Gilbert of Sempringham
THE tiny hamlet of Sempringham, near Billingborough, not only boasts a saint, but the founder of the only British monastic order.
Gilbert of Sempringham created the Order of Gilbertines. The order was unusual in that it comprised both men and women co-existing on the same site, although they were segregated.
Son of Jocelin, a wealthy Norman knight holding lands in Lincolnshire, his mother was a Saxon of humble rank.
Being deformed, Gilbert was not destined for a military or knightly career, so was sent to France to study.
After spending some time abroad, he returned to his Lincolnshire home opening a school for the poor. He was presented to the livings of Sempringham and Tirington, which were churches in his father’s gift.
Shortly afterwards he went to the court of Robert Bloet, Bishop of Lincoln, where he became a clerk in the episcopal household.
He returned to Sempringham as lord of the manor and began acting as adviser for a group of seven young women living in enclosure with lay sisters and brothers and incorporated them into an established religious order.
The Community became known as the Gilbertine Order, the only English religious order originating in the medieval period. It eventually had 26 monasteries which continued in existence until the dissolution by King Henry VIII.
The Pope expressed regret at not having known of him some years previously when choosing a successor to the deposed Archbishop of York.
In 1165 Gilbert was summoned before King Henry II’s justices at Westminster and was charged with having sent help to the exiled St. Thomas a Becket.
To clear himself he was invited to take an oath that he had not done so but refused, for, although he had not sent help, the oath may make him appear an enemy to the Archbishop.
In 1170, when Gilbert was already a very old man, some of his lay-brothers revolted and spread serious defamatory statements against him.
After some years of fierce controversy on the subject, in which Henry II took his part, Pope Alexander III freed him from suspicion, and confirmed the privileges granted to the order.
Advancing age induced Gilbert to give up the government of his order. He appointed as his successor Roger, prior of Malton.
Very infirm and almost blind, he now made his religious profession, for though he had founded an order and ruled it for many years he had never become a religious in the strict sense.
Twelve years after Gilbert’s death aged 106, at the earnest request of Hubert Walter, Archbishop of Canterbury, he was canonised by Pope Innocent III and his relics were solemnly translated to an honourable place in the church at Sempringham, his shrine becoming a centre of pilgrimage.
His feast day is celebrated on February 11.