Abducting Nuns

Saxon rood (3)

Romsey Abbey

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


April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Copyright © 2020 aprilmunday.wordpress.com– All rights reserved.



Filed under Medieval Life, Medieval Nuns, The Medieval Church

19 responses to “Abducting Nuns

  1. Such a complex issue – even if abductions weren’t all that common. I’m sure that some rapes – using that word with its original meaning of “carrying off” must have occurred with the connivance of the girls/women involved. Other carryings off probably resulted in rape as we understand it, and at this distance in time it’s hard to tell the difference.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Not sure if convents were more a prison or a refuge for some women.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Both, I think., depending on the circumstances.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I remember an elderly Roman Catholic relative talking to my mother about how some RC families with several children would push one of them to take the orders, allowing no arguments to the contrary.

        I was about 10 at the time, and it sounded awful the way some of the young people were told, from an early age, that they had been “given up” as a gift of gratitude, and WOULD enter a convent upon graduating high school or college. Apparently parents in America could do that, even in the early 20th century!

        This was especially hard for females, as even a couple generations ago, it was unthinkable that they have any life other than as a wife or nun. I was ever so thankful my side of the family were Protestants. Mom assured me that Catholics no longer pushed their kids into convents, but I wasn’t sure back in the late 1960’s. I was scared of nuns for years.

        How much worse it must have been to be taken from one’s parents at the age of 6! Even if nuns didn’t do much labor, they were still stuck in their convents unless special concessions allowed them to make brief, escorted, visits outside the pale. Abductions must have been terrifying!

        All of which you must have considered since Eleanor needed a lot of convincing to trust her abductor!

        Liked by 2 people

  3. That’s a very eye-catching title! Interesting story behind it, and much less simple than it first appears by the sound of it as are so many things.

    Liked by 4 people

  4. It’s interesting that an abduction could have many different results depending on the situation, especially when it happened to save a woman from a violent husband. Thank you for sharing!

    Liked by 3 people

  5. A very interesting post, April.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. lydiaschoch

    I had no idea nuns were occasionally abducted or that there were fewer nuns than monks.

    Your blog is so educational.

    Liked by 4 people

  7. So glad I said ‘Ah’- a small contribution to a really interesting post. Another example of how different things were depending on gender.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Great post, April. Also, your attention-grabbing intro and premise has piqued my interest in reading The Winter Love!

    Liked by 1 person

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