Monday, January 9, 2012

The Last Nun

By Nancy Bilyeau


           

One spring day in 1539, twenty-six women were forced to leave their home— the only home most had known for their entire adult lives. The women were nuns of the Dominican Order of Dartford Priory, in Kent. The relentless dissolution of the monasteries had finally reached their convent door. Having no choice, Prioress Joan Vane turned the priory over to King Henry VIII, who had broken from Rome.


What the women would do with their lives now was unclear. Because Dartford Priory surrendered to rather than defied the crown, some monies were provided. Lord Privy Seal Thomas Cromwell, the architect of the dissolution that poured over a million pounds into the royal treasury, had devised a pension plan for the displaced monks, friars and nuns. According to John Russell Stowe’s History and Antiquities of Dartford, published in 1844, Prioress Joan received “66 pounds, 13 shillings per annum.” She left Dartford and was not heard from again—it’s thought she lived with a brother.
Sister Elizabeth Exmewe, a younger, less important nun, received a pension of “100 shillings per annum.” This was the amount that most Dartford nuns received. The roaring inflation of the 1540s meant that such a pension would probably not be enough to live on after a few years—but there was never a question of its being adjusted.
Some of the thousands of monks and friars who were turned out of their monasteries in the 1530s became priests or teachers or apothecaries. But nuns—roughly 1,900 of them at the time of the Dissolution--did not have such options. “Those who had relatives sought asylum in the bosom of their own family,” wrote Stowe with 19th century floridity. Marriage was not an option. In 1539, the most conservative noble, the Duke of Norfolk, introduced to Parliament “the Act of Six Articles,” which forbade ex-nuns and monks from marrying. The act, which had the approval of Henry VIII, became law. The king did not want nuns in the priory but he did not want them to marry either. There was literally no place for them in England.
Sisters who could afford it immigrated to Catholic countries to search for priories that would take them in. Others lacking family support sank into poverty. Eustace Chapuys, the Spanish ambassador, wrote: “It is a lamentable thing to see a legion of monks and nuns who have been chased from their monasteries wandering miserably hither and thither seeking means to live; and several honest men have told me that what with monks, nuns, and persons dependent on the monasteries suppressed, there were over 20,000 who knew not how to live.”
Such wandering through England would not be the fate of Elizabeth Exmewe. Enough is known of her life from various sources to gain a picture of a determined woman.
Dartford Priory, founded by Edward III, drew women from the gentry and aristocracy, even one from royalty. Princess Bridget Plantagenet, youngest sister of Elizabeth of York, was promised to Dartford as a baby. She lived there from childhood until her death in 1517. Elizabeth Exmewe was typical of most of the other nuns—she was the daughter of a gentleman, Sir Thomas Exmewe. He was a goldsmith and “merchant adventurer,” serving as Lord Mayor of London.


It was common for brothers and sisters to enter monastic life together, though at separate places. Elizabeth’s brother, William Exmewe, was a Carthusian monk and respected scholar of Greek and Latin at the London Charterhouse. He was also one of the monks who in 1535 refused to sign the Oath of Supremacy to Henry VIII, despite intense pressure. The king had broken from the Pope because he could not get a divorce from Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn. Once the king became head of the Church of England, it was imperative that all monks shift their loyalty to him. But Exmewe would not compromise his beliefs, and he was punished with a horrifying death: He was hanged, disemboweled while still alive and quartered.


No nun in England was executed besides Sister Elizabeth Barton, a Benedictine who prophesied against the king’s marriage to Anne Boleyn. Barton was arrested, tortured, tried, and hanged for it. Elizabeth Exmewe did not publicly criticize the king nor seek martyrdom. Four years after the death of her brother, she was turned out from Dartford Priory.
Historians studying the dissolution have noted a remarkable fact: in several cases, nuns attempted to live together in small groups after being forced from their priories. They were determined to continue their vocations, in whatever way they could. Elizabeth Exmewe shared a home in Walsingham with another ex-nun of Dartford. “They were Catholic women of honest conversation,” said one contemporary account. A half-dozen other Dartford refugees tried to live under one roof closer to Dartford. Meanwhile, Henry VIII had their priory demolished. He built a luxurious manor house on the rubble of the Dominican Order, although he’s not believed to have ever slept there. It became the home of his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, after he divorced her in disgust in 1540.


Following the reign of Henry’s Protestant son, Edward VI, his Catholic daughter, Mary I, took the throne in 1553. Mary re-formed several religious communities as she struggled to turn back time in England and restore the “True Faith.” Elizabeth Exmewe and six other ex-nuns successfully petitioned Queen Mary to re-create their Dominican community at Dartford, which was vacant after the death of Anne of Cleves. They moved into the manor house, built on the home they left 14 years earlier, with two chaplains. The convent life they loved flourished again: the sisters spent their days praying, singing and chanting; gardening; embroidering; and studying.
But the restoration didn’t last long. When Mary died and her Protestant half-sister took the throne, one of Elizabeth’s goals was extinguishing the monastic flames. In 1559 Elizabeth’s first Reformation Parliament repressed all the re-founded convents and confiscated the land.
And so the Dartford nuns were ejected again, this time with no pensions. Mary’s widower, King Philip of Spain, heard of their plight, and paid for a ship to convey the nuns of Dartford and Syon Abbey to Antwerp, in the Low Countries. Paul Lee, in his book Nunneries, Learning and Spirituality in Late Medieval Society, has charted the sisters’ poignant journey after leaving their native land.  
After a few months, a new home was secured for them. For the next ten years Elizabeth Exmewe lived “in the poor Dutch Dominican nunnery at Leliendal, near Zierikzee on the western shore of the bleak island of Schouwen in Zeeland.” Several of the English nuns were entering their eighties, with Elizabeth being the youngest. All suffered from illness and near poverty. The Duchess of Parma, hearing of their hardships, sent an envoy to the Dartford nuns. He wrote: “I certainly found them extremely badly lodged. This monastery is very poor and very badly built…. I find that these are the most elderly of the religious and the most infirm, and it seems that they are more than half dead. “ Despite his dire observances, the nuns themselves expressed pride in their convent. Their leader, Prioress Elizabeth Croessner, wrote a letter to the new pope, Pius IV, saying they strove to remain faithful to their vows and were interested in new recruits!
In the 1560s the nuns died, one by one, leaving only Elizabeth Exmewe and her prioress, Elizabeth Croessner. Destitute, the pair moved to Bruges and found another convent. They lived through a bout of religious wars, with Calvinists marching through the streets.
The onetime prioress of Dartford, Elizabeth Croessner, died in 1577. Now Elizabeth Exmewe, the daughter of a Lord Mayor and the sister of a Carthusian martyr, was the only one left of her Order. In 1585, she, too, perished in Bruges and was buried by Dominican friars with all honors. Elizabeth Exmewe is believed to have lived to 76 years of age.

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U.S. Simon&Schuster cover
U.K. Orion cover
Nancy Bilyeau’s historical thriller, The Crown, is set in Dartford Priory in 1537-1538. The book is on sale in North America, the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, and Brazil. 
The Chalice, the sequel, will be published on Feb. 28th, 2013 in the UK and on March 5th, 2013 in North America.

To learn more, go to www.nancybilyeau.com.

26 comments:

  1. Have just ordered 'The Crown', cannot wait for it to arrive!!

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  2. Best wishes with your new release, Nancy! I am sure your interesting history above will spark much interest in it.

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  3. Nancy, thank you so much for your article. So often conventual life is portrayed as a sort of prison to which romantic-minded rebellious daughters were sent against their will.
    You impart an understanding that convents represented both a high degree of ambition in a world that prized the spiritual life above all else, and offered a community in which women essentially were free of male domination.
    Your tracing of the lives of nuns after the dissolution is fascinating -- filling in an aspect of life in England that I've been curious about.

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  4. Wow! That is an amazing story! I never gave much thought to what happened to the nuns after the dissolution. What a courageous and strong group of women!

    Congrats on your story's release and thank you for the fascinating post!

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  5. Wow! That is an amazing story! I never gave much thought to what happened to the nuns after the dissolution. What a courageous and strong group of women!

    Congrats on your story's release and thank you for the fascinating post!

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  6. Thank you for your kind comments. The fate of the nuns of Tudor England is not written about too often. The more I learn, the more I am impressed by their determination. When the king's commissioners visited the convents before dissolving them to look for "abuses"--Henry VIII always said he wanted to reform rather than destroy while destroying all of them--they did not find much evidence of corruption or laxness. All the nuns were asked if they wanted to leave--virtually none said they did. The prioresses struggled to survive. Some bribed Cromwell, which delayed it a year or two. Some were defended by their surrounding communities. It didn't matter. The king was desperate for money and the abbeys and priories possessed a lot of untaxed land and buildings. The buildings themselves were stripped down to the lead. All the valuable were confiscated. It was a massive transfer of property to the government. The king said that the abbeys would be replaced by private hospitals and schools and other institutions for the benefit of the people but that didn't happen. Most of the land was given to nobles and gentry loyal to the king.

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  7. I'm fascinated, Nancy. Because this is a pattern that's repeated later in history, during the French Revolution. The successively radical Revolutionary governments of the 1790s outlawed the religious orders in France, the monasteries and convents were forcibly evacuated. In some cases (as dramatised by Poulenc in Dialogue of the Carmelites) whole orders of nuns or monks were guillotined--their crime was prayer which was deemed to be a crime against the Revolutionary Government and the country. They stripped the places--just as Henry VIII did--and used the metal from the bells to make cannons for use against the Allies. (Which is why Paris fell silent...)

    And then, the same thing happened again in Italy when Napoleon took over in 1806--going so far as to imprison the Pope.

    I'm just fascinated by these 'lesser' lives--not the queens and kings but the real people.

    All the best--MM

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  8. MM: Thank you. I too am fascinated by "ordinary" people of history and get very excited when I excavate some detail about their lives. I hadn't made that connection before to French Revolution. Yes, they were guillotined en masse there. It is interesting how threatening the monastics are to governments. Henry VIII is not as excoriated for his executions of Catholics (after being tortured or starved in some cases) as his daughter is for her burning of Protestants. May I hasten to add, both are wrong!

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  9. Fascinating window into the consequences of royal actions upon ordinary persons--quite separate and distinct from the usual fare one gets. Looking forward to reading the book!

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  10. MM--there is also the great irony that some English women with religious vocations went to France to join orders and/or found convents there; with the French Revolution, their successors went back to England! The English Benedictines of Cambrai, for example, returned to Stanbrook wearing the castoff clothing of the martyred Carmelites of Compiegne. I highlight these ironies in my historical study of the English Reformation, Supremacy and Survival: How Catholics Endured the English Reformation.
    Thank you for such a comprehensive and succinct overview of the nuns and the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Nancy.

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  11. I was most struck that Henry wouldn't allow them to marry. I would have thought that would be an easy way to deal with them.

    In reading the blog, I realized that I'd never liked Henry the Vlll anyway, but he's worse than I thought. What a greedy, entitled man! I verged on saying evil, but when behavior (such as torture) is the norm for the time is it evil or just wrong? I'm thinking evil, but it's an interesting thought to ponder.

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  12. Love English History, having read it for sixty years starting with A Child's History of England by Charles Dickens. Great to write fiction around this. Good luck

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  13. Wow is right. What a wonderful article. I had no idea what had happened to these men and women of God. Displacing large groups of people seems to be a recurring theme throughout history by varying governments. In each case, little or no thought seems to be given about how they would continue to live their lives. Thanks for the thought provoking lesson.

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  14. This was a fascinating post. I honestly hadn't thought about some of the practical on-the-ground realities of the English turn against Catholicism.

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  15. How horrible that former nuns removed from their homes couldn't wed. Definitely part of the dark side of Henry (though I'm sure in his deluded way, he thought that law somehow protected them).

    Great article! :)

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  16. Wow, this sounds like a fascinating book. And thanks for the history lesson. Good luck with your release.

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  17. Agree with others - this was a fascinating post and I'm looking forward to reading the book!

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  18. The Protestants believed ex-nuns and ex-monks should marry. Early reformers felt that a woman's purpose was childbearing. Martin Luther married a nun himself. But Henry VIII did not support many Protestant tenets. To put it in stark terms, he wanted a Catholic country that he was in charge of. His son Edward was a passionate Protestant and he reversed the ban on nuns' marrying. They could javr done so at that time, and some ex-nuns did.

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  19. The Protestants believed ex-nuns and ex-monks should marry. Early reformers felt that a woman's purpose was childbearing. Martin Luther married a nun himself. But Henry VIII did not support many Protestant tenets. To put it in stark terms, he wanted a Catholic country that he was in charge of. His son Edward was a passionate Protestant and he reversed the ban on nuns' marrying. They could javr done so at that time, and some ex-nuns did.

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  20. Congratulations upon a double coup, Nancy!

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  21. Fascinating story. Even when I first learned about the dissolution of the monasteries at my Anglican school, I remember thinking what a terrible act Henry had committed. Your novel intrigues me!

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  22. I am enthralled by this. I admit I am just as pleased that they were not forced to marry. After all, that state of chastity is part of their vows. Too bad that king Philip of Spain could not have done more to help but at least he tried. So happy that you have used this as the backdrop to your mystery. Makes it very enjoyable to read. I am looking forward to the sequel.

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  23. Very interesting - thank you for this. I am sure local people must have mourned the loss of many religious houses.

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  24. Such determination and faith on the part of these strong women. Thank you for sharing their story.

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