Mary Ward In The Archives

It’s Mary Ward Week at The Bar Convent – with her birthday on the 23rd and the anniversary of her death on the 30th. But just who was she and what connection does she have to the convent? Our second post for the Week focuses on our Special Collections here in York, particularly the library and archives. What records and documents do we hold about the woman herself here at the Bar Convent?

Although Mary Ward (1585‒1645) died some 41 years before the Community purchased the house on Mickelgate in 1686, she was born and brought up in nearby Mulwith so would have been familiar with the local area. Perhaps she even came through Mickelgate Bar during her brief stay in York in 1644, when the advancing Parliamentarian army had made the Community’s base at Heworth unsafe. The house is certainly a visible and prominent feature on city maps from that time.

MW signature 2
Due to her many travels, and the constant threat of persecution, Mary and her early companions were a very mobile Community in these initial years. By 1627 they had founded the Paradeiserhaus in Munich, which became the official base of the fledgling order. It now houses many of the original archive documents from Mary Ward’s lifetime. This includes manuscript accounts of her life as well as hundreds of letters, including those she wrote in lemon juice and smuggled out from her prison cell. Reproductions of these fascinating letters are currently on display in our exhibition.

However you don’t have to go all the way to Munich if you want to study her letters – we hold a complete set of facsimiles of all her surviving correspondence here in York. There are several hundred letters in her distinctive handwriting, a very readable italic hand. The letters were written to her early companions, such as Winefrid Wigmore (1585‒1657), and confessors, such as Fr Roger Lee (d.1615), as well as several other people, and cover a wide range of topics.

A series of 50 paintings depicting Mary Ward’s life were commissioned in the 17th century by the early companions, and now hang in the CJ convent in Augsburg. Similarly, we have a full set of reproductions on display in our Exhibition, as well as state-of-the-art touch screen interpretation, which allows you to zoom in on details, people and places depicted across the series.

Mary's life in pictures
Mary’s life in pictures

We are very fortunate to have three unique manuscript biographies of Mary Ward, one in English and two in French. The earliest of these is a French one that has come via our house in Hammersmith, which dates to the late 17th century, and was probably written by Mary Ward’s close companions Winefrid Wigmore and Mary Poyntz (c.1603‒1667), shortly after Ward’s death in 1645. The English one, pictured, is copied and translated from the original French manuscript (with some errors) and is dated 1716 by the copyist.

brief relation tp in Eng
Finally, as the official repository for the English Province of the Congregation of Jesus, our archives hold a number of documents relating to Mary Ward’s position within the church more widely. We have a large number of documents relating to her cause [case for sainthood], including communications with the Holy See; letters from several Victorian bishops supporting her right to be canonised; notes and lectures on Mary Ward’s life and times; and lists of miracles attributed to her intercession.

MW letters

Much of this material is uncatalogued, and we are looking forward to finding out more about this fascinating collection!

Please note, access to the archives and library is by appointment only, and at the discretion of the Congregation of Jesus. If you would like to use our collections, please email our Special Collections Manager, Dr Hannah Thomas, at

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