Content warning – this post refers to sexual assault
Last week I was chatting with Portia from The Gift of Time and she said that I should write a post about how convents were different from monasteries. I said they were the same, except that nuns who were heiresses were often abducted from convents. She said, “Ah”, so I went away and did some reading. It wasn’t long before I realised that there were some other ways in which convents and monasteries were different. A bit more research showed that abductions from convents were not as common as I’d thought they were, although abductions of wealthy unmarried women in general were far from unknown.
There were nowhere near as many nuns as there were monks in England. This was partly because nuns usually came from aristocratic families, whilst monks came from all kinds of backgrounds. Another difference between monks and nuns is that nuns were not expected to do the physical labour that monks were. That meant that there were more servants proportionally in a convent. It also meant that nuns might find themselves with time on their hands.
Women went into convents for various reasons. Some of them went of their own accord, because they had a vocation for the life of a religious or because it was a place where they could live quietly after an active life. It might have seemed an attractive option for a wealthy woman who had had two or three husbands. It was also a place where daughters who were unlikely to marry could be sent.
Another difference between convents and monasteries is that few convents were really wealthy. The nearest convent to me, Romsey Abbey, was one of those, but most attracted few gifts of money or land. When the harvests were bad, there could be real suffering in the poorer convents. In order not to have the nuns starve, some bishops gave them gifts to tide them over, or allowed them to leave the convent in order to beg.
So, what about the abductions? I couldn’t find many. Since they took a vow of chastity, nuns were not supposed to marry. Marriage was usually the purpose of an abduction, although gaining a hostage or rescuing a woman from a violent husband were other motives. Circumstances might change after a woman had become a nun, making her an heiress and more worth marrying than she had been. Abduction sounds fairly harmless, but it wasn’t. More often than not, the victim was raped in order to bring about the marriage.
In the mid-thirteenth century a nun from Shaftesbury Abbey was abducted whilst visiting her parents. Nuns were not supposed to leave their convents, but some were permitted to visit relatives. One of the more notorious examples of this was Mary of Woodstock, a daughter of Edward I, who went on pilgrimages and frequently spent time at court with her parents. Even more scandalously, she was known as gambler. Mary had entered the convent at Amesbury (another wealthy abbey) at the age of 6 at the instigation of her grandmother, Eleanor of Provence. The widow of Henry III also persuaded another granddaughter to go into the convent when she retired to it a few years later. Edward I was able to take the unusual step for a monarch of giving up one of his daughters to the convent, because he had others who could make political marriages.
Not everything that was passed off as an abduction was an abduction. Sometimes it was an elopement. Mary de Blois, the daughter of King Stephen, was abbess of Romsey when she was abducted by (or eloped with) Matthew, Count of Boulogne in 1160. Unsurprisingly, their marriage caused a great scandal and the pope put the County of Boulogne under interdict so that the sacraments of baptism and the last rites couldn’t be given. Later, after she had given birth to two daughters, Mary repented and returned to the convent. I can’t help thinking that she might not have returned had she had a son or two.
My novel, The Winter Love, opens with Henry abducting Eleanor from her convent. His motives, I’m glad to say, are honourable, but it takes Eleanor a while to trust him.
Medieval Nunneries by Mike Salter
Daughters of Chivalry by Kelcey Wilson-Lee
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