Convent of Poor Clares, Gravelines

The Convent of Poor Clares at Gravelines in the Spanish Netherlands, now northern France, was a community of English nuns of the Order of St. Clare, commonly called "Poor Clares", which was founded in 1607 by Mary Ward.[1] The order of Poor Clares was founded in 1212 by Saint Clare of Assisi as the Second Order of the Franciscan movement. It is an enclosed religious order which follows an austere lifestyle. After the Reformation and its consequence, the Dissolution of the Monasteries between 1536 and 1541 by Henry VIII, the only opportunity for recusant English women to enter religious life was to leave the country and join a community overseas.

Venerable Mary Ward, I.B.V.M., (1585–1645), who founded the community in 1607.

In 1606 Ward departed England to enter the Poor Clare community 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 for English women in Gravelines, which she did using much of her own dowry.[2] 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 accommodations but kept a monastic schedule as best they could, attending Mass in the local church, until the house was completed.[3]

Once the structure 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, 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.[4] In keeping with the rule of St. Clare, the nuns supported themselves through the sale of handicrafts, such as vestments, but survived primarily on the donations of the people of the city.

Not suited 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. Margaret Radcliffe and her three sisters joined the community starting in 1606.[5]

Elizabeth Tyldesley, Mother Clare Mary Ann was elected its abbess in 1615, serving until her death in 1654.[6] The success of the convent under her 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 its occupation of the Low Countries and the nuns returned to England. The nuns of Aire-sur-la-Lys brought many possessions, including part of their library. The combined communities moved first to Haggerston Castle in Northumberland and in 1807 to Scorton Hall in North Yorkshire. The nuns established St Clare's Abbey in Darlington[7] 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.[1]



  1. ^ a b Collection Level Description: Poor Clares' Library (Darlington), Durham University, archived from the original on 19 October 2012, retrieved 3 January 2011
  2. ^ Mary Ward, France, Loreto College Marryatville Australia, archived from the original on 19 February 2011, retrieved 3 January 2011
  3. ^ The History of Women Religious of Britain and Ireland, Royal Holloway University of London, retrieved 3 January 2011
  4. ^ Peters 1995, p. 92
  5. ^ "Radcliffe, Margaret [name in religion Margaret Paul] (1582x5–1654), abbess". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/67459. Retrieved 14 February 2021.
  6. ^ Lunn 1953, p. 65
  7. ^ Darlington, Carmel Road, St Clare's Abbey, Durham County Council, archived from the original on 28 May 2011, retrieved 4 June 2011


  • Lunn, John (1953), A Short History of the Township of Tyldesley, Tyldesley Urban District Council
  • Catholic Record Society (Great Britain) (1914), Publications of the Catholic Record Society, Volume 14, Catholic Record Society
  • Peters, Henriette (1995), Mary Ward: a world in contemplation, Gracewing Publishing, ISBN 978-0-85244-268-5