Monasteries of Great Britain and Ireland – Premonstatensians, or Canons Regular of Saint Norbert

Canon Regular of Saint Norbert or PremonstratensianArticle

Under Solemn Vows. Founded 1119. Motto: Ad omne opus bonum parati (2 Timothy 21).

The founder of the illustrious Order of Premonstratensians was Saint Norbert, Archbishop of Magdeburg, from whom they are sometimes called Norbertines, but more correctly the Canons Regular of Saint Norbert. In olden times they were known in England as the White Canons, so called because their habit is white, and also to distinguish them from the Black Canons or Canons Regular of the Lateran. Their name of the Premonstratensians comes from Prémontré, a wild valley in the forest of Coucy, in the department of Aisne in France, where the first monastery, which became the mother-house of the Order, was built.

Saint Norbert was born in 1080; he was the son of Count Heribert, who destined him from his youth for the priesthood, and, as was the custom in those days, a canonry was conferred upon him early in life, and he became attached to the court of the Archbishop of Cologne. He was offered the bishopric of Cambrai by Henry V of Germany, but this he declined; and two years later, in 1115, an event took place which completely changed his life, which had so far been rather worldly. He was overtaken by a thunder-storm one day while riding with a groom, and his horse, terrified by the lightning, threw him, and he heard a voice reproaching him for his former life. Like Saint Paul, he obeyed the Divine call, and resolved at once to give up his possessions, and, forsaking worldly pleasures, to embrace a life of self-renunciation and work, and especially to consecrate himself to God in the priesthood, for he was then only a subdeacon.

After he was ordained priest he went about preaching, and then sold all his possessions and gave the money to the poor, and barefoot and miserably clad he travelled through France, till, at Valenciennes, he met with Hugo, chaplain to the Bishop of Cambrai, who became his most faithful companion. He wandered about preaching and working miracles till, after declining charge of Saint Martin’s, Laon, he finally chose the wild valley of Prémontré in which to settle in 1121.

Here he was joined by thirteen others, among them Evermod, the future Bishop of Ratzburg. He gave them the rule of Saint Augustine, to which he added his own Constitutions, and the following year a new church was consecrated at Prémontré, and the name of Premonstratensians given to the Canons. In the beginning the rule prescribed abstinence from flesh-meat and perpetual fasting; but this was afterwards modified, and the relaxa- tions, in their turn, led to reforms as in other Orders.

After founding the monastery at Prémontré, Saint Norbert continued to wander about barefoot, preaching, and in 1124, after having been taken prisoner and narrowly escaping death, he went to Antwerp to preach against some heresy, and here, at Saint Michael’s Church, founded his second monastery. In 1126 he travelled to Rome, where he was kindly received by Pope Honorius II, who formally approved the Order, which approval was confirmed by several succeeding Popes.

The following July he was chosen Archbishop of Magdeburg, and when he arrived, barefoot and in his shabby clothes, at the Archiepiscopal Palace, the porter denied him admittance, till some bystanders explained that this was the new Archbishop. The man begged the Saint’s pardon, to which he replied, in his humility, that the porter had judged him better than those who had pressed the dignity of this high office upon him.

The diocese required an energetic man at that time, and Saint Norbert’s efforts at restoring discipline and reforming abuses made him many enemies; and at one time he was obliged to leave Magdeburg, as attempts were made to murder him, but after he had issued a ban of excommunication he was recalled. In 1131 Saint Norbert received permission from Pope Innocent II to erect a house of his Canons at the Cathedral of Magdeburg, and that same year the Pope visited Prémontré. Saint Norbert died in 1134, after occupying the Archbishopric of Magdeburg eight years; he was canonized in 1582. His Order was one of the most illustrious in the Church, and at one time possessed over 1,000 houses. Under Clement VI it had no less than 1,322 houses, besides seven Archbishoprics and nine Bishoprics. The design of the holy founder was to combine the contemplative with the active life, and while his subjects exercised the priestly office and laboured for the salvation of souls, they were to lead a monastic life and to show hospitality to all, especially to the poor.

He desired that their habit should be white, because, according to Holy Scripture, the angels, the witnesses of the Resurrection, were clad in white; it was to be of wool, because the custom of the Church then was for penitents to wear woollen garments, but in the church they were to wear linen, because, under the Old Covenant, the high- priests wore white linen when they entered the Holy of Holies. The white linen rochet over the woollen habit or cassock is always worn in the choir by the Canons Regular of Saint Norbert; they also wear a white cloak and a white cap.

At the time of the Dissolution in England, under Henry VIII, the Order had thirty-four houses here, two of which were nunneries. The Order lost a great many houses during the Reformation in countries affected by it; and at the great French Revolution all the French houses were suppressed, including Prémontré, from which the noble old Abbot L’Ecuy was expelled with his subjects.

In Germany, in 1805, only ten abbeys remained to the Premonstratensians of what was described by the last Abbot of Prémontré as “their splendid heritage two of these ten have since been confiscated, three are in Bohemia. Since 1834 fresh foundations have been made in Belgium and France, and the Belgian Congregation sent some of its members to England, where they founded houses in Lincolnshire, at Spalding, Crowle (1871), and Manchester. A community of French Premonstratensians was some years ago founded at Farnborough, Hants, by the Empress Eugénie, but no longer exists, and there is a French community of the Order at Storrington, near Pulborough, in Sussex.

The rule for the Second Order, that of the Sisters, is severe; they are strictly enclosed. Saint Norbertwas the first to found Tertiaries or the Third Order, for persons living in the world who desire to lead a stricter life. The first Premonstratensian Tertiary was Count Theobald of Champagne, who desired to become a Canon Regular of Saint Norbert, but as he was a man of large means, the Saint thought he would do more good by remaining in the world, so he made him an Associate of the Order, and gave him a white scapular to wear under his ordinary dress as a sign that he belonged to it. The Third Order spread very quickly until, in the following century, Saint Dominic and Saint Francis each founded a similar third Order. In the eighteenth century the Bavarian Abbots endeavoured to revive this Third Order, which Pope Gregory confirmed in 1752 and enriched with many privileges. A house of Premonstratensian nuns of the Third Order was founded in 1889 in the Diocese of Versailles. They have been admitted to the Second Order by the General Chapter of 1897.

There have been several reforms of the first Order. In 1232 Gregory IX ordered that the Visitors should be changed every year, because through their laxity some relaxations of the ancient discipline had crept in; he also issued decrees censuring the too costly dress of the Abbots and Canons. In the middle of the fifteenth century the German monasteries were reformed by John Busch; at the end of the same century the English houses were reformed by Abbot Morton, and the French by Servais Lairuelz, in the middle of the seventeenth century.

It is interesting to know that the Premonstratensians had three monasteries in Palestine in the twelfth century – Saint Samuel and Saint Abacus or Habacuc, at or near Jerusalem, and one at Bethlehem.

MLA Citation

  • Francesca M Steele. “Premonstatensians, or Canons Regular of Saint Norbert”. Monasteries of Great Britain and Ireland, 1903. CatholicSaints.Info. 1 December 2018. Web. 11 December 2018. <>