The key purpose of the database is to identify those women who entered the English convents from the foundation of the first new house in Brussels in 1598 until 1800. The latter date has been taken to mark the end of the exile period when most of them decided to leave the continent and seek sanctuary in England because of the impact of violence associated with the French revolution and anti-religious legislation.
The database has been compiled as far as possible from convent sources in England, Belgium, France and Maryland, USA and related material in external archives. The nuns kept records of professions and deaths of all their members: unfortunately some of these have not survived the upheavals faced at the time of the French revolution and the violent seizures of convent property. Recent closures and amalgamations have also posed problems about the continued accessibility of texts. However contemporary members of the convents have been most generous in granting access to the sources to provide not only a very full record of members but also the names of many women who tried out at the convents but decided to leave. While we do not claim to have a complete record of every member of the English convents, we are confident that it is nearly complete. Like the current members of the Congregation of Jesus, we continue to search records and archives for details of members of the Mary Ward Institute, whose history rendered membership records in the period of exile particularly vulnerable.
Ecclesiastical and state archives in Belgium and France have provided data on examinations which are a particularly important source where a candidate has not gone on to complete her full professional vows or where convent data is missing. However such archives have been subject to enemy action in the twentieth century and have experienced legal changes regarding their status, with the result that survival rates for documents are patchy. A calendar of all the continental sources used in the construction of the database has been published online.
Wherever possible parental details have been taken from conventual sources. Where they have been recorded by clerks working for the local ecclesiastical authorities, there are in some cases eccentric spellings of English surnames and place names. This may be because they wrote down names phonetically. In some places parents’ names have been suggested by nun historians working on their own histories: this has been noted by the initials CR (convent records) in the listed sources. Occasionally, (as in the case of Cambrai where there is little accessible surviving material) some names have been supplied by the convents: where this occurs it is represented by ‘Convent List’. Recording practices at the convents varied considerably: for instance in some convents many more parental details are included than for others. Spelling practices and experience in writing varied considerably: you will find a surname spelled different ways in the same family group. Where dates supplied by the records disagree this is noted. Age at profession and death is as given in convent sources and may not agree.
Additional research in genealogical material has been carried out by Dr Katharine Keats-Rohan which has allowed a number of family trees to be created and additional data to be added to complete gaps in conventual records. Initials in the note fields acknowledge the source of such material.
Most of the convents were required in their foundation agreements to take only English members, although in practice exceptions were made. The space for national identity has often been left blank in the database because it was mentioned infrequently by the nuns. Among the convent record keepers, the Sepulchrines mentioned the nationality of their members most often. National identity has been supplied where the members have connections outside England, in order to facilitate the search for non-English members: for instance Irish and American. It is interesting to note that eighteenth-century sources were using the term ‘American’.
Most users will be familiar with the categories choir nun and lay sister: however in addition some convents permitted the entry of a few sisters known as ‘white sisters’. They were women whose health was not good enough to withstand the full rigours of conventual life either as choir nuns or lay sisters but whose commitment was such that they wished to join. They also had to bring with them a substantial dowry to take into account the potential future cost of taking care of their health. Several white sisters are found in the early years of the convents, but rarely after the middle of the seventeenth century.
Details of dowries are not given in all records and are shown in the database in the currencies as they appear in convent records. In some cases, for instance when convents enter pounds, it is not clear whether the amounts given are in pounds sterling or livres tournois: further investigation is needed on this. In some cases dowry negotiations were complex and included several elements such as annual payments or the transfer of property as well as financial transactions. In a few cases it is clear that payments were reduced because of particular skills or where families had fallen on hard times but were well-connected. Occasionally a sponsor put up the dowry for a candidate. Dowry payments underwrote the long term survival of the convents and were the most significant single source of revenue for them. Most of the parents in the database were Catholic and rather than be repetitive, it was decided to enter data regarding religious affiliation only when the sources recorded non-Catholic parents. Convents record a number of protestant girls being baptised before they took their vows.
The complex history of the Mary Ward Institute in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries with the number of houses and the loss of many of their documents which were destroyed after the 1631 Suppression explains the lack of data for their members. Current members of the Congregation of Jesus in York and Munich have generously shared the results of their researches with us which has allowed us to build on the results of Sister Gregory Kirkus’ extensive labours over a lifetime.