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Drinking, duelling, and soldiering: Historian finds racy Benedictine monks flouted the rules

01 September 2017

ushaw college and durham university

Shedding new light: Dr James Kelly, of Durham University, with one of Catherine of Braganza’s prayer books

Shedding new light: Dr James Kelly, of Durham University, with one of Catherine of Braganza’s prayer books

BENEDICTINE monks exiled from Britain during the 16th and 17th centuries led a lifestyle far removed from their expected discipline, includ­ing refusing abstinence, serv­ing as soldiers, and — even in one instance — fighting a duel.

Their stories are told in a new searchable database of books, letters, and monastery records of Benedictines from 1533 to 1800, compiled by Dr James Kelly, Research Fellow in the History of Catholicism at Durham University.

Among the more bizarre examples listed by the Monks in Motion project is the case of Maurus William Davies, who, in 1645, refused to comply with the rule of universal abstinence at St Edmund’s, Paris. He was impris­oned in the monastery’s granary, but escaped with two other mem­bers of the community, only to return after a rule-change. Later, he was sent to England, but died in 1663, supposedly fighting a duel.

Then there was Anselm John Mannock. Educated at St Gregory’s monastery school in Douai, France, he accidentally killed his brother, Thomas, by dropping a cannon ball from a window. Overwhelmed with guilt, he devoted himself to religion.

Denis John Huddlestone, who was professed at Lamspringe Abbey, Ger­many, in 1653, served in the Royalist army in the Civil War. After the Restoration, he was chap­lain to King Charles I’s wife, Hen­­rietta Maria, and then to Cath­erine of Braganza, King Charles II’s wife, who was known to have illicit Roman Catholic prayer books in her personal library. Huddlestone re­­ceived Charles II into the RC Church on his deathbed.

Another exile from Lamspringe, Hugh Henry Starkey, was expelled from the English College, Lisbon, in 1639 for unruliness; he went on to fight for the Royalists, and his leg was taken off by a cannonball. In 1679, he was arrested and sentenced to death for involvement in the Oates Plot, but he was later re­­prieved.

Dr Kelly said that such was the extent of political activity in the Order that English government spies secretly joined it to monitor their activities. “The records provide a fascinating view into the lives of these monks who, far from living quietly in exile, were very much part of contemporary life,” he said. They showed that these were men of the world, who joined the Order for a number of reasons, and who were not afraid to rebel against the ex­­pected norms of society.

”Here was a group of men who committed themselves to an illegal way of life and exerted religious, cultural, and political influence even from the Continent.”


The Monks in Motion database can be found at: https://community.dur.ac.uk/monksinmotion.

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