Before the establishment of specific English monasteries in exile, would-be monks initially joined houses that belonged to the Spanish or the Cassinese congregations. In 1619, the English Benedictine Congregation was formed by the union of the Anglo-Spanish monks and those who were known as the Westminster aggregation and traced their origins back to Marian-era Westminster Abbey. The four principal male houses of the English Benedictine Congregation were:
St Gregory’s, the oldest of the English Benedictine continental houses, was founded in 1606 in the town of Douai, now in northern France. Numerically speaking, St Gregory’s was the largest of the exile communities, and was home to a popular school for English Catholic boys. The town of Douai with its university was a great centre of Catholic learning and St Gregory’s contributed handsomely to this scholarly climate; several of the community were well-known, respected spiritual authors.
In the later decades of the eighteenth century St Gregory’s acted as the common novitiate for the English Benedictines. Following the outbreak of the French Revolution, the priory at Douai was suppressed in 1793 and the monks imprisoned for a time at Doullens, only being allowed to travel to England in 1795. Upon their return the community settled temporarily at Acton Burnell in Shropshire before finding a permanent home at Stratton-on-the-Fosse, Somerset in 1814 as Downside Abbey.
The community of St Laurence’s was established in 1608, in the town of Dieulouard in Lorraine, eastern France. In its later years the community established a small school, for those young boys contemplating monastic life. Upon its suppression by the revolutionaries in 1793, some of the monks were imprisoned at Pont-à-Musson, before being released and making a perilous journey to Ostend where they sailed for England.
Following their arrival in England the community resided at Wooton Hall, Warwickshire and at Acton Burnell, Shropshire. They found a permanent residence on the edge of the Yorkshire Moors in 1802 and became Ampleforth Abbey.
Image courtesy of Ampleforth Abbey
The priory dedicated to St Edmund was established in Paris in 1616 by a group of monks from St Laurence’s, Dieulouard. The monastery on Rue St Jacques became the resting place of the exiled James II and consequently developed strong links with the Jacobite cause. For further information can be found in the monastery library catalogue. St Edmund’s was suppressed by the revolutionary government in 1793, with many of the monks being imprisoned.
However, the community was successfully re-established in the former monastery of St Gregory’s, Douai, by the small remaining number of Paris monks in 1818. In 1903, the community was expelled from France as a result of the anti-clerical French Laws of Association. The community of St Edmund’s settled in England at Woolhampton, Berkshire, where they remain as Douai Abbey.
The Abbey of Ss Adrian and Denis was situated in the small town of Lamspringe, near Hildesheim in Lower Saxony. The abbey had been bequeathed to the English monks by the monastic Bursfelde Congregation, with the monks taking up residence in 1643. Lamspringe itself was not situated in an especially Catholic area of the German States and differed also from the other continental houses in that it was an abbey rather than a priory.
Its abbots held office for life and not for quidriniums, as was the practice in the other houses. The abbey was formally suppressed in 1803 by the forces of the king of Prussia. The community at Lamspringe did not establish a long-term community in England but had links to two, now defunct, nineteenth century monastic settlements; first at Broadway, Worcestershire, and then the much larger foundation at Fort Augustus in Scotland.
For details of the convents that were part of the English Benedictine congregation, see the ‘Who were the nuns?’ project.