The parish register of Boughton under Blean, Kent, for the year 1586 includes the following entry:
The 31th of Julye was bapt. Bennett the Daughter of Thomas Haukins, gent.
Bennett or Benedict Hawkins was the youngest daughter of the recusant Sir Thomas Hawkins the elder and his wife Anne Pettit who lived at Nash Court, Boughton. She was the sister of the Jesuit priest and author, Henry Hawkins, the poet and translator Sir Thomas Hawkins the younger, and the physician, grammarian and translator John Hawkins.
Benedict was the first of a number of female members of the extended Hawkins family to join one of the English monastic communities in exile. On 22nd July 1610 she was received into the English Benedictine convent in Brussels. Exactly a year later, at the age of twenty-four, she was ‘invested with the holie Habitt of St Benedict’, and a year after that she made her profession, taking the name Barbara Benedict. Her dowry was 3800 florins. Sister Barbara Benedict served as sacristan in 1623 and again in 1652. She died in 1661, at the age of 75.
Six of Benedict Hawkins’ nieces would follow her example, choosing the life of a nun in an exiled English convent, as would five of her great nieces. This was in addition to Frances Spurrett, the niece of Benedict’s brother Richard Hawkins (Frances was the daughter of Helen Langworth, sister of Richard’s wife Mary; she entered the English Franciscan convent in Brussels in 1626). Richard and Mary Hawkins had one daughter who, like Frances Spurrett, joined the Franciscans in Brussels. Benedict’s sister Susan, who married John Finch of Grovehurst, had a daughter who joined the Benedictines in Ghent. Another sister, Anne, who married William Hildesley, had four daughters, all of whom joined the Sepulchrine order in Liège.
To a modern sensibility, the idea of sending one’s daughters to a foreign country, to live in an enclosed, celibate community for the remainder of their lives, is difficult to understand. However, the historian Caroline Bowden has argued that, in the case of the English religious communities in exile, ‘care was taken to ensure that women entered convents of their own free will and evidence has survived from many of the convents showing that candidates could, and in fact did, leave if they changed their mind about joining.’ Bowden claims that, far from resenting the experience of religious enclosure, the exiled nuns seem positively to have welcomed separation from a secular world in which they and their families had experienced persecution and had been prevented from practising their religion freely.
I’ll write about the families of Ann, Susan and Richard Hawkins in separate posts.