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Cistercians in the British Isles

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St. Stephen Harding, third Abbot of Cîteaux (1109-33), was an Englishman and his influence in the early organization of the Cistercian Order had been very great. It was natural therefore that, when, after the coming of St. Bernard and his companions in 1113, foundations began to multiply, the project of sending a colony of monks to England should find favourable consideration. In Nov., 1128, with the aid of William Giffard, Bishop of Winchester, a settlement was made at Waverly near Farnham in Surrey. Five houses were founded from here before 1152 and some of them had themselves produced offshoots. But it was in the north that the order assumed its most active developments in the twelfth century. William, an English monk of great virtue, was sent from Clairvaux by St. Bernard in 1131, and a small property was given to the newcomers by Walter Espec "in a place of horror and dreary solitude" at Rivaulx in Yorkshire, with the hearty support of Thurston, Archbishop of York. By 1143 three hundred monks had entered there, including the famous St. Ælred, known for his eloquence as the St. Bernard of England. Among the offshoots of Rivaulx were Melrose and Revesby. Still more famous was Fountains near Ripon. The foundation was made in 1132 by a section of the monks from the great Benedictine house of St. Mary's, York, who desired to lead a more austere life. After many struggles and great hardships, St. Bernard agreed to send them a monk from Clairvaux to instruct them, and in the end they prospered exceedingly. The great beauty of the ruins excites wonder even today, and before 1152 Fountains had many offshoots, of which Newminster and Meaux are the most famous. Another great reinforcement to the order was the accession of the houses of the Savigny foundation, which were incorporated with the Cistercians, at the instance of Eugenius III, in 1138. Thirteen English abbeys, of which the most famous were Furness and Jervaulx, thus adopted the Cistercian rule. By the year 1152 there were fifty-four Cistercian monasteries in England, some few of which, like the beautiful Abbey of Tintern on the Wye, had been founded directly from the Continent. Architecturally speaking the Cistercian monasteries and churches, owing to their pure style, may be counted among the most beautiful relics of the Middle Ages. To the wool and cloth trade, which was especially fostered by the Cistercians, England was largely indebted for the beginnings of her commercial prosperity.

After the overthrow of monastic foundations at the Reformation the Cistercian habit was not seen in the British Isles until some monks of the austere reform of La Trappe (hence often called Trappists), driven out by the French Revolution, came to England intending to proceed to Canada. This intention was accidentally frustrated and in 1794 they were received at Lulworth in Dorsetshire by Thomas Weld. Most of them afterwards aided in restoring the great Abbey of Mount Melleray in Brittany and still later in establishing a new Mount Melleray in Ireland. This flourishing house at Cappoquin, Co. Waterford, now has a community of nearly 70, of them 29 are priests. Another and more recent foundation at Roscrea, Co. Tipperary, in the Diocese of Killaloe, numbers 66 monks with 28 priests. In England, St. Bernard's Abbey, Coalville, Leicestershire, founded in 1835, is on a smaller scale and numbers only 7 priests. The only convent of Cistercian nuns in the British Isles is at Stapehill near Wimborne, Dorsetshire. It has a community of 42 members.


COOKE in The English Historical Review (London, 1893), 625-76; DALGAIRNS, Life of St. Stephen Harding, ed. THURSTON (London, 1898); Concise History of the Cistercian Order by a Cistercian monk (London, 1852); FOWLER, Cistercian Statistics (London, 1890); MURPHY, Triumphalia Monasterii S. Crucis (Dublin, 1891); COGNASSO, Acta cisterciensia in Romische Quartalschrift (1912).

About this page

APA citation. Thurston, H. (1914). Cistercians in the British Isles. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: The Encyclopedia Press.

MLA citation. Thurston, Herbert. "Cistercians in the British Isles." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 16 (Index). New York: The Encyclopedia Press, 1914. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Herman F. Holbrook. For the Abbot and Community of Our Lady of Spring Bank, Wisconsin.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. March 1, 1914. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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