Prior Matthew Smith of Crowle
(May, 1922)


FOREWORD     >>Top<<

Up to the time of Henry VIII's suppression of the Religious Orders in England there had existed in this country, as Cardinal Gasquet tells us,[F-1] " less than thirty-four abbeys or other houses of the Premonstratensians or White Canons, the oldest of which, Newhouse in Lincolnshire, dated from 1143, only nine years after the death of the great St. Norbert, the Founder of the Order. Thus during the Ages of Faith St. Norbert must have been well known in England, like the other great Founders, St. Benedict, St. Dominic, St. Francis. But in modern times he has hitherto been much less known, except perhaps in those very few localities where of late years some of his sons have been working. The reason is not far to seek. From these dark days of suppression, about 1540, to 1870, a period of 330 years, the Norbertine Order disappeared entirely from this island. A few straggling members of the other orders, Benedictines and Franciscans, still continued as scattered units, to labour in secret, amid many dangers in various parts of the country. Eventually the Anglo-Benedictine Congregation was revived and re-organised; both the Franciscans and Dominicans returned in considerable numbers and were duly constituted into provinces and spread all over the land. It was not till the date mentioned above, barely 50 years ago, that the Premonstratensians reappeared in very small numbers on British soil, and that in the same county, Lincolnshire, in which their very first settlement, Newhouse, had taken place in the middle of the twelfth century. Nor did they have any settlement of any considerable size until Abbot Heylen of Tongerloo (now Bishop of Namur), at the invitation of Bishop Herbert Vaughan, undertook the now flourishing foundation at Corpus Christi, Manchester, in 1889. This long silence of centuries will explain why, whilst the names of the founders of the other great Orders mentioned above are so familiar to all Catholics and their lives well known, English Catholics know little of one of the greatest luminaries and religious legislators of the Church, St. Norbert. Yet his life is one of unusual interest and importance, and the influence of himself and his great Order has been of exceptional consequence in the Church. Particularly has this been the case with the doctrine and devotion of the Holy Eucharist. St. Norbert is rightly styled the Apostle of the Eucharist. He it was who by his triumph over the arch-heretic Tanchelin saved the Faith in the Holy Eucharist in the Low Countries. It is to a spiritual daughter of Norbert, St. Juliana of Liege(d. 1251)that the Church owes the feast of Corpus Christi. And all through its history the Premonstratensian Order has been foremost in fostering the love of the Blessed Sacrament and the practice of Eucharistic devotions. As I write, the great Eucharistic Congress is just about to assemble in Rome under the personal patronage of His Holiness Pope Pius XI. Now these international Congresses in honour of the Blessed Sacrament, of which the present one is the last of a long series, may justly be claimed as Norbertine, Bishop Heylen, the virtual founder and 'perpetual president' of them being, as above stated, distinguished Premonstratensian and former Abbot. For all these reasons, we must welcome this little Life of St. Norbert as appearing most opportunely and calculated, we may earnestly hope, to make better known to many English-speaking Catholics the life and virtues of one of the most remarkable sainted Founders, whom God raised up in the church, just a century before both St. Dominic and St. Francis.


The lordly members of the brilliant court of Henry V [I-1] would have been wonderfully astonished, had it been foretold, that one from amongst them would become a great saint; that after a conversion of an unusual nature, followed by the practice of deep seclusion, austere penance and constant prayer, preparatory to journeys over wide stretches of country to evangelise and reform both clergy and people, he would found a religious order, which would spread itself over the face of the earth and establish houses in number exceeding all expectations. Norbert of Xanten, the gifted gaysome courtier, gave little or no indication that he ever would become an apostle of Christ. He was a son of Heribert, Count of Gennep, and claimed on both his father’s and mother’s side to be of royal blood. He spent several years of his youth at the court of Frederic of Carinthia, Archbishop of Cologne. He was ordained subdeacon and appointed to a Canonry in the Collegiate Church at Xanten.

Later he left the Archbishop’s court and became attached to that of the Emperor Henry V. In a short space of time he grew to be as much a favourite here as he had been at the court of the Archbishop. In appearance he was attractive; in manners charming; in conversation, interesting; in disposition, kind, thoughtful, condescending towards others; and thus it came about that members of the household from the highest to the lowest felt that members of the household from the highest to the lowest felt that in Norbert they had a sympathetic friend. The attractions of the court held Norbert captive to such a degree that he utterly neglected the religious duties, which his appointment to the Canonry of Xanten required of him. He became completely immersed in the affectionate attention shown to him and in the praise showered on him. Religious considerations, which would have revived better dispositions within him, were avoided and looked upon as more suitable for those who, having live? their life, were approaching the end of their days.

No evidence is forthcoming by which Norbert can be convicted of having spent his youthful years in vice, the worst charge that history brings against him is, that as a Canon of Xanten and as subdeacon he neglected his ecclesiastical duties and lived a pleasurable worldly life.

He continued in this style presumably without qualm of conscience, until God was pleased to touch his heart in a manner closely modeled on the conversion of St. Paul.

During the spring time of 1115, one delightfully calm mild sunlit day, a gaily caparisoned horseman, accompanied by an attendant, was seen to ride out into the country towards Freden. The horseman was no stranger, he was Norbert the beloved and admired courtier. He cantered along pleasantly for some distance, when dark clouds appeared on the horizon. They spread themselves out rapidly and gradually obscured the light. With them came a wind which grew in strength and rapidity, The dust arose and was swept across the land, the strongest boughs of trees were bent and detached twigs chased each other over the ground. The animals in the fields uttered cries of dread and birds sought shelter in the thickest hedges and copses. The horse that Norbert rode was equally terror-stricken. 'the alarmed attendant could restrain himself no longer, in anguish of soul he exclaimed: "Sir Norbert, whither are you going? what are you doing? return at once: do you not recognise that the hand of God lies heavily upon you !" Suddenly a flash of lightning rends the air; its brightness for the moment dispels the darkness and, as the thunder rolls and shakes both the heavens and the earth, the flash has ploughed the soil under the very feet of Norbert's horse, which throws its rider and bolts.

Prostrate on the ground Norbert lies unconscious for some considerable time. The storm has now ceased and the faithful attendant has patiently awaited his master's recovery. Immediately Norbert returns to consciousness, he turns his thoughts to God: he recognises his unfaithfulness to grace and from the depths of his penitent soul sends forth the cry: "Lord what wilt Thou have me to do?" He has not appealed In vain, for he recognises the answer given ; "Cease from evil and do good." Yes, that he will do, and will do from now onwards. Assisted by his attendant, he composes himself, abandons his proposed visit to Freden and returns to Xanten. There he will live for the present, and faithfully fulfil his ecclesiastical duties; he will give up attendance at Court and exercise himself in the practice of virtue.

That he might do this more successfully, he had recourse to the saintly Benedictine Abbot Conon of Siegburg, under whose guidance he placed himself. He spent the rest of the year in the fulfillment of his canonical duties at Xanten and in learning, at the Abbey of Siegburg, the method of living the spiritual life.

Towards the end of this same year he was ordained deacon and priest by the Archbishop of Cologne. When he presented himself for ordination, he clothed himself in a garment of sheepskin and encircled himself with a cord in token of repentance. After his ordination he retired to the Abbey of Siegburg and there during forty days fervently prepared himself for the celebration of his first Mass. This mass was celebrated in the Collegiate church of Xanten and he preached a soul-stirring sermon to those who were present.

The next day and on several later occasions he addressed the Canons of Xanten in their chapter house. He besought them to carry out faithfully the duties of their canonical state and thereby give edification to clergy and people alike. The older members of the chapter were greatly impressed by his exhortations, but the more youthful ones, showed utter contempt. This contempt reached so high a point that one of them was prompted to interrupt him in his discourse and even to spit in his face. Norbert remained quite calm; he modestly wiped his face and continued his exhortation. The rebellious Canons became so offensive that Norbert was obliged to discontinue his efforts to reform them.

During the next three years, he prepared himself by penance, prayer and study, for the work which God would be pleased to call him to undertake. Three modes of life suggested themselves; the monastic, the eremetical and the canonical. At Xanten he had for a time lived the canonical life such as it then was, and as he had endeavoured to bring about a reform, but all in vain, he would prefer a life more austere and more labourious. He had followed the monastic life during his stay at the abbey of Siegberg and he witnessed the eremetical life on the occasion of his several visits to a pious solitary named Ludolph. The example and the advice of this holy man strengthened Norbert's resolve to keep himself aloof from the world. He did not decide on any particular mode of life, but later when called upon to found an Order, his present experiences were of great advantage to him. The new method of Norbert's life raised around him severe critics. They denounced his preaching and his severe penances. He was summoned to appear before the Papal Legate Conon at the Council of Fritzlar, held in 1118, to meet his accusers, The very presence of the illustrious penitent in the crowded Council Room created a favourable impression. The simplicity and yet at the, same time the eloquent earnestness of his defence were of such a nature that he had no difficulty in conciliating his judges. They quickly recognised the falsity and iniquity of the accusation and consequently found no cause for condemnation, yet Norbert was not favoured with any word of approbation. The Saint now realised as much as ever he had done, how true are the words of our divine Lord; "No one is a prophet in his own country." He would be faithful to the call of God, he would be a voluntary exile. He resigned his Canonry at Xanten ; distributed amongst the poor what remained of his wealth; and gave to the Abbey of Siegburg the church of Vorstberg (Xanten) which was his personal property. He then set out to submit his schemes for the future, to the spiritual father of the faithful and to be guided by his advice.

Before the end of this same year 1118, Norbert arrived at St. Gilles in the south of France (Languedoc,) whither Pope Gelasius II had betaken himself to escape from the insolences of the anti-pope who had taken the name of Gregory VIII. The Pope quickly measured the value of the man God had providentially raised up for the work of reform. He would make him one of his councilors. Norbert besought his Holiness not to insist on this and acknowledged the evil results a life at court in previous years had introduced in him.

The Pope did not insist; he gave him permission to preach everywhere without restriction and, on being told of the persecution to which Norbert had been subjected, promised him protection.


Now that he had obtained the approval and blessing of the Holy Father, Norbert was all on fire to begin the missionary life that so strongly appealed to him, the life he had contemplated during the three years of his retirement. He would preach by the ever effective method of good example and also by word of mouth, not only to the people in general, but also to the clergy both secular and regular when the occasion would present itself.

He journeyed through the northern part of France barefooted and clothed a modest woolen garment. Accompanied by three companions he arrived at Valenciennes the 22nd of March 1119.

The next day was Palm Sunday. The people of the town flocked to the church whither he had gone in hopes of hearing him preach. St. Norbert mounted the pulpit and gave an excellent discourse on the Redemption of man. Certain writers have written that God renewed in his favour the prodigy that took place at Jerusalem on the first Christian Pentecost, for though Norbert undoubtedly preached to the people in German, they, whose language was Romance, understood him. Whatever may have been the exact truth of the case, the fact remains that the good results of the Saint’s preaching were wonderful. About this time, Burchard, Bishop of Cambrai came to Valenciennes. He and Norbert were old friends, and the Bishop knew that his nomination to the Bishopric was due to Norbert’s refusal of the offer of that See.

Their meeting was most cordial. The Bishop expressed his admiration at the Saint’s untiring zeal and his satisfaction at the good done in his diocese. Bishop Burchard had brought with him his devoted chaplain, Hugh of Fosse. Hugh at once took a great liking to Norbert. He listened attentively to what the Bishop and others said and also made minute enquiries about him. His observations coincided with all he heard. The result was that he wished to become one of Norbert’s disciples. The Bishop, though loathe to part with his chaplain, would not place any obstacles in the way, if Norbert was wishful to accept him. Norbert was, and the agreement was made, that Hugh should leave the Bishop and become Norbert’s associate, was carried out.

In the month of June 1119 Norbert recommenced his missionary journeys with Hugh as his sole companion, for the three former associates had died at Valenciennes. In imitation of the disciples Our Lord sent forth to evangelize, they traveled barefooted, without change of dress, without money. Each carried a staff with which to lighten his steps. They burdened themselves only with their books of prayer, a copy of the Gospels and the requisites for the celebration of Holy Mass. In course of time they became owners of an ass which carried their meager luggage and of which one or the other made use when overcome by fatigue. They declined remuneration for their ministry, but accepted offerings given for the celebration of the holy sacrifice. These offerings they distributed amongst the poor. They observed a daily fast, except on Sundays and feast days of the church. Salt was the only condiment with which they seasoned their food and water was their only beverage. For preference they took their meals seated on the ground. They departed from these practices only when circumstances compelled them, as when they were received in monasteries, or dined with priests or others who invited them to their table.

The companionship of Hugh was of great utility to Norbert: he was enabled to acquire a better knowledge of the language of the country and Hugh acted as guide through the northern part of

France and through a great part of what is now Belgium. Norbert constantly gave his disciple spiritual advice and led him far along the path of perfection. The missionaries passed through the greater part of the diocese of Cambrai and the extensive diocese of Liege. They everywhere gave great edification, brought back to God many souls that had gone astray, and they were frequently successful in reconciling those who had been at variance; in fact this happened so often that Norbert was popularly styled "The Angel of Peace."

The preaching of St. Norbert was echoed far and wide. The reputation he acquired, the admiration in which he was held, created a widespread wish on the part of the inhabitants of those districts to see and to hear him. As he traveled along a country road, messengers would hurry forward to tell the people of the neighbouring village or town of his approach and church bells would announce his arrival.


After one year’s pontificate, Pope Gelasius, Norbert’s first protector, died at Cluny, 29th January 1119.

His successor was Guy, Archbishop of Vienne in Dauphine, who took the name of Calixtus II. As soon as Norbert heard that the pope had summoned a council to be held at Rheims, he decided to suspend his missionary labours, to betake himself to Rheims, offer his services to the Holy Father and ask approbation of and blessing on his apostolic life. He arrived there in the month of October, little expecting the disappointment that awaited him. Louis le Gros, King of France, archbishops, Bishops, Abbots, numerous dignitaries of the church and State from the various courts of Europe had responded to the call of the Pope.

Amongst these dignitaries, their secretaries and attendants, occupied as they were with the necessary preparations for the council which was shortly to be opened, Norbert moved about unnoticed, and his repeated request for an interview with the Pope was quite unheeded. Recognising the uselessness of his efforts, Norbert and his companions left the city. They had traveled some distance, and overcome by fatigue, were seated by the roadside. As they looked along the way they intended to travel, they noticed the dust rising in clouds, and distinctly heard the sound of approaching horses galloping along the road. Then came in view a cavalcade of men at arms and ecclesiastics. One of these, a man of distinction and high rank, commanded a halt.

He enquired who these would be pilgrims might be and whither they were travelling. Norbert explained briefly who they were and what was his dilemma. So impressed was the ecclesiastic who was none other than Bartholomew de Vir, bishop of Laon and cousin of the Pope, that he had immediate arrangements made to enable Norbert and his companions to return to Rheims in his company. The Council was opened October 20, the day after his arrival. At its conclusion, Norbert through the intermediary of Bishop de Vir was summoned to the presence of the Pope. To him Norbert opened his mind and heart, and asked for the renewal of the favours granted him by Pope Gelasius. The Holy Father, only too pleased to meet with one so full of zeal, did not hesitate to confirm what his predecessor had granted and encouraged the saint to pursue energetically his apostolic career. He wished to converse longer, but with so much business on hand, he could not share the time, he therefore expressed the hope that they would meet later on at Bishop de Vir's Palace, whither he intended to go when matters relating to the council were fully settled. Norbert accompanied the Bishop to Laon and there awaited the arrival of the Pope. In the meantime, Hugh of Fosses went off to his native place to dispose of his temporal affairs and the other companion withdrew for the time being. In due course the Holy Father arrived. The bishop was most anxious that Norbert should remain in his diocese and in this he was upheld by the persuasions of the Pope.

The Holy Father recognised that Norbert could do much good by his itinerant preaching, but he considered that greater good would be done by his founding a religious Order, the members of which would inherit his apostolic spirit and zeal. In this Order the active and contemplative life could be merged and considerable assistance given to the secular clergy in carrying out the reform insisted on in recent Councils of the Church. Time would be necessary to come to a decision and if an Order was to be founded a suitable place would have to be acquired and the necessary aspirants to the Order gathered together. Until a final decision could be adopted, Norbert, at the request of the Pope as much as that of the Bishop, became superior of the Canons of the Collegiate Church of St. Martin. They needed reform. They strongly resented any interference on the part of St. Norbert to change the comfortable mode of life they bad adopted, so that finding his endeavours towards reform to be of no avail, the saint asked to be relieved of the task.

The Bishop reluctantly yielded to his request and invited him to return to his house. Together they visited several places in the diocese for the purpose of selecting suitable ground on which to erect a monastery. None of them had any attraction for Norbert, till they arrived at the valley of Prémontré situated in the forest of Voois near to Coucy. In an open space stood a chapel dedicated to St. John the Baptist where on certain days Holy Mass was said for the charcoal burners. Norbert expressed a wish to spend the night there in prayer. The Bishop left him. When they met the following morning, Norbert stated that not only was it the place of God's choice, but that in a vision, he had seen a body of men clothed in white. They carried a silver cross, candlesticks and thuribles and sang whilst they walked round the valley. The Bishop was greatly surprised at Norbert's choice. Prémontré was anything but a desirable spot in which to live, however he was quite prepared to assist Norbert in every possible way.

They then returned to Laon where, in the course of an address to the students of the local college, Norbert spoke of his designs regarding Prémontré, with the result that seven of the students offered themselves as disciples. As soon as the necessary arrangements could be carried out, Norbert and his disciples received from the hands of the Bishop the white habit which tradition states was indicated to St. Norbert in a vision by our Lady.

This reception of the habit took place in the early part of 1120. Adjacent to the walls of the chapel, in Prémontré dwellings of quite a simple form in which to house the newly clothed religious had been erected. Prayer, the chant of the psalms in common and manual labour constituted their daily occupation. Wishful to increase the number of his disciples, Norbert resumed his apostolic life with renewed ardour. Wherever he preached, crowds flocked to hear his words. He and St. Bernard of Clairvaux achieved similar triumphs, for as each in his own sphere passed front place to place preaching the word of God, both created a spiritual enthusiasm productive of salutary results.

The saintly, austere life of Norbert ; the persuasiveness of his discourses, the deeds of wonder popularly attributed to him, aroused an ever increasing admiration. His progress was fertile in conversions, and those who presented themselves for acceptance as disciples were many. In the course of a short time his family at Prémontré had considerably increased. About this time he was rejoined by Hugh of Fosses; together they made for Cologne and arrived there in the month of October.

In days now passed, Cologne had admired and honoured the brilliant young count of Gennep; after his conversion the inhabitants had laughed at him and treated him with contempt, but now impressed by what they were told, they recognised him as a heaven-sent preacher and hurried to listen to his words. He purposed to build at Prémontré a church, a worthy house of God, and as he knew Cologne Cathedral to be rich in relics, he was in hopes of being able to obtain some of these precious treasures. He was not disappointed. He obtained relies of St. Gereon, M.; of the two Saints Ewald, M.M., and of Saint Ursula, V.M. With these sacred remains in his possession, he set out on his return to Prémontré. He was accompanied by Hugh and several newly recruited disciples. On his way he met with Court Godfrey and his wife: Ermensinde, who made him a present of their house at Floreffe, close to Namur. This was the first graft on the growth of Prémontré. They were by now in the month of December; the number of clerics at Prémontré was about forty, with an additional number of lay disciples. Constitutions were drawn up for the canonical organisation of this newly created family and the religious profession took place on Christmas Day, 1121.


The object St. Norbert had in view in instituting his order was to unite to the practices of piety and penance the duties of the care of souls. Of both forms of life, the active and the contemplative, the holy Founder was an exemplary model. He spent hours in prayer and a considerable time in contemplation. His practice of penance was severe beyond expression. These acts of personal sanctification he joined to the work of an apostolic life. The rules of the religious life, present that life in different forms, thereby offering to souls which aspire to that life a choice of vocation.

St. Norbert’s choice favoured the contemplative life joined to the active. His mode of life at Prémontré gave the impression that he was less the Founder of an Order than one wishful to bring the canonical order of life back to its primitive fervour. He urged that the shepherds of souls should labour at their personal sanctification, as well as fulfil the duties of their sacred ministry; he advocated that ministers of the altar should by exemplary lives secure for themselves the esteem so necessary for the success of their labours. The rule of St. Augustine, emphasized by the addition of observances Cistercian in their nature, answered admirably to the requirements of the Founder. Divine approbation favoured the choice, according to a statement of St. Norbert himself handed down by the chroniclers. He stated: "I know a brother of our Community who diligently sought a rule of life suitable to follow. In answer to the prayers of his brethren and not through any personal merits, St. Augustine appeared to him. Extending his right hand, he offered a copy of his rule and said: ‘I am Augustine, bishop of Hippo, this is the rule I have written. If your brethren my children, fight the good fight under its guidance, they will at the last day, stand at the tribunal of divine justice without fear.’"

Those who have handed down the statement declare that he said this in all humility, as though the words were addressed to someone other than himself, but unquestionably he and no other was favoured with this revelation.

The one important occupation at Prémontré was the daily recitation of the divine office. At midnight sleepful repose was broken into, for the recitation of matins, and each day the office was chanted and a solemn Mass celebrated.

The Order has always esteemed the chanting of the divine office a duty of first importance and for this reason, a first condition for the foundation of a new community, as stated in ancient statutes, was the possession of liturgical books and the necessary books of chant. Manual labor, especially land tillage, was introduced in the early days of the Order and proved to be an untold benefit to the locality in which houses were established. Manuscript writing and the study of ecclesiastical subjects were also carried on, and during these occupations, silence was rigidly observed. The canonical members of the order wore a white habit consisting of a cassock, scapular, cincture and cloak with hood. In choir they wore the surplice. The lay brothers who worked on the farm or in the workshops attached to the monastery wore a grayish habit, of which the tunic and scapular differed in shape from that of the Canons.

Our saint according to the records is the one who it seems first devised a Third Order. The circumstance of the foundation was this: Count Theobald of Champagne, a wealthy and well known noble in France, approached Saint Norbert, with a view to becoming one of his disciples. After some consideration, Norbert decided that the vocation of Theobald was to live a saintly life in the world. He drew up for him a rule of life, and made him a partaker of the good works and merits of the Order. Theobald’s example was followed by others and at one time the members of this third order became most numerous.

From the time he celebrated his first Mass, Norbert entertained a constant devotion towards the Holy Eucharist and exercised zeal in propagating the devotion. He has merited to be usually depicted holding the monstrance in his hand and, in the chronological order of the saints, he heads the list of those who are known as Eucharistic Saints. His contemporaries write eulogistically of Norbert’s faith and devotedness to the Holy Sacrament of the Altar. He was accustomed to celebrate the Holy Sacrifice more than once in a day, for in those days the practice was allowable. At the altar, in presence of and by the power of his Eucharistic Lord, he performed the greater number of his miraculous deeds. The curing of the sick, the blind and the lame, the deliverance of those possessed by evil spirits, conversions of sinners and reconciliations of enemies, as stated in his life, took place for the most part during the celebration of Holy Mass. The following is an incident from the life, given by chroniclers of the XII century. The miracle happened at Floreffe in Belgium. Norbert was celebrating the Holy Mass, when shortly before the communion he saw in the centre of the paten a large drop of the blood of our Lord. He drew the attention of Brother Rodolph, the sacristan, who was his deacon and said: ''Do you see what I see?" "Yes I do," was the reply and Norbert overcome by pious emotion, wept. The drop of blood was removed and the paten washed. This gave rise to a practice at one time observed in the order.[IV-1]

The zeal exercised by St. Norbert in defending and strengthening the doctrine of the Real Presence, was strenuously tested in the north of Belgium about the year 1124. The heretic Tanchelin had caused spiritual desolation in Antwerp and the neighbourhood, by his denunciation of the Church, the Priesthood and the Sacraments. Though he had died a tragic death, his false doctrines still lived and continued to exude their deadly poison. Bishop Burchard of Cambrai had employed various means to overcome the heresy, but so far his many attempts had been so many failures. In his perplexity he remembered Norbert, appealed to him and Norbert quickly responded to the invitation. He carefully selected from amongst the brethren those distinguished by their piety, zeal, and erudition and with them set out for Antwerp. They speedily gained the admiration of the people and then their hearing. The frequent sermons and instructions were attentively listened to and the Antwerpians soon realised that they had been deceived. The heretical doctrines of Tanchelin were repudiated and the people returned to the practice of their ancient faith. In recognition of the service he had rendered, Norbert was acclaimed by the people "Apostle of Antwerp" which title he holds to this day, and from the Canons of St. Michael, he received the gift of their church. In time an abbey was built up around it and from it were founded the well known Abbeys of Averbode, Middlebourg and Tongerloo. This chapter would be incomplete if no allusion were made to the devotion of the Order towards the Blessed Mother of God. Saint Norbert himself inculcated the devotion on his disciples and amongst other things wished them to consider the colour of their habit an external mark of their internal piety. The Roman Martyrology commemorates on August 5th, the apparition of the Blessed Virgin to St. Norbert in the chapel of St. John the Baptist at Prémontré when she indicated to him the white habit he was to wear.[IV-2]

The office of the Blessed Virgin is recited, and in the Abbeys a mass celebrated, each day in her honour. The tradition is handed down that St. Norbert and consequently his disciples always favoured the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.


The ever increasing number of disciples called urgently for greater accommodation, and time could not be lost in providing it. As the building of the church was of equal importance, a site for it should first be decided upon and the new buildings raised adjacent to it.

The choice of a site was somewhat of a puzzle owing to the irregular formation of the land. The community had recourse to prayer and were favoured with a speedy reply. One of their number whilst at prayer saw a figure of our Lord crucified as it were, erected on the spot where the church now stands. Seven rays of light shone forth from the figure and lit up the country round. From four opposite sides, pilgrims arrived bearing their wallets and staves and approached the crucifix. Here they prostrated themselves, kissed the feet of the figure, and rising, departed along the same roads by which they had come, as though to bear to the four quarters of the globe the blessings of redemption.

Norbert decided that this should be the place on which to erect the church, and the work was begun forthwith. Bishop Barthelemy of Laon, with numerous attendants, in the presence of Bishop Lysiard of Soissons, blessed the foundations with all the ceremony of church ritual. As soon as the building was completed, Norbert invited the same two bishops to perform the dedication. This solemn dedication was magnificently carried out on May 4th, 1122.

Historians of the XII century tell of extraordinary happenings whilst the Church and Abbey were being built. The enemy of man, the devil, evidently enraged at the proceedings, openly manifested his rage. His spiteful acts availed him nothing, but gave to Norbert and Hugh opportunities of exercising the power over evil spirits that God gives to his saints. Historians likewise tell of the heavenlike peace that grew to reign in Prémontré and so far reaching was this peace, that even the wild animals of the forest came under its influence. One of their stories is well worth the telling. A brother had gone out with the cattle of the monastery to keep them from straying. During the morning, a wolf sauntered up to him in quite a friendly manner, and kept him company all day. He did duty as a sheep dog in quite a satisfactory way and when evening had come, helped to drive the cattle back to their sheds. The doors were fastened for the night and the brother betook himself to his own quarters in the monastery without further thought of the wolf.

Later, Norbert remarked a constant thumping on one of the doors and thinking that a benighted traveller sought hospitality, enquired why the door was not opened. The reply was that no traveller sought admittance, but that outside was a wolf which had come up from the fields with the cattle. The brother narrated his experience and Norbert recognising that probably the wolf was hungry, ordered that food should be given to it, for, he added, a labourer is worthy of his hire. The wolf was in his own way asking for food and as soon as his hunger was satisfied he made off to the woods. He frequently returned in the same friendly way and became so tame that he took food from the brother's hand.

Pope Honorius II succeeded Pope Calixtus II in 1124. As soon as Norbert was able to absent himself from Prémontré he set out to visit the Holy Father, and received a cordial reception. On February 16th 1126 Pope Honorius issued a Bull of approbation of the Order, entitled; "Apostolicae disciplinae sectantes" etc.

St. Norbert returned at once to Prémontré and announced to his disciples the gladsome news. This papal approbation gave Norbert's foundation a new standing altogether.

Soon, Prémontré became no longer able to house the many that sought admission, so that new religious families had of necessity to be formed. Little or no difficulty was experienced in securing new sites or in providing the buildings, so great was the interest created in the Order by the Pope's approbation. During the journey to Rome and back, Norbert and his companions were one evening, according to their custom at prayer, when suddenly the silence was broken by a voice which indicated that shortly, Norbert would be raised to the Episcopacy. Whatever each one may have thought, nothing was said till after their arrival at Prémontré.

A gathering of importance known as the "Diet" took place at Spires in July of this same year. Norbert was there and at the request of the Emperor Lothaire and of the clergy he preached at the Cathedral.

Amongst those present were delegates from the town of Magdeburg, an episcopal city which for two years had been without a bishop. These delegates were greatly impressed by Norbert’s preaching and general comportment. The sentiment that he undoubtedly was a desirable candidate for the vacant See was unanimously entertained. Norbert strongly opposed the suggestion. He alleged his unworthiness, the necessity of his presence at Prémontré, and the fact that he had refused the Bishopric of Cambrai. The authority of the Papal Legate and the Emperor at length prevailed and he submitted to their wish as the choice of God.


Strange and unforseen events happen in the course of one’s life. Norbert reviewed in spirit the days of his youth, spent as a gay courtier in the land of his birth, his startling conversion, his retreat into France, the foundation of his Order. He now finds himself called back to the land of his birth to take up the duties of a shepherd of Christ’s flock.

On the one hand sorrow seized his heart, on the other, the ever present disposition to do in all things the Holy Will of God, enabled him to bow his head, without murmur, to the divine decree. A messenger set out for Prémontré to convey the news of the election of Norbert. Sorrow and fear filled the hearts of all; sorrow at the loss of so devoted a spiritual father, fear lest the privation of his direction might endanger their very existence.

Norbert’s entry into Magdeburg took place on the 18th July 1126. The event was marked with great enthusiasm. The renown of his sanctity, his eloquence, and his miracles had reached Magdeburg, so that he was highly esteemed by the people. They vied with each other in manifesting their appreciation and all united in giving a fullhearted gladsome welcome. A procession was formed at the entrance of the city, all the dignitaries both ecclesiastical and civil, which wended its way toward the Episcopal palace. Norbert’s garments were not in keeping with those of the dignitaries who formed the procession, so that on arrival at the palace, so history relates, the hall porter attempted to withdraw him from the procession with the rebuke that he had no right to place himself amongst the notables of the town. A chorus of voices exclaimed that he was the newly elected archbishop, whereupon the dismayed porter turned to seek safety in flight, but Norbert called him back and said in his usually affable way: "Do not be afraid and do not run away; you see more clearly than others; you know me better than they who have brought me to this sumptuous palace, which I, being poor and insignificant, ought not to accept."

Eight days later, on July 25th, the feast of St. James the Apostle, Norbert was consecrated Archbishop of Magdeburg by Udo, Bishop of Naumburg. Knowledge of the state of affairs in the diocese of Magdeburg caused the new Bishop grave anxiety. For some considerable time abuses had existed and during the long vacancy of the See, the serious state of affairs had become aggravated. Norbert was not the man to look on in silence at such unjust acts as the sequestration, by lords of the land, of property given for the Bishop's maintenance; nor to pass over unheedingly the remissness of the clergy. Little accustomed to correction, the guilty clergy and nobles, at first expressed surprise, they then rose in revolt, yet Norbert remained firm. More than once an attempt was made on his life, but thanks to divine protection the attempts were fruitless. Neither threats nor inducements could cause him to alter his determination to redress these evils. At all times most considerate towards repentant sinners, he was inflexibly severe towards the willfully sinful. The revolt of the discontented clergy and nobles, small in its inception, grew to greater dimensions and became such a menace to the safety of the Archbishop, that he was constrained to exile himself for a time from the Episcopal city. His flight produced the happiest result. The rebels, conscience stricken, listened to the voice of sane reason, recognised their guilt and disposed themselves to make amends. A deputation waited on the Archbishop, expressed deep regret for what had happened; asked for forgiveness, promised obedience and besought him to return without delay.

The Saint assured of their sincerity, acceded to their request to return. His re-entry to the city was a veritable triumph. His former opponents were amongst the foremost to welcome him and the people manifested in every possible way, their unfeigned delight. From that day forward, peace reigned in the city and Norbert was able to carry out without obstruction his Episcopal duties.

He recognised the power for good of all religious orders, took in them that particular interest which guaranteed the unflagging flame of religious fervour, and the strict observance of religious disipline. In his own Order he took the deepest interest. He kept himself well informed also of what was taking place at Prémontré and was fully satisfied with the admirable government of the Abbey by Blessed Hugh his successor. No founder of a religious family could have expected in so short a time such progress as that with which this Order met. A recent historian of St. Bernard [VI-1], treating of the spread of the Cistercian houses, speaks in like strains of the quick growth of the Premonstratensian foundations.

Within the space of a few years, houses were established in most of the European Countries, Later in 1143, after St. Norbert's death, a number of religious of the Abbey of Licques (Calais) in France came to England at the invitation of Ralph de Halton and Godfrey de Tours and established themselves under Abbot Gelro at Newhouse in North Lincolnshire.

The growth of the order in England was as rapid as it had been elsewhere. One cannot say with absolute certainty how many houses the Order possessed in these Islands: of the various lists the most accurate, is, perhaps that of Hugo, author of the "Annales Premonstratenses." His list gives in the Circary of Scotland and North England, 31 houses;  Mid-England, 18 houses; South England, 11 houses; Ireland, 7 houses; in all 67 houses [VI-2].

One may rightly wonder on reading that in the vastly extended diocese of Magdeburg, an unchristianised region still existed, yet such was really the case. That region was the country of the Wends in East Prussia. Norbert confided the Apostolic work of conversion to those of his disciples who in 1129 had replaced the Canons of tile Collegiate Church of St. Mary at Magdeburg. Their labours were blessed with such singular success that they have merited this praise of a non catholic historian: "No monastic Order can so completely redeem a country, as the Premonstratensians of the twelfth century redeemed the country of the Wends.'' [VI-3]


Well nigh eight years had passed since Norbert was raised to the Archepiscopal See of Magdeburg, and during these years a fruitful harvest had been reaped. Ardour tempered by prudence had characterized his zeal. The diocese had been spiritually revolutionized; the light of faith extended to all its parts; fervour and piety had replaced desolation and indifference; religious communities had increased in numbers and not less in the practice of exemplary discipline. The clergy had become ideal, and in every state of life abuses had given place to right and justice.

Undoubtedly the energy with which the Archbishop carried on his apostolic labours, considerably shortened his life.

On the 14th February 1130 Pope Honorius II died and on the following day, Cardinal Gregory of St. Angelo was canonically elected and chose the name of Innocent II.

However, the ambitious Cardinal Peter de Leone aided and abetted by two other Cardinals secured an uncanonical election with the title Anacletus II.  Pope Innocent II held a council at Liège on March 22nd 1131 at which certain steps were determined upon, in order to suppress the schism.  Norbert strongly upheld the rights of the legitimate Pope and gave his support to the acts of the Council of Liège.  For so doing he was summoned to appear before the antipope.  Needless to say St. Norbert ignored the summons.  The antipope issued against him a bull of excommunication, in which injurious epithets and cutting remarks were hurled at the Archbishop.  Far from his good reputation being thereby injured, the language of the antipope stands forth as lasting proof of Norbert's devotedness to the heir of St. Peter.

During the troublesome times through which the church was now passing, Norbert acted as Councillor to the Emperor Lothaire.  Acting on the Archbishop's advice, he espoused the cause of the rightful Pope and undertood an expedition into Italy.  The reign of Anacletus came to an end; Pope Innocent II entered Rome in triumph and the schism crumbled away. 

The Pope addressed to St. Norbert, a letter in which he expressed his admiration for and his gratitude towards both the Archbishop and Saint Bernard who, he considered had been instruments in the hands of God, to bring about his return to Rome.

This last undertaking, so full of anxiety and fatigue, undermined Norbert's health. Though comparatively in the prime of life, he was scarcely 54 years of age, he felt that he had well nigh run his allotted course. He fell ill. Holy Thursday was near at hand. The wonderful energy that throughout life had been the secret of so much success was revived within him, he rose from his bed of sickness and consecrated the Holy Oils. In a similar way, he rose on Easter Sunday to celebrate the Holy Sacrifice. His failing strength was severely tested, he entertained little hope of ever being able to celebrate again, so to the oblation of the Divine Victim on the altar, he united the oblation of his own life. When the Mass was ended he betook himself again to bed and there for seven weeks remained in constant union with God. His patience and resignation edified those who visited him and they treasured up his words of advice and encouragement. He lived till the Wednesday of WhitSun Week. He was fully conscious to the end and gave evidence of the divine love that had burned unremittingly within him since the day of his conversion. His last act was to bless those assembled round his bed and then to remit his soul into the hands of God.

He died in the night between the 5th and 6th of June 1134, in the fifth year of the Pontificate of Pope Innocent II, the ninth of the reign of Emperor Lothaire and the eighth of his own Episcopacy. Though the course of his life was short, it was full of fruitful works, so full, state the authorities on his life, that no one person can possibly do justice to an account of all the good he did, no more than that one person could possibly be witness of all his good deeds.

The funeral of the Archbishop took place on June 11th. The Emperor decided that he should be buried in the church of St. Mary, attached to the Premonstratensian monastery at Magdeburg. The decision put an end to the dispute as to place of burial between the religious of St. Mary's and the Canons of the Cathedral.

After his death, he was esteemed with pious veneration and his tomb became renowned for the miracles wrought there. The veneration in which he was held was singularly illustrated in the 16th century by the fact that the Lutherans pretended they were the heirs of the great reformer Norbert, to carry out his work. They made themselves master of the church of St. Mary and of his relics, on the possession of which they prided themselves.

St. Norbert's disciples left no stone unturned in their efforts to rescue the remains of their spiritual father. They had many difficulties to overcome. Undaunted, they persevered and finally, by the good services of Abbot Gaspard de Questenberg, succeeded. On May 2nd 1627 the relics were solemnly transferred from St. Mary's of Magdeburg to the Abbey church of Strahov (Prague) in Bohemia.

In the chancery of Prague were preserved, and may still be, the abjurations of 600 Lutheran Protestants, who either on that day or during the Octave of the translation were reconciled with the Church. On that occasion the Archbishop of Prague, at the request of the Ecclesiastical and Civil authorities, proclaimed St. Norbert the Patron and Protector of Bohemia.

On July 27th 1582, Pope Gregory XIII by the Bull "Immensae Divinae Sapientiae" confirmed the cultus and authorised a feast with octave in honour of St. Norbert to be celebrated in all the Churches and Houses of the order. Pope Clement X on September 7th 1672, extended the feast to the whole Church, and the same Pope by the Bull "Celestium Munerum Thesauros" granted a plenary indulgence, to be gained in any church of the Order either on the feast itself or on the Sunday within the octave on the usual conditions. As June 6th coincided, at times, with the feast of Corpus Christi, established in 1664, or occurred during the octave, Pope Urban VIII in 1625, granted that the feast of June 6th be transferred with the octave, to July 14th. Annually on this date is celebrated in Norbertine Houses with manifestations of love and veneration the solemn feast of this Founder of a great religious Order, of the never forgotten Apostle of Antwerp, of the admirable Apostle of the Eucharistic Lord of All.

FOOTNOTES:     >>Top<<



"The English Premonstratensians," in Monastic Life in the Middle Ages, (London, 1922), p. 246.  For map indicating the position of all these Norbertine houses, see the same writer's Henry VIII and the English Monasteries, Vol II.   In Ireland there were at least twelve abbeys of the Order, (A.O. Flanders Erin, pp. 160-163, Nieupoort, 1922) <<Back to the Text>>

Chapter I


Henry V. Emperor of Germany, 1111-1125.<<Back to the Text>>

Chapter IV


"Completa prima collecta post communionem, transferat subdiaconus calicem ab altari super mysterium in quo prius ipsum paravit, et circumliniens aqua calicem et patenam, fundat in piscinam et tergens ad linteum mundatissimum diligenter recondat."<<Back to the Text>>



"Apparitio ejusdem Beatissimae Virginis quae Sancto Patri Norberto candidum instituti habitum in capella S. Joannis Baptistae Praemonstrati ostendit."<<Back to the Text>>

Chapter VI


E. Vancandard. Paris, 1910<<Back to the Text>>



Cardinal Gasquet in "English Monastic Life" states: "In England just before the dissolution there were some 34 Houses of the Order." {but see the foreward}<<Back to the Text>>



F. Winter, Berlin 1865<<Back to the Text>>