Violent Benedictines

This is from Highways & Byways in Yorkshire, showing a far from placid lifestyle for the followers of St Benedict in the North of England:

There had been older monasteries in the north than this one dedicated to St Mary, but the Danes, who wasted Yorkshire with fire and sword 200 years before the Norman conquest destroyed all these, and left the country such a savage wilderness that, as the old chronicle tells us, “The country people never heard the name of a monk and were frightened at the very habit.” Into this pagan desert – for heathen creeds can be traced there even now and the dead leaves of today must have been a nighty forest then – into this rank field of superstition and mistrust came a handful of Benedictine monks from Winchcombe, and its neighbour house of Evesham, eager to restore those ancient dwellings of their Order which had once fed the poor, and taught the children, and housed the traveller who came down at nightfall from the lonely moor. Some they restored, and this one they founded on a new site; and there they followed the mild rule of st. Benedict, losing, doubtless something ion its old simplicity as their wealth increased, made, perhaps a little world by the doings of so great a city just outside their close, till at last their easy life was ruffled by the news the certain strangers from another land had found a rougher road to haven, and straightaway the hearts of a few brethren of st Mary’s leapt towards the new rule and they yearned to follow it.

It was not a wholly alien rule which was practiced by the newcomers, the Cistercian monks of Rievaulx, but one which professed, like the brethren of St Mary’s, to draw its inspiration from St. Benedict. Yet for that reason its stricter precepts were the more detested by the Benedictines, to whom they seemed, not only a personal reproach, but even an act of internal treachery, dividing their ancient household against itself. And so all Benedictines had been bitterly hostile to the disciplines of St. Bernard for a full generation when the first of them came into Yorkshire and the whispered rumour of a life far holier than their own stole into the Abbey of St Mary.

And those whispers stirred the hearts of 2 or 3 made of stronger fibre than their brethren, men who it may be had long wearied of their easy life and the light burden of their vows, and who now at last saw, as by a quick illumination, that for them the road tcheaven did not lie along the level flat where they had been sauntering, but must be sought for in the wilderness, with suffering and labour, must be followed over rocks and stony ground, cold and fasting, taming the body with shed pangs so that the spirit might burn the brighter.

In those days such ideas once conceived did not perish, but other spread from heart to heart as fire runs along the stubble. Ere long there were 13 of the monks of St. Mary who could no longer rest in ease, and the prior was among them. At length they told their story to the Abbot, an old man worn with years who  saw no way of rating out he heresy save buy sternness and by discipline.

Poor perturbed, old Abbot! He had, perhaps, never seen souls in anguish for the ir salvation, and knew not how to deal with them. He threw the weight of his authority against them, and it did not count. He threatened them, and found they did not fear him. There was a great ferment in the abbey.

One churchman i great place in York was wiser than the abbot – Turstan the Archbishop, “one who loved all religion”.. and to him as to a man who cared for essentials more than forms, the prior told his story. It may be that Turstan recognised in the eager words something which human opposition could not quench; or, it may be that he caught at a opportunity of playing for his own hand in the constant strife between the bishops and the monasteries. At any rate, he promised his protection, and declared that he would is it the abbey on an early day.

The day arrived – it was October 6th 1132, an epoch in the history of St. Mary’s abbey, and an epoch too in that of Yorkshire. Early in the morning Turstan came riding to the abbey, and he, with his attendants, having left their horses at the gate-way, advanced towards the Chapter-house. On the very threshold their entrance was barred by he lord abbot, backed by a great crowd of any monks, not only of St. Mary’s, but from other monasteries also; and so supported, the abbot demanded that Turstan should dismiss all his attendants and enter alone into that hostile gathering.

Now, if Turstan had come that day, as he declared in a spirit of lenity and peace, he may very well have been pained by this exhibition of mistrust; and indeed, the passions which glared at him though the open door of the Chapter-house were hot enough to give pause to any prudent man. He pointed out that it was scarce reasonable to expect him to discuss affairs of consequence without the counsel of his friend; but he had hardly spoken when his words were drowned by a storm of shouts and hooting such as seemed – so Turstan said himself – to come other of the riotousness of brawling drunkards than of the humility of holy men. the Chapter house seethed with angry men; and those who were inside pressed out shaking their fists and vowing that they would go at once if the archbishop’s friends came in.

Turstan stood facing them in sheer amazement. At last the clamour dropped and the archbishop spoke: “I take God to witness… that I came hither as a father, having no evil toward you in my heart, wishing nothing but pace and Christly brotherhood. But since ye try to strip  my office of its authority,now I strip you for the time being of your functins. Your church is closed.” In answer there came a defiant shout, “we care not if it be closed a hundred years,” and the words were greeted with as roar of acquiescence from the maddened monks, while some cried “Seize them! Seize them!” And other,s laying hands n the prior a and his comrades, strove to drag them away to the prison cells. They clung to the archbishop, imploring aid from him and from St. Peter; and at length, Turstan and his friends tore away the rebels by main force, and carried them into the church, pursued up to the very door by a raging mob. There they sat, protector and protected, not without fear of violence even in the sacred building, till at last the storm died down and Turstan was able to carry off his friends in peace.

Such is the tale as it was told a whole lifetime afterward by a very aged monk of Kirstall who, vermin as he was upon his 100th year, had seen the whole, and whose memory was still untouched by time. It was not solely of its interest, nor of the light it throws on monastery life, that I told this striking story, for, from this great up stirring at St Mary’s came the glorious Abbey of Fountains…


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