Taking The Veil: Catholic Nuns in 17th-century Early Modern England

Taking The Veil: Catholic Nuns in 17th-century Early Modern England

As part of their MA course, students Jean-François Carvin, Justine Radojcic and Catherine Roux read Frances E. Dolan’s seminal article, ‘Why are Nuns Funny? Huntington Library Quarterly 70, no. 4 2007: p.509–35. This served as a springboard for deeper reflexion and study around the theme of the representations of Catholic nuns in early modern England. 


When the monarch was designated as the only Head of the Church of England, religious conformity and loyalty to the monarch became bound.
The 16th and 17th centuries were periods of nationwide religious disturbances in England. From the reign of Queen Elizabeth I onwards, the eradication of Catholicism became part of national ideology.  Being Catholic was a punishable offense and was associated with treason to the Crown and to the ‘true religion’. Parliament began passing penal laws that discriminated against non-Anglicans, and particularly Catholics, since they acknowledged the Pope’s authority. Those Catholics who refused to attend the Anglican Church services became known as recusants. The anti-Catholic sentiment was exacerbated by various crises and threats, such as the Gunpowder Plot (1605).
Intolerance regarding Catholics forced many of them to hide, convert to Protestantism or move abroad as exiles to practise their faith free from oppression. The survival of English Catholics was ensured, for instance, through the training of priests on the Continent and the Jesuit mission.

Based on the article of Professor Frances E. Dolan ‘Why Are Nuns Funny?’ (2007), the following analysis will discuss how the figure of the nun does allow us to understand what it was to be a woman of Catholic faith in 17th-century reformed England, through three main notions: representations of women and religiousness, anti-Catholic propaganda, and the political role of nuns during their exile on the continent.

Women and sexuality: representations of the holy and the body


Schnorr von Carolsfeld, Julius. “Fall of Men .” Istock Bank Image, January 2012.

‘And Adam said, This [is] now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.’ [1]

The early modern period portrayed women as frivolous and irrational creatures of lust. That belief came from Genesis in the Bible and is related to the story of the original sin. According to that view, women were seen as either prostitutes (Mary Magdalene) or young virgins (the Virgin Mary) in a patriarchal society. More than this, they had to remain discreet and obedient. The education of young women was based on detachment and acceptance which were supposed to be fundamental qualities guiding their future attitude towards sexuality.[2]
In England, the Protestant reform changed everything for Catholic women. As Judith Bennett explains in her article,[3] recusant women were targeted for their faith (the religion of the ‘Whore of Babylon’). They were also associated with ‘carnality’ and Protestantism viewed the female body in religious practices as dangerous, because Catholic women led Protestants to their spiritual downfall by seducing them. On the other hand, they were also seen as fragile creatures being seduced into Catholicism. But why were nuns the target of Protestants?

That question can be partly answered by looking at the way the Catholic Church viewed nuns in the medieval area. Indeed, the Council of Trent, held in three sessions from 1545 to 1563, drew a specific line between nuns and monks, gendering the religious and reducing nuns to ‘women’. They could not give the sacraments, leave the enclosure of the convent, much less go on the mission. The argument given was that the nun’s special role was to be the bride of Christ. Chastity, in this discourse, became the nun’s primary feature. Consequently, binding spiritual marriage to being the bride of Christ carried a sexual resonance that resulted in sexualizing the nun’s body and its virginity in the eyes of its detractors.

Engraving (plate number 21) from a Latin edition of The Dialogues of Luisa Sigea (c.1690), BL PC.30.i.10. From Sarah Toulalan’s Imagining Pornography and Bodies in Seventeenth-Century England, 2007.

Moreover, because the Council of Trent adopted strict enclosure to cut off nuns from the outside world and male supervision of the religious houses of women, Protestants’ distrust of Catholics grew even more as they saw convents as secret places where the Catholic clergy was performing profane acts. From that point of view, convents could be compared to brothels: ‘Nuns and prostitutes wore special clothes, eschewed matrimony, and inhabited separate institutional spaces.’.[4] Since the ‘naughty nun’ became a trope in the rhetorical Protestants’ discourse, the supposedly immoral Catholic cloisters provided empirical proof for their doctrinal allegations.

Furthermore, the architectural structures of the cloisters, as Frances Dolan pinpoints in her essay, were ‘made literal symbolism for describing the female body […] for nuns the external carapace of the convent walls might have served as an extreme reification of a symbolism many women used to describe and defend their chastity’. [5]

Popular representations of nuns in literature

Nuns were also seen as sexual beings because of the large body of printed material that was produced through the seventeenth century. Several works of literature like Venus in the Cloister: Or, The Nun in her Smock [6] in 1683, Putanism de Roma, or, The History of the whores and whoredoms of the Popes Cardinals and Clergey of Rome, discovered by a Conclave of Ladies, convened for the Election of a new Pope [7] in 1630 or even The Anatomie of the English Nunnery at Lisbon [8] in 1622.
Such literature or anti-Catholic pamphlets served the purpose of discrediting both women and Catholics, linking sexual flagellation and sexual pleasure – for instance – to one of the most known Catholic acts of asceticism, portraying a hypocritical and unchaste Church.
By contrast, for many, nuns were not to be taken seriously, like in Aphra Behn’s The History of the Nun Or the Fair Vow-Breaker (1689) in which nuns ‘sing, dance, play instruments, and make ‘little plays’ to ‘divert themselves’ [9] or a ‘waste’ because some young women were too beautiful to take the veil such as Olivia and Rosaline in Shakespeare’s plays Twelfth Night (1602) and Romeo and Juliet (1597). Additionally, plays like The Convent of Pleasure (1668) by Margaret Cavendish can be interpreted today as a feminist examination of the roles of women in the 17th-century patriarchal English society but could be seen, at that time, as a model of women disrupting public order by rejecting marriage, and enjoying the single life.

Anti-Catholic propaganda: the alleged perversity of the Catholic Order

The Anatomie of the English Nunnery at Lisbon…., by Thomas Robinson. From Early English Books Online, ProQuest.

As explained in the first part, the aim of such Protestants’ texts was to prove that Catholics were either manipulators or easily influenced, or using God’s forgiveness as a false pretext to justify sinful acts. Edmund Curll, a publisher of the second English edition of Venus in the Cloister (1725), summarises it as ‘to lay open the Abuses and Corruptions of the Church of Rome…’ Though the actions described in such texts may have existed to some extent, they happened to a degree far inferior to the one that is told in such literature.
While such texts often claim to be reliable sources[10] by indicating precise locations and names of religious personnel, they can easily be exposed as uncertain.

However, the nuns’ actual activities and duties were well registered and can counter such anti-Catholic propaganda, as stated in Walker’s article: ‘the nuns had to develop income-generating activities to supplement their customary revenues; and this had to be done within the narrow cultural space imposed by their gender and social status’[11].

Beyond the walls: the political role of nuns in exile on the continent

Jenna Lay, Beyond the Cloister: Catholic Englishwomen and Early Modern Literary Culture, 2016. From OpenEdition Journals.

Women were given a central place in the Catholic resistance. What is most striking to consider is the task performed by exile nuns on the continent, ‘some dispossessed nuns joined convents abroad or banded together to attempt to continue a contemplative life; some daughters of English exiles entered local cloisters’[12]. Their cloistered nature did not prevent them from having contacts with the outside world and the political context of Britain during the 17th century. Indeed, they actively participated in the Catholic resistance by creating an early modern ‘underground railroad’, collaborating with missionaries and with the Stuarts monarchs. As explained by Claire Watkinson, ‘the period from the founding of the first English convent in exile, the Brussels Benedictines, in 1594 to the start of Charles I’s reign in 1625 marks a period where the English convents in exile emerge as highly politicized institutions’[13].

Nuns and Charles II would regularly exchange letters and nuns appeared as significant supporters of the Stuart cause. Their status as both religious and cloistered women emerged as the perfect cover. Claire Watkinson asserts that ‘On the restoration of the King in 1660 the English nuns were hopeful of securing gains from Charles II on account of their support during the English civil war’[14]. As years passed and in anticipation of a possibility of Catholicism being tolerated once again in England, these women organized themselves into various houses dedicated to the religious education of other English exiles.

As Claire Walker points out in her article, ‘monastic houses for English women proliferated rapidly during the early decades of the seventeenth century. There were thirty-six in existence by 1700, and these comprised most of the pre-Reformation orders of Benedictines, Augustinians, Franciscans, and Dominicans, as well as the reformed Carmelites, and a newly created English congregation, the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary’[15].

Mary Ward, the founder of the institute, worked in secret to preserve the Catholic faith before establishing a community of active sisters in St. Omer, Belgium. Without a cloister, she and her followers educated young women, assisted persecuted Catholics, and spread the word of God. The Sisters lived and worked openly on the continent while clandestinely nurturing the faith in England. Mary Ward travelled throughout Europe and established schools in the Netherlands or Italy. Nevertheless, since the convents remained in exile, the shaping of a British monarchy tied to the exiled convents had to be maintained through epistolary networks.

On his accession to the throne, James II also made it clear that he intended to offer toleration for Catholics as well. According to Watkinson, the King converted to Catholicism on his deathbed and this decision would have been influenced by a nun’s advice in Flanders’. The period that Charles II had spent associating with the exiled cloisters had been crucial in shaping his faith. James’ accession to the throne appeared as a hope for the revival of Catholicism, and more particularly, a national English Catholicism. The exiled nuns on the Continent were crucial contributors to shaping a sense of Englishness. The first means to do so was through perpetuating an English Catholic education. English Catholic nuns purposefully maintained a national identity within the walls of their convents. Nuns deconstructed this well-known belief that shaped the English identity from the 17th century onwards by preserving the English identity.

Dolan’s analysis places both the notions of being a woman and being Catholic back into the context of 17th-century reformed England by showing that nuns were often reduced to their gender – which was linked to their bodies – and therefore depicted as sexual beings in both Protestant and Catholic discourses. Moreover, the different printed materials of that time indicate that Protestants used this as a means to spread anti-Catholic propaganda by turning the figure of the nun into a laughable stock character. Traces of those peculiar views remain to this day, as can be illustrated by a simple image search using the keywords ‘nuns’ on the internet. Finally, the last part of our study focuses on the important role of nuns in political matters. However, it would be relevant to add real epistolary testimonies of nuns such as Angela of Foligno (13th-century), Teresa of Ávila (16th-century) or Catherine Wigmore (17th-century) to our research in the future to distinguish fact from fiction and understand that even while they were women and religious, they still managed to influence the larger society.


[1] The Holy Bible, Genesis 2:23

[2] Sarah Toulalan, Imagining Pornography and Bodies in Seventeenth-Century England, Oxford University Press, 2007. ‘The young woman is taught […] that passivity and receptivity are central to her sexuality and that these must be core aspects of her future sexual behaviour.’ p. 137.

[3] Judith Bennett, “‘Lesbian-Like’ and the Social History of Lesbianisms.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 9, no. 1/2 (2000): 1–24.

[4] Ulrike Strasser, State of Virginity: Gender, Religion, and Politics in an Early Modern Catholic State, University of Michigan Press, 2004. p. 70.

[5] Frances E. Dolan, ‘Why Are Nuns Funny?’ Huntington Library Quarterly 70, no. 4 2007: p.509–35, p. 517.

[6] Barrin, Venus in the Cloister: Or, The Nun in her Smock.

[7] Leti, Putanism de Roma, or, The History of the whores and whoredoms of the Popes Cardinals and Clergey of Rome, discovered by a Conclave of Ladies, convened for the Election of a new Pope.

[8] Thomas Robinson, The Anatomie of the English Nunnery at Lisbon in Portugal dissected and laid open by one that was sometime a yonger brother of the covent. who (if the grace of God had not prevented him) might have growne as old in a wicked life as the oldest amongst them. London, 1624.

[9] Dolan, ‘Why are nuns Funny?’, p. 513.

[10] Ibid., p. 517.

[11] Claire Walker, ‘Combining Martha and Mary: Gender and Work in Seventeenth-Century English Cloisters’, The Sixteenth Century Journal 30, no. 2. 1999: p.397-418, p. 398.

[12] Dolan, ‘Why are Nuns Funny?’, p. 510.

[13] Claire Watkinson, Engaging nuns: Exiled English convents and the politics of exclusion, 1590-1829, PhD thesis, University of Westminster, 2016, p. 62.

[14] Ibid., p. 67.

[15] Walker, ‘Combining Martha and Mary’, p. 398.

Cite this blog post
Laurence Lux-Sterritt (2022, April 15). Taking The Veil: Catholic Nuns in 17th-century Early Modern England. Britaix 17-18 - Seminar on the early-modern anglophone world (Aix-Marseille University, LERMA, UR 853) . Retrieved June 23, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/m58a

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