This paper examines the history of the convent cemetery of the English Canonesses of the Holy Sepulchre, and associated changes to death, dying and burial practices within the community – physically, spiritually and culturally. Founded in Liège in 1642, where they lived as an English convent in exile for some 150 years, the Sepulchrines were forced to migrate from mainland Europe to England in 1794 as a result of revolutionary changes sweeping the continent. After arrival in England, the Sepulchrines created an illegal cemetery in 1799 for community use, thought to be the oldest Catholic cemetery in continuous use within the British Isles. Hitherto-unknown evidence presented from a study of this cemetery reveals much hidden information about community interactions with the local population, their interactions with legal and administrative authorities and the wider question of religious toleration. The existence of this cemetery also challenges accepted assumptions of the development of English cemeteries (as distinct from churchyards) and their associated burial culture, often held to have developed as a result of Victorian urbanisation and industrialisation. Specifically Catholic burial grounds were not legally allowed under English law until 1852, meaning that these communities of returning English female religious had to discretely create their own cemeteries in order to provide an appropriate communal memorial space, some seventy years earlier than their secular counterparts.
Hannah Thomas 2017
University of Durham, UK
Memorials in migration: death, dying and burial in a displaced English convent, 1794–1829
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