St. Gilbert of Sempringham founded the only medieval religious order of English origin – an unusual sort of congregation that Henry VIII destroyed during the English Reformation.
Gilbert was born at Sempringham in Lincolnshire, the son of an Anglo-Norman knight, Jocelin, a great land holder, and his wife, a woman of humble Anglo-Saxon background. Physically ill-fitted for the life of a soldier or knight, Gilbert was sent to France for higher studies. After finishing the course, he remained in France for a while as a teacher.
On his return to England, Gilbert’s father assigned him the annual income of two parish churches on the family estates. According to the contemporary feudal custom, Jocelin’s son only had to become a lesser cleric in order to receive, for his support, the pastors’ income of the two churches. Gilbert did become a lesser cleric of the diocese of Lincoln, and he did accept the two parish “benefices”, but he used the income of only one of them for his own needs, devoting the other sum to the needs of the poor. In 1123 he was ordained deacon and priest by the bishop of Lincoln.
In 1131 Jocelin died and Gilbert, succeeding him as lord of the manor, returned to Sempringham. That same year he began his real career, founding a little religious community of seven young women under the Benedictine rule. The order grew, so it became necessary to accept lay sisters as well; and later on, lay brothers to take care of the nuns’ farms.
He went to France in 1147 to ask the Cistercian monks to assume management of this religious community. When they declined because it was not their custom to supervise convents for women, Pope Eugene III urged Father Gilbert to head the community himself. He accepted, and eventually added to it another branch for priests. The priests’ branch was governed by the rule of the Canons Regular of St. Augustine.
By 1500 there would be 25 houses of Gilbertines: 22 in England, two in Ireland, and one in Scotland. They continued as “double monasteries”, usually with more female than male members, all under the rule of one master general. The prior and prioress of each house had equal authority in the order. The founder remained grand master until he was about 100; then he appointed a successor. Thus far Gilbert had been a diocesan priest; only after retirement did he take vows as a member of the Gilbertines.
Throughout his career as a founder, St. Gilbert was noted for his austere life and his solicitude for the poor. The government of his order caused him much grief. At one point in his later years, the Gilbertine lay brothers revolted and started a campaign of calumny against him. Only after some time was his reputation cleared, with the backing of King Henry II and Pope Alexander III.
Yet another calumny was leveled at him later on. During the struggle between Henry II and St. Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, Gilbert and his monastic aides were accused of having sent Becket assistance during his exile. The charge was untrue. Yet, so delicate was the conscience of St. Gilbert that he was ready to submit to imprisonment rather than defend himself, for if he denied the accusation, he felt he would be implying that Becket had done something wrong, and if he had helped him he would have been guilty of sin.
Dying at age 106, St. Gilbert was canonized 13 years later. His shrine at Sempringham became a place of pilgrimage. It is said, however, that in the 13th century King Louis VIII of France transferred the relics to the church of St. Sernin in Toulouse, France.
English Catholics have not forgotten, however, this saintly contemporary of St. Thomas of Canterbury. His feast is celebrated annually in the Catholic dioceses of Northampton and Nottingham; the former diocese has one, and the latter, two churches dedicated to his memory.
–Father Robert F. McNamara