Until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in England in the sixteenth century, the Benedictines flourished, with many monastic establishments throughout the country and a premier site at St. Albans. But who were the Benedictines, what are their origins and how did they come to be established in England? Here are brief answers to these questions.
The Benedictines, also known as the Black Monks in reference to the colour of the monks’ habits, were monks who took their name from St. Benedict of Nursia, who was born in Italy around 480 and died in the mid-sixth century.
Benedict was a devout Italian Christian who became a monk at the age of 20, wishing to withdraw from the world after he visited Rome and was shocked by how immoral life in the Holy City had become. He founded his own monastery in 529 at Monte Cassino in Campania.
Benedict is attributed to the founding of Western Monasticism and composed the ‘Rule of Benedict’, the blueprint for monastic life in the medieval world, covering all that the author deemed necessary for regulation of life within a monastic community, as well as its good government. Thus, in addition to the articulation of the spiritual goals of the monk and the means by which he should strive for them, Benedict carefully planned the occupations of the monks around the core of their existence, the Opus dei, that is, the communal worship which took place at regular intervals of the day (and night).
Around this backbone of the monastic day were structural periods of manual work and lectio divina (sacred reading, or contemplation), careful provision was also made for the regulation of food and drink, clothing and bedding, and the conduct of monks outside the monastery. Every aspect of monastic life was covered and the community was ruled by the abbot, who combined the rolls of father (abba), pastor, and disciplinarian. Benedict’s monastery was a community in itself and, except in unusual circumstances, capable of ruling its own affairs without outside intervention, but was not totally isolated from the outside world.
Benedict created the rule at a time when the Roman Empire had collapsed in the West, and Europe was being overrun by barbarian tribes, most of them pagans. It looked like Christianity in Europe was finished. Benedictine monasteries, more than anything else, kept the faith alive. Benedict required monks to spend time in reading, thus, they kept theology and culture alive through centuries when almost the entire continent was illiterate.
By the ninth century, the Benedictine had become the standard form of monastic life throughout the whole of Western Europe, excepting Scotland, Wales and Ireland, where the Celtic observance prevailed.
Benedict’s Rule was brought to England in 597 by Augustine, a monk who had been sent by Pope Gregory the Great to preach to and convert the Anglo-Saxons. They arrived in Kent and were received by King Æthelbert who was sufficiently well disposed towards these Christians to allow them to stay: he himself had recently married a Christian, Bertha. Augustine and his forty monks established themselves at Canterbury. As the monks lived the monastic life of prayer and community, they made a good witness of Christianity to their neighbours. In time, King Æthelbert was baptized and Canterbury became the seat of the Church in England.
The Benedictine observance co-existed for some 50 years with other observances of Celtic origin, especially at Lindisfarne in Northumbria, but, in the end, prevailed at the Synod of Whitby in 664 thanks to St. Wilfred of York and Benedict Biscop.
The Venerable Bede (d. 735) of Wearmouth and Jarrow monasteries shows through his written History that in the 7th and 8th centuries English monasticism was evolving under the influence of not only Augustine but also the Celts, and was close to maturity. Rather than being insular, monasteries were part of the English Church. The liturgy was the central work. Community life was disciplined and based upon a moderate interpretation of the Rule of Benedict. Labour was generally of the intellectual or artistic nature. Education was an important and vital apostolate (leadership in reform). Priestly vocations were common among the monks as was missionary work. This form of English Benedictine monasticism is still expressed today.
In the 9th century the Vikings destroyed the monasteries. Monastic life all but ceased.
It was not until the middle of the 10th century that the Viking raids had ceased and monasticism could be resurrected. Remarkably, the rebirth originated entirely from within: the importance of monasticism persisted in the Anglo-Saxon memory. Under the inspiration and patronage of King Edgar, monastic life was restored. The work was led by three clerics: Dunstan (Archbishop of Canterbury), Æthelwold (Bishop of Winchester), and Oswald (Bishop of Worcester). From their principal abbeys of Glastonbury, Abingdon and Ramsey, respectively sprang more than 50 daughter houses, including St. Albans.
The significance of the revival work by Dunstan, Æthelwold and Oswald cannot be underestimated. All the 10th century monasteries were founded upon the Rule of Benedict. Furthermore, the monastic observance was uniform, because of agreement at synod which was recorded in Æthelwold’s Regularis Concordia which supplemented the Rule of Benedict, detailing an interpretation that encompassed all aspects of monastic life, in particular the liturgy. From this point forward, monasticism in England flourished, until the Dissolution of the Monasteries under King Henry VIII. All monasteries were dissolved and their lands confiscated by the Crown, forcing their Catholic members to flee into exile on the Continent.
Today, as a result of a revival in the 19th century, the Benedictines continue to group themselves in congregations of monasteries, but are much reduced in numbers. The followers of St. Benedict vary much in the way they carry out the thrust of Benedict’s Rule, but in general they retain essential features of their origins- local gatherings of monasteries who seek God in common life of prayer, reading and service.
Michael Graham Library Volunteer