Monasteries of Great Britain and Ireland – Cistercians

Cistercian Monk in CowlArticle

Contemplative. Under Solemn Vows. Founded 1098. Motto: Cistercium.

The Cistercian Order is a branch of the Benedictine, and was founded by Saint Robert; it gets its name from the ancient mother-house at Cistercium (now Citeaux), fifteen miles from Dijon; the old monastery had been turned into a penitentiary and reformatory, but has now reverted to the Order, and is actually the seat of the Abbot-General of the Order of Reformed Cistercians. Saint Robert was born in Champagne; he was of high birth, and entered the Benedictine Order in his youth at Montiel-la-Celle, where a few years after his profession he was made Prior, and soon after that was promoted to be the Abbot of Saint Michel de la Tonnerre. His efforts to restore the ancient discipline at Saint Michel’s were useless, so he returned to Montiel-la-Celle, but he was then chosen as Prior of Saint Aigulf’s, in Provence, where the monks lived together as hermits, with the approbation of the Pope, under the Benedictine rule. Montiel-la-Celle was an unhealthy spot, so he led his subjects to a wood near Molesmes, where they, with their own hands, constructed themselves some cells and a little chapel of wood. After a little time the discipline became so relaxed, through the lukewarmness of some members, that Saint Robert and twenty of the more zealous left them and went to Citeaux, where they settled in 1098 in great poverty. Their edifying manner of life soon won them friends, and Eudes, Duke of Burgundy, finished building their monastery, and gave them lands and cattle, and the Bishop of Châlons raised Citeaux to an abbey, and made Saint Robert the first Abbot; but he was obliged to return to the monks he had left at Molesmes the next year, and was succeeded at the “New Monastery,” as Citeaux was called, by Saint Alberic.

Alberic got Pope Paschal II to confirm the monastery under the rule of Saint Benedict, and then drew up the new Constitutions, which prescribed a brown habit and a strict observance of Saint Benedict’s rule; the brown habit was soon changed to a white one, with a black scapular. Lay-Brothers were introduced to attend to the domestic duties.

On the death of Saint Alberic, in 1109, our countryman, Stephen Harding, became Superior, but he was so strict that no fresh subjects would join his community, which was also reduced by sickness to a small number, till, in 1112, Saint Bernard, with the twenty novices whom he told to leave their bodies outside, knocked at the abbey gates, and soon after the numbers increased so much that Stephen was obliged to open other houses. In 1113 the Abbey of La Ferté, in the diocese of Châlons, was founded; in 1114, Pontigny; in 1115, the celebrated Abbey of Clairvaux, and in the same year Morimond. As all the world knows, the first Abbot of Clairvaux was the great Saint Bernard, counted a saint in his lifetime, and from Clairvaux numerous monasteries were founded.

Among the strict observances Stephen Harding introduced was one applying the counsel of perfection of poverty to the chapels and all their ornaments, as well as to the monasteries and the monks themselves. After Clairvaux was founded, he drew up his constitutions commonly called Carta Charitatis, with the co-operation of the other Abbots, as the foundation of community life, which established the General Chapter of the Order. Up to this time each monastery was independent. It is contained in five chapters of rules; this was confirmed by PopeCalixtus II in 1119. After the new Order was thus firmly established, with the approbation of the Church, on a solid basis, it increased so quickly that fifty years after Citeaux was founded it contained 343 abbeys, and this number was more than doubled by the end of the fourteenth century, when it had no less than 700 abbeys, of which Saint Bernard himself founded 160 with subjects from Clairvaux. The influence of the Order increased in the same ratio as the houses. The sanctity of the members was the admiration of the world, so to have a brother or a son in the Order was an honour highly prized. James of Vitry, writing his history of the West in the middle of the thirteenth century, when the Order was in its prime, says: “The whole Church of Christ was penetrated with admiration and reverence for the perfection of these religious as by the perfume of a heavenly balm, and there was no country and no district into which this vine did not send out its branches.”

Of the observances of the Cistercians, he mentions that they wear no underclothing, only eat meat in case of serious illness, and abstain, except occasionally when given them as alms, from cheese, eggs, fish, and milk; the lay-Brothers never drink wine, though they do heavy farm work; and all the members of the Order sleep on straw, in their habit and capuce. They rise at midnight, and pass the rest of the night till morning in the choir singing the Divine Office, which is sung so slowly and elaborately that Matins and Lauds take two and a half hours; the Little Office of Our Lady is also said; then Mass is said or sung, followed by a chapter of faults; and the whole of the day is passed in work, prayer, or reading, without a moment being wasted. The strictest silence is kept except at the hour of spiritual conference, and a subject can always speak to the Abbot if he has occasion to do so. Their fast lasts from Holy Cross Day (September 14) till Easter, and the monks show the greatest hospitality to the poor. The habit is white, with a black scapular and capuce; originally the scapular was brown; round the waist a leathern girdle is worn. In choir the monks put on a white cowl with a capuce attached, this reaches to the ground. The sleeves are a yard wide, and reach below the knees. The lay-Brothers wear a brown habit (the original colour of the Cistercian habit), the same shape as that of the Fathers, but instead of a cowl they wear a cloak. The novices are entirely in white. The novitiate lasts two years.

Among the rules of the Charta Charitatis was one to the effect that all the new foundations were to be under the mother-house, that the same rules were to be observed in all the houses, and that the Abbot of Citeaux was to be the head of the Order, and chosen by vote by the monks of Citeaux and the Abbots of the daughter-houses. A General Chapter of Abbots was to be held every year at Citeaux, but those from Spain were bound to attend every three years; those from Portugal, Ireland, and Greece, every four years; those from Syria, Norway, and Sweden, every five years; and those from single abbeys in more distant lands, every seven years.

The rule was kept in all its strictness for 200 years after the foundation of the Order. At present, owing to increased facilities for travelling, the Superiors of all European monasteries attend annually.

The monks soon turned their attention to education; they built schools near the churches on their lands. In the monasteries the higher education of those days was given, and colleges of the Order were built at Oxford, Paris, Metz, Würzburg, Toulouse, and Estrella in Portugal, for theology and philosophy. Saint Bernard inspired the monks to fill the libraries of their monasteries with literary treasures copied by their industry, but the Order was not celebrated for producing great literary works of its own. It shone more in art than in literature, particularly in architecture and music. The Cistercians are renowned in the history of architecture for the zeal they showed in promoting the spread of Gothic architecture, but their influence was to control the tendency to decorative work whilst preserving the Gothic ideas and spirit, so that their buildings all have this special character of simplicity.

Their influence in agriculture was also very great; their farms were the agricultural schools of olden times, and Princes and Bishops all tried to get the “Grey Monks,” as Cistercians used to be called, as stewards and directors of their hospitals and institutions, because of their capacity. In England the cloth industry owes its rise to the Cistercians, though this fact is so forgotten that it will be new to many well-educated people; but by a strange irony of life the prosperity of the richest country in the world is due, to a certain extent, to a contemplative Religious Order vowed to the strictest poverty.

The Order has given to the Church four Popes (Eugene III, Alexander III, Benedict XII, and Urban IV), forty Cardinals, and a great number of Archbishops and Bishops (a Cistercian Bishop is bound to wear his Cistercian habit), and Kings and Princes have been members of it.

We have not space to trace the history of its reform, rendered necessary by the abuses which, in the fourteenth century, crept into this and all the other Religious Orders. Here great controversies arose, about eating meat especially; some Abbots had relaxed the rule, but the Clementine and Benedictine decrees confirmed the ancient rule. This, however was so often infringed that Sixtus IV issued a brief allowing those members who applied to the General Chapter for leave to eat meat, and in 1485 it was decreed meat should be eaten three times a week in all the houses.

Then came the reforms, the most celebrated of which is that of La Trappe, so called from the name of the monastery in which it began in 1662, under the celebrated Abbé de Rancé. It became a branch of the Cistercian, and followed the “Strict Observance.”

The Cistercian Order was introduced into England early in the twelfth century, and soon was firmly established here. The first foundation here is said to have been Furness Abbey, in Lancashire, which was built in 1127 by Stephen of Blois and Abbot Stephen. There were over 100 Cistercian houses in England at the time of the Dissolution, most of which followed the “Common Observance” – that is, the rule according to the dispensation of Sixtus IV. The Cistercian Abbeys here, as in other countries, were for the most part built in lonely valleys and secluded places, chosen because the monks wished to devote themselves to a life of contemplation and prayer. The beautiful Tintern Abbey was a Cistercian monastery. The county of Yorkshire was very rich in Cistercian houses; there were no less than nineteen, including nunneries and one cell, at the Dissolution.

Citeaux was suppressed in 1790, and made national property the following year. Sixty-two Abbots had governed this world-famous abbey since its foundation, out of whom twenty-three are honoured in the Order as saints or blessed. Most of the foundations all over Europe were abolished in the storm of ’93 by the French Revolution, but a few abbeys still remain in Austria, Belgium, and Poland. Of the “Common Observance,” the Austrian-Hungarian Congregation, which sprung up in 1859, h as thirteen convents; the Belgian Congregation has two; the Italian, founded by Pius VIII., has sixteen. The independent Congregation of La Trappe of the “Strict Observance” possessed forty houses in various places; out of this Congregation arose, in 1857, that of Senanque, founded by Marie Bernard Bamouin, whose members follow a rule midway between the Strict and the Common Observance, called the “Middle Observance”; it has five houses. The reform of the Congregation of “Casamari” was also formed from the reform of La Trappe; it has five houses in Italy.

There are two flourishing Cistercian abbeys of modern foundation in Ireland, that of Mount Melleray, in county Waterford, and Mount Saint Joseph, county Tipperary.

There is one also in England, Mount Saint Bernard’s Abbey, Coalville, near Leicester, founded in 1837 by the help of the late Mr. Ambrose De Lisle, and one Cistercian nunnery at Stapehill, Wimborne.

At the dissolution of La Grande Trappe in the French Revolution, Dom Augustine L’Estrange saved a part of the community, and pushed the reform of La Trappe to greater severity than De Raneé – indeed, beyond the original customs of Citeaux. When several houses had been restored, some followed the original customs, and were called of the “Strict Observance”; the head of these was La Grande Trappe. Some followed the reform of De Rancé, and formed the Congregation of “Sept-Fons,” so called from their chief house; others, in Belgium, followed a middle course, and were known as the “Belgian,” or “Westmalle” Congregation. These three Congregations, all springing from La Trappe, were governed by Vicars-General, subject to the General of Cistercians.

Several attempts were made to unite the three Congregations of La Trappe, Sept-Fons, and Westmalle, and in 1894, by a decree of the Holy See, the three were united as the “Order of Reformed Cistercians,” given new Constitutions, an observance common to all, and an Abbot-General independent of the General of the Cistercian Order.

The Reformed Cistercians now number fifty-nine houses of men and eighteen of religious women. The two monasteries of Mount Melleray and Roscrea, that of Mount Saint Bernard and the Convent of Stapehill, as well as three houses in Canada, one in South Africa, and one in Western Australia, all belong to this Order. It possesses also three houses in the United States, one in Congo, one in China, and two in Japan. In consequence of the attitude of the present French Government towards religious, some French houses are seeking a refuge out of France. Two have acquired property in England, and it is to be hoped we shall have two more Cistercian monasteries in this country.

MLA Citation

  • Francesca M Steele. “Cistercians”. Monasteries of Great Britain and Ireland, 1903. CatholicSaints.Info. 29 November 2018. Web. 23 April 2021. <>