Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Saint Robert of Newminster

The text of a booklet I wrote with my late son Geraint for St Robert of Newminster Parish, Aberkenfig,today 7th June is his feast day

Saint Robert was born around 1100AD in the town of Gargrave in Yorkshire. The only information about his parents is that they were “honourable and eminent in their Christian faith”. Robert apparently lived a pure and devout life at home. He was educated in Paris at the university and there wrote a treatise on the Psalms that unfortunately has been lost over the years.

Psalms were (and still are) a very important part of worship and Saint Robert was said to recite all the psalms every day from memory. In his time many of the Catholic devotions that we take for granted were not yet in use and recitation of the psalms was used instead.

Robert became parish priest of his hometown and the church of Saint Andrew still stands on the same sight although very little if anything is left from the 12th Century. Yorkshire at that time was liable to raids from Scotland and it is said that Gargrave was spared because the church was dedicated to Scotland’s patron saint. Life at that time was hard and the land was still recovering from the aftermath of the Norman Conquest when large areas of the north were laid waste as a punishment for rebellion. Robert apparently found no spiritual satisfaction as a parish priest and was inspired by reading the beatitudes to seek greater personnel poverty and simplicity. He therefore became a Benedictine or “Black Monk” at the abbey of Saint Mary in Whitby.

However like a considerable number of monks at that time he was uneasy with the way the order was living and wished to follow a stricter and simpler life. There had been remarkable development in the religious way of life centred on Saint Bernard and Citeaux in France and in northern England a group of brothers has been literally thrown out of the abbey at York because they wished to lead a simpler life. These monks had been granted permission to begin a new foundation on the banks of the river Skell. Robert was allowed to join them. With another brother called Adam he went to the infant Abbey of Saint Mary of the Fountains. They lived in the most basic turf roofed hut and spent long hours of the day and night praying and singing the psalms, fasting and relishing all the cold and hardships. Robert found the monks building a hut to use as a chapel and “all blessing God with fervour, poor in worldly goods but strong in faith”.

They soon applied to Saint Bernard to become part of the new Cistercian order and Bernard sent Geoffrey, an older monk, to instruct them in the new rule. They had at one time been reduced to eating the roots and leaves of trees to survive but they were joined by the Dean of York who brought lands, money and books for the library.

The New Order greatly impressed a wealthy landowner from the north who like many worldly men wished to build a monastery on his patrimonial estates to pray for the redemption of his soul. Ranulph de Merlay was Lord of Morpeth in Northumberland and so in 1138 Robert was elected by his peers to be the abbot of the first daughter house and set off with twelve brothers to the “Newminster” taking possession at the feast of  the
Epiphany 1139. The Cistercians sought peace in remote natural surroundings and Newminster was then surrounded by forest some half a mile from the settlement of Morpeth, ideal for the “White Monks”

Our Lady is always patroness of a Cistercian Abbey and of the order itself, the unbleached white wool of the habit symbolises the purity of the Mother of God and the monks end their worship with the Salve Regina to this day. So Newminster was the Abbey of the Blessed Virgin Marry, an unusual name for a Cistercian Abbey as they usually refer to a natural feature such as the fountain or the beautiful light.

The Cistercian Order Became incredibly popular during this period, some 350 monasteries were founded during the life of Saint Bernard, which he attributed to Our Lady. Life was not easy for Robert and his monks, the first monastery (most likely a wooden structure), was burnt down by soldiers of King David of Scotland but it was soon rebuilt and the monks continued their way of prayer and service to God.

The Life of the monks was austere, no shirts, cloaks or blankets were allowed; the diet was simple fish, eggs and bread but no red meat. The Chapel would of only had a wooden cross and no pictures or ornamentation. Worship was simple compared with other orders and time was spent in manual labour. Robert began with high ideals and carried these out in his daily life gaining a reputation for holy living and great insights into the hearts of men. His fasting was severe even by the standards of those times. Several times Robert appeared to have received supernatural information.

While celebrating mass at the high alter one day it was revealed to him that the abbeys fishing boat had foundered in a storm and that the crew had drowned. He instructed two brothers to go to a place below the cliffs in Whitby, retrieve the bodies and give them a proper burial. It transpired exactly as Saint Robert said.

On a separate occasion he is reported to be riding around the abbeys holdings delivering bread to the lay brothers and riding an “old nag”, a noble man arrogantly enquired of the apparently lowly brother “Is the Abbot at Newminster?”  “He was there when I was,” replied the Saint, the noble man soon realised the monk was the saintly abbot and chastened, offers Saint Robert his fine horse to make amends for his rudeness.

On Another Occasion while journeying through Newcastle, Saint Robert sees a trickster at work, apparently trying to cause a riot and sends him packing preventing any trouble by the force of his tongue. In medieval versions it is a devil or even the devil himself whom Robert defeats.

One of the most popular tales about Saint Robert illustrates his selfless personality and his striving always to defeat his own nature. As was his usual practice he had fasted so hard during lent that his monks were concerned for his health, the brother almoner came to him with bread and honey on a dish and Robert said he might manage to eat, but then a beggar came to the door and Robert gave his food still on the dish to the caller. Next day as the monks sat together at the table the dish appeared at Saint Roberts place transformed into gold, it was said an angel had taken the Saints portion to heaven.

The Cistercian way of life meant that an abbot had a duty to spend a great deal of time travelling. Robert would have had to visit the daughter foundations of which in his time there were three. Pipewell in Northamptonshire endowed by William de Batevileyn on September 13th 1143; Roche, South Yorkshire founded July 30th 1147 by Richard de Bully and Richard Fitz-Turgis, and Sawly also in Yorkshire not far from Gargrave founded on 6th January 1148 by William de Percy. Robert was also expected to attend yearly General Chapter meetings at Citeaux. All of this in a time of much colder winters and almost non-existent roads, when the only transport was provided by horses, donkeys or oxen. Today so much travelling would be a burden but think how long it would have taken Robert!

Very few men can command authority without making some enemies and Saint Robert was accused by some disaffected brothers of improper behaviour with a pious lady whom he visited regularly. He was called to Citeaux where Saint Bernard found him innocent of all charges and gave him a belt as a token of his innocence and the high regard of which he was held by the order. The belt or girdle was later said to have had healing powers.

Saint Robert had as his spiritual director and confessor the hermit Saint Godric of Finchdale; he often went to visit him at his remote and rather desolate hermitage. Godric had lived a full life before taking up his religious vocation he may even have been a pirate at one time! He must have had a very different life to Saint Robert who had spent his whole life in a religious and scholarly atmosphere. But both men showed great wisdom and lived lives of heroic sanctity. Saint Godric told Saint Robert on one visit that they would never meet again in this life and so Saint Robert hurried back to Newminster and prepared to die. Sure enough he became grievously ill with a fever.

The brothers gatherd around and asked him to name a succesor, Roberts’s reply to his spiritual sons could be seen as a sort of dire prophecy, but I like to think the saint was gently teasing his brothers when he replied, “why ask me? I know that when I am dead you will elect brother Walter, to the ruin of this house and the scandal of the order.” There is no record of bad conduct or scandal and Newminster flourished for a further 400 years, until the dissolution. Saint Robert died on June 7th 1159 and his friend and guide the hermit Saint Godric had a vision of his soul ascending like a ball of fire to heaven.

After his death Robert was fist buried in the chapter house though later his remains were transferred to the chancel and laid to rest before the high alter. Miracles began to answer prayers for his intercession, a violent madman was cured and a dispute with a dishonest farmer was resolved and the man converted. A Brother who fell from a high ladder while painting, was spared from any injury because he invoked the name of Saint Robert during his fall. Saint Roberts’s tomb became a place of popular pilgrimage for the people of the area and numerous miracles are said to have occurred thanks to his intercession.

There are no known descriptions of saint Robert of Newminster physical appearance, but his nature is described as “modest in demeanour, merciful in judgement. Gentle in companionship and exemplary in conversation” There is one seal of his time as Abbot surviving on a document, it is very simple and portrays the Abbots hand grasping his staff of office. There are no writings attributed to him for as to read and there is no known image or portrayal, although I have found a medieval portrayal of a Cistercian abbot which is probably the sort of picture that would have been used as an illustration of saint Robert of Newminster, he raises one hand in blessing and holds his Abbots staff with the other, his eyes are raised to heaven.

So here I have presented all that I can find out about Saint Robert of Newminster and although most of the sources I have used repeat that very little is known about him I think we actually know quite a bit, when you compare the known facts to what we know about some of the disciples for instance! We have his place of birth and the ruins of his Abbey, we know a few stories that illuminate his character and we know that he has continued to be venerated not just by Cistercians but also by the Benedictines for almost 900 years. It was the Benedictines who brought the veneration of Saint Robert to South Wales in the 19th century. Father Robert Green the builder of our church, had a personnel devotion to Saint Robert and the parishioners asked for this to be reflected in the dedication when the school building was consecrated as the parish church some years after it was built. Following the completion of a larger school. I have found no special intersession or prayer associated with our Saint but it would seem in keeping with his life if we just ask
Saint Robert Of Newminster, Pray for us

posted by Diddleymaz


  1. BBC "Prayer for the Day" was about him early this morning and, I must say, until then and, now your post, I hadn't known anything about him.
    Thank you.


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