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History: English Benedictines PDF Print E-mail

A simple model of Saint Louis Abbey's lineage, all the way back to St. Benedict, is shown at the right. The solid lines represent periods of continuity, while the dashed lines indicate tenuous links. Reaching into Medieval Westminster, the historical record is murky at times. And prior to Glastonbury the history is convoluted and the record incomplete. Nonetheless, the model brings out the essence of Saint Louis Abbey's Benedictine lineage, both materially and spiritually.

Monte Cassino and Coelian Hill

As described in the St. Benedict article, Monte Cassino was Benedict's own monastery at which he wrote is famous Rule. After a Lombard invasion in 581, the monks of Monte Cassino founded the monastery at Coelian Hill, Rome.


After the fall of Rome in 410AD, the Roman legions vacated Britain. The Angles and the Saxons promptly moved in and destroyed Christian civilization in England. Pockets of Celtic monasticism survived in Wales and Ireland.

In the late 6th century Pope Gregory the Great was inspired to evangelize England. According to Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Gregory happened to be at the Roman market one day when he saw some slaves for sale, handsome boys of fair complexion. Inquiring into their nationality, he learned that these beautiful people were pagan. Moved with pity, he endeavored to evangelize their homeland, England. For this mission Gregory chose Augustine, a monk from his monastery at Coelian Hill.

In 597 Augustine and his team of forty monks arrived in Kent and were received by King Ethelbert. Ethelbert was sufficiently well disposed towards these Christians to allow them to stay: he himself had recently married a Christian, Bertha, the daughter of the King of Paris! In fact she even had her own chaplain. Augustine and his entourage set up camp in Canterbury and built the monastery SS. Peter and Paul. In all likelihood they used the Rule of Benedict. As the monks lived the monastic life of prayer and community, they made a good witness of Christianity to their neighbors. In time Anglo-Saxons converted. When King Ethelbert was baptized, thousands in Kent converted. Canterbury became the seat of the Church in England.

Over the next century the link between Canterbury and Rome was nourished and strengthened. For instance Biscop, the abbot of SS. Peter and Paul from 669 to 671, was thoroughly familiar with Roman monasticism. Having spent some years in Rome and Gaul, he returned to England with the Rule of Benedict and a knowledge and love of the Roman liturgy.

From Canterbury Christianity spread to Wessex and even to Northumbria, although up there there was competition from the Celts. In Wessex King Ine built Glastonbury and stocked it with Celtic monks. In Northumbria Biscop founded Wearmouth and Jarrow, based on the Rule of Benedict. From Northumbria missionaries such as Willibrord and Boniface set out to evangelize the Germanic pagans. Eventually, the fruits of that labor would return to England in the 11th century.

It is from Wearmouth that the Venerable Bede (d. 735) wrote his History. This careful piece of scholarship shows that in the 7th and 8th centuries English monasticism was evolving under the influence of not only Augustine but also the Celts and monks from Gaul. By Bede's day English monasticism was close to maturity. Rather than being insular, monasteries were part of the English Church. The liturgy was the central work, benefiting not just the individual but the entire Church. Community life was disciplined and based upon a moderate interpretation of the Rule of Benedict. Labor was generally of the intellectual or artistic nature. Education was an important and vital apostolate. Priestly vocations were common among the monks. Missionary work was neither prescribed nor proscribed, but common. 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; the stone ruins marked the sites of so many monasteries and churches; the Rule of Benedict, widely duplicated, had survived; Bede's History had also survived and recorded in great detail the life and culture that once was. Monasticism was in the Anglo-Saxon blood and in the very clay of England.

Under the inspiration and patronage of King Edgar, monastic life was restored. The work was led by three clerics: Dunstan (Archbishop of Canterbury), Ethelwold (Bishop of Winchester), and Oswald (Bishop of Worcester). From their principle abbeys of Glastonbury (c. 940), Abingdon, and Ramsey, respectively, sprang more than 50 daughter houses, including Malmesbury, Buckfast, Worcester, Gloucester, Wincester, Peterborough, Ely, Evesham, St. Albans, Coventry, and Westminster (959) – all within a century. Not long after these men had passed, Christ Church, Canterbury was built (997) under King Aelfric. From this point forward, monasticism in England flourished until the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII.

The significance of the revival work by Dunstan, Ethelwold, and Oswald cannot be underestimated. All of the 10th century monasteries were founded upon the Rule of Benedict. Furthermore, the monastic observance was uniform, because it was agreed upon at synod and recorded in Ethelwold's Regularis Concordia. This document supplemented the Rule of Benedict, detailing an interpretation that encompassed all aspects of monastic life, in particular the liturgy. The rubrics indicate that the monastic liturgy was reverent, dignified, and Roman.

Furthermore, the form of monastic life mirrored that of Bede's England.


As indicated above, Dunstan was responsible for restoring Westminster in 959.

In 1042 King Edward the Confessor rebuilt Westminster. The architecture was grand, stately, and regal. Westminster was to be a royal abbey, known as a royal peculiar. This meant that the Abbey was under Edward's control. Although the Abbey technically belonged to the Holy See, Edward financed the Abbey. This afforded him the privilege of appointing bishops from the Abbey. All royal coronations would be held here, and the sovereigns would be buried here.

After the Conquest of 1066, Westminster – and indeed all of English monasticism – was infiltrated and re-invigorated by the Normans. The English leadership was replaced. The new abbot of Westminster was a Gilbert Crispin from Bec, who held that office from 1087 to 1117. New abbots of Christ Church, Canterbury included Lanfranc and Anselm. The abbot of St. Albans was Paul, Lanfranc's nephew. Under the Normans Westminster and the other large monasteries became centers of excellence in learning. The scholarship reached a level that had been unknown in England and certainly never so wide spread. Anselm's thought, for instance, is on par with that of Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas.

Gilbert was succeeded by an Englishman Osbert of Clare. He is known for his Sermo de Conceptione. This sermon was based on a treatise by Eadmer of Canterbury on (what would be known as) the Immaculate Conception of Mary. Gilbert's sermon presented the theological basis for the belief in the sinlessness of Our Lady and thus the feast, which was being revived.

Westminster continued to exist until it became a casualty of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. From 1535 to 1540 Henry VIII's government systematically suppressed every single English monastery, ending with Westminster. That amounted to some 800 monasteries. The monks were essentially disbanded. Many of the monks who refused to recognize Henry VIII as the head of the Church were imprisoned or martyred, among them 7 Benedictines and 18 Carthusians.

Henry VIII was succeeded by Queen Mary, a Catholic. On November 21, 1556 she restored Westminster. Under the leadership of John Feckenham, 16 monks petitioned the crown to be reinstated. When permission was granted, this number doubled. Some 30 or 35 monks resumed monastic life at Westminster with Feckenham as abbot. Those monks had formerly been monks at Canterbury, Glastonbury, Westminster, Ramsey, Wincester, Evesham, and St. Albans. So many of the great 10th century monasteries were represented! Cistercians and Augustinian canons also joined. Novices came, too, at least 6 of who persevered. Through Westminster English Benedictine monasticism would survive.

When Queen Elizabeth took the throne, Westminster saw a second Dissolution in 1559.

For decades the numbers of English Benedictine monks steadily declined as they died, with no new recruits.

In about 1588 this changed. On the continent there arose a Benedictine movement. The Englishmen who were studying at the seminaries in Rome and Valladolid desired to become monks like their Italian and Spanish counterparts. Being unable to join a monastery in England, they joined monasteries of the Cassinese and Spanish Congregations. Hence the phenomenon of "Italian English" and "Spanish English" monks arose. Furthermore, these same monks wanted to go to the English mission fields. Such a plan was definitely outside the scope of contemporary Benedictine monasticism and thus required special permission from the Holy See, which was granted in 1602.

While on the English Mission a Fr. Anselm Beech met an 87-year-old monk, Sigebert Buckley of Westminster. Buckley had been one of the novices at the Westminster community re-founded under Queen Mary, and now he was the last surviving English Benedictine monk. Through him, the English Benedictine Congregation was perpetuated. On November 21, 1607 he aggregated Italian English monks, Frs. Robert Sadler and Edward Maihew, into Westminster and the English Benedictine Congregation. This act is documented in the papal Bull Plantata.


Now the English Congregation was in a position to perpetuate itself. During the exile in France, three English Benedictine monasteries were founded: Douai (1606), Dieulouard (1608), and Paris (1615). At Dieulouard the full monastic life was observed. Income came from donations and a brewery. The community had a priestly ministry to the surrounding community and sent monks on the English Mission.

Many of those missionaries were imprisoned or martyred. A wonderful example from Dieulouard is St. Alban Roe (b. 1582). After a few years on the Mission, he was imprisoned (1618 – 1623). A Spanish ambassador secured his release. Shortly thereafter Alban returned to his underground ministry. Eventually, he was recaptured and imprisoned for some 14 years. From prison he continued his ministry with zeal. In 1642 he was put on trial and found "guilty of High Treason, on account of his priestly character and function." Alban replied, "I wish I had a thousand lives; then I would sacrifice them all for so worthy a cause." On January 31 he was hanged and quartered at Tyburn. This monk priest suffered joyfully for Christ.


During the French Revolution Napoleon suppressed the monasteries in France, forcing the English monks to flee. Now that the climate in England had changed, they were able to return home. The Dieulouard community eventually settled in Ampleforth (1802), where it still thrives today. Ampleforth's primary apostolates are a school for boys and girls and many parishes. The inspiring history of Ampleforth can be read at Ampleforth Abbey's web site.

Saint Louis

As described in the Saint Louis Abbey article, it is from Ampleforth that Saint Louis was founded in 1955. It is very interesting that the mission to Saint Louis bears a striking resemblance to Augustine's mission to Canterbury. Augustine's authority came directly from the Holy See; Abbot Herbert of Ampleforth's authority came from Joseph Cardinal Ritter, Archbishop of St. Louis. Augustine obtained permission from King Ethelbert to stay; Fr. Columba and company were welcomed by the St. Louis financiers. Both Augustine and Fr. Columba received land and financial support. Both foundations began by building a monastery and then ministering to the neighboring peoples. This Benedictine manner of evangelization is marked by gentleness and cooperation and founded upon prayer.