I was honoured to be asked to give a public lecture by the Friends of Saint Cuthbert’s Church, who have always supported my work and allowed me access to resources at the church without reservation. The talk focused on the history of the Poor Clares of Darlington, focusing especially on the manuscripts which are stored at the University of Durham and had formed the basis of my IMEMS Library Fellowship there.
While the talk should have taken place in March, the unusual weather at the time meant that both myself and the audience could not get to the venue for several inches of snow! Rescheduled for June, the weather promptly played up again, this time with Storm Hector bringing 100mph winds. Fortunately, the event went ahead this time, but not without a mild bemusement from all involved that the event may well be cursed!
The Poor Clare foundress was Saint Clare of Assisi. During her lifetime she set up her own order, known as the Order of Poor Ladies, which was renamed after her death to the Order of Saint Claire, now more commonly known as the Poor Clares. Unlike other religious orders such as the Benedictines or the Cistercians, who followed the Rule of Saint Benedict, the nuns followed Claire’s own writings, making her the first woman to write a text dictating the daily patterns of prayer and work to be followed in convents.
Clare is recorded as having repelled an entire army singlehandedly. In 1224 a Saracen army plundered Assisi, but Clare met the army carrying the Sacrament in her hands. Miraculously the army stopped, full of terror at the sight, and fled without harming anybody in the city. In 1958 Saint Clare was declared the patron saint of television by the Catholic Church- apparently due to having visions of a local mass on her wall when she was too ill to attend the church herself.
While the Poor Clares had thrived in England (their first foundation being in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1286), the Reformation saw their convents slowly dissolved and closed. Some nuns, such as Elizabeth Throckmorton, who was the abbess of the Poor Clares at Denny in Cambridgeshire, continued to live a monastic life on private estates. A revival of Poor Clare monastic life was start by a Catholic gentlewoman from North Yorkshire named Mary Ward, who saw the need for a religious community for English women. She established this at Gravelines in 1609, in what is now northern France. Convents in Dunkirk, Aire and Rouen followed in 1625, 1629 and 1644 respectively.
These convents survived until the French Revolution, at which point many monks and nuns were imprisoned or executed for their beliefs. Some Poor Clares were imprisoned in 1793, spending 16 months incarcerated before being released and returning to England. Some of the material in the Durham collection originates from the 79 crates of possessions the nuns from Aire managed to bring back with them from the continent. They began a new community at Haggerston Castle in Northumberland, moving in 1805 to Scorton in Yorkshire and then to Darlington in 1857. In 2007 the community merged with the Poor Clares at Much Birch in Herefordshire, at which time they donated part of their library (796 printed works and 74 manuscripts) to Durham.
Overall the lecture was a success, with over 100 people attending and over £300 raised for the church’s restoration fund. The event also featured in several local press articles. It was also intended to further highlight the closure or loss of key parts of Darlington’s heritage. In 2015 the Darlington convent went on the market for £1.5 million. In 2017 it was reported that the historic abbey and chapel was be converted into a 11-bedroomed home and nine smaller houses. In the same light, struggles continue to stop the closure of Darlington Central Library, which opened in 1885 and was built with a £10,000 legacy from Edward Pease’s will. It is hoped more lectures and talks like this one will raise awareness of the importance of preserving key heritage sites as part of local identity and history.