Benedictines and Mary of Modena


The English convent in Brussels, dedicated to the Glorious Assumption, was founded in 1597 by Lady Mary Percy.

It was the first new foundation made specifically for English women in continental exile. It left Brussels in 1794 due to the French revolutionary wars and resettled once in Winchester and again in East Bergholt, Suffolk. Downside Abbey looks after its rich archive which is a hub of much scholarly activity and many publications. During the COVID-19 pandemic three letters were donated to the abbey by the executors of the late Lady Sandys who had them in her collection. They have now been reunited with the abbey’s collections and are of particular interest to scholars.

The correspondence is between Mary of Modena (1658 – 1718), wife of the Catholic King James II, and the Abbess of the Glorious Assumption. We are grateful to the executors of the Sandys estate for reuniting them with the abbey’s collections here at Downside. They record details of Charles II’s death:

Lady Abbesse I have had too long experience of yr true love & zeale for all our Royall Famely to question the just & great grief the sudden death of the King My Brother in law has occasioned to you. [Whitehall, 30 March 1685]

Another refers to the Rye House plot of 1683, an assassination attempt on Charles II and the then Duke of York:

Lady Abbesse, I have received yrs of the 5th of 7ber wherein you doe expresse sufficiently the great kindness & affection you have for me, & how much you rejoyced at the happy discovery of the late detestable conspiracy against His Sacred Majesty Mylord & Brother, & the Royall famely, who have all been miraculously preserved (…) [London, 15 September 1683]

And another, the sad loss of Mary of Modena’s daughter, who died after seven weeks:

I consider that I have another little Angell in heaven. [London, 31 October 1683]

Mary of Modena was a great patron of the monastic community of St Gregory’s and of the Southern Province of the English Benedictines, based in Bath since the 1660s. The abbey has several relics in its collections that were given by the Catholic Queen.