When Helen Spurrett died in 1625, her only daughter Frances was left an orphan, her father Nathaniel having died in 1614, when Frances was only about a year old. Although Frances was left money in the wills of her father, mother and grandfather, it’s perhaps surprising that none of these documents makes explicit provision for her future care. It’s possible that details of this were recorded separately, and I think it most likely that Thomas Roper of Eltham, Helen’s executor, became responsible for Frances’ welfare.


17th century house in Brussels (via wikimedia)

At some point in the months following her mother’s death, Frances Spurret was entrusted, perhaps at the instigation of the Roper family, to the care of a community of English Franciscan nuns living in exile in Brussels. The community was a recent foundation, having been established informally in 1619 when two English widows took the habit of the Franciscan Third Order at Brussels, in the church of the Franciscan Friars, with the intention of setting up an English convent. They were professed in 1620 and soon joined by other English women, with whom they purchased a house in the city. The convent was formally inaugurated on 9th August 1621. Catholic religious communities had been banned in England since the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s, and joining such a community, even in another country, was a criminal offence: those who returned could expect to face imprisonment.

17th century French nuns

17th century French nuns

There are two sources for our knowledge of Frances Spurrett’s time as a member of the Franciscan community. Richard Trappes-Lomax’s 1922 book for the Catholic Record Society incorporates verbatim records of the clothings, professions and deaths of a number of communities of English Franciscans between the 17th and early 19th centuries. And Who were the Nuns? – the excellent website of the research project on the English convents in exile based at Queen Mary College, University of London – is a mine of fascinating information.

The Franciscan Book of Clothings notes that in September 1626, the year after Helen Spurrett’s death, ‘this cloyster had the education of thees children’. The names of eight girls follows, including that of Frances Spurrett. In the same year the convent was given licence to ‘receive into the monasterie to be instructed those two daughters which hitherto have lived among the sisters without…thees 2 were Jane Iremonger whom the Mother thought better to cloath and cloathed withe the habit of probation: and francis Spurreth who from that time remained a scholler with in vntill the habit was also given her.’

Immediately below this note, we read the following:

Francis Spurret, the daughter of Nathaniel Spurret, and Hellen Langworth: born in Southwarck tooke the habit of Probation in the 16 year of her age and was called in the order Francis Evangelist.

This provides us with the incidental information that the Spurrets lived in Southwark: perhaps, like Nathaniel’s executor, Matthew Woodward, in Montague Close, and possibly, like him, under the protection of the recusant Viscount Montague. In the Franciscan Book of Professions we find the following record:

Francis Spurret, by the name of Francis Evangelist in the 17 year of her age: made her vowes and profession of the third Rule of S. Francis, in the hands of the Rd Mother Mother Catharine Francis: the Rd fr Guardian of S. Bonaventures in Doway fr. George a Sto Gulielmo assisting and receiving the profession: the 17 day of September 1629. In testimony that this is truth she has hereto subscribed her name with her own hand.

nun on deathbed

A nun on her deathbed (via mikesbogotablog.blogspot.com)

Sadly, Francis Spurret’s life as a nun was to be a short one. The Franciscan Book of the Dead contains the following entry:

Anno Dni 1635 on ye 18 day of July between 2 and 3 of ye clock in ye morning Sister francis Euangelist, alias, francis Spurret, departed out of this life to ye Life everlasting in ye 23 year of her age, and 7 of her profession hauing 2 dayes before received her viaticum and exstreme vn’tion at the hands of our Confessour father Giles Willoughby, who haueing to our great Comfort and edification remained in that office above 4 yeares desired at his first coming that he might bury non, and obtained his wish but by ye espeshiall providence of God performed his pastorall office to this elected soule, that was particularly guided by his Counsills being willing to Correct her natural inclinacions by his spirituall aduice dyed most happily in his custody, and was buyed by his successor ye Rd fa. Gorge paurett she dyed of a burning fever, in parfect sence, sweet repose and resignation. Deo gratias.