I have recently been reading 'Church Life in Medieval England - the Monasteries', by Rev Mgr Laurence Goulder M.A. published by the Guild of Our Lady of Ransome, in the series 'Pilgrimage Pamphlets'. This revised edition (1990) contains a wealth of information concerning the nature and number of monastic institutions, both male and female, in England prior to the Reformation. From the time of St Augustine's arrival in Kent in 596AD and the conversion of Aethelberht, King of Kent, until the invasion by the Danes in 865AD, monastic establishments increased and flourished. Most were based on the rule of St Benedict, and once established many became renowned as seats of learning. Scholars like St Bede (673-735AD), contributed greatly to the civilizing of western Europe , and the preservation of the learning of the Greco-Roman world was largely due to them. Most of the bishops of this period were recruited from the monasteries and proved invaluable as the counsellors of kings. In addition the English Benedictines provided a constant stream of missionaries to mainland Europe. The Rhineland, the Low Countries, Germany and Scandinavia owe their conversion chiefly to English monks- St Willibrord, Bishop of Utrecht (695-739); St Boniface, Archbishop of Mainz (748-754) -martyr; St Willibald, Bishop of Eichstadt(741-786); and St Winnebald, Abbot of Heidenheimm(752-761). English nuns were also involved in missionary work- St Walburga, Abbess of Heidenheim(c761-779); St Lioba, St Thecla, and Chunihilt. Between 865 and 878, the Danish invaded England, pillaging and destroying, with the monasteries a prime target. When the invaders were finally defeated at Edington by King Alfred (871-899), no religious house was functioning in the traditional manner with the possible exception of St Augustine's ,Canterbury. Most were totally destroyed or uninhabited, with a few in the hands of secular clerks. There followed a period of gradual monastic rehabilitation, quickening with the accession of Athelstan in 924, when a period of peace and prosperity began in England, continuing through the reigns of his successors, Edmund (940-946); Eadred (946-955); Eadwig (955-959); and Edgar (959-975). During the latter's reign, England experienced a significant revival of the monastic life influenced greatly by St Dunstan,Bishop of Worcester (957-961) and Archbishop of Canterbury(961-988); St Oswald, Bishop of Worcester(961-992) also Archbishop of York(972-992); and St Aethelwold, Bishop of Winchester(963-984). Over the next 500 years until the time of the Reformation, the numbers of monasteries and convents increased generally, with many new religious orders established. There were many problems to be overcome and tribulations to be endured. Religious communities were subject to the temptations of the devil, the world, and the flesh, as much if not more than the laity. Wars and intrigues at home and abroad, and civil unrest, were virtually endemic, affecting all of society including the monasteries. Economic and natural disasters and disease took their toll. The 'Black Death' in 1348/49 decimated the entire population, hitting the religious communities particularly hard, forcing many to close, and reducing communities of 50 or 60 down to 10 or 12. Nonetheless, in England by the time of the Reformation, there were 1,119 male establishments (monasteries), 169 female establishments (convents), and 13 combined foundations. The Benedictines, together with the English Cluniacs, the Carthusians, the Cistercians, and the Congregation of Savigny, all based on the rule of St Benedict, had their own monasteries, as did the Franciscans, the Dominicans, the Carmelites, the various orders of Canons Regular, the Austin Friars and numerous lesser orders of Friars. Most orders had religious congregations for women, following the same rule as their male counterparts, but living usually in separate foundations. The English monastic houses ranged in size from the Abbey and Cathedral downwards. Many incorporated huge estates, employing local people and providing them with homes, educating the children and caring for the sick and those in need. The dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII was driven by pride and greed, for the monastic institutions were the custodians of many treasures, material as well as spiritual, the former often comprising endowments by benefactors over the centuries, perhaps 'for the glory of God and His holy Church', or as 'reparation for sins committed', or 'in thanksgiving for blessings received'. Thus the dissolution of the monasteries was a carefully planned and precisely executed operation, with the sacred and holy artifacts of gold and silver melted down for the king's coffers, the precious stones and jewels stolen and distributed, and the magnificent buildings ransacked and destroyed. To add to this, the rich and fertile lands and the farmsteads belonging to the monasteries, were acquired by the Crown and 'given' by the King as a reward to those of the nobility who supported him. Many thousands of monks and nuns became homeless, and many were persecuted and martyred for their loyalty to Rome, refusing to recognise Henry as the spiritual head of the Catholic Church in England.
Once the Church of England had become the established religion, Catholic monastic foundations were forbidden by law until the Catholic Emancipation Acts of the 19th century. There was then a gradual increase in the number of religious institutions, many started up by religious refugees from post-Revolution and anti-clerical France, and from Ireland where famine and deprivation had driven many to England in search of a better life. Suffice to say here that the end of the 19th and the first half of the 20th century saw a significant revival in English monastic life, and many are the books and substantial the literature concerning this. In the early 1950s I can remember the 'Vocations Exhibition' held in Olympia in London, where virtually all the Religious Orders were represented, with their own individual sites manned by their own priests, monks, or nuns, hoping to encourage aspiring boys and girls, young men and women, to perhaps consider the possibility that they might have a vocation for the religious life. Who would have believed that 20 years later, many, if not most of those religious institutions would be closing their doors yet again, this time the victims of rampant secularism in society,and destructive liberalism and modernism in the Church. We have experienced liturgical 'disruption' - some would say 'demolition', the abandonment of traditional and beautiful Church music and the despoilment of so many lovely churches, doctrinal confusion, false ecumenism, and the tragic diminution of the sacred and unique role and 'persona' of the priest. Many religious orders pressed the 'self-destruct' button, adapting tried and trusted Rules to fit in with modern trends, doing away with the traditional religious habits - particularly applicable to women religious, losing in the process their very identity. We know that Christ will never abandon His Church, and with the encouragement and blessing of the Holy Father, there are signs of a spiritual renaissance within the Church for all things traditional, particularly for the Mass and for the religious life. With this resurgence of tradition, perhaps in another thirty years or so, our monasteries and convents will once again flourish offering prayer and service to God, and bringing great spiritual blessings on our Church and our country.
Before moving to Orkney we lived in Devon for many years, and I recollect that in a relatively small area of S.Devon, at least three convents closed down and the houses were sold for property development. At Chudleigh, the convent cemetery became part of someone's garden; that these generous and devout women who had devoted their life to the service of God in their small convent, should have their final resting place sold as part of someone's garden, is indeed sad. It may be that in the circumstances prevailing at the time, it was difficult to see what else could have been done. Respect for these graves, is perhaps, as much as can be reasonably hoped for.
John Betjeman wrote a rather prophetic poem in the late 1950's entitled, 'Felixstowe, or The Last of Her Order'. Betjeman was I think, of Anglican High Church orientation, and I suspect that the subject of this poem, an elderly nun, was of the same faith. Nevertheless she could equally be a Roman Catholic nun, for I suspect her destiny in this world was that of many an elderly Catholic nun in the late 20th century.
'Felixstowe, or The Last of Her Order'
With one consuming roar along the shingle
The long wave claws and rakes the pebbles down
To where its backwash and the next wave mingle,
A mounting arch of water weedy-brown
Against the tide the off-shore breezes blow.
Oh wind and water, this is Felixstowe.
In winter when the sea winds chill and shriller
Than those of summer, all their cold unload
Full on the gimcrack attic of the villa
Where I am lodging off the Orwell Road,
I put my final shilling in the meter
And only make my loneliness completer.
In eighteen ninety-four when we were founded,
Counting our Reverend Mother we were six,
How full of hope we were and prayer surrounded
"The Little Sisters of the Hanging Pyx".
We built our orphanage. We ran our school
Now only I am left to keep the rule.
Here in the gardens of the Spa Pavilion
Warm in the whisper of a summer sea,
The cushioned scabious, a deep vermilion,
With white pins stuck in it, looks up at me
A sun-lit kingdom touched by butterflies
And so my memory of winter dies.
Across the grass the poplar shades grow longer
And louder clang the waves along the coast.
The band packs up. The evening breeze is stronger
And all the world goes home to tea and toast.
I hurry past a cakeshop's tempting scones
Bound for the red brick twilight of St John's.
"Thou knowest my down sitting and mine uprising"
Here where the white light burns with steady glow
Safe from the vain world's silly sympathizing,
Safe with the Love that I was born to know,
Safe from the surging of the lonely sea
My heart finds rest, my heart finds rest in Thee.
John Betjeman (written after 1954)