Preface collected by Father Persons, from an information which the said Father Persons and Sir Francis Inglefield sent for to our Father before the printing their Spanish Relation.
¶ THAT the reader may better understand the estate and manner of life of the monastery of Sion, and what passed in the convent since their coming from England, I will briefly say somewhat which may serve as a preface to this relation of their departure from France.
¶ This monastery in England was a royal foundation, very noble and greatly esteemed by all ; it was founded and very richly endowed by King Henry the Fifth, who was the second king of the House of Lancaster, and one of the most famous princes that ever was in England, not only for warlike affairs and extent of dominions, but particularly for matter of religion and piety, who was so renowned that the historians of England call him Alexander the Great of that isle ; as his dying at the same age and his reigning the like time, viz., nine years ; in which space (like the other Alexander who conquered almost all Asia) King Henry won almost the whole kingdom of France ; so that his son Henry the Sixth (a child of nine months) upon his father’s death, was crowned in Paris king of both realms. This valiant King to the end that God might prosper him (as He most miraculously did), before he began his wars, proposed to found two of the most ample monasteries which were in England, the one of religious men, the other of religious women, ordaining that there should be perpetual prayer and divine service day and night without ceasing in these monasteries, so that where one monastery ended their office the other should begin, and so continue successively. The King built these monasteries nigh a palace of his own, called Richmond, situated two leagues above London on the river Thames, the one on the same side of the river, the other over against it, on the opposite side of the said river, that each might hear and behold the other.
¶ And the better to continue in England the remembrance of the Holy Land and the mysteries of our Redemption, he dedicated both these monasteries to Christ our Saviour, naming one Sheen, and the other Sion, the latter being nuns of the Rule of our Saviour, commonly called the Order of St Bridget ; a most noble and famous saint of the blood royal of Sweden ; who dying in Rome in the year of our Lord God 1373, was canonized by Pope Boniface the Ninth, and her Order approved by Pope Urban the Fifth.
¶ This monastery of Sion was founded in the year of our Lord 1415, and endowed that there should be continually in it (according to their Rule) threescore nuns ; and at a little distance from their monastery or enclosure, the King built another habitation, wherein there were twenty-five religious men of the same Order, who daily performed divine service in the same Church in their own choir, and the religious women above according to the institution of that Order. Of these twenty-five religious men one was to be Superior over all the rest and also General-Confessor and Pastor of all, as well of the Abbess and Sisters as of the Brothers ; so though the Abbess be head and chief dispenseress of the temporal foods of the monastery, and thereby bound to sustain and maintain the whole congregation, both of the Sisters and Brothers, yet she is neither head, nor Superior, nor hath any jurisdiction at all over the Brothers, as it is expressly declared in the 3ist article of the Bull of Pope Martin the Fifth.
¶ This most religious and reverend monastery of Sion being thus founded, it began to flourish and increase with so great fame of piety and religion, and gave such a sweet odour of virtue, that in short time it gained great esteem and reputation throughout all England, and continued so till the time of Henry the Eighth. For which cause, as also a certain reverence and respect which this king had to the great King Henry the Fifth, their founder, when he turned himself from God and his Church, and resolved on the impious course of dissolving, and with impious hand casting down to the earth all the other monasteries of England, yet withheld himself from doing the like to the said monasteries of Sion and Sheen ; and although at length he did not spare them, yet they were the last against whom he executed his fury and madness ; and even at their dis solution commanded that these two should not be pulled down, but remain for the habitation of secular gentlemen, and settled a certain pension and maintenance on every Religious, as well women as men, according to their quality, and commanded them to live in the houses of their parents and relations. Nevertheless, he dealt in a quite different manner with the Reverend and learned Father Richard Reynolds, Confessor to the said nuns ; for though King Henry greatly reverenced and respected him for his great sanctity and learning, yet because he would not consent to the King s will in his abominable schism, he commanded him to be publicly executed ; which cruel execution he valiantly suffered, and died a glorious Martyr.
¶ In this manner the heavy disconsolate nuns of Sion passed their days, the rest of the life of King Henry the Eighth, and five years after his death, in the reign of his son King Edward the Sixth ; attending and expecting (like the children of Israel in their Babylonish captivity) their return to their old desired Sion, continually beseeching our Lord with deep groans and tears that He would please to restore their former most happy estate.
¶ In this time our Lord inspired one of the principal of these religious women, called Sister Katharine Palmer, to join herself with other sisters of the same monastery of Sion, and so to leave England, and go to the city of Dermond in Flanders, to live in a monastery of the same Order of St Bridget, where they continued some years, being received with great love and charity by the Abbess and Religious of that place, rejoicing much to have reserved there some relics of the famous monastery of Sion. And here the most illustrious and worthy Cardinal Poole found them ; who coming from Rome to England, his native country, in the second year of the reign of the most Catholic Princes, Philip and Mary, King and Queen of England, who requested his coming of the Pope for the reconciliation of that kingdom.
¶ This Cardinal proposed to their most Religious Majesties that as they were most zealous of the house of God, it would please them to restore the two monasteries of Sheen and Sion to their first estate ; which, with most Christian, zealous and royal hearts, they commanded immediately to be put in execution. Both the monasteries were yet entire and whole (though applied to profane uses as aforesaid), so that in a very few days the monastery of Sion was restored to its first estate, and the aforesaid Religious, Sister Katharine Palmer, who was chosen Abbess, soon gathered together the religious Fathers, her brothers, and those religious women who had been dispersed in their native country, England, but now returned to their infinitely beloved and wished – for Sion ; where with great comfort and joy they sung a thousand hymns and praises to our Lord, diligently and punctually putting all things of their institute and religion in due order.
¶ In this manner they lived all the reign of Queen Mary. But as her life and reign was short, so the tranquillity and repose of this monastery was also short, our Lord in His secret judgments permitting the calamity and misfortune of this kingdom to return upon her death. For Queen Elizabeth succeeding to the crown, began afresh to bring in heresy, which caused the Religious of Sheen and Sion to consult of their departure from England to some place where they might live Catholick and religiously. To this end they desired Dom Gomez de Figueira, Duke of Feria, to be their mediator ; who being married to a principal Lady of England, resided there by his Majestie’s order ; by whose means they claimed licence of the Queen in the first year of her reign, the said Duke preparing a ship by his Majestie s order for their more secure passing the seas, A.D. 1558.
¶ Thus the convent and monastery of Sion was the second time exiled into Flanders ; and not finding at present a commodious house for them in those parts, they joined themselves with the aforesaid religious Flemish of the same Order of St Brigit in Dermond, where they remained, though in a distinct quarter of the monastery, making as it were two monasteries, one of the Flemish, the other of the English nuns, each with their own different Abbess. The English were sustained by such alms as they received from their Friends and Catholicks in England, their number still encreasing with principal men’s daughters, whose hearts our Lord moved daily to come from England to receive the Habit, and make profession of the Rule of St Saviour, commonly called St Brigit s Order.
¶ In this manner they lived some years in Dermond, but the flame and fury of Heresy spreading more and more in England with great hatred against religious persons, their sustenance from England were soon much diminished. But our Lord, who never faileth to favour those who hope and put their trust in Him, moved the heart of his Catholick Majesty to grant them an ordinary pension for their subsistence, greatly pitying their poverty and want for such a cause. At the same time the Duchess of Parma, Regent (A.D. 1563) or Governess for his Majesty in Flanders, assigned them a monastery in the territory of Sericsea [Zuric Zee] in Zealand, wherein certain Flemish nuns had lived before, but had left it, partly for want, because the monastery had no rents, and partly because the place was not healthy. The nuns of Sion remained in this monastery, though so unwholesome, four years, till in the year 1568 almost the whole isle was infected and corrupted with heresy, whereupon they determined to depart thence, being also persuaded thereto by Dr Nicholas Saunders, one of their own nation and deservedly famous for his great learning and virtue.
¶ Thence they went to Brabant, a province more healthy, secure, and Catholick, where the said Dr Saunders with alms (which he procured of the Catholicks in England and other places) bought them another house and church, a league from Antwerp, called Meshagan, where they remained four or five years, till heresy so encreased and prevailed in those parts that the Lutheran ministers daily preached in the woods which encompassed the monastery. And not only so, but certain hereticks had many times endeavoured to break open the doors of the monastery and to climb their walls by night, so as those poor religious Sisters stood in manifest peril of their lives and honour, and they had scarce left the house ten hours when the hereticks came with carts, horses, and other preparations to carry them and their goods away. Wherefore, seeing the evident danger they fled in a great deal of fear to the city of Antwerp, where they remained above a year very ill accommodated ; for not finding a convenient house to fix in, they were forced to leave the city and go to Mechlin, where they hired another house by the favour and help of Sir Francis Inglefield, a principal man of their own nation, who came from Spain to Flanders not long before, sent (no doubt) by God to succour them in this necessity.
¶ This noble knight was Counsellor to King Philip and Queen Mary in England, and departed the realm for his conscience sake, as soon as Elizabeth began to reign, and brought as much of his riches with him as he could, wherewith afterwards he sustained these religious women, and other Catholicks of his country exiled for their consciences, as long as he was able. The nuns of Sion lived seven years in Mechlin, until heresy did so much encrease, together with the aversion which that rebellious people had against their king, that the sustenance of these poor Religious did entirely fail, and the alms which his Catholick Majesty had allowed them (as aforesaid) could not be recovered in these times of those revolts.
¶ Their friend also, Sir Francis Inglefield, was then gone to Spain to obtain a pension of the King, not being able to sustain himself otherwise, so that it was likely these poor Religious would perish with extream necessity.
¶ They had now no other means left but to send some of their number into England, to procure alms for the rest, who remained in Mechlin till it should please our Lord to dispose better of their affairs. And although this separation and parting of some from the others was most grievous to them, yet afterwards it appeared to have been done by the particular Providence of God ; for those that went for England being there taken by the Hereticks, and brought before their tribunals, made a most constant and glorious confession of their religion ; who being divided by the Queen’s orders, in diverse places and prisons of the realm, stirred up the affection of diverse in whose company they were, to their holy Order and Rule. Finally, this monastery stayed in Mechlin till that city, by means of secret hereticks within it, was taken by the Prince of Orange ; in which misery and confusion it is too long to rehearse how barbarously these Religious who remained there were treated by the soldiers and hereticks, and in what extream danger they were to lose their lives and honours, if our Lord had not by His marvellous Providence miraculously delivered them, by moving the hearts of some English captains belonging to the Prince of Orange ; who, though hereticks, having respect to their honour and the reputation of their country, defended their poor countrywomen. And amongst them one of good account felt himself so inwardly moved to favour these holy Religious, that often when at table, at play, or about other affairs, he would have such strong emotions, that he would rise up, saying to his companions : Let us go help these poor Religious, for sure they are in some danger ; and as often as he felt this, he found it so to be, and helped and delivered them. And though the city and whole country was in arms and full of hereticks, that it seemed impossible for these Religious to depart and escape their hands, yet the said English captains guided them safely unto the very gates of Antwerp. But finding that there also they had no security because of the people s inclination to heresy and rebellion, in a short time they fled thence by sea to the city of Rouen in France, through great and manifold dangers of hereticks and pirates from whom our Lord by His special Providence and Protection delivered them.
¶ In this city they remained fourteen years ; thence, A.D. 1594, for the same reasons as before, viz., for the preservation of their faith and religion [they departed] and arrived in the kingdom of Portugal, which is the eighth time they have changed their habitation and country in the space of thirty-seven years, all which time they have been in exile and banishment from their so greatly beloved monastery of Sion : these journeys being three or four times by sea, and as often by land ; from England to Dermond, from Dermond to Sericksea, from Sericksea to Meshagan, from Meshagan to Antwerp, from Antwerp to Mechlin, from Mechlin again to Antwerp, from Antwerp to Rouen, and at last from Rouen to Lisbon, which last voyage is the subject of the following treatise. (1)
¶ And now, considering the circumstances of these Religious, it certainly seems not to be without a mystery, that by the particular Providence of God they have been brought through so many travels and banishment to the kingdom of Portugal, there to repose themselves securely within the protection of the descendants of the House of Lancaster, and of the blood royal of their founder, King Henry the Fifth, who (as aforesaid) was the second king of that house : for the kings of Portugal descend in a right line from the royal house of Lancaster, Queen Philippa, daughter to John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and sister to Henry the Fourth, King of England, being wife to John the First, King of Portugal, and mother to Don Edward, his son and successor.
¶ Of the other monastery of Sheen we shall say nothing at present, it not concerning the ensuing Relation ; although the monastery is still in Flanders, sustained by the alms of his Catholick Majesty, and hath its Prior of the same nation, as is aforesaid of the Abbess and Confessor of Sion. Which two monasteries remain as the only relics of all the Orders and Religious (2) which in Catholick times were in England, which, as all know, were very many. And these two are continued and preserved so many years so miraculously, in the midst of so many travels, persecutions, and perils in their banishment, even to our days, giving great hope that our Lord in His good pleasure will bring them once again home to their country, to be the seed and seminaries of many others, which shall serve Him in religious life. Which hope is greatly confirmed by another succour which our Lord in these times of so great trouble hath given to this nation by the seminaries of English priests in France, Flanders, Rome, and Spain, whose design is to preach the Catholick Faith in their country, and to reduce it to the obedience of the Holy Apostolick See, offering their blood and lives in that behalf.
¶ So that these two monasteries of religious persons giving themselves to prayer and contemplation, are Moses, Aaron, and Hur, lifting up their hands to God for redress of their country, and for victory over the enemies of the Church of God. And in like manner the five seminaries perform the office of Joshua and the other valiant captains of the People of God against the Amalakites, that is, against the hereticks. God in His infinite Mercy give them all, both Religious and Seminaries, their desired victories ; and also eternal glory and reward in Heaven to those who with their liberal and charitable alms do sustain them in this time of their warfare and banishment. Amen.
(1) The Wanderings of Syon." Never yet fully published in English, but extant in manuscript at Syon. It will, we hope, ere long be edited. In what follows, Father Parsons alludes to the political plans in which he was then engaged.
(2) The Carthusian house of Sheen Anglorum at Nieuport was suppressed in 1783 by the Emperor Joseph II.
Transcribed from the Appendix of The Angel of Syon : The Life and Martyrdom of Blessed Richard Reynolds, Bridgettine Monk of Syon, Martyred at Tyburn May 4, 1535 by Dom Adam Hamilton O.S.B., London, 1905.