St Gilbert and the Gilbertines
by Marguerite Cook
The soldier with the gun seemed friendly. However, his dog eyed me suspiciously. The soldier was guarding the road that leads to Chicksands Priory in Bedfordshire. This was my first visit to see Chicksands Priory, which now stands on land owned by the military.
Chicksands Priory was home to a Gilbertine Order of Nuns, lay-sisters, Canons and lay-brothers. The Gilbertines were founded by St. Gilbert, and were the only purely English Monastic Order.
Chicksands Priory was formed in 1154, and was closed on 22nd October 1538, when King Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries. The Priory cannot be visited at a whim; as your intention to visit has to be stated in advance; because today the Priory is on the grounds of a British Army Intelligence Corps base.
St. Gilbert of Sempringham, Lincolnshire; c 1083-1189; was born into a wealthy family. St. Gilbert’s father, Jocelin, was a Norman knight and his pious mother was Anglo Saxon. It was said Gilbert suffered from a physical deformity from birth. However, he was a man of action. Gilbert founded orphanages and leper hospitals, plus thirteen Gilbertine Priories during his long lifetime. Twenty-six houses following the order of St. Gilbert were dissolved by King Henry VIII.
The Gilbertine nuns lived a strict life of near silence and contemplation; a life devoted to prayer. The order was held in the highest regard, as the Gilbertines were pious and well loved. They lived simple, austere lives.
Over the years Chicksands Priory had withstood many problems. In 1164 the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, was cared for by the Gilbertines of Chicksands Priory after he fled from being tried at Northampton Castle. Archbishop Thomas had quarrelled with King Henry II, as Archbishop Thomas had insisted that God and Rome were the supreme authorities, and not the King of England. Archbishop Thomas stayed in Chicksands Priory in October 1164. The Gilbertines then helped Archbishop Thomas to go to Kent, from where he sailed to France. Archbishop Thomas stayed at Pontigny Abbey while in exile.
After six years of exile, Archbishop Thomas Becket returned to Canterbury Cathedral, only to be murdered there within months of his return.
The Gilbertines of Chicksands Priory who had done so much to keep Archbishop Thomas alive were distraught at his death. The Gilbertines built a chapel, named after the now St. Thomas Becket, in the village of Meppershall, Bedfordshire. The chapel was used as a place of pilgrimage by people who could not make the long journey to Canterbury. Sadly, the deconsecrated chapel is now a farmer’s barn.
It was in the year 1533 that another King Henry raged; King Henry VIII. King Henry VIII wanted to divorce his wife Catherine of Aragon, as she was unable to give him a male heir. King Henry and his ministers were also jealous of the amount of property and land which was in the hands of religious houses.
Thus began the Reformation. The Pope refused to grant King Henry VIII a divorce. King Henry VIII broke communion with Rome and made himself “Supreme Head of the Church in England.” Then King Henry began the dissolution of the monasteries from 1538 until 1541. As a purely English order, the Gilbertines were unable to flee abroad for safety.
In October 1538, King Henry VIII’s men came to take over Chicksands Priory. The last Prioress of Chicksands Priory was Margaret Burton. Prioress Margaret had heard terrible stories of monasteries being brutally closed, with religious and lay people being murdered. Prioress Margaret was deeply concerned for the lives of her flock. Prioress Margaret signed the Deed of Surrender, and gave up her beloved Chicksands Priory. In return, the well-respected Gilbertines were pensioned off and provided with cottages.
Chicksands Priory was sold by King Henry VIII’s men, to the rich, for the sum of £810-11-8d.
The Catholic Church in Bedfordshire suffered greatly as a result of the Reformation. There can be few counties with less Catholics. All seemed lost. A sprinkling of devout Catholics kept the Catholic Church secretly alive for the next three centuries. The Gilbertine prayers for England, Our Lady and Rome, echoed down the years, joining with the prayers of others. In 1829 came the Catholic Relief Act which removed most of the substantial restrictions on Roman Catholics.
What of the Gilbertines ? Chicksands Priory was altered by the rich owners to resemble a country house, although parts remain which the Gilbertines would remember such as the lovely cloister.
Regrettably today Chicksands Priory stands on a military base, although the public are allowed to visit. Between 1950 and 1995 the military base was used by the U.S. Air Force. In 1984 the Catholic priest, serving the American Catholics, went into Chicksands Priory with some members of his congregation to say Mass. This was the first Mass said there for 400 years. Mass was celebrated in the private chapel within Chicksands Priory, on the 24th March, 1984.
It would be lovely to imagine St. Gilbert and his Gilbertines smiling at Father Richard, and his small congregation, on that momentous day.