The Gascoigne Family and the Catholic Church in the 17th. and 18th Centuries PART 1. THE GASCOIGNE NUNS AT CAMBRAI AND PARIS Back to the Main Historical Society page

The Gascoigne Family and the Catholic Church in the 17th. and 18th Centuries


from Barwicker No. 69
Mar. 2003

In the England of the early 17th. century, adherents to the beliefs and practices of the Roman Catholic Church suffered harsh legal sanctions. Everyone was requred by law to attend the services of the Church of England. Anyone failing to do this could be listed as a 'recusant' and was liable to be fined or have his property confiscated. A Catholic priest saying mass or conducting other Catholic services could be imprisoned or even executed.

John (later Sir John) Gascoigne (1) was born in 1556/7, a member of a family who were major landowners in the area to the east of Leeds. He inherited the family estates on the death of his father, also John Gascoigne, in 1602 and resided at Barnbow Hall in the parish of Barwick-in-Elmet.

Early in his life he decided to revert to the beliefs and practices of the Roman Catholic Church. As a result of this, he was included in several lists of recusants (see 'The Barwicker' Nos. 20, 22 and 60). In 1635, despite his recusancy, he was created a Baronet of Nova Scotia by Charles I. He died in 1637. In the early 17th. century anyone wishing to lead a full religious life of their choosing in safety and security, especially if they wished to become a Catholic priest, monk or nun, had to go abroad. In 1623, the English Congregation of the Benedictine Order, after several unsuccessful attempts, established a convent in the town of Cambrai, in what is now northern France but then was in the Spanish Netherlands. They brought over nine young English ladies who took possession of the Abbey of Femy in the outskirts of the town. At first the ruinous building was only lent to them but in 1638 it was made over to the nuns in perpetuity. The convent became an abbey in 1641 with the title of the 'The Abbey of Our Lady of Consolation'.

Those admitted were privileged women, daughters of the English gentry, many from the north of England. It was a community drawn in the main from one stratum of English society. Included in the original nine were Catherine Gascoigne (6), the daughter of John Gascoigne (1) and Margaretta Vavasour, daughter of Sir William Vavasour of Hazlewood Castle, Yorkshire, who was related to the Gascoignes by marriage. Her eldest sister Mary Vavasour was abbess at the Benedictine Abbey in Brussels for 25 years. Three experienced nuns from this abbey came to Cambrai to help in the establishment of the convent.

Information concerning the connection between the Abbey at Cambrai and the Gascoigne family is drawn from articles in the Publications of the Catholic Record Society, especially No. 1
March 19863, dated 1913. The Gascoigne family tree is taken from 'The History of the Parish of Barwick-in-Elmet' by FS Colman. Those family members who are numbered had some connection with Cambrai or other Catholic institutions, particularly the English Benedictine Congregation. Catherine Gascoigne (6) (Colman names her 'Katherine') was a founder member of the convent at Cambrai being admitted on 2 December 1623 at the age of 22. She was born on 1 March 1601 and took her vows (professed) on 1 January 1625.

In her early years at Cambrai, the community was beset with differences over religious practices. The three nuns from Brussels belonged to a pro-Jesuit faction whereas Catherine Gascoigne turned for spiritual guidance to the controversial and charismatic Benedictine monk, Father Augustine Baker, who became a Gascoigne family friend. She appears to have been successful in winning over the community to her views and when the Brussels nuns were released from their work at Cambrai in 1629, Catherine was elected abbess by her fellow nuns. She was re-elected every four years until 1641.

Her years on office were troubled by internal divisions within the Church, and the beliefs of the Cambrai nuns were questioned and an enquiry was set up in 1633. She sent a statement to the General Council and the nuns were cleared of any 'mistaken' views.

In 1641, when the quadriennial election for abbess was due, Catherine Gascoigne was asked to become temporary superior of the French Benedictine convent of St. Lazaret at Cambrai to inititiate reforms and to restore regular religious discipline into the lives of the community. This was satisfactorally achieved and Catherine gained high esteem with the Archbishop. She was re-elected abbess of her convent in 1645 and then quadriennally until she resigned in 1673. Further challenges to Father Baker's methods were made during this time but were successfully resisted by the Cambrai nuns. Catherine died on 21 May 1676, aged 76.

After the nuns at Cambrai were expelled in 1793, they returned to England and eventually settled at Stanbrook Abbey in Worcestershire, where the community lives to this day. In 1956 they published a history of their foundation and there is a chapter devoted to Catherine Gascoigne. The section on Stanbrook Abbey in the current year book of the Benedictine Order contains a quotation from her, indicating that the community still hold in veneration their first elected abbess. Catherine's sister, Christiana (7), born 14 December 1602, died in London in 1628 on her way to become a Benedictine nun at Cambrai.

Margaret Gascoigne (8) was admitted to the Convent at Cambrai in 1628, aged 22. She was born 22 April 1608 at Barnbow Hall and professed in 1629. Her 'Life' was written by Father Augustine Baker and the manuscript once thought to be lost is now at Downside Abbey. An article in the Catholic Record Series No. 1
March 19863 indicates that she was something of a model for the life of 'contemplative prayer' led by the nuns at Cambrai. She died on 16 August 1637, aged 29. The article includes:

"She esteemed that innocence and native goodness she had derived from her parents to be insufficient, therefore laboured for more purity of heart and perfection of divine love in religion, which, by means of prayer constantly prosecuted she obtained. She led a more abstract life in religion and having cheerfully and courageously trampled under foot all that the world calls great and forsaken with a generous contempt not only what her birth and education offered her in the world, but also forsaking her parents and country, she applied herself in a profound solitude and silence to religious duties in this Convent." 

Dorothy Houghton (21), who in religion was called Dame Scholastica, was admitted to the Abbey at Cambrai on 21 September 1671 aged 15. She was the great-granddaughter of Sir John Gascoigne (1), the first baronet. She professed in 1674 and was abbess at Cambrai from 1718 to 1726. She died on 2 August 1726 and her memorial, includes:

"Dame Scholastica was a Lady highly distinguished in the World by her descent from an Ancient and good family but still more distinguished by the many virtuous actions which she had herself performed. The exalted qualities which she had abundantly received from the perfect kindness of Nature and Grace, it was her constant study and business through every period of her life to employ in advancing the interests of religion and the happiness and edification of her Sisters. Under circumstances peculiarly unfavourable and difficult, it was her lot to discharge the Office of Procuratrix (Housekeeper) for a space of thirteen years, later that of Prioress for a space of 11 years and lastly that of Abbess for 8, and she discharged them all with equal integrity and credit." 

Dame Catherine Gascoigne, Abbess of Cambrai, in 1652.

The third member of the extended Gascoigne family to become abbess at Cambrai was Catherine Gascoigne (29) who was born on 27 April 1699. She entered the abbey on 13 July 1715 and professed under the religious name of 'Josepha' in 1717. She was Abbess at Cambrai from 1741 to 1769, when she resigned on account of illness. She died on 25 January, 1774. We know little of her life as the relevant records were lost when the nuns were expelled from the convent and imprisoned at the end of the 18th. century. Her death ended a century and a half of Gascoigne presence at Cambrai.

Other members of the family who professed at Cambrai were:
Name of Nun  Date of birth  Date of entry   Date of profession  Date of death  
Mary Houghton (13)  1620   1639  1641 1701  
Mary Stapleton (14)  1623   1641   1647   1668  
Frances Gascoigne (20)  1637   1655   1657   1708  
Mary Gascoigne (25) who was born about 1690, entered the abbey at Cambrai in 1703 but left later. It is recorded that "She had been firstly a 'pensioner' (boarder Ed.) and went away, but after some years when she had been staying in England, she generously contemned ye vanities of the world and obtained her father's and her mother's consent and returned to our monastery in the 22nd year of her age." She professed in 1714, taking the name 'Paula' and died in 1746.

Other members of the family entered the abbey but they left before professing. They would include those living there for a year or two to complete their education.

Joan Houghton (22)     1677  1722 
Eliabeth Houghton (23)     1666/7   1684 
Elizabeth Gascoigne(26)   1694  1713  1713 
Ann Gascoigne (28)   1695   1713  1774 

Ellen (or Helen) Gascoigne (30) entered the abbey at Cambrai in 1715 aged 13. She 'went away' in 1719. However it seems likely that she returned as Sir Edward Gascoigne (24) records that he visited his sisters 'Catie' and 'Nellie' in the abbey in the 1740s. Catherine Gascoigne (10) was born 1 March, 1623. From her infancy she was much inclined to devotion and reading of the Saints and would deprive herself of the most delicate sorts of meat at her father's table and give it secretly to the poor. At the age 15, "bidding Adieu to her parents and all the delights and satisfactions that her quality furnished her with", she went to the abbey at Cambrai where her aunt (also) Catherine Gascoigne (11) was abbess. She professed on 15 April 1640 taking the name of 'Justina'. She spent 12 years at Cambrai during which she "by the serious pursuit of internal prayer, mortification and abstraction, walked from virtue to virtue".

At this time, the convent at Cambrai fell into financial difficulties and to remedy this it was suggested that another convent be opened with firmer financial support. On 6 February 1652, six nuns including Justina Gascoigne were sent from Cambrai to Paris, which was the chief centre for English Catholic exiles. There they founded what became known as the English Benedictine Convent of our Blessed Lady of Good Hope. At the death of the first prioress of the new convent, Justina was elected to this office by the votes of the community on 6 August 1665. She remained prioress for 25 years.

Her health was not good and she suffered what were termed "two very long and bitter desolations which lasted each time three years." During the last three years of her life she suffered from "very great sickness and infirmities" She died on 17 May 1690 aged 67, after 51 years as a nun. After the closure of the convent at the time of the French revolution, the nuns returned to England and eventually settled at Colwich Abbey in Staffordshire. In 1995, to celebrate the 300th anniversary of Mother Justina Gascoigne's death, the nuns wrote a booklet about her life, including several beautifully expressed passages of talks she gave to her nuns. Anne Gascoigne (11) was the daughter of Sir Thomas Gascoigne (2), the 2nd baronet. On 8 March 1634, she married Sir Stephen Tempest of Broughton in Craven, Yorkshire. In 1680, when a widow, she was implicated in the Barnbow Plot, (see 'The Barwicker( No. 60) and she was brought from her father's house to London to appear before the King's Council and from there she was sent back to be imprisoned in York Castle. She was put on trial for treason and if found guilty could have been burned alive. However she was acquitted and then spent some time at the Benedictine Convent in Paris, where her sister Catherine (Justina) (10) was Prioress.

She returned to England to sell her 'jointure', that is property settled on a woman at marriage to be enjoyed after her husband's death, and she gave a 'considerable charity' to the convent.. It was her intention to return to the convent and spend the rest of her life there but before she could return to Paris, she died in September 1684. She was buried at Barwick.

Mary Appleby (12) was the daughter of Thomas Appleby of Linton upon Ouse and Helen Gascoigne, the daughter of Sir Thomas Gascoigne (2). She was born in 1651 or 1652. Her mother died when she was four and she and her younger sister Helen were brought up by her grandmother, Lady Anne Gascoigne, and later by her aunt Lady Anne Tempest (11), who had no children of her own. Following recovery from a serious illness she entered in 1665 the Benedictine Convent of Our Blessed Lady of Good Hope in Paris where her aunt Catherine (Justina) Gascoigne (10) was at that time Novice Mistress and later Prioress.

After her mother's death her father married again and had seven more children. He had made generous settlements on Mary and Helen at their mother's death which meant that they would be treated much more generously than his other children. He took steps to remedy this by legal means. Mary had to return to England in disguise and under an assumed name to give evidence at the trial. The other side accused her of being an imposter but she was able to prove her identity by means of a birthmark on her hand. She won the case and the convent profitted by the sum of 2500.

She was said to have had "a most sweet, charitable, compassionate nature", and "a solid judgment and an extraordinary capacity for learning". Her health was not good and she suffered from "infirmities of body and obscurities of mind". When close to death in the infirmary she asked that she be laid on a mattress close to a grate through which she could see the altar of the chapel. She died 9 January 1704, "in the 53th. year of her age and the 37th. of her profession." .


Shortly after this article had been prepared for publication, I unexpectedly received a letter from Sister Benedict Rowell, the archivist at St Mary's Abbey, Colwich. This contained a copy of a chapter she had written called 'The Living Tradition: Mother Justina Gascoigne as a Disciple of Father Augustine Baker' from a book published by Salzburg University in 2002 called 'Stand up to Godwards' (ed. James Hogg).

Mother Justina (Catherine) Gascoigne, as this article tells us, was born at Barnbow Hall in this parish, the sister of Sir Thomas Gascoigne, the third baronet, who became the first Gascoigne lord of the manor of Barwick-in-Elmet. She was Prioress of the Convent of Our Lady of Good Hope in Paris from 1665 to her death in 1690. Her writings are preserved at St Mary's Abbey, Colwich, and it is an indication of the historic and theological importance of these works that they are still read and written about more than three hundred years after her death.

Further reading on the Cambrai Benedictines
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