I imagine many people will have heard of Benedictine monasteries and perhaps Cistercian ones. They continue to exist today around the world. What is less likely is to have heard of Gilbertine monasteries. St Gilbert started monasteries in England during the 12th Century when there was a move in Europe towards founding simpler establishments in contrast to the very rich and powerful monastic houses then in existence. 26 Gilbertine houses were founded and continued to live by the principle of simplicity. Sadly this did not protect them from suffering as other monasteries did during the dissolution of monasteries under Henry VIII of England. Whereas other monastic orders were eventually able to begin again, the Gilbertines were wiped out and did not revive at a later date. There are still some remains of the priories including Malton Priory where the church is now a parish church.
On Thursday 4th February we remembered St Gilbert in our lectionary. Read on to learn more.
Gilbert was born at Sempringham in Lincolnshire England in 1083. He was the eldest son of one of William the Conqueror’s knights, Gocelin, who had around 160 acres of land in payment for military service done for the king. His mother was an ordinary Anglo-Saxon woman who is said to have had a vision that before Gilbert was born, that he would be special.
Gilbert had some form of disability at birth, probably a deformed spine. This was severe enough to ensure that he was unable to be a knight like his father. Gilbert was sent to Paris to study under some of the great scholars of Europe. He earned the title of Master while there. On his return home he taught the children locally to read and write. Unusually he taught both girls and boys.
Gilbert’s father was impressed by the scholar he had become and with his devotion to his faith and gave him the rectories of Sempringham and West Torrington which gave him an income. When he was 39 he joined the household of Robert Bloet, bishop of Lincoln, in the capacity of a clerk. He was ordained a year later and became the diocesan confessor under the next Bishop, Alexander the Magnificent. When offered the role of archdeacon, Gilbert refused.
Gilbert’s father died in 1131 and Gilbert then returned to Sempringham to become lord of the manor and the parish priest. At that time monasteries were being founded in Europe based on the principle of poverty in contrast to the large rich monasteries then in existence. These new monasteries held more closely to the Rule of St Benedict. Gilbert established the first of such monasteries in England. He founded a community for seven local girls who had a house and cloister to one side of his parish church in Sempringham. He took the responsibility for educating them and guiding them in following the Rule of Benedict. He hired a priest called Geoffrey and the two of them shared rooms above the entrance to the church. After eight years the community moved a short distance to what became the mother-house for the Gilbertine Order. Gilbert added lay sisters and brothers to do the work and then ordained brothers also to minister to the nuns’ spiritual needs. These canons regular followed the Rule of St Augustine while the nuns followed the Cistercian rule.
The order began to spread as the Gilbertines took over an old Cistercian monastery in Haverholme. As Gilbert’s houses had both men and women, the Cistercians wouldn’t take over the direction of the Gilbertines. Instead the Pope Eugenius III allowed Gilbert to be master of his own order with a constitution written by St Bernard of Clairvaux. The order grew rapidly with nine new houses being added in six years, stretching to Scotland. Haverholme was large with 150 people, whereas Newstead only had 13. In Gilbert’s lifetime 13 houses were founded. Besides these he had also built hostels for the poor, sick, lepers, widows and orphans.
Gilbert ruled all the houses as ‘Prior of all’ which entailed visiting them all regularly to appoint chief offices, seal charters and deal with other business as well as receiving novices into the order. Gilbert eventually found this far too much for him and appointed some nuns and canons as assistants. There were a lot of difficulties to sort out with the lay brothers as they were drawn from the village population and were rough and difficult to control. At one point the lay brothers revolted because they considered their living conditions too bad. Pope Alexander III ruled in the favour of Gilbert in this dispute but the living conditions of the lay brothers were still improved.
When Gilbert became blind in old age he transferred responsibility for the order to Roger who was the prior of Malton. In his hundredth year he felt compelled to “pass from this life in which he was so greatly broken for penance which he had endured in God’s service, but yet all his members were whole as we have said before, save his sight.” Gilbert lived to the age of 106. He became ill at Newstead priory on Christmas Eve 1188 and was carried the 40 miles to his home in Sempringham. He died there on 4th February 1189.
The Gilbertines were the only English order and were well supported by the Kings. Despite this, by the end of the 15th Century the order was in poverty. At the time of the dissolution of monasteries in 1538 there were 26 houses. The Gilbertines surrendered freely and each nun and canon was given a yearly pension. Only four of the houses had an income over £200 a year. There was little of value such as gold or silver plate as they had retained their simplicity from the start. The order then disappeared without trace.
Miracles were attributed to Gilbert even while he was alive. Just 11 years after his death the Archbishop of Canterbury sent the Priors of some of the Gilbertine houses to write an account of his life and his miracles. Letters were sent by King John, the Archbishop, bishops and the priors to Pope Innocent III. They asked for Gilbert to be canonised. This was decreed by the Pope on 11th January 1202.
I hadn’t realised until I researched Gilbert that I have a tenuous link with him. One of the priory churches became a parish church. That is in Old Malton in North Yorkshire. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malton_Priory
That church is the parish church of my childhood and I was baptised there on 10th July 1953. The rest, as they say, is history.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor