Gilbert of Sempringham (DNB00)

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GILBERT of Sempringham (1083?–1189), founder of the order that bears his name, was born about 1083 (Vita ap. Acta Sanct. p. 573, where, however, ‘sex’ may be a corruption of ‘senex;’ cf. Capgrave, fol. 157b2 and Digby MS. 36, fol. 48a2, 46b1). His father, Jocelin, was a wealthy Norman knight, his mother an Englishwoman of lower rank (Digby MS. 7 a; but cf. Dugdale, p. v). The family estates were in or near Lincolnshire (Digby MS.) Of an ungainly figure, and showing no promise of military vigour, Gilbert, as he himself told his followers, was treated with contempt at home. Then he was set to literature, at which after a time he worked vigorously, and went to France. Here he ultimately became a teacher (ib. fol. 8), and acquired a great reputation for learning. While still a young man he returned home, and began to instruct the boys and girls of his own neighbourhood (ib.). His father gave him the churches of Sempringham and ‘Tirington;’ and though there was some opposition to Jocelin's right of appointment, Gilbert retained both livings (ib.)

His labours now attracted the notice of Robert Bloet, bishop of Lincoln (d. 10 June 1123), in whose house he ministered as a clerk. Later he lived in the court of Robert's successor, Alexander (d. 25 Feb. 1148). The economy thus effected enabled him to give his Tirington income to the poor; but he refused the archdeaconry which one of these prelates pressed him to accept. It was probably some time before he took deacon's orders, and strongly against his own will, that he became priest (ib. fol. 12ar, 2, 13bl; for dates see Henry of Huntingdon, pp. 244, 280).

Gilbert founded his order, which he primarily intended for women only, before the death of Henry I (1135); but the difficulty of finding fitting inmates led him to admit men, several of whom he chose from his early scholars. Bishop Alexander helped when establishing his first house near St. Andrew's Church at Sempringham; and as the fame of Gilbert's piety spread this example was followed by the wealthy nobles, and finally by Henry II (Digby MS. 14a2, 1662, 17a2; cf. Instit. p. 30). By the advice of William, abbot of Rievaulx (d. 1145 or 1146), Gilbert crossed the channel to obtain the papal sanction for the orders he had drawn up to govern his followers; but at first without effect (Instit. St. Gilb., ap Dugdale, p. 29, &c.; for date see John of Hexham, p. 317). When advancing years made him anxious to lay aside his responsibility, he visited France, leaving his flock under the care of his ‘chief friends’ the Cistercians. At the great Cistercian assembly at Cîteaux (September 1147 or 1148) he met Eugenius III, who grieved that it was now too late to make him archbishop of York. On this occasion or another Gilbert acquired the friendship of St. Bernard and St. Malachy (d. 2 Nov. 1148), the famous archbishop of Armagh, from each of whom he received an abbot's staff (ib. fol. 19; Dugdale, pp. xi, xii; cf. Capgrave, fol. 157a2; for the dates, cf. O'Conor, iii. 762; St. Bernard, Vita Malachiæ, col. 1114, and Jaffé, p. 629; Will. of Newburgh, i. 54–5).

On returning home Gilbert completed arrangements for the ordination of some of his canons, and revised the rules of his order. Later he found a successor in an old pupil, Roger of Sempringham, provost of Malton Church. To Roger, Gilbert vowed obedience, and received a canon's habit at his hands at Bullington near Wragby (Digby MS. 28 a; Dugdale, p. 17; Capgrave, 157a2).

Gilbert supported Becket against Henry II, and sent him money openly in his exile. For this he was called before the king's curia in London. Things might have fared ill with him had not messengers arrived from the king, who was abroad, with orders to reserve Gilbert for the royal judgment (Digby MS., 29b–31a1; Dugdale, pp. 17, 18; Capgrave, 157b1). Gilbert was held in such regard that when he came to court the king used to visit him; Queen Eleanor and her sons esteemed him highly, and when Henry heard of his death during the war against his rebellious children he broke out, ‘I knew he must be dead because of the ills that have increased upon me’ (Digby MS., 37b1, 2; Dugdale, p. 21; cf. Digby MS., 101b1, 2, 105b2, 106). Gilbert's later years were troubled by the evil conduct of two of his most trusted servants, Gerard and Ogger Carpenter. This Ogger, with his poverty-stricken parents and three brothers, Gilbert had brought up from his boyhood. His rapacity and ingratitude brought on his patron a reprimand from Pope Alexander III, and the old man had to write to Rome in his own defence. Nearly all the English bishops wrote in the same strain, as did also Henry II, who refused the bribes of Gilbert's enemies, though admitting the lax discipline into which the new order had fallen (Dugdale, pp. 18–19; Digby MS., 31a1–34a2; Harpsfeld, p. 386; cf. Digby MS., fol. 97b–109). Gilbert grew feeble from old age; but when he was over a hundred years his eyesight alone failed him. He received extreme unction on the night of Christmas 1188 in ‘Kaadeneia’ Abbey; then, fearing lest his body should be detained for burial elsewhere, had himself carried by by-paths to Sempringham, ‘the head of his monasteries.’ Here the rulers of all his churches came to receive his last blessing. Then, with his successor only by his couch, he remained in a kind of stupor, from which he woke repeating the words ‘He has dispersed, he has given to the poor,’ Psalm 112, v. 9. ‘This is your duty for the future,’ he added to the watcher at his side. Next morning he died about matins, Saturday, 4 Feb. 1189 (Dugdale, pp. 22–3; Digby MS., fol. 46–8; cf. Capgrave, fol. 187b2). He was buried, wrapped in his priest's robes, between the great altars of St. Mary and St. Andrew at Sempringham. King John and many other nobles visited his tomb (9 Jan. 1201), and after due inquiries he was canonised by Innocent III (11 Jan. 1202), largely owing to the efforts of Archbishop Hubert Walter, to whom the principal account of his life is dedicated (Dugdale, pp. 23, 38; Digby MS., fol. 46–8; cf. Capgrave, 187b2). His body was translated, 13 Oct. 1202, in the presence of Archbishop Hubert and many other prelates and nobles (ib. pp. 27–9; Dugdale, p. 27). During his lifetime Gilbert had founded thirteen ‘conventual churches,’ and at his death his order numbered seven hundred men and fifteen hundred ‘sisters.’ Each house was ruled by two ‘probate’ senes and two ‘maturæ sorores.’ The moral dangers inherent in his system, of which in later years Walter Map speaks so apprehensively, had made their appearance before 1166, as may be seen from the disgusting story of the ‘Wotton nun’ told by Ailred of Rievaulx (Digby MS., 147b2; Capgrave, fol. 157a2; cf. Dugdale, fol. 97. Ailred's narrative may be read in Bale, p. 225–7, and in Migne, vol. cxcv. col. 789–96).

Gilbert's writings include a treatise, ‘De Constructione (or de Fundatione) monasteriorum’ (Digby MS., fol. 14a2, 31a1; cf. Dugdale, pp. 9, 18, 19), rules and regulations for his own order, which were confirmed by Eugenius III, Hadrian IV, and Alexander III (Digby MS., 21ab; Dugdale, p. 13), and are printed in Dugdale, pp. 29, &c.; and a letter to his order (Digby MS., 45a–46a2). De Visch adds a volume of letters and certain discourses, ‘conciones’ or ‘exhortationes’ (p. 113; cf. Bale, p. 661).

Gilbert's life, written by one of his own order, and dedicated to Archbishop Hubert, is preserved, along with many other documents relating to the saint, in a fifteenth-century manuscript (Digby MS., 36) (see fol. 4a1, 6a1). The author had known Gilbert personally, and wrote at the request of Abbot Roger (ib. fol. 7b1, 6a1). Cotton. MS. Cleopatra, B. 1, fol. 31–173, as printed in the ‘Monasticon’ (pp. i–xcix), following p. 795, seems to be an abbreviated, or perhaps an earlier, form of this biography (cf. Digby MS., 6a1, 2). Two shorter lives are printed in the Bollandists' ‘Acta Sanct.’ for 4 Feb., pp. 570–573, one of which is a reprint of Capgrave. Both the Cottonian and Digby MSS. give an account of Gilbert's canonisation. The latter is prefaced by a dedicatory letter to Archbishop Hubert (fol. 4–6). It also includes two treatises on St. Gilbert's miracles (fol. 38–46a2, with which cf. Dugdale, p. 22, and fol. 63b–77a). It concludes with the correspondence relating to Gilbert's translation and canonisation, and a number of interesting letters written to him or on his behalf by Henry II, Alexander III, Henry, bishop of Winchester (d. 6 Aug. 1171), William, bishop of Norwich (d. 16 Jan. 1174), Archbishop Roger of York (d. 20 Nov. 1181), Cardinal Hugo, and other prelates, which seem to throw the Ogger dispute between 1170 and 1175 (for dates see Roger Hoveden, ii. 70; Flor. Wig. ii. 153; Ralph de Diceto, ii. 10, i. 347).

[Digby MS. 36 in Bodleian Library, Oxford; Dugdale's Monasticon, ed. 1817, &c., vol. vi. pt. ii. pp. i–xcix inserted between pp. 945 and 947; Walter Map's De Nug. Cur. ed. Wright (Camd. Soc.), 1850; William of Newburgh, ed. Howlett (Rolls Ser.); Ralph de Diceto and Roger of Hoveden (Rolls Ser.), ed. Stubbs; William of Newburgh, ed. Howlett; John of Hexham (Rolls Ser.); Bollandists' Acta Sanctorum, February, vol. i.; Capgrave's Legenda Angliæ, 1516; St. Bernard's Works, ap. Migne, vol. clxxxii.; Epistolæ Eugenii, vol. iii. ap. Migne, vol. clxxx.; Ailredi Opera, ap Migne, cxcv. 789–96; Harpsfeld's Hist. Eccles. Anglic. pp. 265–7; Planta's Cat. of Cotton. MSS.; De Visch's Bibliotheca Script. Ord. S. Cisterc. Douai, 1649; Henriquez's Menologium Cisterciense, 1630; Butler's Lives of the Saints, ed. 1847, ii. 48–50; Baring-Gould's Lives of the Saints, ii. 99–105, ed. 1872, Bale ed. 1559, pp. 214–17; Pits, pp. 252–3.]

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