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Monks and Monasteries of Britain

The history of Monasticism in the British Isles is a good microcosm of the history of Western Monasticism, and many of its saints and Abbeys are familiar to English speaking students. The rise of monasticism in Britain, in all its various forms, parallel the monastic movements that were occurring throughout all of Europe. The major periods of monastic influence in Mediaeval Britain are as follows:

400-600 Celtic Monasticism thrives throughout Ireland, Wales, Scotland, and Brittany.
600-800 Benedictines convert Anglo-Saxons kingdoms in England, unite with Celtic Church.
800-1000 British monasteries suffer from Viking raids, but ultimately convert the invaders.
1000-1200 Norman/Plantagenets kings seek to control monasteries for political purposes.
1100-1400 Reformed monastic orders (Cluniacs, Cistercians, Carthusians) revitalize Britain.

The Church in Britain after the Fall of Rome

St. Patrick converted Ireland in about 430 A.D. at the same time that the Western Roman Empire was collapsing in Britain, France, and Italy. During the next 200 years, Saxon and Angle chieftains from pagan Germany gained control of most populated and developed regions of Britain (later known as England), and drove the native Roman-Celtic peoples to the West. The Celtic Church, therefore, consisted not only of Ireland, but also thrived throughout the formerly Roman-Celtic regions of Britain and western France.

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As this map of 6th century map Britain shows, much of Britain, including Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, Northumbria, remained Celtic. The Celtic Church thrived in these areas, even during the historically murky years of the 'Dark Ages'. It held sway in the British Isles and Brittany (Northwest France) wherever the Gaelic language was spoken and its roots went back to Roman-era Christian communities. St. Patrick himself was born in western Britain, and was ordained by Germanus of Auxerre, a leading bishop of Gaul.

Because travel throughout Europe was difficult and dangerous in the years after the fall of Rome, by the 7th century, there were significant differences in practice between the Celtic churches of the British Isles and the Roman Church. But these differences were not doctrinal and mostly related to local customs and practices. For example, the Celtic Church used a different method of calculating the date of Easter, and was governed in a more decentralized manner than the Roman Church. It also observed different laws regarding inheritance and 'illegitimacy', a different system of penance, and more extreme monastic traditions than those proscribed by the 'Rule of Benedict'. These differences were mostly resolved by the late 7th century however, and the Celtic and Roman traditions of Christianity in Britain eventually became unified.

Celtic Monasteries

Differences between Celtic and Benedictine monasticism were significant. Celtic monasticism was established before the 'Rule of Benedict' was accepted as a standard for western monasteries. In Ireland groups of monks did not always have a central monastery, but traveled from village to village as missionaries, saying mass, offering the sacraments, and seeing to the spiritual needs of the people. Some Celtic monasteries had a reputation for harsh penances and mortifications, exactly the kind discouraged by Benedict, while others had a reputation for great classical learning. During the critical 5th, 6th, and 7th centuries, however, while much of Europe was in turmoil, the Irish monks preserved the faith, maintained essential doctrines, and ardently preached the faith throughout Gaelic speaking Britain.

Celtic Saints of the British Isles

  • Patrick (d. 450) — British Christian who spent years as a slave in Ireland. Escaped to France, became a priest then returned to Ireland as a missionary.
  • Brigid of Kildare (d. 525) — Abbess and founder of convents throughout Ireland, including Monastery of Kildare. Patron Saint of Ireland
  • Finian of Clonard (d. 550) — Founded the Abbey of Clonard at Meath, and sent forth the 'Twelve Apostles of Ireland' and many other well known Celtic missionaries.
  • Brendan of Clonfert (d. 577) — Irish missionary monk known for his legendary quest to the 'Isle of the Blessed'.
  • Gildas (d. 570) — Scottish scholar monk. Wrote 'On the Ruin and conquest of Britain' regarding Saxon invasion of Briton. Later founded a monastery in Britany.
  • Columba of Iona (d. 597) — Irish abbot and missionary who lead an early mission to the Picts of Scotland and founded an Abbey on the Island of Iona.
  • Mungo of Glasgow (d. 590) — [a.k.a] Kertigen] Native of Fife in Scotland, raised by Celtic missionaries to the Picts, founded Church in Glasgow.
  • David of Wales (d. 589) — Welsh missionary monk known for his ascetic life style. Thought to have founded many monasteries, including original Glastonbury Abbey. Patron Saint of Wales.
  • Malo (d. 621) — Welsh saint known for missionary travels with Brendon the Navigator, and founding a Celtic monastery in Brittany (France).
  • Columbanus (d. 615) — Irish missionary monk and scholar known for founding monasteries in France and northern Italy.
  • Gall (d. 646) — Disciple and companion of St. Columbus who continued his missionary work founding monasteries in France and Switzerland.
  • Aidan of Lindisfarne (d. 651) — Irish missionary monk who evangelized in Northumbria, and founded the famous Monastery at Lindisfarne.
  • Fiacre of Breuil (d. 670) — Irish hermit who gained notoriety for his great skill with herbs. Fled to Northern France, and founded a hospice in Brie.
  • Cuthbert (d. 687) — Northumbrian monk and Scholar. Prior of Melrose Abbey and Lindisfarne. Worked to reconcile Saxon and Celtic churches in Britain.

Celtic Abbeys founded by Irish missionaries to Britain

  • Iona Abbey — founded by St. Columba in 590s as a base for converting the Picts of Scotland.
  • Lindisfarne — founded by Aidan on the East coast of Northumbria in 600's
  • Old Melrose — founded as a priory of Lindisfarne in Scotland in 600's, (re-established by Cistercians in 1100's)

Anglo-Saxon Benedictines

The story of the conversion of the Anglo Saxon kingdoms of Britain, beginning with the Augustine of Canterbury and king Ethelbert of Kent, is well known. But it is important to note that before being sent as a missionary to Britain, Augustine was the prior of a Monastery in Rome, most of the men who accompanied him were monks, and Gregory the Great, who inspired the mission, was the first monk Pope. From the era of Saint Gregory (600 A.D.) missionary monks played a great role in the conversion of pagan Europe to Christianity.

Benedictine Saints of Saxon England

  • Gregory the Great (d. 604) — Reforming pope and former Benedictine abbot, who set missions to Saxon England.
  • Augustine of Kent (d. 604) — Benedictine monk who led a mission to Saxon England and converted Aethelbert of Kent. First Archbishop of Canterbury.
  • Laurence of Canterbury (d. 619) — Accompanied Augustine on his mission to Convert Saxon, and followed him as Bishop of Canterbury.
  • Benedict Biscop (d. c. 628–90) — Founded the Abbeys of Wearmouth and Jarrow in Northumbria. Collected hundreds of books for monastery library.
  • Hilda of Whitby (d. 680) — Abbess from Deira noble family, founded the Monastery of Whitby. Influenced unification of Celtic and Roman Churches in Britain.
  • Wilfrid of York (d. 709) — Founded monastery at Ripon near York, Archbishop of Canterbury, advocated Latin calendar for Easter in Whitby Synod.
  • Bede of Jarrow (d. 725) — Monk and scholar at the monastery at Jarrow. Wrote the "Ecclesiastical History of England", and many other great works.
  • Alcuin of York (d. 804) — Scholar, teacher, and archbishop of York, recruited by Charlemagne. Leading figure in the Carolingian Renaissance, founded Schools and Abbeys in France, ended career as Abbot of Tours.
  • Swithun(d. 862) — Saxon bishop, patron saint of Winchester Cathedral, known for miracles and legends.
  • Dunstan (d. 988) — Influential abbot and bishop, advisor to late Saxon kings, restored monastic life to England and reformed the Church.

British Monks who were Missionaries in Germany

  • Egbert of Ripon (d. 729) — Northumbrian Monk began organizing missions to Frisia before Boniface
  • Willibrord (d. 739) — Missionary to Frisia, established first diocese in Utrecht
  • Boniface (d. 754) — aka Winfrid) led Anglo-Saxon mission to Frisia (part of Frankish kingdom)
  • Sturm (d. 770) — Disciple of Boniface who continued his work, founded Monastery of Fulda in Hesse in 742

Abbeys founded by Anglo-Saxon Benedictine Orders

  • St. Augustines Abbey — Founded by St. Augustine in 604
  • Wearmouth-Jarrow Abbey — Founded by 674 by Benedict Biscop
  • Croyland Abbey — founded by Gulthlac in 700.
  • Glastonbury Abbey — Founded in 712 by King of Wessex — very wealthy by Norman era. Dunstan was Abbott
  • Malmesbury Abbey — Founded in 676 as Benedictine Monastery by Aldhelm, — 2nd largest library in Europe by 1000s.
  • Bath Abby Convent — became a monastery in 781 under Saxon King Offa
  • St. Albans — 793 Founded by Offa II of Mercia
  • Westminster Abbey — Built by Edward the Confessor in 1042 on sight of St. Peter's Abbey (established by Dunstan in 900)

English Monasteries during Norman/Plantagenet Era

The Normans contributed much to the monasteries of Britain, and made some of them very wealthy, but they emphasized political loyalty rather than pious works. During the Norman Plantagenet era, kings and nobles felt free to appoint their relatives and retainers and bishops and abbots regardless of their spiritual suitability for the job. The conflicts between the Norman Kings and St. Anselm, and between Henry II and Thomas Becket, were typical of those of the “investiture controversy” of the 12th century that led to reform of the Monasteries throughout Europe and the rise of the Cluniacs, Cistercians, and Carthusians orders.

Monks of Norman and Plantagenet England

  • Lanfranc (d. 1089) — Prior of Bec Abbey, appointed by William the Conqueror to serve as Archbishop of Canterbury after the Conquest.
  • Anslem (d. 1109) — Scholarly Abbot of Bec Abbey and founder of scholasticism. Elected as Archbishop of Canterbury, but spent career in England standing for rights of Church against Norman kings.
  • Thomas Becket (d. 1120) — Trusted minister of Henry Plantagenet who was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, but defended rights of the Church in opposition to the king and was martyred.
  • Stephen Harding (d. 1134) — One of the founders of the Cistercian order, who established several Cistercian monasteries in England.
  • Hugh of Lincoln (d. 1200) — Early member of the Carthusian order, founded first Charterhouse in England with help of Henry II, and become bishop of Lincoln.
  • Simon Stock (d. 1265) — Early leader of the Carmelite order in England, who initiated use of the Brown Scapular after BVM appeared to him.
  • Richard of Chichester (d. 1253) — Upright bishop of West Sussex, who lived an ascetic life, defended the Church and showed favor to the Dominican Order.
  • Eilmer of Malmesbury (d. 1090) — Monk known for his attempts at flight from Abbey tower using a glider based on study of a bird's wings.
  • William of Malmesbury (d. 1153) — Foremost scholar and historian of the Norman era. Wrote both political and ecclesiastic history of England covering 450-1120.
  • Matthew Paris (d. 1259) — English monk of St. Alban's Abbey, chronicler and illuminator, famed for his clever illustrations, colorful histories, and insightful commentaries.

Norman Abbeys

  • Canterbury Priory (1160) — Monastery associated with Canterbury, abbot elected by Monks, not appointed.
  • St. Albans Abbey — built by nephew of Lanfranc.
  • Bec Abbey — Founded in 1034 by a Norman soldier, St. Herluin. Home of Lanfranc and Anselm.
  • Lanfranc later founded St. Etienne Abbey in Normandy (Etienne is French for Stephen).
  • Battle Abbey — Built in 1066 on the sight of battle of Hastings by Normans.
  • St. Mary's Abbey in York — Established in 1088 by Normans and was very wealthy. Cistercians of Fountains split off
  • Reading Abbey founded by Norman king Henry II in 1121

By the time of the Reformation there were approximately

35 Cluniac Priories established in Britain
85 Cistercian Abbeys in England
12 Cistercian Abbeys in Ireland
10 Charterhouses in England, 1 in Ireland, 1 in Scotland