The Convent of Poor Clares at Gravelines in the Spanish Netherlands (now in northern France), founded in 1607 by Mary Ward, was a community of English nuns of the Order of St Clare. Commonly called the Poor Clares, the order was founded in 1212 by Saint Clare of Assisi as the Second Order of the Franciscan movement, an enclosed religious order which follows an austere lifestyle. After the Dissolution of the Monasteries between 1536 and 1541 by King Henry VIII, the only opportunity for English women to enter religious life was to leave the country and join a monastery overseas.
In 1606 Ward departed England to enter the Poor Clare monastery at St-Omer, in the Spanish Netherlands where she was admitted as a lay sister. She left St-Omer the following year to found a new house of the order for English women in Gravelines using much of her own dowry. The convent was built within the town walls of Gravelines. The Chronicle of Gravelines, the journal of the community’s history kept by the nuns, described the buildings as unfinished when they first arrived, with no furniture and little food. They lived in temporary accommodation but kept a monastic schedule as best they could, attending Mass in the local church, until the house was completed.
Once the house was complete, the community established the formal enclosure with a grille in the door between the cloister and the parlor where visitors were received. Inside the convent, conditions were austere: the nuns wore rough, woollen habits, slept on straw mattresses, ate meat only at Christmas, spoke only when necessary and with permission, and spent much of the day in silent prayer and contemplation. In keeping with the rule of St Clare, the nuns supported themselves partly by selling the products of their handicrafts, such as vestments, but relied primarily on the donations of the people of the city.
Unsuited to the contemplative life, Mary Ward left Gravelines in 1609, and founded the Sisters of Loreto in St-Omer, which became an international religious congregation dedicated to education. Elizabeth TyldesleyElizabeth Tyldesley (1585–1654) was a 17th-century abbess at the Poor Clare Convent at Gravelines. , Mother Clare Mary Ann was elected abbess of the community in 1615 and served until her death in 1654.
The nuns faced economic uncertainty, political unrest, and the spread of disease.They had to move into temporary accommodation in 1626 when fire destroyed most of the convent, all except for the choir, kitchen, and infirmary. In 1654 most of the convent was flattened when much of the town was destroyed by an explosion of gunpowder.
In 1626 the Jesuit influence over the nuns was challenged by English Franciscans who claimed authority over the convent and deposed Abbess Elizabeth Tyldesley, replacing her with Margaret Radcliffe. A period of “civil war” divided the cloister and a nun, Elizabeth Evelinge [a]Catherine of St. Magdalen helped the Franciscans with publications and translations but most nuns objected to the removal of Tyldesley. Eleven nuns, including Evelinge, who supported the Franciscan spiritual direction, moved to establish a new convent at Aire in 1629.
The success of the convent under Elizabeth Tyldesley’s leadership led to the founding of dependent communities at Dunkirk in 1625, Aire-sur-la-Lys in 1629 and Rouen in 1644, at least one of which was composed of women from Ireland.
In 1795 the nuns from all four houses were expelled by the forces of the French Revolutionary Army in the course of their occupation of the Low Countries, and the nuns returned to England; the nuns of Aire-sur-la-Lys took with them many possessions, including part of their library. The combined communities moved first to Haggerston Castle in Northumberland and in 1807 to Scorton Hall in Yorkshire. The nuns established St Clare’s Abbey in Darlington in 1857, and in 2007 the community merged with the Poor Clares at Much Birch in Herefordshire, at which time they donated part of their library to Durham University.
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