Janet E. Hollinshead, Women of the Catholic Community: The Blundells of south Lancashire during the seventeenth & eighteenth centuries, North West Catholic History Society, Wigan, 2010.

Janet E. Hollinshead, Women of the Catholic Community: The Blundells of south Lancashire during the seventeenth & eighteenth centuries, North West Catholic History Society, Wigan, 2010. £17.60, ISBN: 978-0-9558464-4-1 (paperback), pp. v + 144

Reviewed by: Christina Brindley, Manchester Metropolitan University, July 2010

A sizeable body of historical research has considered the prevalence and nature of post-Reformation Catholicism in Lancashire.  In the wake of research by Christopher Haigh and J. Stanley Leatherbarrow, this English county has become almost synonymous with the word ‘Catholic’.[1]  However, in part due to the scarcity and nature of the surviving sources, very little of the existing historiography focuses – explicity or even implicitly – upon the Catholic women of Lancashire.

In this volume, Janet Hollinshead investigates the lives of the county’s Catholic women by conducting a prosopographical study of the Blundells of Sefton parish.  In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, two Blundell families held estates less than a mile apart: the first at Ince Blundell and the second at Little Crosby.  Substantial deposits of archival material from both estates survive and are held at Lancashire Record Office in Preston.  The archival holdings generated by these two families provide an unparalleled opportunity for a case study of two contiguous Catholic estates. Hollinshead makes thorough use of the materials available to her, from the letters of William Blundell of Little Crosby, to the Diurnal (diary) of his grandson Nicholas Blundell, and beyond.

What makes Hollinshead’s work especially innovative is that it considers both secular women and women religious.  Many studies of Catholic women have a tendency to focus either on female recusancy or upon the lives of exiled English nuns after their enclosure. Rather than restrict herself to a consideration of one or other of these topics, Hollinshead chooses instead to investigate the life-paths which were available to the Blundell women and to analyse the factors which may have influenced, or placed limitations upon, their choices.

Particularly insightful is the author’s statistical analysis of the Blundell women; how many of them remained single, married, or followed a religious vocation.  Of the 39 women born between 1600 and 1760 (and surviving beyond the age of 21), Hollinshead calculates that 18% married, 33% remained single, and 49% entered the exiled convents (p. 125).  Evidence relating to the Blundell women would seem to suggest that, contrary to historical hyperbole, there was little financial benefit to be gained from women entering convents instead of marrying.  The financial cost of female dependents – marital dowries, annuities, or conventual entry fees – upon a family could be equally burdensome, no matter which option a woman chose to pursue.  Hollinshead suggests that the high proportion of Blundell women who chose to take holy orders may be explained by a combination of factors, including the poor availability of marriageable Catholic men and genuine religious vocation, rather than simple pecuniary motivations.

Hollinshead demonstrates that the women of the Blundell estates were also part of an extensive Catholic kinship network which existed within Sefton and beyond. Neighbouring gentry families such as the Andertons, the Gillibrands and the Molyneux enabled the construction of a supportive Catholic community, which the Blundell women were deeply integrated into through household religion.  Interestingly, relations between the Blundells and neighbouring Protestants appear to have been convivial, with evidence of the Anglican clergy of Sefton parish and Catholic priests from the Blundell estates regularly socialising together.

Despite the geographical distance between south Lancashire and continental Europe, Hollinshead puts forth a great deal of persuasive evidence which suggests that contact between the Blundells and the exiled English convents in France and the Netherlands was  regular and sustained.  Men from the Blundell family at Little Crosby regularly acted as financial agents, conducting business in England on behalf of the convents.  Both Blundell families also seem to have been involved in securing places at the convents for prospective nuns.  These women included, not only choir nuns from within their own families, but also lay sisters, who were recruited from the parish community and beyond. The evidence also reveals that some Blundell family members frequently travelled to the continent: accompanying daughters or the children of friends upon their admission to the convents, or carrying messages, money or goods.

This monograph benefits greatly from a series of well-constructed family trees and tables. Two of the tables clearly illustrate, for instance, that of the 21 Blundell women who were professed as nuns between 1615 and 1774, entry was obtained into only nine different convents (from a total possible choice of 21).  There appears to have been considerable Blundell loyalty to three religious orders: the Augustinians, the Benedictines and the Franciscans.  The Poor Clares seem to have been particularly favoured, with twelve Blundell women (ten of them from the estate at Little Crosby) entering the convents at Gravelines and Rouen (pp. 76-80).  Hollinshead deploys evidence which suggests that certain convents were favoured for a range of reasons, varying from confessional allegiance to the presence of relatives at particular convents.

In conclusion, this volume provides a welcome addition to both the historiography of Lancashire Catholicism and of Catholic women more generally.  It is especially pleasing to see a piece of research in this field which divides its attention equally between secular women and women religious. Despite its focus being upon only two families from a small geographical area, this work nevertheless goes some way towards rectifying the significant gender imbalance of the extant research.



[1] C. Haigh, Reformation and Resistance in Tudor Lancashire, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975); J.S. Leatherbarrow, ‘Lancashire Elizabethan Recusants’, Unpublished PhD Thesis, University of Manchester, 1947.