How did English nuns gain an international audience in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries? One route was to write about persecution and martyrdom. The currency of such accounts was heightened in Counter-Reformation Europe, where the religious wars as well as efforts to halt or reverse the exponential growth of Protestant congregations gave strong impetus to the circulation of narratives strengthening Catholic identity. The religious orders were already transnational networks, transcending as well as embracing local and national allegiances. Their production of martyrologies was a means of advertising the predicament in which persecuted Catholics found themselves.
Dorothy Arundell, who resided at her widowed mother’s home, Chideock Castle, in Dorset, provides one example. This recusant community was raided in 1594; Dorothy and her sister Gertude – who both went on to found the exiled Benedictine convent at Brussels in 1598 – were among those arrested. Their priest, John Cornelius, was subsequently executed, reportedly making his Jesuit vows on the scaffold. Within a short time, Arundell had composed a narrative of the martyred priest, which was quickly absorbed by Jesuit historians across Europe. Her account was first publicised in Spain in the history of English persecution compiled by the Bishop of Tarazona, Diego de Yepes, in collaboration with the English Jesuit, Joseph Creswell: Historia particular de la persecucion de Inglaterra (Madrid, 1599).
In the seventeenth century, it was printed in Italian by Daniello Bartoli in his Dell’istoria della Compagnia di Giesu: L’Inghilterra (Rome, 1667; Bologna, 1676) and in Latin via the translation of Bartoli’s work by Louis Janin in 1671. The original is now lost; however, an edition based on the surviving translations is underway by Elizabeth Patton at Johns Hopkins University.
Elizabeth Sander was a member of the English Bridgettine community exiled from Syon Abbey in Isleworth which had led a peripatetic existence on the Continent from the Dissolution in 1539 until their settling at a permanent base in Lisbon in 1594. Sander suffered six years’ imprisonment when she travelled to England as part of a delegation from the community in 1578. On her eventual release and return to the Continent in 1587, she was prompted to write an account of her experiences by Sir Francis Englefield – former privy councillor to Queen Mary, and then in exile at the Spanish court. Two versions of this account survive: one in manuscript; the other printed twice, in Spanish, as a constituent text of this wider martyrological project. Robert Persons first had it published in his Relacion de algunos martyrios (Madrid, 1590) and de Yepes followed suit nine years later, in his Historia particular.
This persecution narrative places the author herself – rather than a spiritual mentor – at the centre. It relates her journey from Flanders to England, her apprehension and imprisonment in Winchester in 1580, her efforts to secure release, and safe passage back to her community (by then in Rouen) under a false name.
The Iberian as well as English reach of the Bridgettines illustrates the extent to which exiled women religious grabbed polemic by the horns in order to preserve and defend their communities. Upon their arrival in Lisbon, they published an account of their decision to move from Rouen, with a preface by Robert Persons (again), collectively signed ‘las monjas de Sion’: Relacion que embarion las Religiosas del Monasterio del Sion de Inglaterra (Madrid, 1594). A different manuscript account of their peregrinations was made in the period 1608-1628. Perhaps the best known of their literary productions is the illuminated manuscript recounting the community’s exile which was prepared for the visit of King Felipe III in 1619, with a petition addressed to the Infanta Maria, at that moment potentially the new consort of Prince Charles.
Their impact on the English imagination was fixed by Thomas Robinson’s The Anatomy of the English Nunnery at Lisbon, printed immediately following the collapse of the Spanish Match, and reprinted throughout the seventeenth century. But the nuns did not languish voiceless in exile; they composed a riposte in manuscript.
The above examples are mainly directed toward an Iberian audience – a bias that reflects my participation in the Irlanda y el Atlántico Ibérico conference recently organised by Igor Pérez Tostado, Enrique García Hernán and Declan Downey, rather than the restriction of the phenomenon to Spain and Portugal. Nevertheless, it should be noted that these are English martyrologies published in Spanish rather than Spanish martyrologies per se. There are specific circumstances that encouraged their production, not least the competition for resources. As Thomas McCoog has observed of English versus indigenous Spanish Jesuits, ‘The English seminaries … had one important advantage over the Spanish professed houses in their quest for alms: martyrs’ . Eyewitness accounts and testimonies – including those authored by women – were fundamental to their advocacy and fundraising programmes.
Jenna D. Lay, ‘The Literary Lives of Nuns: Crafting Identities Through Exile’, in Caroline Bowden and James E. Kelly (eds.), The English Convents in Exile, 1600-1800: Communities, Culture and Identity (Farnham: Ashgate, 2013), 71-86.
Elizabeth Patton, ‘Dorothy Arundell’s “Acts of Father John Cornelius”: “We Should Hear from Her, Herself — She Who Left a Record of It in These Words” ’, ANQ 24 (2011): 51-62.
Elizabeth Perry, ‘Petitioning for Patronage: An Illuminated Tale of Exile from Syon Abbey, Lisbon’, in Bowden and Kelly, 159-74.
Betty S. Travitsky, ‘The Puzzling Letters of Sister Elizabeth Sa[u]nder[s]’, in Zachary Lesser and Benedict S. Robinson (eds.), Textual Conversations in the Renaisssance: Ethics, Authors, Technologies (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006), 131-45.