The Gilbertine Order was founded by Gilbert of Sempringham in 1130. Most of the priories associated with the order are in Lincolnshire and on the eastern side of the country.

Eleven of the twenty-six houses were double houses, in that they accommodated both men and women but there were strict rules about segregation. The priory at Ravenstonedale does not appear to have been a double house.

It was founded circa 1200 when the manor was granted to Watton which was a double house with some 150 women and 70 men. It seems that Ravenstonedale never grew large – there were three canons and some lay brothers. The men followed the Augustinians and were all canons whilst the women were Benedictine.

There was a fish pond and a rabbit warren to feed the canons at Ravenstonedale. Effectively the canons were the Lords of the Manor so had to fulfil that role including dispensing justice.

Scandalous Watton

Watton Priory

Gilbert of Sempringham founded the Gilbertine Order. It was the only English founded order and it was also the only one with double houses. Gilbertine nuns followed the Benedictine pattern whilst the monks followed the Augustinian pattern of canons. Not all houses were double but the one at Watton in East Yorkshire was.


The story was recorded by Ailred of Rievaulx in the early 1160s. Essentially the nun in question was an oblate in that she had been in the priory since she was four years old. Interestingly, the Gilbertines had an age requirement for entry to their order – 24 for men and 20 for women. However, our nun gained admittance as a child at the request of the Bishop of York.

The nun became enamoured of either a lay brother or one of the canons. The attraction was reciprocated. They arranged to meet. The inevitable happened. The nun was found to be pregnant. The nun was beaten and imprisoned and when her lover captured she was forced to castrate him herself. He was returned to the male side of the house at Watton and disappears from the story.

However, the nun returned to her prison, was visited by the now deceased archbishop and two women who took the baby leaving the teenage nun in her original state of virtue. At which point she was allowed out of prison – a miracle having occurred.

It would have to be said that the Gilbertines had strict rules about segregating the canons from the nuns. Nonetheless the priory at Watton which was one of the most important Gilbertine Foundations was said to have many secret passages.

Watton was where Marjory Bruce, the eleven year old daughter of Robert the Bruce, was imprisoned by Edward I in 1306. She regained her freedom after the Battle of Bannockburn.

G. Constable, ‘Aelred of Rievaulx and the Nun of Watton: an episode in the early history of the Gilbertine order’, Medieval women, ed. D. Baker, SCH, subsidia, 1 (1978), 205–26

Letters from monastic visitors

640px-Cromwell,Thomas(1EEssex)01The first week of November 1535 brought a flurry of letters to Thomas Cromwell’s door. His monastic visitors were in East Anglia and the South of the country at the time. The letters he received from his visitors, local gentry and from the clerics themselves are typical of the correspondence he received during the collection of information for the Valor Ecclesiaticus and the Comperta in 1535 and 1536.  Visits would continue until 1540 when the last monastery was suppressed – Cromwell would himself be executed the very same year – who says Henry VIII didn’t have a sense of irony?


Thomas Legh (Leigh) wrote of the priory at Fordham near Norwich on November 1 1535. He painted a bleak picture of the aged Gilbertine prior and a monk “at death’s door,” who “begged to be released from a bondage they could no longer endure.” As chance would have it Thomas Cromwell’s own confessor was a Gilbertine monk called Roger Holgate. He was the master of Sempringham. Perhaps it was for this reason that the Gilbertines were excluded from the act that dissolved the lesser monastic houses in 1536. Fordham eventually surrendered in 1538. The surrender document reveals three canons and the prior suggesting that the priory wasn’t in such a grim state as Legh’s letter of November 1st 1535 suggests not least because someone else had written to Cromwell that very same week asking about the disposal of the ‘goodly’ farmhouse at Fordham.


The monks of Chertsey were clearly not at death’s door at the beginning of November 1535. They were busy complaining about their abbot who seemed to be selling off the plate and the abbey’s woods. They had much in common with the monks of Worcester who had already been visited. They sent several letters to Cromwell making accusations, justifying themselves and making counter accusations in a ‘it was his fault’ sort of way.


It must have come as a pleasant surprise, depending upon your point of view, at the end of the week when Cromwell received a letter from the Benedictine Abbot of Athelney, Robert Hamblyn, asking to be allowed to leave the precincts of the abbey in order to do the abbey’s business. He notes that the visitor there, one Tregonell, found the abbey in good order. Athelney’s clean bill of health would not save it from dissolution. It finally surrendered on Feb 8 1539 despite the pleas of the abbot.


Grist to Cromwell’s mill of anticlerical justification for the closure of monastic houses was provided when John Ap Rice wrote of another Benedictine establishment. The Abbot of Bury St Edmunds met with very little approval on account of his dodgy financial practices and gambling habits. Apparently “he lay much forth in his granges” and spent money at dice and cards and in building; also that he did not preach and had converted farms into copyholds. “He seems addict also to superstitious ceremonies.”


The superstitions were related to the abbey’s relics which included “the coals that Saint Lawrence was toasted withal, the paring of St. Edmund’s nails, S. Thomas of Canterbury penknife and his boots and divers skulls for the headache, pieces of the Holy Cross able to make a whole cross of, other relics for rain.” I must admit a degree of curiosity regarding the inventory.  Ultimately all the relics would be sent to Cromwell – let’s hope that the “divers skulls for the headache” helped him as he worked late into the night accounting for all that monastic wealth.  And further more – were the relics to cause rain or to prevent it? Occasionally it could be wished that Mr Ap Rice was slightly more detailed in his written accounts to Cromwell.


As with the monks of Athelney Ap Rice left an injunction that they were not to leave their precinct and as with Athelney the abbot immediately wrote to Cromwell asking permission to go out and about on abbey business. He also saw fit to give Cromwell an annual pension of ten pounds that was later increased – whilst it didn’t save the abbey it certainly made the abbot’s life much easier in the long term with regards to his pension and associated perks.


Ap Rice also noted in his letter that he’d dismissed a number of monks at Bury who hadn’t reached their twenty-fourth birthday.  This confirms the rumours contained in Chapuys’ (the Imperial Ambassador) letters of that week which talk of rumours of youthful monks being dismissed from their monastic houses.


‘Houses of Gilbertine canons: Priory of Fordham’, in A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 2, ed. L F Salzman (London, 1948), pp. 256-258. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/cambs/vol2/pp256-258 [accessed 30 October 2016].

‘Henry VIII: November 1535, 1-5’, in Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 9, August-December 1535, ed. James Gairdner (London, 1886), pp. 248-262. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/letters-papers-hen8/vol9/pp248-262 [accessed 12 September 2016].

Monastic Orders – part 2: canons

german-school-(16)-portrait-of-an-augustinian-canon-wearing-a-black-almuceAugustinian Canons, or ‘Black Canons’ because of their black cloaks were all priests who followed the Rule of St Augustine of Hippo. They were similar to monks in that they lived in religious communities, shared property in common and took religious vows including poverty and obedience. They were required to take part in Divine Service just like the monks but the stipulations with regard to the number of services and amount of physical labour were slimmed down so that the canon could preach, teach and care for the needy.   Their order proved very popular during the twelfth century and many of their houses boast huge churches as they attracted very large congregations to hear them preach.

Thus the key differences between the Augustinians and monks of other orders was that they were all priests – you could not become an Augustinian canon unless you were a priest whereas you could be a monk without being a priest. Monks stayed in their houses whereas Augustinians went out into the community often being sent in ones or twos to minister to the parish churches that had been granted to them by their patrons.

In a sense because the religious Rule was a ‘light’ rule the Black Canons eventually gained a reputation for enjoying the comforts of life. They were certainly well-known for their hospitality.

7541_originalInevitably more zealous groups of priests sought to reform the rule. This happened in Premontre in France in 1123 when a wandering preacher called Norbert (he was later sainted) arrived on the scene. The reformed rule followed the Cistercians more closely than the Benedictines – poverty and austerity were the order of the day.   The Premonstratensians distinguished themselves from their Augustinian brethren with a white habit. They arrived in England in 1147 at Alnwick. The Premonstratensians are also sometimes called Norbertines which is at least easier to spell.


Both the Black and the White canons had separate priories for canonesses who were nuns, some communities lived an enclosed life but others were of service to their wider communities e.g. caring for the sick.

Another similarity shared by the two groups of canons was that they were known as ‘regular’ canon. Regular comes from regulus which is Latin for rule: they were priests who followed the rule.

Regular canon can be distinguished from secular canon not because of their beliefs but because of where and how they lived. Regular canon lived like monks for the most part whereas secular canon served in large churches, often in shared accommodation, but they were simply priests rather than having taken any additional monastic vows. Thomas Becket is a patron saint of secular canon.

A final group of canons need also be mentioned. The Gilbertines were the only English monastic order. Gilbert of Sempringham founded a small convent in 1131 for seven women who wanted to follow a religious life. In time the convent expanded to become a double house with women on one side and men on the other – strictly separated of course. The nuns did not go out into the world – so there needed to be a community of lay sisters to do the work. Because Gilbert felt unworthy to lead the growing numbers of nuns, he incorporated regular canons into the set up – their role was pastoral care.

My previous post was about monks and my next post, part three, will be about friars.

The Gilbertines of Ravenstonedale


St Oswald’s Church in Ravenstonedale is a gem in a beautiful setting.  The Georgian church seems hardly changed since the eighteenth century.  The Georgian three-decker pulpit  is certainly eye catching but there has been worship on this site since Saxon times and it was once home to the Gilbertines.

The Gilbertines, founded in 1131, are the only English order.  Their rule is based on the Cistercians with their life of poverty and work. What makes them even more unusual is the fact that the Gilbertines were a mixed order. One of their prime rules was the line from the Lord’s Prayer – ‘Lead us not into temptation’. Monks and nuns lived side by side in a mixed community.  The order originated in Sempringham in Lincolnshire under the strict rule of Gilbert.  Although the order was mixed, the nuns and monks were rigidly segregated.

By the time of the Reformation there were twenty-five Gilbertine houses in England – including one at Malton and Watton in Yorkshire as well as Ravenstonedale.  Interestingly a lower age limit was set before men and women could take full orders.  Lay brothers  professed at twenty-four while lay sisters were allowed to take orders when they reached twenty.  Of course, as with every religious order there is scandal – take the story of the pregnant nun of Watton for instance.  More of that in another post.  Incidentally, the Gilbertines of Ravenstondale had their roots in Watton.  The manor of Ravenstonedale was granted to them in about 1200.

Ravenstonedale was never independent of Watton but the canons would have had a fish pond and possibly some rabbit warrens for self-sufficiency.

On a tranquil summer’s evening in June these days, it’s possible to surprise the rabbits scampering about the Gilbertine ruins which were excavated in 1929.