Letter from Stephen of Lexington to the Abbot of St. Mary’s Abbey, Dublin (Letter 98)

To the Abbot of St. Mary’s Abbey, Dublin, greetings.

We are obliged to delegate the visitation of Ireland enjoined on us by the authority of the General Chapter, for as we are hindered by various and demanding matters and desire to be present at the aforesaid General Chapter, we are not in a position to come in person to your parts this year. Therefore, having taken all the circumstances into account, we have decided to delegate the aforesaid delegation to you and to the abbot of Duiske, because we consider you to be possessed of zeal for the religious life and to be tempered by the moderation of discernment, and to have been instructed by the actual practice and experience of the region over and above the extent and requirement of the aforesaid matter. Further, the General Chapter will not allow its powers to be delegated for any reason to any abbot in charge of an Irish monastery until such time as the Order there be more fully reformed and it be more apparent that the old practice of rebellion has ceased for the future; moreover, the freedom of correction and the means of punishment would be obstructed for the aforesaid abbots by the importunity and the still untamed presumptuous audacity and headstrong ferocity of the Irish monks over whom they preside.

It will still be essential that no alterations to the houses are made this year, especially in major things such as the joining together or bestowals of the same, excepting only visitations, corrections, protections, consolations in the Holy Spirit and making of constraints, even with the secular arm if necessary, with the imprisonment of persons savage, uncontrollable, and rebellious. Everything must be done with eager zeal of the Lord with reference to time and place and the demands of the task. We have decided for your safety and protection and as a safeguard of your peace, which we desire sincerely in Christ, to set down in a charter marked with our seal a number of established articles, drawn up by our administration and with the authority of the General Chapter for the reformation of the Order in Ireland.

Further, you can commit visitations more dangerous to and distant from you to abbots who are closer, having first however, called them to yourself and instructed them very fully and with all diligence in what things, and in what manner, and with how much discretion they are required to act. Attend especially to the reformation of the daughter-houses of Clairvaux, and to the taming of the pride of Mellifont and also of Baltinglass, because it is situated in a central area and there is [through it] continuous traffic of persons of the Order, and also the monastery of Maigue, making special provision in every way you can for the peace and tranquillity of the abbots of Mellifont and Bective, and of all other abbots who behave without the scandal of dishonesty and who strive vigorously to subdue and vigilantly to reform their jurisdictions. Do not for any reason attempt to recall to Baltinglass any of those sent away or expelled from the aforesaid house, and do not allow others to recall them, and make every effort you can whether through the severity of your administration of justice and through the assistance of the secular arm, if there be need, to see that it is well supplied, both internally and externally, because this would be of great advantage to the Order and because there is continuous traffic through here.

Because we have heard that certain members of Whitland are more concerned that the abbot of Tracton (a vigorous and religious man, whose peace ought not to be disturbed in anything) and the community there speak the Welsh language than that they do the will of God and the Order, we strictly command Your Discretion to make sure that what we have decreed in regard to this matter and have laid down with the authority of the order is guarded inviolate in all ways; forbid the visitors from Whitland from coming here so that they have no opportunity to disturb either the aforesaid abbot and community, or the rules of the Order which are coming to birth therein and which are imposed with the authority of the General Chapter. But if they do go, revoke as void with the often-mentioned authority whatever they are so injudicious as to do; if it is necessary in this regard, those who have transgressed the previously-made careful provision should be very severely punished with sentence of interdict, excommunication, or other penalty provided by the regulations.

Examine very attentively the letter sent to the lord abbot of Duiske concerning the sedition, to be checked and also rather severely punished, of a certain Cistercian monk, not in fact but in name (which we say with sorrow), who, if the reports are correct, is attempting to stir up slumbering schisms; and having suitably applied in advance the appropriate admonitions and other remedies for such great temerity as are provided for by the rules of the Order and required by our profession, then proceed discreetly with the authority given to you gradually and vigorously to inflict the usual punishments very severely.

Further, in respect of the houses of Boyle and Knockmoy in Connacht, daughter-houses of Clairvaux, if you cannot find an abbot to visit them you can carry out the visitations through priors or others, at least two of that tongue, men who are discreet and truly obedient to the Order, together with the abbot of Shrule, or without him, if it is necessary and expedient, [men] who will correct and regulate with all diligence in the aforesaid houses and also report their condition to you. Summon the abbots of the aforesaid houses and discuss with them the mentioned correction, completely drawing up the charter and the articles on it for the purposes of correction, as is convenient, and having put them in the order which is usual to be followed in visitations. With the authority of the order, hand these over to the abbots to be carried out with all reverence and devotion. Recently-appointed abbots may stay away from the General Chapter this year on account of their newness and the necessity of reforming the Order; this you should enjoin very firmly on them all on our behalf with the authority of the Order. But the abbot of Inch, who remained away from the Chapter last year, should by all means come, and also the abbot of the daughter-house of Holm Cultram if it is his year, or else persons substituted in their place if they themselves do not want to go.

Also, out of great favour, we grant the dispensation that, with the counsel of the abbot of Maigue, you can deal rather more mercifully with the conspirators of the same house on condition that before they have entry to the monastery, they return all the charters of the aforesaid house which had been maliciously taken away; and then, having long and carefully considered the matter, impose heavy penances on them, to be lessened as they deserve with the passing of time and with worthy contrition through which they will be stimulated from now on to strive after the obedience of the Order and the salvation of souls and to embrace them more lovingly in future.

Also, you can provide Irishmen as abbots to the monasteries of Connacht, and Corcomroe, Newry and Shrule, if they are vacant and it is impossible to be done more conveniently otherwise, on condition that you acknowledge absolute reliance in the Lord concerning their humility and obedience towards God and the Order. Do not on any account attempt to do this for the other monasteries. We leave the vacant abbey of Kilcooly to your disposal and, after having had discussions and very careful deliberation with abbots and other prudent men concerning its state, decide whatever is most convenient, advantageous and carefully considered for the Order and its daughter-houses.

Further, the abbot of Duiske and you should meet together immediately after receiving this letter and give immediate attention to the matter entrusted to you, admonishing all abbots concerning love and especially about the grace of chastity, about moderation in drinking and unanimity with one another, so that each one applies himself to carrying the burdens of the other and brother to assisting brother. If any abbots give rise to very serious and intolerable scandal, especially on account of unchastity or drunkenness, may it never happen, they are to be very sharply reprimanded and, if necessary, deposed. But on account of their inexperience other minor things must be tolerated very patiently and smoothed down little by little with the passage of time, so that at first let things be as they may but in time useless people and disordered customs should be changed for the better. Moreover, you will strictly forbid the recently-appointed abbots from going overseas without reasonable cause and moreover without your permission, or curiously wandering about and scurrying hither and thither; instead they are to give their careful attention to improving and reforming their houses with the help of God, always putting before their eyes the pride of place of their labour and their reward. Farewell.


Stephen of Lexington, Letters from Ireland 1228 – 1229, translated and with an introduction by Barry W. O’Dwyer (Cistercian Publications Inc., Kalamazoo, Michigan, 1982) pp 205-09

These extracts are reproduced with the kind permission of Liturgical Press: Cistercian Publications


Monastic sites featured in this article:
Abbeyknockmoy, Galway
Boyle, Roscommon
Corcomroe, Clare
Kilcooly, Tipperary
Monasternenagh, Limerick
Tracton, Cork