Lady Lucy Herbert – Prioress

5 March. On this day in 1709 an aristocratic, Roman Catholic Englishwoman, Lady Lucy Herbert, was elected Prioress or Mother Superior of her convent, that of the English Augustinians at Bruges. She had been known ever since her espousal of the religious life not by her original name but as Sister Teresa Joseph; she now became Mother Teresa Joseph. Her position was not unusual: since Roman Catholic institutions were for generations illegal in Britain, parents who wanted their daughters brought up as Catholics, and who could afford it, often shipped them off to convents in France or the Low Countries. These flourishing female communities were hotbeds of talent and ability, and they recorded their own lives and those of their convents in a range of valuable historical texts. Distinctions of social rank were not quite obliterated among them, and women who rose to be leaders in the religious life were often aristocrats.

Lady Lucy, or Mother Teresa Joseph, had both the family and the ability. Her parents, Jacobite Catholics from the Welsh marches, were both descendants of powerful families, and were valued by James II and his second wife respectively for their leadership as well as their loyalty. Each had (almost certainly) published political controversy (the Earl a pamphlet, the Countess a couple of ballads). Lady Lucy owes her place in Orlando: Women’s Writing in the British Isles from the Beginnings to the Present to a series of devotional books designed for nuns and the young women they took in as pupils, books full of fervent piety and also of humanity and good sense. But she also owes her place to a more famous text which she did not write, but for whose existence she is responsible.

Lady Lucy Herbert was the youngest but one of her family. Her sisters all got married: the youngest, Winifred, to a Scottish fellow Jacobite named William Maxwell, Earl of Nithsdale. He took part in the first Jacobite rebellion in 1715, was captured, and with other Scots lords was imprisoned in the Tower of London, facing imminent execution. His wife immediately tapped into another tradition among the persecuted Catholics of the day, that of the heroic wife. Women were not surprised when it fell to them to keep the family going while their men were arrested and jailed; heroism was merely an aspect of their duty as Catholic wives. Winifred Nithsdale’s first thought, in her castle in Scotland, was to bury the family valuables, including the papers which would secure her son’s inheritance of the estate. Then she rode south through snow as deep as her horse’s girths (the regular coach had stuck in a snowdrift and suspended normal operations).

She did not go alone, but with a Welsh maid who had been with her since they were young girls, Cecilia (or perhaps Grace) Evans. In London she tried the usual means of attending parliament and petitioning the king, but to no avail. Then, with the help of Evans and the support of two more women friends, she conceived and carried through an extremely daring plan to spring her husband from the Tower, in women’s clothes which her friends wore to pass the guards into the prison and which William Nithsdale wore to pass the guards out again. Everyone played their part to perfection except the earl, who had to be coaxed and persuaded, apparently feeling that he would rather be executed than risk being captured in female dress.

Once the earl was on a ship to France, the countess was off again through the snow (though she was heavily pregnant, and afraid the pommel of the saddle might harm her unborn baby) to reclaim her buried papers. She too made it across the English Channel, though a violent storm and terrible seasickness caused her to miscarry after all.

This heroic story, told in the words of its protagonist, would not have been available to later generations if her sister the prioress had not persuaded her, two years after the event, to commit it to paper. Winifred told Lucy (Mother Teresa Joseph), “noe body but your selfe could have obtain’d [this] from me.” The Augustinian nuns then made themselves “responsible for copying, circulating, and eventually returning the Countess of Nithsdale’s manuscript to her own descendents in the nineteenth century.” In fact they had helpers in preserving and circulating it outside the convent, women who also cared in different ways about women’s history: the eighteenth-century Ladies of Llangollen, Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, at one time had the manuscript in their collection.

Lady Nithsdale’s story has been often retold, both as romance and as history: by Arabella Jane Sullivan in 1835 (edited by Barbarina Brand, Lady Dacre), by Edna Lyall in 1898 (transposed for a fictional character), by John Buchan in 1922, by Clifford Bax in 1931 romantically, and by Flora Maxwell Stuart in 1995 historically. Nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century accounts tend to emphasise her selfless, wifely devotion. It is easier today to admire her enterprise, ingenuity, and executive ability, the qualities that would have enabled her to excel in the “masculine” roles of army officer or CEO. It is also possible today to appreciate the way her narration brings its own unique contribution to the tradition of early modern Roman Catholic women’s life-writing.

All information the entries on Herbert and Nithsdale in Orlando, an electronic resource published by Cambridge University Press, by subscription, at