St Norbert (June 6) grew up cocooned in privilege and luxury

Norbert (c 1080-1134) was the founder of the Premonstratensians, named after their first house, at Prémontré in Picardy. They were a reforming movement, not of monks but of canons regular; and each house was autonomous.

Apart from the Cistercians (by whom Norbert, a friend of St Bernard, was heavily influenced) the Premonstratensians were the only foreign order to take root in the 12th century in England, where they were known as the white canons.

By 1530, just before the dissolution of religious houses, there were 35 Premonstratensian institutions in England.

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Norbert was born, and very well born, at Xanten, on the Rhine in the Diocese of Cologne. His father was related both to the imperial house of Germany, and to the House of Lorraine; his mother was Hedwig of Guise.

For some years Norbert seemed content to take the ecclesiastical pickings that came his way; and as canon of Xanten he was cocooned in privilege and luxury.

Around 1115, however, a narrow escape from death after falling from his horse left him persuaded of the vanity of all worldly pursuits.

He resigned his lucrative canonry, sold his estates, took priest’s orders and obtained an interview with Pope Gelasius II, at which he confessed his past misdeeds, and undertook to perform an appropriate penance.

The Pope felt that he could do no better than to spread the Gospel, so Norbert became an itinerant preacher in northern France and the Low Countries.

He also adopted an asceticism so fierce that it killed his first three disciples. This may account for the failure of his attempts to reform the canons of Xanten.

In 1119, however, under the patronage of the Bishop of Laon, Norbert founded a house for 13 followers at Prémontré. They adopted the rule of St Augustine, though their commitment to preaching and pastoral work necessitated an external ministry.

The movement spread rapidly in France and Germany, achieving impressive results in the reform of the clergy. Norbert was particularly concerned to prevent the alienation of Church property to the laity, and to enforce celibacy among the priesthood.

The Premonstratensians received formal approval from the papacy in 1126, the same year in which Norbert was appointed Archbishop of Magdeburg. From this base he set about establishing communities in and beyond eastern Saxony.

At the end of his life Norbert was involved in ecclesiastical high politics. In the schism that followed the death of Pope Honorius II in 1130, he strove to secure the recognition of Innocent II in Germany.

Later, in 1132, he accompanied the Emperor Lothair III when he marched into Italy in an unsuccessful attempt to expel the antipope Anacletus II from Rome.

Norbert died at Magdeburg. Nine years later, in 1143, the first Premonstratensian house was founded in England, at Newhouse in Lincolnshire.

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