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Reformation Rebels: The surprising histories of Benedictine monks in exile

(14 September 2017)

Monks in Motion

Sixteenth and seventeenth century Benedictine monks refused abstinence, died in duels, went off to war and spread illegal Catholic doctrine, a new study has revealed. The Monks in Motion project, led by Dr James Kelly of the Department of Theology and Religion, has brought together records of English and Welsh Benedictine monks exiled in Europe in a first-of-its-kind searchable database and uncovered some of their remarkable histories

Royalty, religion and rebellion

The study has found examples of monks teaching works of Catholic controversy in the schools they ran, and illicit Benedictine publications being held within the personal collection of Catherine Braganza, the wife of King Charles II.

Records also show a number of exiled Benedictine monks fought in the English Civil War and French Revolution, and evidence of English Government spies secretly joining the Order.

Dr Kelly said: “The records provide a fascinating view into the lives of these monks who, far from living quietly in exile, were very much part of contemporary life.

“The records also show that these were men of the world, who joined the Order for a number of reasons and who were not afraid to rebel against the expected norms of society.

“Here was a group of men who committed to an illegal way of life and exerted religious, cultural and political influence even from the continent.”

Personal histories

Dr Kelly’s research has also uncovered details of the personal stories of some of the exiled Benedictine monks.

One monk, Maurus William Davies, was imprisoned in 1642 for refusing to comply with his Order’s requirement for abstinence.

He later returned to the Order and is thought to have died in a duel in England in 1663 whilst in England as a Catholic missionary.

Another story is that of Anslem John Mannock, who accidently killed his brother by dropping a cannon ball from a window. Overwhelmed with guilt, Mannock devoted himself to religion.

He went on to author 'The poor man's catechism: or, the Christian doctrine explained' in 1752, an important text looking to put the Catholic faith not just in terms understood by the poor, but also discussing Enlightenment ideas from mainland Europe.

Interactive database

Dr Kelly’s study covers a range of materials, including books, monastery records and letters, to build up a picture of Benedictine life from 1553 to 1800, and how they were plugged into both national and international events.

The findings of this research have been brought together in an innovative, fully open database of known Benedictines, available for scholars and the public alike to access.

Users are able to see biographical information for monks, including their family backgrounds and details of monastic life.

Dr Kelly said: “The aim is that the database will enable others to delve into the history of the Benedictines, including their social, regional and ethnic backgrounds, and explore how they contributed to the transfer of ideas between the continent and England.”

Greater numbers

By including details of those who left monastic life, as well as lay brothers, Dr Kelly has also found that the number of Benedictines between 1553 to 1800 is over 30 per cent greater than previously thought.

Dr Kelly explained: “The number of English and Welsh Benedictines was actually much higher than previous records suggested, showing that despite its illegality, there were many who were prepared to reject the establishment and enter a life that was proscribed in their homeland.”

The Monks in Motion research project was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and has studied the records and collections of Ushaw College, Ampleforth Abbey, Downside Abbey and Douai Abbey, as well as records in Italy, France, Germany and Spain. 

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CCS Newsletter 27