Gilbert was born in 1083, the son of a Norman knight, Jocelin, and a Saxon mother. Gilbert suffered from a physical deformity from birth that made him unfit to bear arms, causing him initially to be despised by his father. Gilbert went to France to study where he excelled as a scholar (earning the Master’s degree). Having earned as well his father’s acceptance, he returned home to England, where he soon started a school for both boys and girls and received from his father the livings of Sempringham and West Torrington. As Gilbert was still not a priest, he appointed a priest to serve as his vicar for church services and the administration of the sacraments. Gilbert himself lived in poverty in the vicarage and by his teaching and example made his parish a model of devout and temperate living. Robert Bloet, bishop of Lincoln, made Gilbert his household clerk in 1122, and Bloet stayed on in the household of Bloet’s successor Alexander, living as a devout but unordained pluralist. He devoted the entirety of his income from West Torrington to the poor. Bishop Alexander ordained him priest and offered him a well-endowed archdeaconry, which Gilbert refused, returning instead (with Alexander’s permission) to his parish before 1131. By this time Jocelin had died, and Gilbert returned to Sempringham as both manor lord and rector.
Among his parishioners were seven devout young women who lived under his direction in a modest house he had built for them adjacent to St Andrew’s parish church in Sempringham. Gilbert devised a Rule for them based on the Rule of St Benedict, and on the advice of William, the first abbot of the Cisterican abbey of Rievaulx, he admitted lay sisters to their community. Gradually the Order spread, and lay brothers were added to provide regular labor to safeguard and develop the Order’s possessions. With the growth of the Order it became clear that stable government was needed, and in 1147 Gilbert appealed to the general chapter at Citeaux to rule his Order through the English Cistercian abbots. The Chapter declined Gilbert’s request, and Bernard of Clairvaux helped him draw up the Institutes of the Order of Sempringham, of which Pope Eugenius the Third, who had been present at the Chapter, made him Master. Gilbert added canons to his institute, who lived according to the Rule of Augustinian canons, while the nuns (who formed the backbone of the Order) and lay brothers lived according to the Cistercian Rule. As Master, Gilbert continued his austere manner of life, traveling from house to house in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire, working at copying manuscripts, making furniture, and building. At the age of nearly ninety, he was confronted with a rebellion of the lay brothers, whose main grievances were that there was too much work and not enough food. Despite being slandered by the leaders of the dissenters and their support by magnates in Church and state, the papacy upheld Gilbert, who received the rebels back into the Order, with some improvement being made in the brothers’ food and dress. As age advanced, he delegated much of the government of the Order to Roger of Malton. By the time of Gilbert’s death at the age of 106 on February 4, 1189 the Order had thirteen monasteries in England, including nine double monasteries (for men and women) and four houses for male canons only. The Order of Sempringham, also known as the Gilbertine Order, was the only purely English monastic foundation before the Dissolution of the monasteries under King Henry the Eighth in the sixteenth century.
Gilbert was commemorated in the sanctoral calendar of the Church in England before the Reformation and is now commemorated in the sanctoral calendar in Common Worship.
prepared from various sources,
including The Oxford Dictionary of Saints
O God, whose blessed Son became poor that we through his poverty might be rich: Deliver us from an inordinate love of this world, that we, inspired by the devotion of your servant Gilbert of Sempringham, may serve you with singleness of heart, and attain to the riches of the age to come; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.