Anglo-Iberian Religious History

English Catholics in Portugal

In 1594 a group of English exiles landed at the port in Lisbon. These were a group of Bridgettine nuns, searching for a new home and place to worship. The Order, first founded at Syon Abbey in 1415 by the Lancastrian King Henry V, had fled to Flanders at the Dissolution, and returned briefly to England under Philip and Mary, only to return to the Continent upon the accession of Elizabeth.[1] After the defeat of the Catholic League, they fled again, this time for Lisbon, arriving on 20 May 1594.[2] This would be the order’s eighth home in 55 years.[3] By all accounts they were right to flee; they had been coming under increasingly hostile attacks in Rouen, besieged by angry locals who mocked them as ‘strangers and English’, ‘old enemies’ who should not be among ‘us’. Perhaps, then, Portugal, the land of long-standing alliance, would heed their call and help them in their plight. Certainly, this was their hope, as we shall see.[4]

Lisbon made practical sense: the city had strong mercantile links with England, and Lisbon was certainly closer to England (and their supporters) than other options afforded them in Portugal. Yet their passage to Lisbon was aided not by the Portuguese but by two key figures: the English Jesuit Robert Persons, who provided spiritual and logistical support, and Philip II (who paid for their voyage).[6] Persons penned a lengthy description of the nuns’ arrival, which was made available in both English and Spanish. It is particularly interesting to note the lineage emphasized throughout Persons’ account, which emphasizes the history of Anglo-Iberian relations. The nuns were:

content grandissimo, por vernos ya otra vez en Reyno tan Catoluco y Chrstiano co/mo es este de Portugal, co[n] es este de Portugal, co[n] el qual hemos oydo muchas vezes, que el Reyno de Inglaterra antiguame[n]te, quando obedecia à Dios, y à su Iglesia, quia tenido muy gra[n]de, y continua Amistad: y concurrido tamien my partiuclarmente co[m] a misma nacion Portuguesa en la conquista desta nobilissima cuidad de Lisboa contra los Moros, como nos dizen, que lo testifica vna principal iglesia, que oy dia ay aqui en esta cuidad de los santos martires Ingleses que en aquella conquista murieron, que cierto nos fue de gra[n]de Consuelo el saberlo.

Porque con esto, y con la Antigua Amistad, y aliança que huuo entre los Reyes y Principes de entrābos Reynos (principalmente de los que fuerõ de a casa Real de Lancastre fundadora de nuestro monesterio de Sio[n]) y sobre todo con la grande piedad, y Christiano pecho de su Magestad del Rey Catolico don Felipe (que tambien fue nuestro Rey en Inglaterra, y nos restituyo à nuestro antiguo, y querido monesterio en tie[m]po de la Reyna Maria) y de los señores, y pueblo tã Catolico, y Religioso deste Reyno, cobramos vna gran confiança de hallar aqui mucho fauor y amparo, aun/que viamos las maldades, hurtos, robos, y agrauios [de] los malos, y peruersos herejes [ingleses], y gente perdida de nuestra miserable patria hazen continuamente en la gente Christiana, y haziendas, deste y de todos los demas Reynos Catolicos de la Christiandad. Pero consolonos el pensar que la gente cuerda, y discrete dacilmente distinguiria, que essos hombres no tienen mas comunicacion con nosotros, que solo el origen de la misma tierra, y en lo demas no tienen por los mayors enemigos suyos del mundo, à la mannera que hazen los demonios, que despues que à Dios se rebelaron, tienen enemistad con los denias espiritus Buenos, q[ue]sie[n]do de la misma orgiē y natualeza, obe decen, y reuerencian à su Criador…[7]

(‘very pleased to be again in a very Catholic and Christian Kingdom such as Portugal of which we had heard many times before that, formerly, when the Kingdom of England obeyed God and its Church, these two countries had had a profound and steady friendship: and also that the English had helped the Portuguese nation into conquering the noble city of Lisbon against the Moors, as it is attested by a church in the present day that [Lisbon] is the city of the English saints and martyrs that died during that conquest. Learning about it gave us great comfort.

Because of that, and the old friendship and alliance that existed between the Kings and Princes of these Kingdoms (mainly those that belonged to the Royal House of Lancaster, which founded our Monastery of Sion), and especially due to the great piety of His Majesty, the Catholic King Phillip (who was also our English King and returned to us our dear and ancient Monastery during the times of Queen Mary) and of the lords and Catholic and religious people from this Kingdom, we had great confidence in finding here favor and protection, even though we had witnessed all the misdeeds, thefts, robberies, and grievances given continuously by the perverse [English] heretics and those who are lost from our miserable homeland to the Christians and the King’s possessions and all the other Christian kings’ possessions as well. But it gave us comfort to think that those who are right in their minds would understand and tell us apart easily from them and realize that we do not have anything to do with these men, that we only share the same origin and that, otherwise, we are their sworn enemies, just like demons did after rebelling against God and declared all good spirits their enemies too, and even though they had the same origin and nature, they renounced their creator.’)[8]

Just as Hugh O’Neil would emphasize the Irish genealogical links to Spain, English Catholic exiles also sought to justify a link when establishing an exile community.[9] However, the Irish and the English, as Christopher Highley has recently pointed out, were ‘in competition… in the overstretched and nearly bankrupt Habsburg empire’.[10] Exiles in both Spain and Portugal would justify their presence genealogically. While for the Irish Spain provided a suitable refuge, Portugal, on the other hand, potentially provided a middle ground for the English: historically linked with England but still not Spain. Where the Irish gained ground, as Highley again observes, was in the fact that, ‘unlike English subjects, the Irish in Spanish territories were accorded the same legal privileges as Spanish subjects’; the English were not.[11] At least in Portugal, appeals could be made to genealogical links and to that old alliance, thus potentially avoiding outright alliance with Spain; they could emphasize that they remained English subjects, residing with an old ally.

Portugal could, in turn, be used by the Spanish seeking a common ground with the English. One tactic exploited, for example, by Philip II (and his apologists amongst the English) was that, if you like not Spain, then at least look favorably upon Philip as the new sovereign of your long-term ally, with whom you have a ‘muy grande, y continua amistad’. Persons continued to emphasise this, as recounted by Hamilton in The Angel of Syon: the nuns had arrived in Portugal ‘within the protection of the descendants of the House of Lancaster’.[12]

Of course Persons is playing at tactics here: Elizabeth I and the reformers, as N.B. Warren has pointed out, were also using this ‘mythologising strategy’ of linking themselves back to Henry V and the Lancastrian inheritance; Persons was now appropriating it for his own means.[13] Both goose and gander are therefore playing the same game, and Portugal sits as a continental conduit for these claims to affiliation and alliance.

Yet the English were increasingly warned by some to beware the pretence of amity offered by Spain to those in their territories (and, of course, not all Catholics agreed with Persons and the Jesuit mission).[14] Anti-Spanish texts such as Lewis Lewkenor’s The estate of English Fugitives under the King of Spaine and his ministers (printed during the nuns’ first year in Portugal, and again the following year) warned those in exile not to trust offers of aid from the king, as the Spanish bear ‘a rooted and ingrafted malice… to our whole nation’.[15] He warns of being ‘infected’ by the Spanish, for those ‘that are insorcered with the Spanish inchantments, are transformed into shapes much more horrible and monstrous.’[16]

That infection, that corruption and internal decay is something with which Bridgettine nuns would notoriously be charged in 1622, which brings me to my final text: Thomas Robinson’s The Anatomie of the English Nunnery at Lisbon.[17] Robinson’s text was clearly popular, as it reprinted in 1623, 1630 and again in 1637. In this sensationalist text Robinson claimed to be exposing the sexual depravity of the nuns and their male confessor within the confines of the Lisbon convent, as well as drunkenness, infanticide, and the reading of ‘scurrilous books’ (such as Venus and Adonis).[18] Moreover, all are presented as activities resulting from of their hispaniolisation. Robinson ‘anatomises’ these enclosed activities of convent life: even within Portugal (with all its healthy, fresh air), even within the confines of their order, they are infected by Spanish and Jesuit disease.

They are patronised by a Spanish king and by the followers of Ignatius Loyola, who is described as ‘a lame soldier and a Spaniard’.[19] This anatomising of the nuns infected state also succinctly diagnoses its source: a fighting Spaniard who is physically and morally unfit. Emphasis on Loyola’s lameness adds a Petrarchan twist to the usual accusations that the Jesuits were sexually predatory. (Petrarch, in an exposition on education, had warned of the dangers of associating with ‘foreigner[s] of loose morals’, for ‘If you live with a lame man, you will learn to limp.’)[20]

It is important to note that Robinson says nothing ill of the Portuguese; indeed, he emphasises the Archbishop’s attempts to thwart their foundation there. His text, which praises the Portuguese, denounces Spanish dominance, and warns of insidious hispaniolization, appears at a crucial moment in negotiations for a dynastic alliance between Prince Charles of England and the Infanta Maria of Spain.[21] Exiled English Catholics, living in a country already dominated by the Spanish, were an obvious target for the propagandists. It is no surprise that Robinson’s text remained popular for years to come.[22]


[1] See Nancy Bradley Warren, Women of God and Arms: Female Spirituality and Political Conflict 1380-1600 (Philadelphia; Penn University Press, 2005), pp.139-167.

[2] See Peter Guilday, The English Catholic Refugees on the Continent, 1558-1795 (London: Longmans, 1914), p.59.

[3] See Caroline Bowden, ‘Books and Reading at Syon Abbey, Lisbon, in the seventeenth century’ in Syon Abbey and its Books: Reading, Writing and Religion, c.1400-1700, ed. E.A. Jones and Alexandra Walsham, Studies in Modern British Religious History 24 (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2010), p.178.

[4] Highley, Catholics Writing, p.183 and Bowden, ‘Books and Reading’, p.179.

[5] See Michael E. Williams, ‘The Origins of the English College, Lisbon’, Recusant History, 20 (1991), pp.478-92.

[6] See Christopher de Hamel’s introductory essay to his edition a Brigdettine manuscript held at Arundel Castle in Syon Abbey: The Library of the Bridgettine Nuns and their Peregrinations after the Reformation (Otley: The Roxburghe Club, 1991), p.20.

[7] Robert Persons, Relacion que embiaron las religiosas del Monesterio de Sion de Inglaterra: q[ue] estauan en Roan de Francia, al padre Roberto Personio de la Compañia de Iesus: de su salida de aquella cuidad, y llegada à Lisboa de Portugal. Traduzida de Ingles en Castellano, por Carlos Dractan, sacerdote Ingles del Colegio de Valladolid (Madrid, 1594), fos.53r—54r. [I’m particularly interested in hearing from anyone who has come across copies of this text that have been hand corrected and/or which appear to have been censored. There is a copy in Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal, Lisbon, which appears to contain such markings.]

[8] My translation.

[9] See Christopher Highley, Catholics Writing the Nation in Early Modern Britain and Ireland (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp.151-154.

[10] Highley, Catholics Writing, p.151.

[11] Highley, Catholics Writing, p.154.

[12] Persons’ Relacion que embiaron las religiosas del monestario de Sion… is partly incorporated into Diego de Yepes, Historia particular de la persecusion de Inglaterra (Madrid, 1599). For a full English translation of Persons’ preface see Adam Hamilton, The Angel of Syon: the life and martryrdom of Blessed Richard Reynolds, Bridgettine Monk of Syon, Martyred at Tyburn, May 4, 1535. To which is added a sketch of the History of the Bridgettines of Syon, written by Father Robert Persons, SJ, about the year 1595, ed. from a manuscript copy at Syon Abbey, Chudleigh (Edinburgh: Sands, 1905).

[13] See Warren, Women of God and Arms, pp.151-154.

[14] See Highley, Catholics Writing, pp.158-159.

[15] Lewis Lewkenor, The estate of English fugitives vnder the king of Spaine and his ministers Containing, besides, a discourse of the sayd Kings manner of gouernment, and the iniustice of many late dishonorable practises by him contriued (London, 1595) STC 15564; second edition 1596, STC 16656, sig.G1v. See A.J. Loomie, SJ, The Spanish Elizabethans: The English Exiles at the Court of Philip II (New York: Fordham University Press, 1963), pp.10-11 and Highley, Catholics Writing, p.155.

[16] Lewkenor, The estate of English fugitives, sig.I4v.

[17] Thomas Robinson, The anatomy of the English nunnery at Lisbon in Portugall Dissected and laid open by one that was sometime a yonger brother of the conuent: who (if the grace of God had not preuented him) might haue growne as old in a wicked life as the oldest among them. Published by authoritie (London: George Purslowe, for Robert Mylbourne, and Philemon Stephens; sold at the great south doore of Pauls, 1622) STC 21123. Second edition: London: printed by George Eld, sold by R. Milbourner and Philemon Stephen, STC 21124; third edition: London, printed by George Purslow for Philemon Stephens and Christopher Meredith, STC 21126; fourth edition: London, printed by Marmaduke Parsons for Philemon Stephens and Christopher Meredith, STC 21126.

[18] Robinson, The anatomy of the English nunnery at Lisbon, p.17. See Highley, Catholics Writing, p.188.

[19] Robinson, The anatomy of the English nunnery at Lisbon, p.10.

[20] ‘Si juxta claudum habites, subclaudicare disces.’ The phrase was well known to scholars of Erasmus. See Peta Mitchell, Contagious Metaphor (London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2012), p.85. On the vulnerability of the female body (such as those of the nuns) and how it could, by extension, symbolise ‘the weakness of the state’ see Jerzy Limon, The Masque of Stuart Culture: Patient Fortitude in the English Civil War (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1990), p.332.

[21] See Thomas Cogswell, The Blessed Revolution: English Politics and the Coming of War, 1621-1624 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p.192.

[22] The nuns’ confessor, Father Seth Foster, did write a lengthy rebuttal of Robinson’s scurrilous attack: ‘Answer to an attack on the nuns of Sion contained in a book entitled ‘The Anatomy of the English Nunnery at Lisbon, by Thomas Robinson’. The text remained in manuscript and its intended circulation remains unclear. It was finally printed in 2006. See James Hogg (ed.), Analecta Cartusiana 244 (Salzburg, 2006), pp.85-121.