Robert of Newminster (c 1100-59) was a learned Yorkshireman who understood that holiness scores far higher than scholarship in the scale of Christian values.
Probably born at Gargrave, near Skipton, into a family which a 14th-century biography described as “honourable according to their moderate means”, Robert proved so clever that he was sent to Paris to study philosophy. He came to concentrate on theology and wrote a treatise, long since lost, on the Psalms.
The lesson which Robert imbibed most deeply, however, came from the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Having been ordained, he returned to Yorkshire and took charge of the church at Gargrave.
Soon, though, feeling the need for a more ascetic life, he joined the community at Whitby Abbey. Still unsatisfied, in 1133 he attached himself to a group of monks from St Mary’s York, who in the previous year had gone to live in the wilds of Skelldale, near Ripon, and decided to adopt the Cistercian rule. At first the monks lived in a thatched hut under an elm tree, subsisting on a diet of herbs and boiled leaves.
In 1135, thanks to the wool merchants of York, they were able to begin building Fountains Abbey, which would be the largest Cistercian monastery in England. In 1138, however, Robert left Skelldale with 12 other monks to found Newminster Abbey, near Morpeth in Northumberland. The project was financed by a local aristocrat called Ranulf de Merly.
As abbot, Robert insisted upon absolute poverty, forswearing not just luxuries but sometimes, as it seemed, necessities.
When a nobleman came across him in a field and asked to see the head of the monastery, Robert skilfully evaded him. “When I was at the grange,” he vouchsafed the abbot was there.” Perhaps his ascetic ways were too much for some of his companions. There was evidence of resistance to his rule when some of his monks whispered that he was becoming too intimate with a local noblewoman.
To defend himself, in 1147 Robert went see St Bernard at Clairvaux. Bernard declared there could be no culpability in so upright a figure, and gave the visitor his girdle, famed for its curative properties. At Cîteaux, Robert met Pope Eugenius III, who persuaded the Bishop of Durham to confer land on Newminster Abbey.
It was said that Robert once saw the Devil standing at the entrance to the choir at Newminster, prior to extracting one of the weaker brethren with the aid of a three-pronged fork.
In the Chronicle of Fountains Robert is remembered as “modest in demeanour, gentle in companionship, merciful in judgment and exemplary in holy conversation”.
Today the remains of Newminster Abbey are swallowed up in undergrowth.