Monasteries of Great Britain and Ireland – Benedictines

Benedictine MonkBenedictine NunArticle

Under Solemn Vows. Founded 529 A.D. Motto: Pax.

Saint Benedict, the Patriarch of the monks of the West, was born at Norcia in Umbria in 480; tradition says he was the twin-brother of Saint Scholastica. After his childhood was over he was sent by his parents to Rome to finish his education, but he was so shocked at the wickedness of his companions that he fled from Rome to the desert of Subiaco, there to serve God only. Here he met a holy monk named Romanus, who showed him a cave in the mountain in which he could live, and for three years shared his bread with him.

During this period Saint Benedict led a life of the greatest austerity; he was then discovered by some shepherds, and through them the fame of his sanctity spread to the monks of Vicovaro, who sent to ask him to be their Abbot. The Saint told them they would regret their choice if he accepted, but they would not be refused; and as he had foreseen, when he wished to restore discipline, some of the lax members resented it, and tried to pois.on him, but as he made the sign of the cross over the vessel containing the poisonous draught it fell to pieces.

Saint Benedict then left Vicovaro and returned to his cave in Subiaco; he was joined by many others who wished to become monks, so that within a year he founded no less than twelve monasteries. His success provoked the envy of a priest in the neighbourhood, and another attempt to poison him drove him from Subiaco to Monte Cassino to preach the Gospel to the pagans who inhabited that district. He converted them to Christianity, and founded the world-famed monastery of Monte Cassino on that spot. This became the headquarters of the great Benedictine Order; from it the Saint made other foundations before he died. His sister, Saint Scholastica, lived at the bottom of the mountain, where she governed a convent. Saint Benedict visited her from time to time, and buried her at Monte Cassino in the grave destined for his own remains.

In the year 543 he was seized with fever, and after six days illness he received the last sacraments in the Church and died standing up and praying.

Before Saint Benedict’s time the religious life had spread to the west of Europe as far as Germany and the British Isles; but as monasteries and monks increased, variations of the rules of Saint Basil and the Egyptian monks became so numerous that Cassian said “there were as many types and rules as cells and monasteries.” Saint Benedict wrote his celebrated rule at Monte Cassino, which was destined to be so widespread and so generally adopted in Western Europe as to earn him the title of the Patriarch of the monks of the West. For wisdom and prudence the holy rule of Saint Benedict has never been equalled: its moderation makes it suitable to all sorts and conditions of men and women; its elasticity adapts it to all times and all countries. It is as far removed from laxity as from austerity; the vows of stability and conversion of manners prescribed by it provide against the former, and it could never have been so universal as it became had it imposed an asceticism to which only the few are called.

A great part of the holy rule is concerned with directions for the celebration of the Divine Office at the canonical hours; this is the first and principal object for which Saint Benedict founded this great Order, and the singing of the Divine Office, with the most exact observance of the rubrics and ritual of the Catholic Church, has ever been the chief duty of the Benedictine monk, and, for that matter, of Benedictine nuns also. Idleness was especially guarded against by the holy founder, who ordered that when his monks were not engaged in singing the Divine praises or in taking their rest, they were either to be occupied in teaching or study or copying manuscripts, or in manual labour of some kind. As an example of the elasticity of the rule it may be noted that the clothing of the monks was ordered by it to vary according to the climate in which they lived, warmer materials being allowed to those who lived in colder countries.

It was also ordered by the “holy rule” that subjects could be received into the Order at any age and of any rank; from this clause the monks were obliged to receive little boys, even as young as five, if their parents desired to consecrate them to God. Hence schools became necessary in the monasteries to educate these children, and in course of time the great system of conventual education was evolved from this practice. In this country the future historian Bede was handed over to the Benedictines at Jarrow and Wearmouth at the age of seven to be brought up.

In the year 580 the monastery at Monte Cassino was destroyed by the Lombards, and the monks fled to Rome, where they established themselves near the Lateran under the special protection of the Pope. Ten years later, when Gregory the Great occupied the Papal throne, the Order received the Lauda from him. In 597 Pope Gregory the Great sent the future Saint Augustine and some other Benedictine monks from Rome to England to convert the Anglo – Saxons to Christianity from paganism. From that date the history of the Order may almost be said to be the history of the Catholic Church in England; from Kent to Northumberland there arose as many monasteries as bishoprics; the cathedrals as they were built were served by the monks till the tenth and sixteenth centuries, who in the choir-stalls sang the Divine Office at the canonical hours.

Out of seventeen cathedrals, eight were in the hands of the Benedictines, one belonged to the Augustinian Canons, and the rest to the Secular Canons.

In 627, York was founded; in 610 Westminster; in 660 Ripon; in 664 Peterborough was consecrated; in 665 Saint Wilfrid introduced the rule of Saint Benedict at Hexham; in 674 Saint Benedict Biscop founded Wearmouth, and in 665 Yarrow. He had been Abbot of Saint Peter’s at Canterbury since 669.

Saint Augustine himself founded only one cathedral, Saint Saviour’s, Canterbury, and one monastery, also at Canterbury, dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul.

The Celtic monks, who had settlements in various parts of Britain, at first were averse to the Roman use introduced by the Benedictines, but in 700 it became general, thanks to Saint John of Beverley and other holy men who laboured to that end.

From the end of the eighth century the Danes destroyed many of the monasteries in England and murdered a great many of the monks. In the previous century many abuses had crept into the monasteries in this country as well as abroad, and in 794 Abbot Benedict of Anian arose as a reformer in France, and restored the ancient discipline.

In the tenth century the celebrated reform of Cluny under the two first Abbots took place, and this reformed rule was adopted in many places, and at the same time Saint Dunstan and Saint Ethelwold initiated an English reform, drawing their inspiration largely from Ghent and Fleury.

It is no part of this little book to attempt to give even a slight sketch of the history of this great Order in other countries; all we can do is to give the bare outlines of its entrance into England, but that Europe in a great measure owes its civilization to the Benedictines will hardly be denied. To give a slight idea of the vast influence it asserted, it may be mentioned that it is calculated the Benedictine Order at the middle of the fourteenth century had produced no less than 24 Popes, 200 Cardinals, 7,000 Archbishops, 15,000 Bishops, and a larger number still of Saints.

The Benedictine Order is not only itself so widely spread, but so many other Orders are founded on it, who, beyond following the “holy rule” and being immediately under obedience to the Holy See, have nothing else in common with it.

Besides the Cluniac Congregations, which at one time possessed in various countries 2,000 monasteries, may be mentioned the celebrated and ancient Cistercian Order, itself an offshoot of the Benedictines, of which we shall treat separately. The Camaldolese Order, founded by the Benedictine Abbot Saint Romuald, is another offshoot from the parent tree, and in the eleventh century the reform of Saint John Gualbert led to the foundation of the Vallombrosian Congregation, which soon had fifty large monasteries. Besides these large Orders in the twelfth century, a great many smaller Congregations, all founded on the Benedictine rule, arose and spread widely. Lastly, the Carthusian Order is more or less based on the Benedictine rule, though, in the judgment of the Church, it is not counted as part of the Benedictine Order; the same may be said for the Order of Grammont.

In the eleventh century a great change was effected in religious life by the introduction of lay-brothers by Saint John Gualbert in his Congregation. This system of lay-brothers was largely developed in Germany under the influence of William of Hirschau. Till 900 all monks, lay or cleric, learned or unlearned, were on their profession entitled to equal privileges, but since the eleventh century a difference was made between the monks who were appointed to choir duties and the priesthood, to study and the higher offices, who were called choir-brothers (monachi literati), and those brothers who were not bound to choir duties, and who were not priests, and who were occupied in exteraal and manual labour more especially, and were called lay-brethren (fratres conversi).

They were now separated by the lay-brethren having no stalls in the choir and no votes in the chapter; their habit varied in shape and colour from that of the choir-brothers, and they took only simple instead of solemn vows. The establishment of lay-brothers was not confined to the Benedictine Order, but extended into almost all existing Orders, and was adopted by most new Orders.

The holy founder of the Vallombrosians, Saint John Gualbert, gave over to the lay-brothers all domestic work and duties that involved intercourse with worldly people, to the end that the choir-monks might give themselves up entirely to prayer and the works proper to their clerical and religious vocation.

In the sequel the institution of lay-brothers proved inadequate to cope with the worldliness and decline of discipline which in the Middle Ages crept into this great Order through various causes, principally the reception of subjects with no vocation to the religious life, taken especially from the higher ranks of life, who were allowed to retain their own property. Against all these abuses various Papal decrees were issued, and even the Cistercians received reformed Constitutions from Pope Benedict XII. in 1335.

Still greater corruption and laxity prevailed in many Benedictine monasteries in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, which led to the institution of the Congregation of Saint Justina of Padua, afterwards called the Cassinese; that of Valladolid in Spain, and that of Borsfeld in Germany, among others in the fifteenth century, and in the seventeenth that of Saint Vanne, which revived the ancient rule in all its strictness in Lorraine; and to the more celebrated reform of Saint Maur, in France, which learned Congregations, that produced Mabillon, Calmet, Mart6ne, Ruinart, Rivet, and d’Achery, were entirely suppressed in France, as indeed was the whole Order, by the French Revolution, in spite of the benefit conferred on the religious and literary world by their historical labours.

The Order was revived in France in the last century at Solesmes, under Dom Gu6ranger, but only to be again suppressed by the Law of Associations in 1902.

In Spain also, during the Revolution, the Order was suppressed, and has not been restored.

Saint Benedict ordered that everything required by his monks should, as far as possible, be produced or manufactured on the premises, so in olden times a Benedictine monastery was a vast place, almost like an enclosed village, with schools, printing-presses after printing was introduced, shoemakers*, bookbinders*, carpenters*, and tailors’ shops within the enclosure. The monks baked their own bread, kept their own cows, churned their own butter, grew their own fruit and vegetables, made their own clothes and furniture, and wrote and printed and bound their own books. The conditions of modem civilization have modified this practice, but the family spirit which characterizes the Order is kept up.

At the dissolution of the monasteries during the Protestant Reformation in this country there were no less than 186 Benedictine abbeys, priories, and nunneries, besides 100 lesser priories and cells of foreign foundations in England, all of which were suppressed. The last Abbot of Westminster was Dom Feckenham, who, for making a splendid speech in the House of Lords in defence of our holy religion in the first year of Elizabeth’s reign, was imprisoned for the remainder of his life.

During the centuries of persecution, when the English Benedictines had to flee to foreign countries for safety, they continued to send missionaries to England, nine or ten of whom were hanged, drawn, and quartered during the seventeenth century.

The novitiate lasts the canonical year and a day. The habit of the English Benedictine is black, with a black cowl like that of the other reformed Congregations, only the hood is longer in front and hangs in two points; the sleeves of the cowl are very long. The lay-brothers wear a similar habit.

At the present time (1903) the Benedictine Order, exclusive of the white monks – that is, the Cistercians, the Trappists, the Camaldolese, and the Olivetans – counts 2 Cardinals (Celesia and Vaszary), 5 Archbishops, 18 Bishops, 2 Apostolic Prefects, 68 actual and 19 titular Abbots, 9 independent Priors, 2,628 priests, 1,202 clerics, 449 novices and about 669 lay-brethren. They have 128 monasteries, besides about 30 houses not yet erected into abbeys, 12 theological colleges, and 44 schools for boys.

Compared with their glorious past, these numbers are insignificant, but they are sufficient to show the hold the great Order still has on the minds of Catholics, and that the sons of Saint Benedict still inherit some of the love and popularity their great founder enjoyed in the past.

In olden times in England the English Benedictines were called “the black monks,” to distinguish them especially from the Scotch Congregations, who wore a white habit.

Since the French Revolution the Benedictines have re-established monasteries in England. Their houses of Downside, Ampleforth, and Douai, in France, have recently been erected into abbeys. The three great monasteries belonging to the English Congregation are Saint Gregory’s Monastery and College at Downside, Bath, founded in 1814; Saint Lawrence’s Monastery and College at Ampleforth, founded in 1802; the Cathedral Priory at Belmont, near Hereford, was founded in 1855. The novitiate for Douai, as well as for Downside and Ampleforth, is at Belmont.

In 1880 the monastery of Fort Augustus, in Scotland, under the English Congregation, was opened; it was shortly afterwards made an independent abbey.

At Erdington, near Birmingham, a foundation was made in 1876 from the monastery of Maredsous, in Belgium, whose mother-house is at Beuron; it has recently been raised to an abbey. The Subiaco branch of the Order has a monastery with Saint Augustine’s College in the grounds at Ramsgate; the Fathers here are of various nationalities, and the mission is served by them.

Of the priories may be mentioned Buckfast Abbey, at Buckfastleigh, in Devonshire, with ten priests, founded in 1848.

The Solesmes Benedictines, who left France on account of the Association Laws, recently established themselves at Appuldurcombe, near Ventnor, and have just bought Norris Castle, East Cowes, adjoining Osborne, whither they intend to move.

Saint Michael’s Priory, Farnborough, is a foundation of French Benedictines from Solesmes.

The present Bishop of Newport, the Right Rev. John Cuthbert Hedley, is a Benedictine; the Cathedral Benedictine Chapter was erected at the Pro-Cathedral of Saint Michael, Clehonger, near Hereford, in 1860.

MLA Citation

  • Francesca M Steele. “The Benedictines”. Monasteries of Great Britain and Ireland, 1903. CatholicSaints.Info. 29 November 2018. Web. 22 February 2020. <>