Gilbert of Sempringham (c 1083-1189) founded the only distinctively English medieval religious order.
The son of a Norman knight and an Anglo-Saxon mother, Gilbert grew up physically handicapped in some way. The youth was sent to study in France, and when he returned was given two churches by his father, one at Sempringham, some 12 miles east of Grantham, and the other at West Torrington, near Market Rasen.
At this stage Gilbert was not even a priest. Nevertheless he took his responsibilities seriously, installing a chaplain at Sempringham and founding a school there.
In the early 1120s he entered the household of the Bishop of Lincoln and took orders. By 1131 he had returned to Sempringham, at once as priest and (in consequence of his father’s death) squire.
Having sold his possessions and distributed the proceeds to the poor, Gilbert concentrated exclusively on his religious duties. Soon he was serving as spiritual director to a group of seven women who lived in cells around a cloister attached to the church at Sempringham.
He then established lay Sisters to support their needs. Subsequently he introduced lay Brothers, including serfs and beggars among his recruits. In 1139 the Bishop of Lincoln placed another community of women, at Haverholme, under his control.
In 1147 Gilbert, who seemingly had no relish for administration, travelled to Cîteaux in Burgundy to try and persuade the Cistercian order to assume control of the religious under his guidance. When they refused Pope Eugenius III, who was attending the chapter at Cîteaux, persuaded Gilbert to take charge himself on a more official basis.
The first Rule of the Gilbertine order was drawn up in 1148: broadly, the nuns followed the precepts of St Benedict, while the lay brothers adopted the harsh Cistercian model. It was said, possibly for the purposes of prestige, that Gilbert drew inspiration from outlines which had been drawn up by St Bernard of Clairvaux.
Further Gilbertine houses were founded, mainly in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire, and mostly for both men and women.
Notwithstanding a grisly sexual scandal at Watton in east Yorkshire, the new order flourished. King Henry II extended his patronage and even forgave the Gilbertines for helping St Thomas à Becket escape to France.
Gilbert himself was said to be of affable, playful and generous temper, though not to be crossed in matters of discipline. Apparently he lived to the age of 106, by which time there were some 700 men and 1,500 women in the order.
Though the Gilbertines were never richly endowed they continued to flourish until the Reformation. The order, however, died out after being dissolved by Henry VIII. Today it is difficult to find even the church at Sempringham, while virtually nothing remains of the monastic buildings which had once housed 200 nuns.