Medieval Religious Orders

Order NameFoundedMother HouseRuleNumber of houses
In England
In Total
Benedictinec529-St. Benedictmore than 200
Cluniac910ClunySt. Benedict30 or 40
Carthusian1084Grande ChartreauseCarthusian Rule9
Cistertian1098CitauxSt. Benedictmore than 100> 600
Augustinian--St. Augustinejust less than 200
Premonstratensian1121PremontréSt. Augustineapprox. 35
Gilbertines1131SempringhamSt. Gilbertapprox. 25

The Benedictines or Black Monks (Founded around 529)

The Benedictines otherwise known as the Black Monks were not an Order in the same respect as those detailed below. The Benedictine abbeys and monasteries all followed the Rule of St. Benedict but they were all self contained and were not dependant on a mother house. Known originally as the Black Monks because they wore black cloaks they became known as Benedictines later on when new Orders began to appear to distingish them from the others.

The Cluniac Order (Founded 910)

The Cluniac Order was founded by a Benedictine monk called Odo who believed that the strict rule of St. Benedict was not being followed. He founded the abbey of Cluny in 910. In this order the daughter houses were all dependant on Cluny itself for their funds and any money the daughter house received had to be sent back to Cluny. When Cluny started using its funds to increase its own grandeur its daughter houses suffered and popularity of the order began to wane. Monks in this Order dedicated so much time to prayer that they had to employ workers to tend the fields and gardens. In England the order set up many proiries the first and most important was in Lewes in the south. Bermondsey, the second, was finally elevated to an Abbey in 1399. Other priories include those at Wenlock, Castle Acre, Lenton, Montacute and Thetford to name a few.

Alien Priories

The Cluniac priories were classed as 'alien priories' which meant that they were dependant on a foreign mother house; in this case Cluny. During the Hundred Years War, when the English and French were fighting, these alien priories were seen as a security risk. To help avoid an invasion from France a restriction was put on the inhabitants of alien priories preventing them living within 13 miles of the coast. Alien priories sent the money raised in England back to France which was not popular. In 1414 the alien priories were confiscated by Henry V and the English Crown. Many were taken over by other religious orders.

The Carthusian Order (Founded 1084)

The Carthusians were founded in 1084 by Saint Bruno at Grande Chartreuse (or La Cartreause) and were descended from the Benedictines. In England their houses were known as Charter-houses. The Rule that these monks followed was possibly the most strict of all the orders. Being a Carthusian monk meant that the ideal of leaving the world behind when entering a monastery was taken literally. Each monk lived in solitude in a small cell where he did his own cooking and slept. He had a small area of garden in which to grow food and only meet his fellow monks once a week. As the life was so strict and the order did not communicate with the outside world the number of abbeys remained less than ten in number. Only two Carthusian houses were founded before the middle of the fourteenth century, those being Wilton and Nottinghamshire in around 1180 and Hinton and Somerset in around 1227.

The Cistercians (Founded 1098)

The first of the Cistercian Order were Benedictine monks at the abbey at Citeaux who were unhappy that the rule of St. Benedict was not being followed. Lead by Abbot Robert of Molesme the monks built a wooden monastery and chose to live an extremely hard life. Robert was replaced first by Alberic and then, when he returned to the abbey at Molesme, by Stephen Harding. Stephen Harding was an Englishman born at Sherborne in Dorset and one of the original founding monks. Before Stephen died he had transformed a very poor monastery into the centre of one of the most powerful monastic Orders of the time.

Although already popular, the success of the Cistercians was to increase with the arrival of Bernard of Fontaines who joined the order in 1112. St. Bernard of Clairvaux, as he is now known, was very persuasive. He became the Abbot of Clairvaux in 1115. By the time that Bernard died in 1153 there were up to 340 Cistercian abbeys in Europe. From Citeaux the Cistercians spread across France and then in 1128 moved across the Channel to create its first abbey in Britain at Waverley in Surrey. During the period of civil war (1135 - 1153) between King Stephen and Matilda, the daughter of Henry I, known as the anarchy the Cistercians greatly increased their presence in Britain.


In general the Cistercians built their monasteries in remote places far from civilisation and refused to accept donations apart from the land on which they built.


All Cistercian abbeys were descended from the mother church at Citeaux, but unlike Cluny and the Cluniac Order, the Cistercian daughter houses were more independent and were administered by their own abbots. There were far too many daughter houses for Citeaux to administer alone. For a diagram showing the relationship between the abbeys click here: -

Affiliations of Britain's Cistercian Abbeys

Augustinian Canons

The Augustinians were not monks like the Benedictines or Cistercians but were canons. Canons were priests who lived in communities such as Cathedrals or collegiate churches. These canons were not bound by the strict rules like the monks but followed the rule of St. Augustine. St. Augustine was a bishop at Hippo, a city in Algeria, northern Africa. Here in around the year 400 A.D. he wrote many books on many subjects. One of these books gave directions on how a monastic community should be run and this was the basis for the Augustinians rule. The Augustinian canons wore black robes and were known as the Black Canons.

Premonstratensian Canons (Founded 1121)

The Premonstratensians were founded by St. Norbert at Premontré in 1120. They followed the rule of St. Augustine but organised themselves in a similar way to the Cistercians and built their churches in secluded locations and populated each house with a small number of people from another abbey. They were known as the White Canons because their cloaks and cassocks were white.

Gilbertines (Founded 1131)

The Gilbertine order was founded in England at Sempringham in Lincolnshire by St. Gilbert who is also known as Gilbert of Sempringham. The order allowed both men (regular canons) and women (nuns) to join its ranks. Several daughter houses were created mainly in the north-east and east of England but the number was small compared to the larger Cistercian order. When the order ran into funding problems Gilbert approached the Cistercian order for help but was refused because of the women. King Henry II gave the order the right not to pay taxes to help it survive.

Military Orders

Several Military Orders were founded in Jerusalem as a result of the Crusades. Although they were based on the Augustinian Rule, their main purpose was to provide protection for pilgrims against the Moslems as they travelled to the Holy Land on pilgrimage.

Knights Templar and Knights Hospitallers

Both of these orders were military and took part in attacks against Islamic armies in the Holy Land. The knights took the normal vows that a monk would take, poverty, chastity and obedience. They escorted and protected pilgrims as they travelled on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Although each knight within the order was poor, both organisations became very wealthy and were donated large amounts of land across Europe. The Templars even devised a banking system allowing deposits to be made and withdrawals to be made elsewhere. In 1307 the Templar Order was suppressed and its property passed into the hands of the Hospitallers.

Orders of Friars

Like monks, friars took the usual vows associated with religious orders, but unlike monks, friars travelled around the country and preached to those who would not normally be reached by other means. While they travelled they stayed at houses belonging to the order that were located in the towns they visited.

Dominican Friars (Founded 1216)

The Dominican Order was founded in 1216 by St. Dominic. An important aspect of this Order is that of learning and several houses were founded in cities with links to universities. A Dominican house was founded in Oxford in 1221.

Selected Cistercian abbeys in Britain
Beaulieu Abbey
Basingwerk Abbey
Biddlesden Abbey
Bordesley Abbey
Buildwas Abbey
Byland Abbey
Calder Abbey
Cleeve Abbey
Coggeshall Abbey
Croxden Abbey
Cymer Abbey
Dore Abbey
Forde Abbey
Fountains Abbey
Furness Abbey
Garendon Abbey
Hailes Abbey
Holme Cultram Abbey
Jervaulx Abbey
Kirkstall Abbey
Kirkstead Abbey
Margam Abbey
Merevale Abbey
Neath Abbey
Netley Abbey
Newminster Abbey
Revesby Abbey
Rievaulx Abbey
Roche Abbey
Sawley Abbey
Tintern Abbey
Stoneleigh Abbey
Strata Florida
Waverley Abbey
Whalley Abbey
Valle Crucis Abbey