Nuns in Tudor England

Nuns in Tudor England


This essay originally appeared in On the Tudor Trail:

Where did the nuns go when Henry VIII broke from Rome and closed the religious houses?  This was the question that drove me to write my first novel, The Altarpiece.  My main character, Catherine Havens, is a young nun who has reluctantly taken the veil after her hopes of finding a position at court have been dashed.  Her adoptive mother, the prioress, and her sisters in the convent, however, have chosen lives as nuns, and all of them face an uncertain future when the order for dissolution comes.  What we know about this aspect of Tudor history is largely focused on men and what they did after they could no longer be priests.  I was more interested in the women, most of whom have been lost to history.

Some few records exist of nuns gathering in East Anglia to form small households together.  Surely some fled to the continent and continued their religious lives.  Many women, however, had neither the means nor the opportunity to leave England.  The pensions they were promised were difficult to secure, because an ex-nun was required to travel to an urban center, where she would not only have to find the right person but also to come up with funds to pay the scribe who transferred the money.  Without their dowries, which had become the property of the convents, or family members who would assist them, such women often went unpaid.

What could a woman do in these circumstances?  She might return to her family, if she had one and they were willing to take her in.  She might try to support herself by taking up another profession, such as service in a larger household.  She might marry, if a suitable man presented himself.  The possibilities are all there, but the records are not.  So we really don’t know what happened to these women.

Poverty was likely the fate of many nuns in England.  Poverty could lead, of course, to crime and the draconian punishments that followed.  Theft was a hanging offense, even for women.  And women accused of felonies could not rely on the benefit of clergy that saved many a male Tudor citizen from execution.

The gaps in the record about Tudor nuns will probably never be sufficiently filled in, because the historical evidence is simply absent.  What I do in my Cross and Crown series is to create a fictional world in which these women have names, homes, and characters.  They have to make serious, life-altering decisions, and they don’t all do it well.  Some fail, some resist and are killed, and some make their tentative way into the new order.

The Tudor era fascinates us as few others do.  Why?  It was a time when the contention for power between political and religious leaders was centered on one charismatic and determined man:  Henry VIII.  He bequeathed this legacy of personal magnetism to his children, each of whom in turn became a ground-breaking monarch.  Edward VI established the Anglican Church as it is now known; “Bloody” Mary was the first queen regnant and seized power despite the threat of civil war; Elizabeth I, the longest-lived and perhaps most captivating of the Tudors, reigned over the “Golden Age” of England.

We also live in a time of rapid change and we also debate the role of the church in government and how much power one leader should exercise, just as citizens did in Tudor England.  But the nuns of Tudor England still live in the shadows, and The Altarpiece is the first in a series that aims to bring them into the light, to give them back the lives that were taken from them.

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