Saturday, 4 February 2012

Gilbert of Sempringham, Lincolnshire's Saint

St Gilbert of Sempringham, who died on 4th February, 1190, is the only Englishman to have founded a religious order in the Middle Ages. He was born c.1083 in the Lincolnshire village of Sempringham, which is halfway between Bourne and Sleaford. His father was a Norman landowner named Jocelin - and so presumably one of the Normans whom the Bourne-born Hereward the Wake was objecting to at the time of Gilbert's birth.

Gilbert's father apparently decided to educate him for the church, and sent him first to Paris and then to Lincoln for that purpose. At Lincoln he entered the household of Bishop Robert Bloet, and there we can only assume he encountered his contemporary and fellow Fenman Henry of Huntingdon, who was also educated in the bishop's household. I wonder how they got on together?

(According to Henry, many noblemen sent their sons to be educated at Lincoln under Bloet; some of Henry I's illegitimate sons were brought up there. It was a little later in the century that the Icelander St Thorlak followed the same route from Paris to Lincoln.)

Anyway, in c.1130 - around the time that Henry of Huntingdon was completing the first draft of his Historia Anglorum - Gilbert decided to return to Sempringham, a parish he had been given by his father some years previously. He is said to have sold his possessions and distributed the money to the poor, and then in c.1131 he became spiritual director to a community of anchoresses living in cells attached to the parish church of Sempringham. He was subsequently given the charge of another community of women a little way north at Haverholme, and eventually decided the two communities should be regularised. When the Cistercians declined to take them on, he established what became known as the Gilbertine Order, with canons in addition to the nuns.

In the 1160s Gilbert became embroiled in Thomas Becket's dispute with the king (Becket took refuge in Gilbertine houses on his way into exile) and was briefly imprisoned in 1165, when he must have been in his eighties. He only entered the order himself a few years before he died, aged (apparently) over a hundred; he was buried in Sempringham Priory and canonised in 1202.

Most of the communities founded by the order were in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire; by the Reformation there were twenty-three surviving houses. One of my favourite medieval people, the poet-historian Robert Mannyng, was a Gilbertine, being a Bourne man himself. The DNB article about Gilbert observes that "The Gilbertines, concentrated as they were in the eastern half of England, represent the sole example in England of a phenomenon common in twelfth-century western Europe, the regional order." Somewhere between austere religious orders and Havelok the Dane, we can locate the regional identity of medieval Lincolnshire...

P.S. In relation to Sempringham, I should mention the interesting story about Gwenllian, the last Princess of Wales, who was imprisoned in Sempringham Priory for almost her whole life, dying there in 1337 after more than 50 years in captivity.


Theodric the Obscure said...

The only order that originated in England! I wish I didn't always think of 'simpering'. Unfortunate name.

Clerk of Oxford said...

Now you've said that I won't be able to think of anything else!