The English Benedictine Congregation is the oldest of the nineteen Benedictine congregations. At the moment it consists of three abbeys of nuns and ten abbeys of monks. Members of the congregation are found in England, Wales, the United States of America, Peru and Zimbabwe.
The present day English Congregation can claim canonical continuity with the congregation erected in the thirteenth century by the Holy See. The oldest monasteries of that congregation claimed continuity with the monasteries restored by Ss Dunstan, Ethelwold and Oswald in the tenth century. These monasteries had bound themselves together by a document known as the Regularis Concordia or Rule of Agreement. These monasteries in turn claimed moral continuity with the monasteries founded by Ss Wilfrid and Benet Biscop in the seventh century, who in turn were inspired by what they saw at St Augustine’s monastery at Canterbury. St Augustine had been a monk at Pope Gregory the Great’s monastery in Rome and had been sent by the Pope to England in 597. The seventh century monasteries had been destroyed by the Viking invaders in the ninth century.
From the tenth to the sixteenth century the black monks of St Benedict played an integral part in every aspect of English life: religious, social and economic. Under King Henry VIII the congregation nearly came to extinction with the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s. Queen Mary I took the ancient royal Abbey of Westminster, refounded by King Edward the Confessor in the eleventh century, and restored it to a surviving band of monks on 21 November 1556. However, this revival ceased on the accession of Elizabeth I in 1558.
By 1607 only one monk of the pre-Reformation congregation survived, Dom Sigebert Buckley. On 21 November 1607 he aggregated two young English monks of the Cassinese Congregation to the English Congregation, thus ensuring a moral continuity of the link to St Augustine. These two monks joined other English monks exiled in France who were training for work on the English mission. It is through this missionary work that the present day congregation finds part of its work in parochial duties throughout the country.
By the nineteenth century monasteries were once again established in England. The monks from Douai came to England in 1795 to Acton Burnell, in Shropshire, the seat of Sir Edward Smythe, relocating to their current home at Downside near Bristol in 1814. Those of St Laurence’s, Dieulouard, coming to Ampleforth near York in 1802. The monks of St Edmund’s in Paris moved first to Douai after the French Revolution and returned to England to Douai near Reading in 1903. The nuns in Cambrai moved to Woolton, then Salford (Warks), finally Stanbrook near Worcester in 1838, and those from Paris to Cannington, then Colwich near Stafford in 1836.
During the nineteenth century, Belmont was founded near Hereford in 1858 and Ealing in 1897. In the twentieth century Curzon Park in Chester became an EBC house of nuns in 1921, Worth was founded in 1933. Three monasteries were founded in the USA; Portsmouth (1919), Washington (1923) and St Louis (1955). Founded in 1882 from the community of la Pierre-qui-Vire, on former monastic ruins, Buckfast joined the Congregation in 1960.
The work done by each community varies from house to house. In 1998 monks of the English Congregation are engaged in the running of schools attached to the monasteries, as well as looking after 32 small parishes and Mass centres near monasteries. In addition 32 parishes and 20 Mass centres in England and Wales are served by monks of the congregation, involving the congregation in work in 16 dioceses in Britain.
We must also take note of an additional tradition, revived by Fr Augustine Baker (†1643). He was chaplain to the nuns at Cambrai, and laid great emphasis on contemplative and mystical prayer: this tradition still continues in the EBC, particularly among the nuns. The nuns of the congregation undertake many different kinds of work and study, but always within the enclosure of the Abbey.