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Convent Espionage: Women’s History Month III

  15 Mar '21   |  Posted by: Birlinn

Our third instalment of extracts for Women’s History Month is a double decker: early-modern prioresses and the very modern Muriel Spark. The two aren’t so very far apart, it turns out. In Scotland: Her Story , Rosemary Goring presents a letter to Henry VIII that draws attention to the importance of the prioress at Coldstream to national security. It’s a sixteenth-century historical precedent for Muriel Spark’s scintillating satire of Watergate, The Abbess of Crewe.

A Prioress’s Double Life

A letter to Henry VIII from the Marquis of Dorset, April 1524

Muriel Spark’s novel, The Abbess of Crewe, was a political satire on Watergate. Her vision of a convent filled with secret recording machines might seem far-fetched, but as this letter to Henry VIII from the English warden of the East and Middle Marches suggests, espionage flourished within ecclesiastical walls. In the same year as this report, another spy, the prioress at nearby Eccles, succeeded in wrecking the Scottish Regent’s plans for an expedition against England. The question this request raises is whether the Coldstream prioress got her intelligence from Margaret Tudor and, were that so, was it given unwittingly or in full knowledge of how it would be used?

Please it your most noble Grace to be advertised that of late the Queen’s Grace of Scotland your sister wrote her especial letters of request as well unto my lord your Lieutenant as to me, to forbear and save from burning a poor religious house of nuns called Coldstream, the Prioress whereof Her Grace reporteth to be very good and kind unto her. Whereupon both my Lord Lieutenant and I have granted her request, and have so written unto her Grace accordingly. Another cause which moved us the sooner to assure the said house, was by cause the Prioress thereof is one of the best and assured spies we have in Scotland, for which cause we may not spare her.

The Abbess of Crewe – from Chapter I

Muriel Spark (1974)

‘What is wrong, Sister Winifrede,’ says the Abbess, clear and loud to the receptive air, ‘with the traditional keyhole method?’

Sister Winifrede says, in her whine of bewilderment, that voice of the very stupid, the mind where no dawn breaks, ‘But, Lady Abbess, we discussed right from the start –’

‘Silence!’ says the Abbess. ‘We observe silence, now, and meditate.’ She looks at the tall poplars of the avenue where they walk, as if the trees are listening. The poplars cast their shadows in the autumn afternoon’s end, and the shadows lie in regular still file across the pathway like a congregation of prostrate nuns of the Old Order. The Abbess of Crewe, soaring in her slender height, a very Lombardy poplar herself, moving by Sister Winifrede’s side, turns her pale eyes to the gravel walk where their four black shoes tread, tread and tread, two at a time, till they come to the end of this corridor of meditation lined by the secret police of poplars.

Out in the clear, on the open lawn, two men in dark police uniform pass them, with two Alsatian dogs pulling at their short leads. The men look straight ahead as the nuns go by with equal disregard.

After a while, out there on the open lawn, the Abbess speaks again. Her face is a white-skinned English skull, beautiful in the frame of her white nun’s coif. She is forty-two in her own age with fourteen generations of pale and ruling ancestors of England, and ten before them of France, carved also into the bones of her wonderful head. ‘Sister Winifrede,’ she now says, ‘whatever is spoken in the avenue of meditation goes on the record. You’ve been told several times. Won’t you ever learn?’

Sister Winifrede stops walking and tries to think. She strokes her black habit and clutches the rosary beads that hang from her girdle. Strangely, she is as tall as the Abbess, but never will she be a steeple or a tower, but a British matron in spite of her coif and her vows, and that great carnal chastity which fills her passing days. She stops walking, there on the lawn; Winifrede, land of the midnight sun, looks at the Abbess, and presently that little sun, the disc of light and its aurora, appears in her brain like a miracle. ‘You mean, Lady Abbess,’ she says, ‘that you’ve even bugged the poplars?’

‘The trees of course are bugged,’ says the Abbess. ‘How else can we operate now that the scandal rages outside the walls? And now that you know this you do not know it so to speak. We have our security to consider, and I’m the only arbiter of what it consists of, witness the Rule of St Benedict. I’m your conscience and your authority. You perform my will and finish.’

‘But we’re something rather more than merely Benedictines, though, aren’t we?’ says Sister Winifrede in dark naïvety. ‘The Jesuits –’

‘Sister Winifrede,’ says the Abbess in her tone of lofty calm, ‘there’s a scandal going on, and you’re in it up to the neck whether you like it or not. The Ancient Rule obtains when I say it does. The Jesuits are for Jesuitry when I say it is so.’ A bell rings from the chapel ahead. It is six o’clock of the sweet autumnal evening. ‘In we go to Vespers whether you like it or whether you don’t.’

‘But I love the Office of Vespers. I love all the Hours of the Divine Office,’ Winifrede says in her blurting voice, indignant as any common Christian’s, a singsong lament of total misunderstanding.

The ladies walk, stately and tall, but the Abbess like a tower of ivory, Winifrede like a handsome hostess or businessman’s wife and a fair weekend tennis player, given the chance.

‘The chapel has not been bugged,’ remarks the Lady Abbess as they walk. ‘And the confessionals, never. Strange as it may seem, I thought well to omit any arrangement for the confessionals, at least, so far.’

The Lady Abbess is robed in white, Winifrede in black. The other black-habited sisters file into the chapel behind them, and the Office of Vespers begins.

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