Gilbert of Sempringham and the Gilbertine Order

Last Wednesday, 4th February, was the feast of St. Gilbert of Sempringham (in Lincolnshire), the only Englishman to found a monastic order. This had provided Fr. Ed Tomlinson with the occasion to write the following post on St. Gilbert

Born at Sempringham in Lincolnshire, Gilbert was the son of a wealthy Norman knight. He was sent to France to study and returned to England to receive his father’s benefices of Sempringham and Tirington. He then became a clerk in the household of the Bishop of Lincoln, Robert Bloet, before being ordained by Robert’s successor, Alexander.

Gilbert returned to Sempringham as Lord on the death of his father in 1131. In the same year he began acting as adviser for a group of seven young women living in enclosure with lay sisters and brothers. He soon decided the community should be incorporated into an established religious order. After several new foundations were established, Gilbert went to Citeaux in 1148 to ask the Cistersians to take over the running of the Communites. They declined and so…

Gilbert, with the approval of Pope Eugene III, continued the Community himself with the addition of Canons Regular for its spiritual directors and Gilbert himself as Master General. The Community became known as the Gilbertine Order, the only English religious order originating in the medieval period; it eventually had twenty-six monasteries, all of which were flourishing when England was a Catholic nation.

The Gilbertines came to be much admired for their spiritual discipline and charitable work. But it wasn’t all plain sailing as Gilbert was imprisoned in 1165 on a false charge of aiding St. Thomas of Canterbury during the latter’s exile. He was, however, later exonerated of the charge. Gilbert resigned office late in life because of blindness and died at Sempringham at the age of 106. He was canonized in 1202 with his feast day being February 4.

At the Reformation the suppression of the monasteries in England, under Henry VIII, brought a sudden and violent end to the Gilbertines. Each and every community was snuffed out and England’s only medieval order was no more.

I would love it if, one day, the Ordinariate could help resurrect the Gilbertine order… It would surely be a most worthwhile endeavour and another signpost pointing England to her fine history as a flourishing Catholic nation.

And I am not the only one with a devotion to St. Gilbert. For yesterday Paul Waddington left a comment saying:

It is interesting that you mention St Gilbert of Semperingham. He was, of course, the founder of the Gilbertine Order of Priests and nuns. Here in Yorkshire, and also in Lincolnshire, there are many ruins of Gilbertine houses. Some were for nuns, others were for priests, and yet others were double monasteries. Because the Gilbertines did not exist outside England, they ceased to exist with the dissolution of the monasteries at the reformation. However, in pre-reformation days, they were a major force in English monasticism. It is regrettable that St Gilbert is not better little remembered now.

Perhaps he should be accorded the status of a national patron.

The following is a fascinating video of the excavation of the Gilbertine priory at Chicksands in Bedfordshire:

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