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Chapter 2: Who Were the Premonstratensians

Halesowen Abbey was a house of Premonstratensian Canons, but what were the origins of this order of monks? Who was its founder, what were its basic rules and how did it spread from the continent to England in the first place?

It is generally accepted that the founder of the Order was St. Norbert of Cloves, a man of aristocratic birth who lived in the 12th century. Indeed, the Premonstratensians or White Canons were sometimes called Norbertines. Brought up in the household of the Archbishop of Cologne, Norbert at first showed little aptitude for the religious life, and it was as a courtier rather than a churchman that he accompanied the Emperor Henry V on his expedition to Rome in 1111. His experiences in that city, then a scene of imperial triumph and papal humiliation, moved Norbert to a stricter, more austere way of life, and his full conversion came some three years later. In 1120, he took up his abode near a ruined chapel in the Forest of Coucy which was in the diocese of Laon. This place became known as Premontre and, while there are some arguments as to the origin of the name, majority opinion suggests that it represents the past participle of praemonstrare - in other words 'the place pointed out'. Pointed out, that is, in a dream which Norbert had of "white clad figures carrying lights and crosses and singing psalms".

By the end of 1121, Norbert's forest community numbered 40 clerks, plus a number of laymen, and the formal adoption of a Rule became necessary. That of St. Augustine was chosen, but with additional statutes, the way of life of the brethren was one of great austerity. These supplementary statutes owed much to the ideals of the Cistercians, for Norbert was a friend of one of the early fathers of that Order - St. Bernard of Clairvaux. A white woollen habit was prescribed for the monks, this consisting of a white cassock with a rochet over it, a long white cloak and a white cap, thus 'combining the wool of the monk's habit with the colour proper to canons'. There is, however, reason to believe that by 'white', Norbert meant no more than the dirty white of unbleached wool, so that it would only be after many washings of the habit that the first Premonstratensians would have justified the name of 'White Canons'.

The normal complement of a religious house was an Abbot and 12 monks (apart, of course, from lay brothers, labourers, etc.) representing Christ and his disciples. When an establishment exceeded that number, a band of monks would go forth to found a new community distant from the parent house, wherever land was available or had been donated. Thus it was that within 30 years of Norbert's arrival at Premontre, there were in existence nearly 100 Premonstratensian abbeys, and these could be found in almost every kingdom of Western Europe.

What train of events led to the founding of England's first Premonstratensian abbey is not fully known, but the sequence by which it happened is plain. From Premontre, the abbey of Laon was colonised. Laon colonised Licques and it was a band of monks from Licques which came to England and founded the abbey of Newhouse in Lincolnshire in or about 1143 on land given by Peter of Roxhill, a minor baron of that county. From Newhouse, beginning with Ainwick in Northumberland in 1147 and ending with Dale in Derbyshire in 1200, eleven houses were 'colonised'. Of these, Welbeck in Nottinghamshire, founded in 1153, was the most important, for it was the mother house of Halesowen, to which it sent a band of monks to take up residence in 1218. We will now examine in detail the events leading up to the arrival of the Premonstratensians in Hales Owen in that year.

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