Mary Ward

1585AD - 1645AD

Yorkshire framed the extraordinary life of Mary Ward, who was born and died in the county. Her influence was felt throughout Europe and within the city of York it lasts to this day within the remarkable Bar Convent.

Deciding to pursue her religious convictions at a time when it was exceedingly dangerous to do so, Mary went against the wishes of her family to fulfil her desire to become a nun.

Mary grew up in Yorkshire in a strongly Catholic family at a time when Catholicism was illegal in England. Three of her uncles were deeply involved in the Gunpowder Plot and were killed trying to escape arrest.

From as early as fifteen Mary had decided she wanted to become a nun. She resisted pressure from her family and the offers of a number of suitors and in 1606 she left England for Flanders where she joined a convent. At the time convents were completely closed off from the outside world and the Catholic Church taught that nuns should always stay within their walls.

By 1609 Mary had begun her own convent in Flanders to enable other women to follow their religious calling. The new institution thrived. However Mary had a vision that she should do more religious work in the outside world.

Despite her strong faith Mary was no slave to Catholic dogma. She met a group of women who believed, like she did, that nuns should do God’s work outside of their convents.  Widely known as the ‘English Ladies’, they set up a school for children in Flanders. It became so popular that in the following decades Mary went on to set up similar schools all across Europe.

However such an active role for women did not always sit well with the Catholic Church. In 1631 Pope Urban VIII passed a law closing the schools and condemning the ‘English Ladies’. Mary Ward was even arrested as a heretic and imprisoned for nine weeks.

On her release she was allowed to meet with the Pope and was clearly persuasive in her arguments. After the meeting she was cleared of heresy and allowed to set up a school in Rome itself, and several others were reopened.

In 1639, when she became ill Mary went home to Yorkshire and lived surrounded by some of her oldest friends. She died in 1645 at Heworth Manor near York. Mary was buried in the parish church of St Thomas in Osbaldwick, where her tomb stone can still be seen today. 

After her death an early member of the ‘English Ladies,’ Frances Bedingfield, set up a school in York at the Bar Convent, based on Mary’s beliefs that women should be more active in the Catholic Church.

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