Truly remarkable monks


04 September 2017
Reyner-79852.jpg Monks in Motion
Literally fighting for their faith, the Benedictine monks of the 16th and 17th centuries were very much part of the world of our ancestors' times. Learn more about these men of faith and their role in society with Dr James Kelly's 'Monks in Motion' project.

Dr James Kelly of Durham University’s Department of Theology and Religion has led the 'Monks in Motion project' and now we all (academics and members of the public) can investigate his intriguing findings via the free online database at

Dr Kelly’s study brings together a range of materials, including books, monastery records and letters, to build up a picture of Benedictine life from 1553 to 1800.

The records also show that these were remarkable men of the world, even rebels, who fought, sometimes literally, fearlessly for their faith. Read on to discover how your ancestors might have encountered monks in their daily lives…

Family Tree: In what ways might our ordinary ancestors have come across Benedictine monks? What sorts of roles did they have in society?

Dr Kelly: Despite the illegality of being a monk in England after the Reformation there are, surprisingly, several ways that our ancestors might have encountered monks. First and most obviously, if an individual remained Catholic – again, itself an illegal act – then they may have met one of the monks secretly ministering in England. Although these men were ordained Catholic priests and professed as monks in mainland Europe, they were unusual for monks in that they actually spent most of their time away from their monasteries. Most often, they returned to England to act as priests for hidden Catholics and, initially, with the hope of encouraging England away from its newly acquired Protestant character and back in line with the Catholic Church. For a person to be caught sheltering or aiding these missionary monks was sufficient cause to be tried as a traitor and sentenced to death. Even supplying a monk with a cup of water would have been enough to earn your death sentence.

This links to another way that our ancestors may have encountered monks and that was when they were captured by the authorities and executed in very public ceremonies. Vast crowds turned up to watch these spectacles, rather like a football match today.

Of course, these crowds were made up of all sorts of people, including those who were not Catholic. Such people would most commonly have heard of monks through the anti-Catholic propaganda and prejudices of the time that portrayed monks as greedy, cowardly, duplicitous people and monasteries as houses of vice.

Finally, when English people travelled abroad, such as gentlemen embarking on the Grand Tour to further their education, or merchants, they frequently visited the English monasteries in mainland Europe. At these institutions, they would have met any of the English monks then resident. Despite the religious difference, they were still fellow Englishmen abroad.

The database itself allows people to enter a surname search, which provides a list of any monks of that name, as well as anybody who tried out at a monastery but discovered it was not the life for them. Where available, the names of parents are also provided.

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Family Tree: It sounds as though your research has resulted in all sorts of unexpected discoveries about the role of Benedictine monks in society – was there a single aspect or incident that stood out to you?

Dr Kelly: I am going to split this into unexpected trends and then an individual story! On the more overarching side of things, it is marked that the monks, during their time on the Continent, were imbibing the atmosphere there and bringing those ideas to England. This could be something like we would expect, such as different emphases within Catholicism, but also in ways that are more surprising. For example, a number of the monks were heavily influenced by the rational thinking of the Enlightenment and helped transfer such intellectual trends to England. Indeed, some monks were so enthusiastic about these ideas that they even cast off their habits and joined up with the French revolutionaries!

Actually, I was also struck by another angle. Everyone assumes that the majority of Catholic clergy from the reign of Elizabeth I at the end of the 16th century to the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century, came from the noble and very wealthy classes. We did discover some monks from those backgrounds but what is striking is how few came from titled families. In short, they were generally not as far up the hierarchical ladder as we had assumed.

As far as an individual monk is concerned, the incident that sticks out is the vocation story of John Mannock. Having not shown any leanings towards monasticism, the course of his life was changed while playing with his brother, when he dropped a cannonball out of a window and killed him. Consumed with guilt, he subsequently devoted himself to religion, becoming a monk with the name of Anselm. I have always wondered what sort of childhood game involved dropping cannonballs from windows…

Family Tree: Tell us about the Benedictines during periods of particular religious turmoil – such as during the dominance of Oliver Cromwell, and at times when Roman Catholicism was regarded harshly.

Dr Kelly: I have touched upon what it meant to be a Benedictine during this period, particularly in the 17th century when Catholic persecution was severe. Simply to be a Catholic priest in England – as these monks were – meant that you would be sentenced to a traitor’s death if you were caught. This was the fate of several monks who were duly hanged, drawn and quartered, and we have included in the database a way for you to search for those regarded as martyrs by their co-religionists.

Such persecution would, naturally, spike at certain times. For example, three monks were not actually executed but were regarded as martyrs because they died of ill treatment on a forced march after being captured by Cromwell’s forces during the Civil War. What became clear, though, was how much the monks engaged with major events in English history. For example, Henry Starkey fought for the royalists in the Civil War and had a leg blown off by a cannonball. After this, he was professed at the English Benedictine abbey in Lamspringe in Germany, taking the name of Hugh. He returned to England, served as chaplain to Lord Bellasis, but was arrested and sentenced to death during the anti-Catholic scare of the Oates Plot in 1679. Luckily for him he was reprieved but he is indicative of how the story of these men weaves in and out of the nation’s history.

Equally, another individual who was a member of the German monastery, John Huddlestone, is believed to have sheltered the future Charles II in 1651 during his escape from Parliamentarian forces. Huddlestone afterwards became a monk, taking the name of Denis and, on his return to England remained at Somerset House all his life after Charles II's restoration, serving as chaplain to Henrietta Maria (Charles I’s wife) then Catherine Braganza (Charles II’s wife). He was always named in exemptions from banishments due to the favour he had done the King. Purportedly, he received Charles II into the Catholic Church on his deathbed. Once again, far from being absent from the scene, we can see these monks, despite their officially proscription, being in and around vital moments in the nation’s history.

As family historians, we don't just seek out the names and dates of our ancestors, we methodically gather detailed information about the wider world of our ancestors and the broad historical picture. Projects such as 'Monks in Motion' help us to do just this so we hope you enjoy exploring this university enabled database

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