to Jacobus Boonen, 7 April 1623
AAM, Regulieren Brussel, Engelse Nonnen, Doos 12/1, unfoliated.
Today I want to reveal some of the content of this letter from Hewicke, and think about the broader issues it raises.
In the letter, Hewicke describes the extreme trouble to her conscience because of the ongoing dispute between her Abbess, Mary Percy, and their confessor Robert Chambers, by which ‘they lose the authoritie due to them, and we living thus suspended’.
Continuing, Hewicke emphasises how ‘many inconveniences would have bin avoyded that have bin and are amongst us’ if it had not been for ‘wanting language to write or speake of to Superiours’.
Closing, she explains:
‘In the last Visitation I desired to make relation of a thing to the Vicar generall which I could not doe by any interpreter, because our Right Reverende Ladie…had commaunded that we should not speake of it to any, but to herselfe and Ghostlie fathers, under paine of mortal sinne; therefore I did make petition…that we might have meanes to learn french, that by this tyme I might have bin able to write or speake it to your Lordship but now I can doe neither of them…’
As a result, Hewicke’s letter was sent with the following instructions on the address leaf (see first image) ‘Je desire treshumblement d’avoir Monsieur Colford pour l’interpreteur’.
Colford faithfully translated Hewicke’s letter, and it was then circulated, alongside the English original, to the Archbishop. The translation contains several markings indicating its reception by Boonen or one of his secretaries, notably, as you should see from the image below, the line ‘d’avoir moyen d’apprendre francoise’ (we might have means to learn French) has been underlined.
This incident highlights the struggle that Hewicke faced between obeying her superiors, and making herself understood. It also raises several interesting questions that I intend to address, and will no doubt blog about in the coming months: Did Ursula Hewicke ever learn French? If so, how, and with what level of competency? What languages did other English nuns have when entering convents abroad, and how were these skills utilised? How common was it for English nuns to feel linguistically challenged? How were these issues overcome? And thinking more specifically about Brussels, what caused the dispute between the Abbess and the community’s confessor? Was it ever resolved? Finally, can Hewicke’s letter be interpreted as a challenge to the authority of the Abbess, and was the Abbess’s authority ever circumvented or challenged directly by members of the community?